I took an interest in seeing Volcano knowing that it was to be the one feature-length film at the VIFF from Ukraine. I was left with a big surprise with what I saw.
The story begins in Southern Ukraine as Lukas is hired by the OSCE to be an interpreter during the Crimean conflict. Instead of soldiers or diplomats to transport, he has three people in the fashion business. As he tries to fill up with gas, he is out of coverage. He tries to get a cab for the three, only to find them gone. Lukas boards a bus, but it breaks down in a remote area. He stays over at a youth home and is beset by teens who only care about drinking and partying. He just leaves for a moment, but he left his wallet, passport and jacket inside the place. They won’t allow him in.
He finds help in a place he least expects. A failed inventor named Vovo who lives with his mother and daughter Marushka. It’s good for one night, but he feels one night is enough. After that, he wants to move onto his mission. Besides Vovo is too eccentric. The next day, he finds himself in a violent conflict with local militia men, a mass brawl culminating in a fireworks display, and being attacked by men for no reason with him ending up in a dug-out pit in a dead sunflower field.
The only person to discover him is Vovo. Vovo gives him some good advice “It is total anarchy. If you get used to it, you will survive.” During the time, he learns Vovo’s way of doing things, even if it seems off. Lukas even helps with some of the metal scavenging that Vovo seeks out in both land and sea. Occasionally Lukas gets reminders from the news of the conflict and that there’s a nationwide search for him. To take a break from it all, Vovo, Mama, Lukas and Marushka go to a one-man circus show, but it does include flashes of reality. The show includes saluting the new young soldiers in the war and a performance by a choir of woman from a village that was flooded to make way for a hydro-electric dam.
It’s not to say that it has its own difficulties. Vovo gets in conflict with his mother about his ambitions. Also Marushka flirts with Lukas, unknowing that he’s married. However Lukas confesses about the crossroads he’s going through in his life and questions his life, love and ambitions.
Without a doubt, the film is very bizarre. This is something I was not expecting to see at first. It does seem odd for a film of a man who gets separated from OSCE bureaucrats in the middle of southern Ukraine, loses the car with people he was to taxi, goes from place to place and every wrong thing happens, only have the one place he can call a shelter being the home of an eccentric metal scavenger. The story is very entertaining and even humorous. It becomes ironic how an eccentric man becomes the best person for Lukas to be with in this hard time. It does however touch on some serious elements, like when Lukas is dealing with the life he’s supposed to be leading and even dealing with whether he truly loves his wife. Being completely away from it all does get one thinking deeply about the things in one’s life. Here it made Lukas think. It’s an intriguing story of how a young man becomes found while lost, and in the most unlikely place.
Throughout the film, there are a lot a scenes related to the Crimea conflict. First off, there’s Lukas acting as an interpreter for the OSCE. The television at Vovo’s household constantly gives stories of the ongoing conflict. There’s also the television showing Putin talking of how Ukraine is a part of Russia (of which I gave the finger to). There’s also the event of the one-man circus where they later hold an event saluting the latest young soldiers for Ukraine. I think the message Roman Bondarchuk is trying to say in the film is that even though Ukraine has a lot of areas that are unruly and anarchic, it is still worth defending.
This is a unique film for Roman Bondarchuk. This film he directs and co-writes with Darya Averchenko and Alla Tyutyunnik is a bit of a drama and a comedy into one. A bizarre situation of how one becomes found when lost. This is his first feature-length film that isn’t a documentary. It’s not that huge on actions or thick on dialogue, but the scenes he has tells a lot about the story and about Ukraine. This is also a debut for actor Serhiy Stepansky. Stepansky has actually had more experience as a sound mixer. Here he gives a good performance of a person who’s quiet, thinks a lot, but colorful in character. Viktor Zhdanov was a good show-stealer as the eccentric inventor Vovo. Khrystyna Deilyk was also a good attention-stealer as the flirtatious Marushka.
Volcano has already won top film awards like the Golden Apricot at the Yerevan Film Festival and the Grand Prix at the Split Film Festival. It has also been nominated for Best Film at festivals of Sao Paulo, Karlovy Vary and Athens.
Volcano may seem like a slow film that doesn’t seem like it makes a lot of sense, but you’ll come to understand it later after you leave the theatre.
Every now and then one sees a biographical film that not a lot of people know a lot about, but grow to understand after the film’s end. Dovlatov is the Russian film of the Soviet-American writer Sergei Dovlatov.
It is November 1, 1971. Leningrad resident Sergei Dovlatov has a talent and a yearning to write, but the Soviet government won’t accept his writings. His writings are very truthful to what is happening, but the Soviet government wants writings that glorify the nation, especially the Soviet regime of the time, and champion factory workers. With Leonid Brezhnev in power, the pressure is even harder as writers of such are either censored or unemployed. Dovlatov is denied membership into a Writers Guild and can’t get any of his poems or stories published. Dovlatov is reduced to pounding out articles for a factory magazine like many of his peers. Dovlatov is expected to help contribute to a film from the factory where workers dressed up as legendary writers commemorate Soviet achievements on the eve of the Revolution. Dovlatov can’t take that seriously and his superiors aren’t happy.
His married life is a frustration. He is on the verge of divorcing his wife Lena and he’s currently living with his supportive mother. He is allowed to see his daughter Katya. Dovlatov does find a break from it all. Each day he meets up with many other literary comrades going through similar struggles in this Communist regime. They listen to jazz, play music and tell stories of their frustrations.
Dovlatov’s life during this six-day period seems like a daily ritual. He begins the day with assignments he finds uncomfortable, tries to make the necessary connections to get his Guild status, and ends his day in a literary and artistic salon with colleagues of his own.
However there are two incidents that shake Dovlatov up. The first is when he’s sent to do a celebratory article of subway builder and poet Anton Kuznetsov. They meet in a subway dig with the intention of doing a ‘pure and prose’ article, but both are shocked to have discovered skeletons of children from a World War II bombing. The second is when he meets with a friend who’s a Black Market dealer. Often throughout the film, Dovlatov talks of looking for a German doll for his daughter. He talks with the man, but the police crack down on him and shoot him dead. The film ends after those six days.
I’ve seen a lot of biographic films. I’ve seen a lot of biographies that are frequently from birth to death. There are even some that focus on the period of a person’s life where they emerge into their greatness. They could be a short period of time but most end up being a long period of time. There have often been a lot of films that focus on that one moment in a famous person’s career that either makes or breaks them, like the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln or the writing of In Cold Blood in Capote. It’s even possible to use a week’s period of time that could be when this famous person chances leading into the future path of greatness.
Here in Dovlatov, the focus is on six days. Usually a film maker would pick out a six-day period that could be what changed Dovlatov. Instead the film focuses on a six-day period that could be any six-day period in Dovlatov’s life before he finally defected to the United States in 1978. I think what the focus of the film maker was intended to be was to focus what it was like for Dovlatov to live in Soviet Leningrad. The filmmaker’s intention is to have Dovlatov’s feelings and mindset resemble his works of writing. We shouldn’t forget that soon after the death of the USSR, writers that defected or writers that talk of past-Soviet life became writers of high fixation. Dovlatov may have died in 1990 at the age of 48, but his writing became hugely admired in Russia.
The film doesn’t just show life in Soviet Russia at the time, but gives the viewer a good feel of it. It seems slow at first, but it is very telling. It’s about a writer seeking renown or simple publication, but won’t get credentials because he won’t conform to the writing style the Soviet government demands. During his life, he sees the troubles and the weariness of people in Soviet Leningrad. We should also remember that Leningrad was the name of St. Petersburg during the days of the USSR. What he sees is ugly and hard. Even his own personal life is a frustration. He may get a break when he’s at the parties with his artistic colleagues, but it’s only temporary. The next day, he has to go back to doing what the government wants him to do. One can see the frustration he goes through. One could even understand how trying to get a German doll for his daughter isn’t really something simple and may actually be valuable for this film.
This is the latest film from Russian director Alexei German Jr. German Jr. has had racclaim for his films in the past like 2005’s Garpastum which was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, 2008’s Paper Soldier which won the Silver Lion in Venice and 2015’s Under Electric Clouds. In this film he directed and co-wrote the script with Yuliya Tupikina, he delivers a piece that’s less of a film with a beginning, middle and end and more of a film that’s a portrait of a famed writer. It’s interesting they casted a Serbian actor, Milan Maric, to play Dovlatov. Maric has a reputation as a stage actor and this is Maric’s first film role. Maric does a very good job getting into the heart and soul of Dovlatov and he plays the part very well.
Dovlatov may not make sense to most people who see it at first. For those that are into writers and into the writing of Sergei Dovlatov, it’s a good look into the inside of the man and what made his writing.
What can I say? Illnesses have a lot to do with why I’ve been late in publishing my blogs from the VIFF. However things have been getting better lately. So I can come back at it.
One thing I like about going to the VIFF is I get the chance to see films that are ‘off the beaten path.’ One of which was the Portuguese film Djon Africa which was a good story to watch.
The film begins with a 25 year-old Portuguese man names Miguel. He works construction during the day and is musician Djon Africa by night. He is a bit of a slacker. He was raised by his grandmother and has family roots in the African island of Cape Verde. However he doesn’t feel at home in Portugal. He’s asked about his father and his grandmother often says ‘a bit of a player and a scoundrel.’ One day he goes clothes shopping with his girlfriend and a storeowner suspects him of shoplifting. Racism?
One day he comes across a good amount of money. He makes the decision to travel to Cape Verde in search of his father. The problem is he has nothing to go with. He doesn’t know what his father’s name is, which town he lives in or who his family is, other than a sister who lives in the capital city of Praia. Nevertheless he is determined. During the flight, Miguel already begins envisioning the Cape Verde he knows nothing about by dreaming of the stewardesses dancing in the aisle.
Then Miguel arrives in Praia, the capital city of Cape Verde. Even as he gets off the plane, he notices how more picturesque Cape Verde is in comparison the Lisbon. The first place he goes to do his search is visit his aunt. Unfortunately he hears the bad news from family in mournful prayer that his aunt has been deceased for a year. He learns the aunt has family in Taffaral, but when he gets there, he learns he’s possibly in the wrong Taffaral; Cape Verde has two Taffarals. To make the search more frustrating, Miguel loses a lot of his belongings after a night of getting intoxicated on Cape Verde’s firewater liquor grogue.
During that time of island-hopping from place to place, he comes across the natives in various ways. He comes across a lot of younger girls who have taken aback with his dreads and even call him ‘Bob Marley.’ He comes across a goat-herder Maria Antonia who impulsively gets him to work her land. He agrees. One can sense that Miguel is losing focus in his search for his father and has started falling in love with the country he never knew. Then he gets a phone call from Portugal. It’s his girlfriend back in Lisbon telling him she’s pregnant. The film ends with one final image of Miguel walking the street.
It’s a common story to see sons search for their father. We see it time and time again. However this does have its own way of telling the story. The biggest ingredient is the land of Cape Verde and the people themselves. The people that Miguel come across, the places that he visits, they make for Miguel’s time here and are key to changing him as a person. It’s even people like the farmer who teach Miguel to be responsible. The meeting face-to-face with his father doesn’t happen, but I believe it was the intention of the film to be a lot more than that.
One thing about the film is that it gives a lot of charming images of Cape Verde: of the people, of daily life, of the geography. All of which play a role as it is part of Miguel’s experience in Cape Verde as he tries to find his father. During the time he learns a lot about where his father comes from even though he hasn’t met him face to face. Miguel even learns more about himself.
SPOILER WARNING: DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING: The ending where you see Miguel walking down the street will get you wondering. Especially since it’s after his girlfriend calls Miguel to let his know she’s pregnant. Sure, we simply see Miguel walking down the street, but it does get you wondering. Will Miguel be like his father that he decides to stay in Cape Verde? Miguel has sure come to embrace the island. Also that image where Miguel walks down and an older man in dreads looks back: possibly his father. It may give you the idea that the two may meet someday soon. Maybe it’s best that the movie end there, with the two not meeting and with it being unclear Miguel will return to Portugal for his girlfriend. They say film should leave people asking questions instead of getting answers.
Top notes go to directors Joao Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis. The personal couple are most experienced in making documentaries and short films. Here you can sense that the story is told documentary-style as Miguel learns something new every day and grows as a person. Also worth admiring is the performance of Miguel Moreira. He doesn’t do any over-the-top drama in his acting. His acting is all about growing inside as a person, and we see that in the film. Also deserving high recommendation is cinematographer Vasco Viana. The images of the geography of the land and the people are very key in this personal story of Miguel. Vasco delivers excellent images that help make the story.
Djon Africa may come across as a boring film at first, but it’s a story about personal growth. You have to see it to understand it, as well as understand the ending.
Another movie from the VIFF anticipated for bigger release later on is Ben Is Back. The film consists of a lot of dark subject matter, but does feature a lot of elements that make it worth seeing.
It’s Christmas Eve in a New England home. The Burns family is rehearsing at church for the Christmas play. Unbeknownst is that their son Ben has returned from rehab to spend Christmas with them. He sees that the house has an alarm system since he was sent there. Smart parents. When the family arrives, they are shocked to see him there. Ben has fun with his two younger half-siblings at first, but mother Holly, stepfather Neale and sister Ivy are nervous. Holly decides 24 hours and Ben must be in her supervision. Ben agrees.
On Christmas Eve, she tries to take his mind off things by going to the mall. The first person they see is the doctor: the one who prescribe painkillers he claimed weren’t addictive, but were. Holly gives the doctor a piece of her mind. To take Ben away from the frustration, she takes him to a store. Ben notices Clayton, the town pusher, going down an elevator. As Ben appears changing in a store, Holly notices Ben is taking too long and suspects the worst. Holly shouts to get Ben out.
After that, they go to a church hall that’s holding an AA meeting. In the hall are two or three teens Ben deals drugs to, including one that wants to meet up with Ben later and get ‘done.’ Ben agrees, but that infuriates Holly to the point she takes him to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave.
The family with hope the Christmas play will take their mind off things, until they see the mother of one of Ben’s ‘customers.’ The daughter died and the mother is looking distraught. Ben is moved to tears during the show. Coming home, they find the house broken into and the dog is stolen. The father pins the blame on Ben. Ben feels he has to help the family out and get the dog back. Ben learns the dog is with Clayton who’s holding it hostage for money Ben owes him. Ben and Holly go out together to get it solved. However there are people who want Ben dead.
Ben soon leaves Holly on his own pursuit to get things done. Holly takes the other car and searches like mad to find Ben. Holly finds herself in the home of the mother of the deceased daughter. Holly tries to be friendly with her. The mother gives her something in case Ben overdoses. Ben meets with Clayton to get the dog back, but Clayton expects a favor involving drug trafficking. While Holly feels lost, Ivy calls and says she’s able to track Holly and Ban through her iPad. As Ben does the ‘favor’ for Clayton, Clayton ‘pays’ him with a special pill. Meanwhile Holly senses Ben in a solitary location, thinking he’s dead. The story ends with a hugely climactic moment.
I’m sure when a lot of you first heard the premise of the film, some of you probably thought “I know where this is going.” The film I’ll bet you were thinking about is Rachel Getting Married. It does seem like it’s starting in similar fashion as Rachel Getting Married where a child who’s in rehab returns home for a special occasion. One thing to say is that a child returning from rehab during a holiday or a festivity is a common occurrence in real life and something a lot of families experience on a day-to-day level. It’s a story that can be played out in real life hundreds of different ways. Some may be redeeming and some may even be tragic.
Ben Is Back is a different story from Rachel Getting Married. Kym goes through her struggles at home, but returns back to rehab as a stronger person. Those who saw Rachel know that’s the main theme is about healing and the struggle to achieve it. Ben Is Back is a different story. Ben Burns is home for 24 hours in a town that’s full of memories of his drugged past. On top of it, Ben is a former dealer who is responsible for leading other teens of his town to their own drug addiction, including one fatal. You hope that Ben stays as strong through the fight the way Kym was, but you see that Ben succumbs to a lot of the pressures along the way. The film ended with a different ending from the message of hope Rachel appeared to have. True, Ben’s ending was more dramatic and almost ended up making for a tragedy, but it made for its own story.
One of the key themes of the film is that of family relations. Without a doubt, the biggest relation of focus is a mother for her son. Holly has seen the hardest of the issue. She has to lay down rules for Ben during these 24 hours. She is also very suspicious Ben will back to his old ways during that time. One key scene is when Ben is talking about drugs to a teen he saw during an AA meeting. Infuriated, she takes Ben to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave. Of course that was very impulsive and very wrong of Holly, but it represents the frustration of dealing with a child of drugs Holly is supposed to have a ‘tough love’ attitude about it, but doesn’t go about it best. The whole film is a case where Holly wants to keep Ben sober during that period of time, but the events become a case where it’s down to where she just wants him to be alive.
Other family relations play a part in the film. There’s the sister Ivy who’s very nervous about Ben coming home feeling he’ll be a wreck again. In the end, she becomes the one who is best in helping Holly find Ben. Then there’s the stepfather Neal Burns. He feels a load of contempt for Ben and his addiction. When the dog is stolen, Neal touts the whole blame on Ben. Even while Holly is searching, Neal doesn’t bother helping, even referring to Ben as ‘that drug addict’ instead of his own stepson. It’s only until the end that he’s willing to help.
One weak thing about the film is the ending. I know that it ends right at the very moment of the drama, but it does seem like it ends the film abruptly and way too soon. I know directors have two or three alternate endings for a film, but it makes you wonder if this was the right choice for ending?
This is a good film for writer/director Peter Hedges. It may not be his best film as he has had bigger accomplishments in the past, but this is a film Peter can be proud of. Peter’s son Lucas has become one of the biz’s rising stars right now. It started happening with Manchester By The Sea and he’s been on a role. This film is one of two films he plays a lead role in. I have not seen Boy Erased, so I can’t compare. He does a very good very intense performance here. His career can only get better. However the film belongs to Julia Roberts. Even though Lucas plays the titular character, Julia stole the show as the mother. Her emotions and feelings shown in the film are like so many mothers in that situation. She played the part excellently and stole the show. There were other minor performances that were very good like Courtney B. Vance as the stepfather with an axe to grind, Kathryn Newton as the nervous sister and Michael Esper as the heartless drug supplier.
Despite the abrupt ending, Ben Is Back is an excellent movie about the struggles of drug addiction. You might first think it’s a rehash of Rachel Getting Married, but it tells its own story.
Most of the time I like going to the VIFF to check out the out-of-the-ordinary cinema. However when a film with a lot of Oscar buzz hits the VIFF, I admit I’m tempted to see that. I was lucky to have my chance with Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The story begins in 1991 with 51 year-old Lee Israel at her customer services job. She obviously hates her job because she has a bad attitude and gets a lot of ‘old’ comments from the younger workers. She shows up at work with a glass of scotch in her hand, curses at her co-workers and then curses at her boss. That’s it. She’s fired. After being fired, she just simply downs the rest of her scotch.
The thing is Lee Israel was born to write. She wrote for Esquire magazine for many years and published biographies of Talullah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. However her status as a successful writer ended years earlier after her biography of Lauder flopped. On top of that, she’s trying to publish a biography of Fanny Brice, but her agent says it’s not going to be a hit. Her lack of commercial success in writing couldn’t come at a worse time. She has expenses up to her eyeballs with a cat who’s sick and needs new medicine, outstanding veterinary bills form past visits, overdue rent from a landlord, and an old typewriter that keeps breaking down. Whatever money she can get, it comes from typed original letters of famous authors. She doesn’t get much money from the bookstore; one where the young author isn’t afraid to run into Lee what a has-been author she is.
One day she goes for her usual drink of scotch at her local bar. Also getting a drink is a washed-up stage actor named Jack Hock. Hock himself had a downfall after irreverent behavior at a party while drunk: peeing in a closet! This is a chance to rekindle a past friendship. They have a lot of catching up to do. This comes around the same time Lee is continuing research for her book about Fanny Brice. One day at a library while doing research on Brice, she comes across an original typewritten letter written by her. She takes it home and notices the font on the letter matches the font on Lee’s own typewriter. That gives Lee an idea to add in a juicy P.S. sentence about Fanny’s ‘love’ for a woman. She takes it to a bookstore that buys original letters from authors and they buy it for good money. However she’s told that letters with juicier detail get bigger money.
That gives Lee an new idea for success: making fake letters of renowned deceased authors. Her next subject is Noel Coward. Here she tries to get information on the type of letterhead Coward typed his letters on, the typewriter used and the subjects Coward normally talked about. Her letters are of Coward talking about his homosexuality. Israel also gets practice of forging signatures. She goes to a bookstore that buys letters for bigger money and it works! Lee can afford to pay off the vet, buy medicine for her ailing cat, pay off her landlord and even go out on a first-class night with Jack Hock to a drag cabaret performance. Soon she goes to a memorabilia show with Jack and learns all about authenticators. That just makes her more determine to succeed. She picks more deceased authors like Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks and Ernest Hemingway, buys the right typewriters, bakes the letters and envelopes to make the right aging, does the right forgery on the signatures. The work pays off. The authenticators fall for it and Lee gets paid good money! Lee’s also good at making phone calls disguising herself as director Nora Ephron. Lee also makes friends with a bookshop owner named Anna.
However reality does catch up. Lee is told by one of the bookowners that he senses a forgery as a friend of his who knew Noel Coward wouldn’t be so public about his homosexuality. Within time, all bookstore owners are given a fax from the FBI alerting them of Lee and her alleged fraud. Even an unscrupulous bookdealer threatens to report her to the FBI unless she pays him $5000. Does that stop her? No, as long as she has Jack. Jack is the one making the sales with the bookstore owners on the juicy forged letters. She even goes to libraries with access to archives and steals letters to cash in on. Jack brings her the money, but starts getting suspicious of whether he’s trying to steal from her. FBI agents threaten her with interrogation, but she garbages all her typewriters to avoid being caught.
One time she goes away for a three-day trip of ‘consulting’ archives and leaves Jack to take care of her cat, which includes giving him medicine. Lee steals more letters, and even meets up with her ex-girlfriend. The ex tells her of how distant she became after the flop of her Estee Lauder book. Meanwhile Jack gives the cat the wrong medicine and even gets his new boyfriend to stay overnight at her place. It’s when she returns that it all falls apart. She finds Jack making love to a man in her place, she finds her cat dead, and she soon finds herself arrested for her forgery. After much talking from her lawyer, she’s told she will most likely be found guilty and her persona and alcoholism could works against her for her sentence. She confesses her wrongdoings in court despite having no regrets. Her sentence is six months house arrest, to repay the booksellers she ripped off and to attend AA meetings.
The story ends on a positive note. She rekindles her friendship with Jack, who’s dying of AIDS. She buys a new cat and does her writing from a computer. One day, she even passes a bookseller who has the ‘Can you ever forgive me’ letter where Lee forged Dorothy Parker’s likeness. Lee sends an appropriate response. It’s up for you to see what the response was. And the response from the store owner.
When one does a story about a person in the past doing all these actions, it’s always a question on whether the film is relevant for the present. Would a film about a washed-up author forging letters about deceased celebrities and authors most of today’s generation don’t have a clue about be relevant? I can see relevance in it as it is a reflection of our present. Firstly we live in a time of celebrity worship as lots of people go to Instagram or Twitter to check out the latest dirt from their celebrity. Gossip pages get huge hits because people love shoving their nose in others’ dirty laundry. It’s easy to see why these fake letters about these celebrities’ personal lives would spark a lot of interest and make Lee Israel rich.
The interesting thing is that it sheds a light on the literary industry as well. I know we live in a culture where we’re encouraged to appreciate authors for their literary efforts, but all too often we forget that authors are subject to the same cruel industry that musicians face in the movie industry and actors face in businesses like Hollywood. The New York Times Bestseller list is the Bestseller list to end all Bestseller lists that decides the happening writers and the wash-ups. It’s no wonder Lee felt the frustration of this. You could understand why despite Lee’s success in forgery, she still wanted to be known as an author.
The film is not just about the act of crime and the difficulties of being an author. It’s also about Lee herself. Basically overall it showcased her biggest weakness: her attitude. She blamed her loss of her customer service job on ageism, but she swore at her bosses and drank gin on her last day. Her attitude cost her relationship with her ex-girlfriend. It also almost cost her friendship with Jack. It may even had to do with why she wasn’t getting writing jobs. A bad attitude can be costly. Lee would have to face the music of her wrongdoing. The biggest statement was when Lee was too afraid to face Anne in the store just as she was about to get sentenced.
Marielle Heller directs a very clever comedy about a writer starving for success, even if it’s illicit. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty took on Lee’s memoirs and deliver a script that tells the story and more. Nicole provided the edge of a 50-something woman just trying to make something of herself. Whitty provided the backdrop of the difficulties of Lee and jack being LGBT in New York in 1991. The script not only tells the story but tells a lot more too.
Also what adds to the film is Melissa McCarthy playing Lee Israel. Hard to believe the first pick for the role was Julianne Moore. Melissa caught moviegoers’ attention when she played the feisty Megan Price in Bridesmaids. It’s been success ever since and she’s one of the most happening things in big-screen comedies right now. However most of her comedy roles in popcorn comedies have been over-the-top performances. Here, McCarthy takes on a role of a literary figure with humor and makes it three-dimensional. Possibly her best performance since Bridesmaids. Stealing the show from Melissa is Richard E. Grant. He makes the film as much Jack’s as it is Lee’s. He played Lee’s partner in crime well and the two had good chemistry. Jane Curtin was also good, and unnoticeable, as the literary agent. Dolly Wells was also good as Anne: the lonely shop keeper.
Can You ever Forgive Me? makes for a smart and entertaining comedy. So entertaining, you just might want to buy one of Lee Israel’s forged Dorothy Parker letters soon after.
Interesting how a lot of films I’ve seen at the VIFF are to do about deep dark secrets being exposed. Petra is one of those films that exposes some dark secrets.
The film is seven chapters starting with the second chapter. Petra is a young budding artist. She is arriving at the estate of a well-known artist named Jaume. Over at the place, we sense an unhappy vibe. The house consists of wife Marisa, son Lucas, housekeeper Teresa, her husband Juanjo and their son Pau. She is seeking artistic guidance from Jaume, but gets nothing but insults from her. That leads her disheartened with her own work. Jaume is actually a tyrant to everyone he works with. Lucas talks with Petra of a dark ‘confession’ and tries to advance to her, but she rejects.
In the third chapter, Jaume had just finished having sex with Teresa. He criticizes her for not enjoying the non-consentual sex and threatens to tell Pau. Teresa later commits suicide. At the funeral Lucas looks at his father with contempt. Moving to the first chapter, Petra’s mother is dying. She tells of an artist she loved. However she does not reveal it to be Jaume. She doesn’t want Petra to have Jaume in her life. In the fourth chapter, Petra confronts Jaume with reason to believe he is her father. She tells him of a letter her mother wrote years ago. Marisa later admits there has been infidelity in both their lives. Throughout their marriage, they both have had their share of various lovers.
In the sixth chapter, Jaume does admit to Petra that he is her father. Right as Petra is pregnant. He also tells that truth to Lucas. Lucas is infuriated. He tries to shoot Jaume but Jaume reminds him he doesn’t have what it takes. Instead Lucas shoots himself. In the fifth chapter, we learn that Petra and Lucas have become more than just friends. They even get romantic. In the seventh chapter, the people try to deal with their lives after the death of Lucas. Marisa confesses to Petra that Lucas is not Jaume’s son, but the son of an extramarital affair she had. Petra is infuriated and tells Marisa never to see her again. Jaume is seen conversing with Pau. Then as Jaume walks away, Pau shoots him dead. The film ends with Petra looking after her daughter and Marisa showing up as a meeting of goodwill. The film ends with them conversing together in a friendly manner.
The film is definitely one in which goes from something simple to being a film where dark truths are exposed. At first you think Petra is there to see Jaume to learn how to be a better artist. That would appear to be the case. However then it becomes clear that Petra is soon after a truth. A truth that could not just destroy Jaume, but those around him too. In time, a truth about Marisa is also exposed. Dark secrets come to the forefront and a lot of lives are destroyed because of it. You sometimes think there’s no way the film would end with anyone at peace, but somehow it does.
The unique thing about Petra is not just telling the story, but doing it in a non-chronological order . This may be a film of seven acts, but it begins with act two, continues with act three, but then leads into act one. There’s also the shift from act four to act six, and then leading back to act five. That shifting around of the acts works because the film presents itself in situations that has the viewer asking why the situation? Why the friction? It’s when it goes back to the recent past that we get the answers why. This playing around in time, just like it’s done in Pulp Fiction, works for telling the film’s story.
Also it’s unique how this film takes place in the world of art. I know I’ve seen a lot in terms of the freeness or even the foolishness of the way actors live out their love lives. It’s interesting seeing this about an adulterous artist whose wife is just as adulterous. It often leaves you wondering if they lived a strained marriage where they decided to stay together for the sake of Lucas? Or were they an open marriage? There are a lot of open marriages in the world of arts and entertainment. It makes you wonder.
Whatever the situation, the film sometimes seems it’s as much about Jaume as it is about Petra. Petra is a woman searching for the truth and relating to the people she meets along the way. However the film shows just how much of a monster Jaume is. I know that arrogance is common among artists and even berating behavior, but Jaume appears to be a person with no conscience. He berates the artists he works with and Petra’s work, he berates Lucas for being unable to break away from him, he lures his housekeeper in sexual temptation, and even appears at the end as if he doesn’t care about Lucas’ death. It’s no wonder after Jaume is shot to death, Petra and Marisa appear to be at peace as they meet. I think that was it about the film. Jaume was the tyrant in people’s lives and Petra would be that missing link that would free others.
This is the latest film from Spanish arthouse director Jaime Rosales. Rosales has developed a reputation over the years starting with his 2003 short film The Hours Of The Day which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, his 2007 feature Solitary Fragments which received a lot of critical renown, and 2014’s Beautiful Youth which was nominated for Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Here he directs a story he co-wrote with Michel Gatzambide and Clara Roquet. He places it in an artistic setting with a mostly quiet environment, but that doesn’t take away the intensity of the friction. Instead the quiet slow nature makes you feel the friction. Barbara Lennie does a very good job of playing the lead protagonist, but it’s Joan Botey playing the tyrant Jaume that steals the show. Both do an excellent job of managing their roles well.
Petra is a film that tells a story in a varying chronological order. However it does so to get us to the heart of the story in a surprising way.
I’m not too familiar about the Korean movie industry. However The Running Actress does offer some interesting insights.
The film is divided into three acts. Act 1 consists of Moon going on a hike with two friends. Then they soon run into producer Won Dong-yeon and two of his colleagues. Later all six of them go on a dinner together. However the dinner is discomforting to Moon as all they focus on is her looks and having her work in their film for free. She’s unhappy about it and on the way home, she has the manager stop the car and she runs out!
Act 2 is all about the discomforts of fame, especially past fame. She has to deal with past images of her in the limelight. She also has to deal with the fact she hasn’t had a role in so long, and the first role to come in recent times is for her to play the mother of an adult child. At her age? She tries to get a loan, but is turned down. She tries to use a sick estranged in-lay for assistance, but it comes to no avail. Home life with her husband and small child is no escape from all the pressures. At the end of it all, she is back in the car with her manager and again demands he stop the car. She runs out screaming again!
Act 3 is at a wake for a director she worked with during her young-and-famous days. She doesn’t plan to stay there long because she wasn’t on good terms with the director. However noticing the small size of the wake — just her, his wife and son — she stays there longer. She even starts up a conversation with an old acting acquaintance. Then a younger actress who the director has last worked with comes in and mourns out loud. She later joins in a conversation with all and it turns ugly as the director’s widow has a lot of wrath towards her. The film ends with Moon and the young actress walking together in friendly conversation.
The funniest thing about this film is that it makes the Korean film industry so bitingly close to that of Hollywood. I may not be very familiar with the Korean film industry or how it operates, but this film is a reminder that judging an actress by age isn’t simply a Hollywood-only thing. I can see that happening in Korea especially since we have this whole K-Pop phenomenon. Young singers handpicked mostly for their youthful looks and then trained for four years as an act together to top the charts. I can easily see how the Korean film industry can be very youth or young-adult oriented. I don’t know what types of movies they shell out in Korea but I can see it happening.
In the meantime there’s Moon So-Ri. She had it big for so many years and then she lost it. She’s so starved for money, she has to rely on an estranged ailing in-law for help to get it. Her slate of film roles dry up because of her ‘yesterday’s news’ status, and her only chance is playing a mother of a young adult. Interesting that Hollywood wouldn’t be the only film industry to be as judgmental as that in terms of an actress’ age.
At the same time, it not only tackles the dark side of the entertainment profession in a humorous way. It also pokes fun at the emotional reactions of those involved too. Moon herself has her moments where she just can’t hold it in and just lets it out. Even at the funeral for Director Lee, there are the over-the-top emotional reactions from those as well. It really shows how interesting the people in entertainment are like.
The star of the film is Moon So-ri. She wrote it, directed it and stars lead in it. In actuality, this film was actually three short films Moon did as she was completing an MFA program at Chung-Ang University. I think she did a smart thing by putting the three together and creating a feature-length movie. It’s humorous and smart. It draws on some of Moon’s own experiences, but also includes some fictionalizations too. She does a very good effort as a whole here. The supporting players also do a good job in their own acting here. She even has her own real-life husband Jang Joon-hwan play himself in the film. It’s also interesting real-life producer Won Dong-yeon agree to be in it. I think he probably agrees with the message.
The Running Actress is a humorous look at a reality of the stupidity of the entertainment industry. It’s also a humorous look at the emotional attitudes of the artists involved. Moon So-ri does a good job of showing a stupidity in a humorous way.
The VIFF may have ended two weeks ago but that won’t stop me from writing reviews of what I saw. Especially since most will be released more widely in the future.
With the VIFF, I have a good chance of seeing a wide variety of film from around the world. Earlier on, I had the good fortune to see the Iranian film 3 Faces. It appears slow, but says a lot.
The film opens with a young woman, Marziyeh, shooting a selfie-style video with her smartphone. She is in tears. She says her family will not accept her desire to become an actress and they demand she marries a man she does not love. She then appears to hang herself as the phone drops to the ground.
Later we see two people in a car. They are director Jafar Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari. Panahi was the first one to receive the disturbing video which he was told came from a friend and then forwarded it to Jafari. Jafari doesn’t know whether to feel guilt over her death or believe that this whole video is a fake. Both drive over to her home village, a Turkish-Azeri speaking village, to find out the truth. They first want to search the village and then search the nearby cave where they believe the suicide would most likely happen.
As they drive, they get a good sense of the traditional mindset of the people that live there. There are some younger people who recognize the two and are in love with their movies. The more traditional people tell a bigger story. In one case, they see an old woman settling herself in her pre-dug grave with a lamp to keep snakes away from her for the ‘bad’ she believes she did. Another older villager insists Behnaz take tea with her and he gives her his eldest son’s circumcised foreskin as a talisman. Along the way, they come across a bull on the road lying there because his leg is broken. The owner says the bull cannot be killed because he is a ‘stud bull’ who once impregnated 10 cows in one night.
Then it happens. They come to the house of Marziyeh and her family. A lot of younger people are excited to meet the actor-director pair, but they know nothing of what happened to Marziyeh. She has been missing for three days. Then out of nowhere comes Marziyeh. She’s alive, but Behnaz is infuriated for her sending that ‘lie of a video.’ Marziyeh insisted that the video was a plea for help. If her family found out the truth, her brother would kill her. Behnaz reluctantly accepts Marziyeh and allows her to come into the car. During the ride back to the highway, Behnaz gets a phone call. It’s from Shahrazade: an actress and dancer Jafar worked with years ago. Shahrazade says she’s bitter about the way the directors treated her and now lives as a recluse writing poetry and painting landscapes. The film ends with the car stopped halfway down the road and the two women– Behnaz and Marziyeh — walking together.
The film may be slow and not too heavy on the drama, but it tells a lot. As many would know, Iran is going through a very restrictive regime. Even though it’s a democracy, religious law is still hard-lined. One can get a sense on how limited the roles of women are in a country like Iran. However Panahi takes it one step further as he focuses on a village in Northern Iran which is close to the borders of either Turkey or Azerbaijan. In fact Panahi comes from the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan. He gives a good sense of the traditional, even superstitious, mindsets of the people. The village people appear good hearty people who have good souls despite their superstitions appearing strange. However it’s Marziyeh who best can demonstrate the ugly side of it all. Marziyeh, a young woman with ambitions, does not fit in well. Especially since her village has desires for how a woman should live.
Mind you the film isn’t just about women in small remote villages in Iran. There’s also that phone call from Shahrazade. She was infuriated how male directors have treated her on the set so she decides to go her own direction, even if it means becoming a recluse. I think that film says a lot of how women are treated all over Iran. That scene where Panahi walks off with Marziyeh is possibly intended to speak a message about women choosing their own direction. Maybe Jafari is admitting his own mistreatment of women too.
Jafar Panahi is taking a big risk with this film. Actually his whole career as a filmmaker has been a big risk. Panahi’s films have upset the government of Iran because it either defies the strict Islamic conventions the Iranian government expects him to follow or they feel the films depict Iran in a negative manner. Whatever the reason, Panahi has been arrested and sentenced in 2010 to six years in prison for ‘propaganda against his country.’ On top of that, he was given a twenty-year ban on filmmaking from the Iranian government. The six-year prison sentence was reduced to three months due to international pressure spawned from a wide ‘freedom of speech’ campaign. His filmmaking ban is still in effect and 3 Faces is the fourth film he’s made under the ban. According to IMDB, this film was filmed in Tehran. No doubt if the Iranian government saw this, they would be infuriated. Especially since it makes the country’s treatment of women look bad. When I saw the film during the VIFF, I saw a lot of Iranian immigrants in the audience. I’m sure there were a lot of people, especially women, who share the same sentiments in the film.
The film Panahi acts, directs and co-writes with Nader Saeivar is a slow story that speaks volumes with what is shown scene after scene. Having a female co-write the story– another radical move in a country like Iran — really sends the message out there about what it’s like in Iran for women. Note that the film’s script won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival and was a nominee for the Palme d’Or. As an actor, Panahi acts like the silent observer as the story unfolds between Jafari and Marziyeh. The acting of Jafari and Marziyeh doesn’t really stand out in terms of grandiose performance, but their performances fit the story perfectly. The acting from the people playing the villagers added to the story and their characters were very believable.
3 Faces is a unique film that speaks volumes in its slow manner. 3 Faces is also a very radical film by a film maker who is already facing political persecution. It’s not just simply a film, but a courageous act.
One of the first features I saw at the VIFF this year was the Indian film In The Shadows. I left with a lot of mixed feelings about it that I still have.
The film begins with Khuddoos: a storekeeper and a loner in Old Delhi. He is distant from other people but prefers getting whatever closeness he can from them through surveillance cameras he has put up through the neighborhood. His only friend Ganeshi visits him on a daily basis. One day, he catches something of his interest. Next door lives a family with a 14 year-old boy named Idris or ‘Idu.’ He lives with his family consisting of his mother Saira, currently expecting her third child, and his father Liakat who owns a butcher shop. Liakat expects Idu to help with the business and do deliveries. However he wants to spend time talking with his friend Ginny who is lucky to attend school. When Saira learns he didn’t do the delivery expected and saw Ginny, she gives him money for Liakat to cover it up. When Liakat comes home, he eventually learns the truth and reacts violently to Idu. Khuddoos hears it through the wall. He is shocked from what he hears.
Both try to move on from that incident. Liakat apologizes to Idu and says he won’t do it again, but Idu doesn’t believe it. Meanwhile Khudoos can’t get the incident out of his mind. He tells Ganeshi about it. He knows how lax the police are about dealing with cases of abused children, but he’s determined to help. Life continues on for the two. Idu spends more time with Ginny and tells of his dream of escaping his father. Khuddoos manages his shop and tries to do business as usual. However the incident doesn’t leave Khuddoos’ mind. He even misses meet up with Idu by a few second.
Then it happens. Saira needs to give birth and Idu and his younger brother are the only ones there. But Liakat isn’t there. Idu has to do all the work. The doctors arrive too late. The baby dies. Both the father and the mother take it hard. However Idu feels it’s Liakats fault and isn’t afraid to say it in his face. Liakat reacts violently to which Idu responds back with violence. That leads Liakat to become even more violent. Khuddoos hears it and tries getting the police after the situation. The police are too slow to respond.
Idu has had it. He wants to run away. He’s fully convinced his father’s a monster. He tells Ginny, but Ginny mentions that he will miss him. Meanwhile Khuddoos does what he normally does; goes to the same restaurant to eat and gets drunk. The manager tries to boot him out for good because of his constant drunkenness, but Khuddoos tries to state his case, that he is hungry. Khuddoos knows he has to leave his seclusion behind. Soon Idu makes a break for the train station to finally leave Liakat behind, but the father spots him at the station. Upon returning home, Liakat says neither he nor Saira will be out of his sight.
Enough is enough. On a quiet night, Idu sees Liakat asleep. Idu smothers him. As he does, Khuddoos breaks through the walls. Liakat is dead. And Khuddoos goes into the room. Witnessing a photo, he wipes the dust off and sees the image of the boy. The others come across Khuddoos’ cameras in his hideout.
The film is intended to be a psychological drama. It’s a case of a man who’s cut himself off from the world but slowly comes back in once a domestic disturbance happens. I get how writer/director is trying to draw a connection with a man in self-seclusion, but the overall film didn’t make too much sense. It may be because of my expectations. I was expecting Khuddoos and Idu to meet, that Khuddoos would be the one who rescues Idu from any further harm. I’m sure most were expecting the same result. Somehow I can’t see the point of Khuddoos not meeting face to face with the boy as the ending drama unfolds. I’m sure the director had his reasons for having the story that way– that the two never meet — but it didn’t make a lot of sense. Jain could’ve simply made two films, or left the story of Idu on its own.
Despite the story being confusing, I do give credit for Manoj Bajpayee for portraying a character with a lot of personal demons who’s trying to break free from his own personal exile. I also give high marks for Om Singh portraying a boy who wants to break free from his own prison which isn’t in his mind. It’s at home. Shahana Goswami was also very good at portraying the mother in between it all.
In The Shadows is a psychological thriller that attempts to tell a two-in-one story, but it doesn’t entirely make too much sense in the end.
Every VIFF I make the effort to see some of the later shows, including the latest during the weekends at the Rio. The first I saw was the Japanese movie One Cut Of The Dead. It turned out to be a hilarious time.
The film begins with us seeing a young girl about to kiss her zombie boyfriend before killing him. Then Director Higurashi yells ‘Cut!’ This is a scene from a zombie movie being shot. However this is the 42nd take. The director is obviously frustrated. He berates the actress Chinatsu by telling her she lives a lie. He even abuses the actor Ko as he scolds him for his performance. However Nao, a middle-aged make-up lady, recommends a thirty-minute break to overcome the stress, to which the director accepts begrudgingly.
During the break, the two from the scene drink and talk with Nao while the crew and director go outside. Nao talks of how this used to be a water filtration during World War II and even demonstrates to them her hobby of learning self-defense. She even tries to teach them the Pom method for when being attacked by the back, but suddenly a severed arm comes flying in. Then we see the best boy Kazahara is a zombie. One of the techs has become decapitated. They’re all freaking out. But Higurashi likes this. Now that there are real zombies happening, he feels he can get some real acting out of them and calls action as the zombies are around.
It’s up to the three to flee their way out of this zombie mayhem. They leave the water site and try for the van. It doesn’t work out. Chinatsu goes into hiding, but is soon spotted by a zombified man. Ko tries to protect her, but time is running out as all zombies are after them. Meanwhile Higurashi is seizing each moment to shoot their parts. As they run for their lives, they head to the top of the facility. Chinatsu senses Ko is a zombie and that is the case. In the meantime, she has to deal with Nao who’s on the attack. At the end of it all, Chinatsu battles Nao and has no choice but to kill Ko in passion. Higurashi complains she didn’t do the scene right but she kills him on the spot. Chinatsu then goes to the area of the building where she stands in a star made of blood in triumph as the credits roll…
…and then we go back to a month earlier. There’s a channel in Japan that’s about to be launched: The Zombie Network. The channel has called Higurashi to direct an uncut zombie show as part of the channel’s opening. Higurashi has never really done zombie movies, but the network accepts him because of his motto of his films being ‘fast, cheap, but average.’ Elsewhere his daughter Mao has developed a reputation as a crew person. Frustrated with the junk she gets at work, she wants to develop into a career of filmmaking of her own. The mother Nao used to be an actress until she met Higurashi. Her marriage and the birth of Mao led her to forget about her dreams. She didn’t mind it, but now it’s become mundane as she tries to kill her time with hobby after hobby, including video lessons of self-defense.
Higurashi meets with the people to do with the script of the film entitled One Cut Of The Dead. The first rehearsal is crazy because Chinatsu brought her baby and they can’t rehearse well. Chinatsu also has issues as she is a major heartthrob and her agent says that being in a movie with too much blood can interfere with her star status. Also at the first rehearsal is nerdy Kazahara, a crewman whose stomach doesn’t go well with hard water, and a man with a drinking problem. Mao is originally disinterested in the project until she learns major teen idol Ko will be a part of it. This comes as moody Mao is about to move out of the house. Higurashi tries to forget about Mao’s move out until he talks with one of the men playing a zombie and he talks of how he misses his daughter. However when the actor who plays the director doesn’t show, people recommend Higurashi play the lead. Before Mao leaves, she talks with her mother Nao about her ambitions. Nao asks Higurashi to be a part of it.
Then comes shooting day. You can bet this could be a big break for Higurashi. First trouble is the crew man with the stomach issue drank hard water and the portaloos for the film and crew aren’t here! Secondly the man that’s supposed to play the zombie drank a whole bottle of sake and is drunk on the floor! The director tries to continue with shooting with the crew trying to help out however they can. Then the craziness. When it comes for the zombie’s part, Higurashi has to carry the drunken man to make him move into his part. Then comes the crew man with the stomach problem. He has to go outdoors and… you know. The crew try to help as much as they can. Mao tries to step in to save what she can. The network people are in an area away watching everything that is happening live and they don’t know what to make of what’s happening. Then Nao really gets into her part. The director knows she has to be controlled but she’s able to Pom her way out. She requires sedation! Then there’s the camera crane required to do the ending shot. It feel from the roof and is broken. So Mao and Higurashi organize a human pyramid for that long final shot. After a lot of misses, it finally happens with Mao being the camera girl on top. The whole insane craziness works to perfection. The show is a success!
The film is very creative and very fun. The film starts out as a zombie movie which we first think is a simple short film. Just for reference, the VIFF is known for showing a short film of 20-30 minutes before the actual feature. Most features with a short before the start list the short in the program. I myself thought that was the case. It was a short film meant to be shown before the actual feature. Then it became evident that it was a case of the short zombie show followed by the making of the zombie show from start to finish. That was very smart of them to do such a thing. Plus they make the story work. The making of the film is a story of its own in how this director is placed with this demand from the network, they try to get things ready for a month, the rehearsing starts out shaky, and then the director and his wife find themselves actors. Then there’s the hairiness of shooting as one actor got himself drunk on sake and one crewman has a bad stomach because of the hard water and one camera breaks. It’s like from start to finish, it looks like something that would fail or fall apart, but it works in the end.
Funny thing about the film is that it includes the family element of it all. The director has a reputation of being “fast, cheap, but average.” The daughter has earned her own experience on the set and feels she can establish herself. She feels it’s time to move out. The father doesn’t take the move-out well at all. Meanwhile the mother is a former actress who quit to become a full-time mother and housewife. She killed her time by adopting hobby after hobby, but her daughter gives her a chance to be an actress again by recommending her for the film. In the end, it helps bring the family together.
The film has been known for its surprise success in Japan. I don’t know about ‘fast, cheap, but average,’ but the film was produced by Tokyo acting and directing school Enbu Seminar at a cost of only $70,000 to make and made by mostly unknown actors. The film made its debut at the Udine Far East Film Festival in April where it won the second-place audience award. It has since been invited to 60 film festivals. Back in Japan, it made a box-office run starting in June. The film had modest expectations. Enbu Seminar hoped that 5,000 tickets would be sold during its box office run. Instead it became a big hit in Japan already amassing $24.4 million and is now the 13th-highest grossing film in Japan right now. When I went to see it for its 10:45 showing at the Rio, the theatre was surprisingly packed. Word has gotten around.
Top kudos to writer/director Shinichiro Ueda for inventing the story and making it come alive. His two-shows-in-one was fun to watch and very winning. The whole cast also has to get top kudos for helping to make this story come alive in a very entertaining way. They have as much to do with the movie’s surprise success as Ueda. You have to admit that it’s very rare to have a film within a TV show within a film. Excellent job!
One Cut Of The Dead proves to everyone who sees it why it’s the surprise hit in Japan. It’s the ‘guilty pleasure’ movie you won’t feel guilty about enjoying!