VIFF 2019 Review: Mr. Jones

Gareth-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain And Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIFF 2019 Review: Spider (Araña)

Spider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WORKS CITED:

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

VIFF 2019 Review: A Brother’s Love (La femme de mon frère)

Brothers Love

A Brother’s Love is a comedy about a brother-sister relationship in danger right after the brother meets the love of his life.

I know it’s my goal every VIFF to see one Canadian feature film. That was achieved during the opening gala with Guest Of Honour. The second chance I had was with the Quebecois film A Brother’s Love. This was a film that presented a bizarrely intriguing story.

The film begins with a college looking for a new professor for their philosophy department. They think they find it in Sophie: a recent PhD graduate. Sophie lives with her brother Karim in the same apartment. She appears to be co-dependent on him. She struggles going from job to job, but he is doing very well as a psychologist. They appear to be the thinking-people’s type. Then they have dinner at their mother’s place. Their parents are divorced, but not estranged. The parents appear to be the more free-wheeling type compared to the children. Karim enjoys seeing them dance, but it appears like something is eating at Sophie’s head.

One day, Sophie goes to her doctor with Karim escorting her. She seeks an abortion. This is her second one and Sophie has no intention of having children. Sophie goes about her professor job soon after, but is constantly late. She is soon fired. Soon Sophie learns that Karim is dating her doctor Eloise. Sophie is shocked about this and doesn’t know how to take it. Sophie feels she has to lose her frustrations while watching an episode of the Kardashians or the latest in trash TV.

While Sophie still struggles with getting a new job, Eloise introduces Sophie to a man: a male midwife named Jasmin. The meeting between the two of them go well and there’s the potential of meeting up again soon. Karim, Sophie and Eloise then have dinner with the parents. During the dinner, they talk about their future plans together including marrying and having a family. Soon Sophie has an outburst at the dinner table and takes it out on everyone. Eloise and Karim especially.

Sophie needs time alone from them. She finds it in a date with Jasmin. She finds Jasmin to be a man she can finally feel comfortable around and have conversation with, even her most philosophical. She later apologizes to Karim and learns that the closeness between the two is still there despite both going different directions.

The film doesn’t just focus on the complications of relationships, whether they be about intimate relationships or even family relationships, but also of the personal traits and personal mindsets that create such friction. Sophie has a doctorate in philosophy and possibly because of it, she overthinks a lot. That’s evident when she tells her new boyfriend her thought on monogamy. She always speaks her beliefs about her issues and about life. Sometimes it appears like she creates her own troubles of the mind or she doesn’t know what to think. Most of her insecurities seem unnecessary. Everyone else appears like they’re mostly well-balanced or carefree. She does try to adopt the common carefree attitudes of others at times, but it’s a personal struggle. The struggle reaches boiling point at the dinner table when she takes out her frustrations on Karim and Eloise. However it’s Jasmin who’s the one who can truly teach her to calm down and learn to live life well.

It’s a bizarre story. We have a philosopher sister and a psychologist brother. The brother’s there for her during her troubling times and even gives her a place to stay. The brother falls in love with her doctor which leaves Sophie feeling she’ll be lost. On top of that her temperament and philosopher mind-set causes friction with those around her. Basically Sophie is a confused person. The brother/sister relationship between her and Karim appears to be more than a relationship. She appears to have a reliance on him as she fears she can’t make it out in the outside world. Once Karim dates Eloise, she fears she might lose him. The story is very much a psychological comedy as it does involve a lot with human behavior and people’s thinking patterns.

This is the first feature-length film written and directed by Monia Chokri. She has had a good career as an actress in Quebec and has acted in two films by Xavier Dolan: Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways. It’s an impressive debut. It’s imperfect, but it does tell a lot and show a lot. One would have to know these personality types in order to fully understand them. Knowing that Xavier Dolan has delivered stories of people with crazy mindsets, it’s tempting to think he may have had some inflence on the film. He is actually not credited with anything here. Anne-Elisabeth Bosse, who also acted in Heartbeats, is great as the main protagonist. The film is all about Sophie’s personality. The personality has to be all there for the story to work and make sense, and Sophie delivers. Patrick Hivon is also good as Karim as well as Evelyne Brochu as Eloise. Coincidentally, Brochu acted in the Dolan film Tom At The Farm.

A Brother’s Love has had its acclaim. It won at the Cannes Film festival the award of Un Certain Regard – Jury Coup de Coeur. It was also a nominee at the Hamburg Film Festival for the Best Young Talent award.

A Brother’s Love can’t be described in a single work. It has a lot of intellectual moments, it had intimate moments and it had moments of insanity. Nevertheless the film comes together at the end and makes better sense after you’ve left the theatre.

VIFF 2019 Review: It Must Be Heaven

Elia Suleiman

Director/writer/actor Elia Suleiman plays himself trying to get his film of Palestine made in It Must Be Heaven.

Saying It Must Be Heaven is a Palestinian film can give a lot of people the wrong impression at first. It’s a film that is enjoyable and worth seeing.

The film begins with a Christian religious ceremony in Nazareth, Palestine. They’re to enter the church, but it’s locked. It’s locked by the custodians who want to be alone drinking up. The priest and those part of the mass are angry. They barge in and get violent with him.

Life in Nazareth is not a pleasant experience for filmmaker Elia Suleiman. Elia has been experienced some downtime since a close friend of his died. Elia still has their wheelchair, walker and other personal items.  Wherever he goes, it appears people have a surly attitude. He goes to a restaurant and there’s an argument over the wine. He lives on the opposite end of an apartment where a father and son live in opposite suites and exchange insults. The few times when the Palestinians are nice to each other are when they know they’re being observed. Once outsiders leave, they go back to being their grumbling selves. The one Palestinian in Nazareth who looks to have a pleasant attitude is a young gardener who tends to Suleiman’s lemon tree, against Suleiman’s will. Suleiman tells him he doesn’t want him to trim it, but he comes back.

Elia seeks inspiration for his script. However he has to seek financial support from outside of Palestine. He goes on a flight to Paris and the flight gets turbulent as is goes over the Dinaric Alps. When he arrives in Paris, the Paris of people’s fantasies is alive. He sees it as a city of romance, a city of nice fashionably dressed women at a cafe having a good time together.

Then the realities of Paris start. His hotel suite is right next to a fashion house and their LED ad shines out a lot of lights that make it hard for Elia to sleep. He sits outside his window and looks out onto the street. He’s on the subway and sees a tattooed punk try to look menacing to him. He sees someone put a plastic bag underneath a car parked just outside. A bomb? The police come on Segways to check, but notice nothing and move away. He sees a homeless man lying around nearby and the police arriving to give him food. Suleiman is there during Bastille Day. He finds himself lost in a crowd during a military parade.

Elia knows he has business to deal with in Paris. He meets with a film producer, but the producer tells him that his film isn’t Palestinian enough. Elia tries to work more on his script. He notices that a bird has flown into his hotel suite. He welcomes the bird at first. However problems arise when Elia is typing on his script and the birds wants Elia’s attention. The bird hops onto his laptop and Elia gently pushes him aside. The bird repeats, but Elia’s had enough. He decides the bird need to fly back out in the open.

Elia then sets his sights on New York. Before he does, he has a day where he just wants to relax. He goes over to a park area, but notices a woman dressed in an angel costume with the Palestinian flag on her torso. A group of police try to pursue her, but she makes it a case of ‘catch me if you can.’ When they do catch her, she mysteriously disappears. Returning to his hotel that evening, he sees the car that had the bag placed underneath it is towed away. The bag is still visible.

When Elia arrives in New York, he is taken to a hotel by a cab driver who tries to develop conversation. The cab driver asks where he’s from, and Elia responds “Palestine.” The cab driver slams on his brakes and talks about how surprised he is to see a Palestinian. He’s never seen one before! He meets with a pretentious film professor. The professor wants his story to embody the Palestinian cause in the best way it can. He goes to a meeting held by a Palestinian-American group. The crowd is too enthusiastic for the leader to handle so she demands they all give one clap for each speaker she announces.

Then the meeting with the producer happens. Before he does, he is met in the waiting room with Gael Garcia Bernal who is his friend. Bernal has read over his script and he is very happy with what Suleiman has written. The exec however is uninterested in funding a ‘Palestinian story.’ Before Suleiman is about to return back home, he walks around New York and notices how Americans everywhere, even in the supermarkets, carry guns over their shoulders. He arrives back in Nazareth and notices that the gardener is back pruning his trees. The film ends with Suleiman in a discotheque with young people dancing to a song celebrating Palestine.

The film has a message to say, but instead of it speaking its message, it allows the message to be told in the images it shows. The film says its messages in what Suleiman sees. We see the world through his eyes. Nazareth looks to be this unhappy place in the middle of nowhere. Suleiman thinks that he will have a better time in the cities he will visit: Paris and New York. He can escape the unpleasant attitudes, the violent actions of others and fear of terrorism. He’s in for a surprise. In Paris, he notices what could be a car bomb placed underneath a car. The bomb never goes off, but it does remind you it has its own threats. Even in New York where there are still memories of 9/11, the threat of terrorism is there too. Bad manners? Suleiman witnesses as a stranger on a Paris subway tries to look menacing to him. Over in the part, an elderly lady tries to get a seat, but a young man on a bike beats her to it with no regrets. He’s reminded there’s rudeness there too. He’s also reminded of military preparedness and vigilance too as the Bastille Day parade has a military march and Americans in New York show their weapons openly. what he thought he’d leave behind in Palestine is still there in Paris and New York.

The film also feels about the difficulty of being a Palestinian in the outside world. Elia may be Christian but he defines himself as a Palestinian. He finds it hard enough living in Palestine, but finds it challenging to define himself to others. The meeting with the producer in Paris shows the French are interested in showing an image of Palestine, but one common or friendly with French audiences. The meeting with the taxi driver also adds to the feelings of confusion with his identity. He goes to a Palestinian-American rally that supports the cause, but doesn’t get too much out of it. How can a Palestinian relate to a Palestinian-American? Even if they share the same cause, they don’t have too much in common.

The film is less about the words spoken that it is about what one sees happening. This is pretty much a film of what Elia Suleiman sees through his eyes and he lets the images and moments do the talking instead of him. There are very few instances when you see Elia talking. It’s very rare in a film where the protagonist doesn’t even utter ten words.  Almost all moments of the film, including moments when he appears to be in a conversation, show him being a silent observer or a silent responder. That adds to the humor of the film, and Elia wants the film to blend humor with the theme and message of his story. Yep, even moments where you see Elia being dead silent get us laughing. It’s part of the film’s ironic dry humor. Some could say Elia’s wit is a lot like Woody Allen’s. You be the judge.

This is the first film in seven years for Elia Suleiman. His last one was 7 Days In Havana. This is a film he directs, writes, and plays lead. He does a good job in letting the images tell the story. Even during his mute moments, he adds to the humor of the story. It’s a silent humor that you have to get and understand while you watch this film. The inclusion of music in the various scenes adds to the story and fits it well.

It Must Be Heaven is Palestine’s official entry in the Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film; a retitling of the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film has won a lot of acclaim. Acclaim includes a win for Special Mention at this year’s Cannes Film Fest as well as a nomination for the Palme d’Or, a nomination for Best Film at the Seville Film Festival, and a nomination for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto Film Festival (film had production in Canada).

It Must Be Heaven is a film with a lot of wit and dry humor. Its silence of much of the story and of its main protagonist actually speaks volumes and is the film’s best quality.

VIFF 2019 Review: To Live To Sing (活着唱着)

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To Live To Sing is of a local Chinese opera troupe trying to save itself from gentrification.

I accidentally came across To Live To Sing when the virtual reality show I wanted to see was in a venue with a low capacity. I’m glad I saw it.

The film begins with a show of local performers in a Chinese city. The show starts with a modern fan dance by schoolgirls. It’s then followed by the Jinli Sichuan Opera Troupe: a local troupe that performs traditional Chinese opera. Right after the show, the opera troupe goes back to their own end of the city where they put on their own daily show. They perform every day at the same time at the same small theatre and entertain the same local crowd they’ve charmed for years. They rehearse well and they get along mostly fine. They have their own disputes on how to do something artistically, but it doesn’t last long. The Troupe is led by Zhao Li whom oversees everything. Her niece Dan Dan, who was orphaned at a young age and raised by Zhao, is seen by Zhao as the future of the troupe as most are aging.

Things are changing in the area they live. A lot of old homes are being crushed under government orders in order to build new developments. The theatre is under threat. This will not only mean the end of the theatre but the end of the opera troupe too. Zhao is frustrated as her theatre doesn’t attract crowds big enough. The others are worried too, but they try to make plans fearing the worst. Dan Dan however sees this as a breakthrough moment as she always dreamt of being a pop star instead of being confined to an opera troupe where she only gets paid 10%. During the time of frustrations, Zhao notices a dwarf in Chinese opera wear. She tries to spot him out, but he runs away.

Zhao is trying to negotiate with the government about keeping her theatre. However she knows it will be uncertain due to the small crowds that come to her theatre. Zhao is very forbidding of any modernisms that come to the theatre. She is strict on tradition. Then one night when she’s out, she notices the dwarf. She tries to follow him but loses focus of him. She is by a night club and she is drawn to the music. Then the announcer announces a singer for her first performance. It’s Dan Dan, and in a showy dress. Dan Dan notices Zhao in the crowd and can’t sing. The two have a fight outside where Dan Dan walks off furiously. The following day, Zhao confessed to Dan Dan that she always saw her as her daughter. Dan Dan becomes more committed to the troupe.

Zhao has another encounter with the dwarf and the dwarf takes her to a restaurant. There she sees one of the men negotiate a future job deal. Feeling the threat harder, Zhao decides one day to break with tradition and do a show that fuses modern with traditional. The troupe is welcoming of it. They perform the show with the mix of modern and traditional. The crowd loved it, but Zhao notices the spirit of the dwarf as it takes her to a mysterious land of Chinese art and culture.

Despite the audience pleased with the performance, Zhao can’t lose focus as an official from the party will be attending a show to see whether to keep the theatre up or not. They get a chance! However it’s a very slim one as the areas nearby are being crushed. The night before, Zhao has the same fantasy of the dwarf taking her to that land. Then the day of the show. The audience is ready. The players are ready, but the official is not to be seen. There has to be a wait and it’s making the crowd impatient. Then the official finally arrives and they are able to put on their show. Just as the show is happening, Zhao is again taken away to that imaginary place. The show she’s in is a dazzling trip of the imagination, until the character played by Dan Dan is stabbed. It all falls apart.

We then learn that the official decided to have the theatre removed. The troupe is heartbroken, even though some talk about plans of what to do after. The next day where there’s no show, members of the local audience show up and wonder why know show? The film flashes five years later with Zhao and Dan Dan returning to the same spot and what’s become of it. They see the development and the ruins. However Zhao sees the dwarf again. Possibly to send one last message.

The film is a common story about art attempting to stay alive. The film also touches on the subject of gentrification. We see it all around us; old buildings being crushed for new developments with big profits in mind. I see it a lot in Vancouver. Here it shows it happening in the People’s Republic of China. In most countries, they have the freedom where they can come bring this issue up to the government. Not all chances work out successfully, but they’re still given a fair chance. In China, you’re chances are very limited with a chance that’s slim to none. When the government says it will happen, it will happen. Zhao was lucky to have that one chance where she could prove to the government the importance of her opera. It was unsuccessful but she still had it.

The film also showed another aspect or battle. It also showcased the battle between traditional art and the more modern art or entertainment that’s the call of the day. Without a doubt, Zhao is a purist of the traditional Chinese opera and starts off as forbidding to the new ways and the new sounds. We should not be surprised that she would be furious if she saw Dan Dan become a contemporary pop star. Despite her belief in traditionalism, she does convince herself to welcome the modern sounds and even mesh it into the traditional opera. We see that a lot in many countries of mixing traditional or classical with the modern. It’s actually very successful in many countries. It proves to be a success here too. However the film sends a message that even with modernisms, the traditional should not be lost. It should still be admired and celebrated.

One thing the film tried to make clear with the story is of the spirits of art and how it exists inside Zhao. You may notice there are many times a dwarf in opera garb is in Zhao’s vision. The dwarf leads Zhao to many images all telling the story of what will happen. However the dwarf doesn’t always lead Zhao to images of a happy ending. That image where the opera comes alive in Zhao’s dreams but leads to the stabbing of Dan Dan is what would send the message of the bad fate of the opera troupe and its house. However it’s right at the end where when it appears all has been long lost at the end, it’s not. The spirit of art still remains even in the ruins.

This is the first film I’ve seen from Chinese-Canadian writer/director Johnny Ma. Living in Vancouver, he’s able to do Chinese stories that would not be the most welcome in the People’s Republic. His first feature from 2016 Lao Shi was about battling bureaucracy and legal manipulation in China. The film was shown at the Hong Kong film festival but not in Shanghai. This film was shown in both Shanghai and Hong Kong. It doesn’t depict the government that bad here. Instead the focus is on art and its attempt to survive. Johnny does a very good story and is good at sending a message, but it is a bit uneven in its storyline. The film also has a real opera troupe as its cast and they all play fictional versions of themselves. That’s another quality to the film. It does make you wonder how they’re doing in their home country. The actors all did well by being themselves when they had to, performers when they had to, and actors when they had to. Zhao Xiaoli and Gan Guidan stood out the most as the two did show a close chemistry in the film that made the aunt/niece relationship look real.

To Live To Sing is a story of artistic ambitions with a bittersweet ending. However it’s a good and colorful, albeit imperfect, reminder that art will triumph.

VIFF 2019 Review: The Death Of Dick Long

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The Death Of Dick Long is a dark comedy of two friends trying to hide the truth about their friend’s death, and hilarious results abounding!

 

DISCLAIMER: VIFF 2019 has ended, but I will continue to post reviews of the films I’ve seen as many will be released in theatres later this year or next year.

At first you’ll think I saw The Death Of Dick Long because of the title. In actual fact, I’ve heard so many lewd jokes in my life, I’m no longer charmed by it. I’m actually more bored with lewd humor. As for the film, I found the film to be funny in a bizarre and dark sort of way.

The film begins with Dick Long playing in his band Pink Freud with his bandmates Zeke Olson and Earl. The night consists of playing and partying, especially with fireworks. However overnight, Zeke and Earl leave a severely-wounded Dick by the entrance of the emergency room of a hospital and take his wallet for the sake of ‘anonymity.’ It’s now up to Earl and Zeke to hide everything.

Earl loads up his truck with several items. He tells his casual girlfriend Lake that he’s leaving for a family emergency, but goes to work. Zeke showers to get all the blood off him and lies down next to his wife Lydia to think he slept the whole night with her. Upon waking up, Lydia asks Zeke to drive their daughter Cynthia to school. When she asks for cash, he accidentally pulls out Dick’s wallet . He gives her cash, but puts Dick’s driver’s license on the counter. Before he takes the daughter to school, he sees Dick’s blood from last night on the backseat. He covers it with a sheet to make like nothing’s happening.

Over at the hospital, Dr. Richter, the doctor who discovered Dick at the door, has learned that Dick has died overnight. He notices that his wounds are severe anal wounds and he calls the police over it. The case is handled and investigated by Sherriff Spenser, a vet in the town police department, and she enlists her young inexperienced trainee Officer Dudley to help solve the death.

However Zeke and Earl learn you can’t keep things secret for long. Zeke drives Cynthia to school, but stops to fill the car up with gas. Cynthia leaves the car to go the store and talks with Officer Dudley. Zeke notices Dick’s blood soaked through the cloth and onto Cynthia’s dress. Zeke then rushes in to take Cynthia without Dudley seeing and gives her the wallet.

Before dropping Cynthia off, he makes a call to Earl to see him immediately. Earl has to be away from his girlfriend Lake for the day. The two scrub all the blood off the seat from the car while Cynthia is bathing. Earl offers to drive Cynthia to school and then calls Dick’s widow Jane to see if she knows anything. She knows nothing and thinks Dick is either missing or just away for a long time. This allows Earl and Zeke to fake a scenario that the car was stolen. They try dumping it in the river, but the river is too shallow and it only falls in halfway.

Sherriff Spenser and Officer Dudley get into the case, which they assume it to be a murder, but are unable to keep it a secret from the rest of the town. Word hits Lydia and she calls Zeke in fear of her life. Zeke insists the car is stolen, but he still has to meet with the police. Spenser and Dudley arrive at his house to ask him the questions. The questioning is to be brief as forensics have turned up some positive results. However Cynthia’s in the room. Whenever Zeke tells a lie, Cynthia is the first to point it out and to correct. Lydia is there hearing it all. Lydia tells Cynthia to watch television as she tries to get to the bottom with Zeke about his inconsistencies and demands the truth. Zeke confesses the truth of Dick’s death, by breaking down. Lydia is heartbroken. However Lydia is soon horrified when she learns of the shocking details of Dick’s death and demands that Zeke leave.

Zeke meets up with Earl in a bar and the two resolve that they won’t run away. However there’s a need for tactics as they learn Spenser and Dudley will be heading over to the Olsons for further questioning and then to Jane’s house to tell the news of what happened to Dick. Zeke rushes over to Jane’s house and she finds him in the stable drunk and shirtless. Zeke reassures Jane that Dick’s not having an affair and agrees to take her to his house. There, Officer Dudley and Lydia are there demanding answers. Dudley even just noticed the drivers license of Richard Long on the counter. Zeke agrees to do so with Lydia and Dudley sitting at the dinner table. The various conflicting stories of Zeke and Lydia spiral out of control with Zeke running out with Dudley chasing after him. Lydia is the one to break the news to Jane. Meanwhile Zeke is at Dick’s stable attempting to free Dick’s horse Comet before he will surrender himself to Dudley.

The final scene shows the aftermath. The big shocker to Dudley from Spenser is that Zeke has been released, feeling keeping him incarcerated before the trial would cause more harm than good to Lydia, Cynthia and Jane. Zeke may be a released man before the trial, but he still tries to maintain a closeness with Cynthia despite Lydia wanting him out of their lives. Even Jane’s life is not the same. The film ends with Zeke meeting up at a hotel room with Earl and Lake. The two talk about what the next plan is for all three to survive the aftermath of all this.

This film is an ambitious attempt at a crime comedy. You have a man left for dead at a hospital and you wonder what’s going on. You have the two trying to cover it up and hide from the law, but fail in a spectacularly hilarious way. You have law enforcers that are two opposites– one experienced and relaxed and the other inexperienced and both excited but nervous– at getting the job done. It tries to do it in a slow-but-steady manner. It’s not the most entertaining, but it does it well and will keep your intrigue. Mind you the story of Dick’s death will keep you intrigued, if not weirded out. The whole story leaves you wondering from the very start what’s the main motive of the cover up? Is it their involvement in his death? Or is it because of Dick’s humiliating death? It is bizarre.

Now the redneck stereotype is one people often get a laugh out of. However there are many times in entertainment where the redneck stereotype is often reduced to cartoonish or stock characters. Here, the characters are more three-dimensional. Yes, they have their idiotic moments and comedic moments common with the ‘redneck’ we’re familiar with, but they are more down-to-earth and have more dimension. They come across as common people. One thing that’s surprising is you see a multi-racial couple. Usually redneck couples are nothing but white.

The rednecks aren’t the only characters with more dimension in this film. The police force whose lack of intellect doesn’t come across like your typical stocky ‘dumb cop.’ They are dim-witted, but they don’t cross the line as cartoonish either.

Finally another difference from your typical redneck comedy is the ending is very much in sync with human feelings. The story is about a hilarious way of covering up a friend’s humiliating death and failing, but the human factor is there at the very end. Zeke may have failed in spectacular fashion, but he still knows he has to deal with a daughter he loves very much and a wife who turns against him that faithful night. We have Jane, Dick’s widow, trying to live her life, but it’s hard. Everything changed that night. The film ends Earl and Lake: the two people in the world that understand Zeke and what happened that night best. I think the ending is what best made the film work in being a redneck comedy with actual dimension.

The film is directed well by Daniel Scheinert. He’s the director best known for Swiss Army Man. Here he doesn’t shine as a director, but he does piece together the story by Billy Chew in a way that works. The acting also made the story work. Janelle Cochran and Sarah Baker were good at playing their roles of the two officers with different personalities and different approaches. Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland were good at playing Zeke and Earl. They did a good job of playing rednecks that had dimension instead of coming off as cartoonish. Virginia Newcomb and Jess Weixler were also good as playing the redneck wives who did lack some smarts at first, but would appear headstrong but hurt in the end.

The Death Of Dick Long is a humorous redneck crime story that is able to make a comedy out of a manslaughter incident, but doesn’t forget the human factor either. This is the least cartoonish ‘redneck comedy’ I’ve seen, and it works.

VIFF 2019 Review: In The Tall Grass

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In The Tall Grass is a thriller of people lost in a field of tall grass and come across something of the paranormal that’s terrifying to their existence.

With the VIFF comes the return of films in the Altered States category: of thrillers, horror and even the paranormal. My first chance came with the film In The Tall Grass. It was worth it.

The film starts with a pregnant Becky DeMuth and her brother Cal traveling to San Diego to find a way to give up her baby. They pass an old bowling alley and stop by a church. Just as they stop by, they hear the voice of a young boy crying for help. The voice is coming from a field of tall grass they’ve parked beside. They also hear the mother of the boy begging anyone to not come in. Becky and Cal are naturally curious and walk in top help the boy. It’s only a matter of time they find themselves lost and even risk getting stuck by the wet sticky mud. Even as they’re distant, they hear each other’s voices which is not really theirs, but mystically transmitted. They decide to leave, but they can’t and are stuck for the night.

During the night, Cal encounters Tobin, the lost boy, who is scared, bruised and holding a dead crow. Becky meets up with a man named Ross, who is very friendly and offers to lead her. Tobin reveals to cal that the field the grass does not move dead things and Becky will not make it out of the field alive. Tobin leads Cal to the centre of the field which consists of cut grass bordering a big mystical rock with hieroglyphics which Tobin tells Cal to touch. Before he does, Becky arrives, but is taken away by an unseen figure.

Travis, the father of Becky’s child, arrives in the same area of Becky and Cal. He notices the car parked by the church. He also notices the field of tall grass. He hears Tobin’s voice and is led into the field. Tobin leads Travis to Becky’s corpse. Travis breaks down, but loses sight of Tobin. At the same time, we see Tobin with his father Ross and mother Natalie at the church along with their dog Freddie. Possibly a reference of what happened earlier. Freddie runs into the field of tall grass and the three chase after him. It’s there where Travis hears Tobin’s voice and the three of the family are scattered around the field. Ross comes to the centre with the rock and touches it as night falls. Tobin is discovered by Becky and cal all all are confused by the timelines.

As the three are one group, Becky and Cal decide to leave and use Tobin to navigate a path back to the road on top of Cal’s shoulders. Becky receives an unknown phone call saying that Cal should quit hunting Travis.The grass soon appears to be entering Becky’s uterus and she becomes unconscious. Cal and Tobin come across Ross, who reunites with Tobin. Ross brings them to the rock but are startled when they see Natalie and she says she saw Becky’s corpse earlier. As they try to make their escape, Ross is chasing them all down and gives them the impression there’s no escape and they’re all under Ross’ control. Ross tells them all the rock shows them of what’s happening.

Becky, Cal, Travis and Tobin succeed in escaping the field into the abandoned bowling alley. As Cal and Travis make their way to the top, they discover the dog Freddie escaped via a hole. However a spat between Travis and Cal brew as Travis brings up he senses incestuous feelings between Cal and Becky. Cal throws Travis off the roof. That succeeds in alerting Ross to their location. Tobin, knowing how this alerted Ross to their whereabouts, runs back into the field. Becky and Cal try to escape together, but Becky won’t leave Travis alone in the field. After she runs off to find Travis, Cal is strangled by Ross. It’s evident anyone in the grass field is affected by a time loop. If anyone dies, there will be another of them alive. If anyone touches the rock, they get a sense of control and invincibility.

During the return to the grass, Becky admits she was going to give the baby up for adoption. Becky is soon captured by Ross who tries to sexually assault her, but she escapes. Grass creatures however emerge and grab a hold of her and carry her to the rock. There, the rock develops imagery that detail the baby will die and Becky will be tortured. Becky passes out in reaction. As she awakens, she is tricked by Ross who poses his voice as Cal. Travis meanwhile stumbles across Becky’s unconscious body. Ross then kills Travis and captures Tobin to get him to touch the rock. Becky stops him, but dies. Travis decides to touch the rock to get a better understanding of the grass.

The film ends with one last scene involving Becky, Cal, Tobin and Travis. It gives the impression that all know what is happening and the film ends with what should be.

This film is a film that is based off of a short story written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill. We’ve had Stephen King adaptations before and often adapting a Stephen King story to the big screen is hit-or-miss. This is a very complex story. This involves six people who go into a field of grass with paranormal powers. It threatens their lives and creates another life for them. Then there’s the rock that gives whoever it touches a sense of invincibility and control and threatens others.

Overall this film is a maze and a puzzle. Trying to piece this puzzle together is a tricky thing. Trying to create this maze of confusion is also a tricky thing. Watching it, it’s easy to get thrilled by the paranormal and nervous for what will happen next. However in looking back, I felt there were some areas that didn’t make too much sense. Even when it becomes clear that Ross starts as the controlling one and then it becomes Travis, that seemed odd. Even how Ross was the controlling conniving one, that even seemed cheesy at times.

The film does however keep one intrigued in the paranormal elements. Depite its flaws in the script and storyline, it does succeed in grabbing a hold of your attention and keeping you intrigued in the story. The paranormal elements don’t come across as cheeseball as it adds to the thriller aspect of the film. Overall despite its flaws as a film, I feel this is a good story for fans of paranormal fiction. I just feel it could have been done better as a movie.

This story is a mixed bag for Vincenzo Natali. Yes, it’s confusing, but the paranormal will keep one intrigued from start to finish and it will keep one hoping for the best for the main characters. Laysla de Oliveira was very good as Becky. Isn’t it something how the first two VIFF films I saw starred Laysla? She captured the role well in both it’s comedic elements and it’s dramatic elements.

Avery Whitted was also good as Cal. Will Buie Jr. also did an excellent job as Tobin: the frightened boy in the middle of it all. His role was the best at keeping the horror/thriller aspect of the film and was the most no-nonsense performance of all. Patrick Wilson was hard to make sense of as Ross. He came across as a conniver, but I feel he lacked the sinister element. Harrison Gilbertson was good as Travis, but he appeared he could have done more.

In The Tall Grass is a Netflix thriller that works well to be shown on the big screen, if imperfectly. It may not make the most sense, but it does keep people thrilled and intrigued about what will happen next and how it will end.

VIFF 2019 Review: The Great Green Wall

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The Great Green Wall is about an African reforestation project as seen through one of its biggest supporters: Malian singer Inna Modja.

“We must dare to invent the Future”

-Thomas Sankara

Judging by the title, you’ll think The Great Green Wall is about something environmental. You are mostly right. However this film is about something more, just like the wall.

Before I get into the film, I need to explain what the Great Green Wall is. It’s official name is The Great Green Wall Of The Sahara And The Sahel. The Great Green Wall is an environmental project and initiative meant to protect Africa against climate change and desertification. Those most vulnerable to desertification are the lands and people around the areas where the Sahara ends off known as the Sahel. This environmental wall of reforestation is to be done across twelve African countries around the Sahel. The main goal is to prevent the spread of the Sahara that has desertified a lot of green space in the past, strengthen regional resilience and natural systems for a sound ecosystem, and also maintain better living conditions and a better quality of life and even a future for the people’s of Africa around this area.

The idea of a ‘great green wall’ to contain the Sahara was first imagined by a British botanist in 1954, but was never taken seriously. The idea was brought up again in 2002 at an international meeting of the Community Of Sahel-Saharan States and approved in 2005. The African Union endorsed it in 2007 and the first plantings occurred in 2008. Eleven of the countries involved created the Pan-African Agency of the Great Green Wall (PAGGW) as well as a harmonized strategy to plant out the Wall was adopted by African nations and implemented by the UN in 2012. However by 2016, only 15% of the acreage has been planted. Although many countries have been successful in planting, many of their plans are threatened by civil war.

The film is the Wall as seen through the eyes of Malian singer Inna Modja. She was born Inna Boccum but was called Ina Modja by her mother as a child as Modja is ‘bad girl’ in her native Malian language. Inna grew up in a musical family and was heavily influenced by both the traditional sounds of African pop music and American hip-hop and R&B of her teen years as well as the jazz records owned by her father. When she broke into the music world in 2009, she settled for a pop/soul sound. Her music ranges from themes of common pop songs to songs with strong political messages. Her music is not only big in Africa but also popular in France and Belgium.

Right at the start of the film, Inna talks of her own identity having elements with the Sahel. She grew up around the Malian area of the Sahel. The Great Green Wall is a project she is heavily dedicated to. She states the biggest elements the Wall is meant to combat: desertification, climate-change, poverty and even war. She also talks of her planned trip to visit areas around the Sahel where the Wall is vital to. It’s a trip that will take almost a year and will face the interruptions of her music schedule.

Before she embarks on her trip, she shows areas of Mali where forestation has occurred. She talks of her own childhood growing up on the Sahel. The first country she visits is Senegal. There she learns of the common belief shared by many young Africans: ‘flee to Europe or die trying.’ There’s a common belief in most of the young of Africa that there’s no future here in Africa. That their future is in Europe. Inna sees the importance of the wall as a way to keep the young in their African countries. It’s critical as it’s projected that 60 million young Africans are anticipated to migrate or attempt to migrate to Europe within the next 20 years.

Inna goes into more countries over time. She goes into Burkina Faso. One of her favorite leaders is Thomas Sankara: former president of Burkina Faso. She admires him and also hold dear to his saying ‘we must dare to invent the future.’ She then travels to Chad: a country that has suffered the most environmental damage. We learn of Lake Chad of how it used to be a big lake and it’s dissolved almost into nothing. She tells of the poverty and wars that have come from Chad’s environmental devadtation, including war children.

She then travels to Nigeria: the most populative country in Africa. She meets up with singer Waje who is a top singing star in Nigeria. She uses her fame for good and is just as supportive of the wall. Over in Nigeria she learns of many ugly truths that are common in Africa. The biggest one being children turned into soldiers. She even talks to two former child soldiers that tell their story. She then goes to Niger which has the highest birthing rate in the world: more than seven per mother. She meets with mothers who talk about the hope for their children, including one mother who just gave birth.

Her last trip is to Ethiopia. There she meets with singer Betty G., but she also sees the biggest ray of hope. For most the biggest image of Ethiopia is the famine of 1984. During the famine, hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation. Much of the areas of land that was dry dirt during the famine have seen forestry and horticulture replanted and developed. The area where there was mass starvation and death is now full of plant life. After Ethiopia, Inna returns back to Mali with a new outlook on Africa and ready to send the message out in her performances.

The film is an informative film as it’s a documentary about the wall and how much it means to a singer. We should also know that Inna is also a political activist. She has not only spoken about the Great Green Wall bit also spoken out against violence against women and female genital mutilation, which she herself was against her parents’ will. Inna is not afraid to include these topics in her music.

The film shows how Inna is passionate about the topic and wants to go to many parts of the Sahel to learn more of the issues surrounding the Sahel and to remind all of us why this Wall is important. Especially since only 15% has been planted and grown. We’re reminded of the Wall’s importance. It’s not just to prevent desertification. It’s not only to bring back an ecoculture in Africa. It’s also for the future of these African countries. It’s to give them a livelihood. It’s to prevent or end wars. It’s to give future generation of Africa a future there instead of Europe.

The film, which is co-produced by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, shows how this Wall is about African countries coming together to make this wall happen. One thing about this Wall is that many treaties and organizations have come about this. This involved many times of leaders of African nations coming together. However through Inna’s eyes we also see musicians coming together to help make this wall a reality and help make for a better Africa. We see as she meets with Malian band Songhoy Blues, we see as she meets with Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi, as she meets with Nigerian singer Waje and as she meets with Ethiopian singer Betty C. In each case, the musicians are people that put messages in their music. We see them bonding with Inna for a common cause as they also share the same concerns. The Wall means a lot to them, and here we see how music unites people for a common cause.

The Great Green Wall is about an ambitious environmental project, but the film shows this wall is a lot more. It’s for the future and liveliness of Africa, to prevent the spread of the world’s biggest desert and for the future people of Africa to have a life of promise. The film, and Inna Modja, do an excellent job in delivering this message.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: Great Green Wall. Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 2019.<Great Green Wall>

WIKIPEDIA: Inna Modja. Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 2019. <Inna Modja>

VIFF 2019 Review: When We Walk

jason-dasilva

When We Walk mostly continues off from When I Walk ended. It starts with the creation of a family, but an eventual end to a marriage, and a life whose years appear numbered.

Many of you remember that I saw When I Walk. When We Walk appears to be the sequel, but it’s a lot more.

The first images we see are images of 1988 when a ten year-old Jason Da Silva is operating a videocamera for the first time and you hear his father instructing him how to use it. Then you hear Jason’s voiceover, but it’s not to us. It’s to his son Jase. You notice Jason’s voice is getting weaker.

The film then goes on to what has happened since When I Walk ended. When I Walk made its debut during Sundance 2013. On February 7, 2013, Jason Da Silva Jr. (nicknamed ‘Jase’) was born. It seemed like Jason’s dream is coming true and Jason, Alice and Jase were ready to be their own all-American family in their home in New York City.

Throughout the film, we see time is always the deciding factor and sometimes time cannot be kind. First off Jason’s MS has worsened to the point he needs 24-hour assistance. When he goes places with Jase, he can’t always follow up because there are many places and park paths people in wheelchairs can’t go. On top of it, Alice is feeling the burnout. 50% of marriages to a person with a disability fail because the fully-able partner gets burnout. Alice is obviously feeling it and the strain in their marriage can be noticed. In addition, Alice has more of a desire to live in Austin, Texas.

Jason tries to make it work by seeing if he can move to Texas. However New York is one of the best states in helping people with disabilities while Texas is one of the worst. Jason can live a normal life in his apartment in NYC with nurses coming to visit him and even do filmwork. In Texas, the most that Jason could get is being confined to a nursing home. Surrounding states are not much better, if any better at all. It becomes clear Jase is better off living with Alice in Texas and Jason in NYC.

Jason tries talking to Jase through Skype. Jase welcomes it at first, but Jase becomes unhappy to the point where he throws the camera. Jason is determined to see Jase more and flies out to Texas once every two weeks. However all the flights are proving to take a physical toll on him.

Jason tries to get the legal system to work for him by having Jase fly out from Texas more to see him. In the meantime, his physical condition worsens so much, he can no longer use his hands. He’s now a quadriplegic. Anytime, the next move will be he will lose his voice and then the next move is Jason will die. Jason tries to adjust to his quadriplegia by getting a new wheelchair and his assistants learning how to handle him. Jason tries to learn new ways of making his films. Then a court ruling happens. The New York family courts decide Jase can make visits once every two weeks to New York. Jason’s at the airport to greet him and Alice each time and their able to spend their quality time together. The film ends with Jason wrapping up the film as if he was wrapping up a letter to Jase. Also leaving the hint that the next film coming is When They Walk.

For those that saw When I Walk, they would have gotten a sense that there would be a continuation. First Alice was asked about being married to a person with a disability. As she answered, she talked of the fear of his worsening condition and breaks down. The film ended with the ultrasound of the successful pregnancy. When We Walk is a continuation. It’s not a sequel, but a new chapter. When I Walk gets released to a lot of acclaim and even an Emmy win. Jase is born. The dream of having his own family is true for only a few years. We see a marriage fall apart. We see Jason’s physical condition get worse. We she Jason try to make the efforts to see Jase as often as they can, even though they live halfway across the U.S. We see Jason reassess his own life and also what kind of husband he was to Alice. We see Jason reach out to his family and to his parents who both live in different cities. We see how others with disabilities struggle in different states. The film is a very telling story about a man with a disability, a family struggling to be together, and a race against time.

The film is also an eye-opener. The film shows the audience what it’s like not just to have a disability but a disability that is taking more and more of a toll on a person. We see as Jason is becoming more and more helpless. Jason even fills in the details of the physical declines that are yet to come. Nevertheless, he’s making the effort to keep his filmmaking skills going. He’s also making the effort to live a better more respectful quality of life by living in NYC. We are made aware just how being a person with a disability state by state can be worlds apart, especially for someone like Jason. We hear from those in Texas of how people with disabilities that are even more able than Jason are denied the type of quality of life Jason is getting. Hearing what the disabled in Texas have to say about what they’re denied adds to the film.

The film is not just a voice of one with a disability, or of many with disabilities. It’s also an intimate letter to his son Jase. Jason knows of his condition and how it will slowly degenerate his body over time. We even see how Jason goes from a paraplegic around the time of Jase’s birth to a quadriplegic around Jase’s fifth birthday. Jason makes clear his voice will be the next to go and then he will die. His condition of MS is a case of him dying slowly and slowly. Jason wants to make it like a letter to Jase if he dies before Jase is ever able to know him. You can understand why Jason narrates the film like a letter to Jase instead of narrated it in basic fashion. We the viewer also grow in knowledge to this letter. We understand Jason’s plight. Also we learn of his secret heartache. It makes pure sense Jason did this film this way.

Also we’re made aware that his next film will be When They Walk. It leaves those of us who know the story eager to see it when it comes out. Also it makes us nervous because we anticipate that this will be Jason da Silva’s last work ever.

When We Walk can be seen as one of many things. It can be seen as a glimpse of life played out, Jason’s personal message to his son, a sequel to When I Walk, a message of advocacy, or even a story about one finding the will to live despite all that is happening. One thing I see it as is a film that gives a voice to those that rarely get heard. I’m glad he does this.

BONUS: Many of you saw the website where Jason contributes. That being the site letting people with disabilities input to places, restaurants and buildings informing if they’re disability-friendly or not. The site is AXSMap. If you have a disability and you would like to contribute to the site, click here.