Tag Archives: films

VIFF 2020 Review: Undine

Paula Beer plays a Modern-day undine in Christian Petzold’s latest film Undine.

Undine was the first live-action foreign-language film I saw at the VIFF. It’s a very unique story.

The film begins with a man names Johannes breaking up with his girlfriend. She is distraught and even says she’ll have to kill him. Her name is Undine Wibeau. Undine tries to go about her daily life as she works as a historian at the Berlin City Museum. There she shows people a model of the city and tells of the history of Berlin. Undine has a unique ability to focus in on places and areas. She has an area of the Spree River in focus.

At a remote area of the Spree River, a man named Christoph works in the water to weld or to search out treasures found in the ocean floor. That is his profession. Undine returns to the cafe where she and Johannes used to drink at. That’s where she meets Christoph for the first time. The conversation gets friendly, but an accident happens. The accident causes them to bump into the cafe’s fish tank, causing it to break and spill all over. Both Undine and Christoph fall to the floor in love. However the owner is furious and bans the two from the cafe forever.

Over time the relationship between Christoph and Undine grows. They even move in together. One time during his job, Christoph offers to show Undine what he’s seen. Undine goes down, but without the scuba gear and she later floats off. He senses something peculiar about her. His sense of peculiarity grows right during his job he comes across a sunken ship with the name Undine on it.

Even though the relationship between Undine and Christoph grows, Undine still can’t help but think of Johannes. It strikes her as she goes about her job but when she looks at a part in the module that resembles the location of the cafe, she gets the sense that Johannes is there. Even while she’s walking romantically with Christoph in a park, she noticed Johannes with his new girlfriend. She turns her head, but returns back to Christoph. However Christoph sensed something. It wasn’t just the turn of the head but the the change of her heartbeat. It infuriates him, but Undine confesses the truth. That it was her ex.

Heartbroken, Undine goes to the cafe where Johannes is. Despite the owner being infuriated by Undine’s presence, she meets with Johannes and says he wants her back. The next day, an emergency happens at Christoph’s job site. The oxygen has been cut from his scuba outfit and he’s removed from the river unconscious. Undine is distraught to learn the news. She goes over to the hospital to see Christoph, but there’s a woman by his bedside. Christoph is unconscious and comatose. The woman tells Undine he’s brain-dead and she unleashes her anger on her. Undine leaves, going to Johannes’ place later that night. Johannes is in the pool while his girlfriend goes in the house to get a drink. Undine enters the pool. While Johannes is happy to see her, Undine drowns him. The then leaves and walks into the Spree River naked.

Two years pass. Christoph is alive and well. He recovered from his coma. The woman from the hospital, Monika, is his girlfriend and they are expecting their first child together. However Christoph is sensing something back to the Spree River. He returns one night alone, and there he sees her: Undine. She is alive and well and she belongs in the water. It becomes clear who is truly in Christoph’s heart.

One thing about this film is that it gets into the myth of the undine. For those who don’t know, the undine is a lot like the mermaid most us are familiar with. However the mermaid is just one of the images of the undine. The mythical undine is a lot darker than the mermaid who wants to please the man she meets. In fact one aspect of the undine is if the man is unfaithful to her, he is doomed to die.

What this film does is try to get to the common image of the undine in both its positive qualities and its negative qualities too. In a sense, the film is more of a reminder of the undine myth. The film also tries to set the myth of the undine in the modern world. In modern-day Berlin to be exact. Undine Wibeau is the undine in the modern world who lives along the humans, but gets to the true sense of who she is when she’s in the water.

One unique thing about the film is how they use Berlin as part of the telling of the story. Undine works as a historian with an urban development team. She knows a lot of Berlin’s history form centuries back to the days of division with the Berlin was to the present and its developments. The history also provides clues to Undine’s own past and own identity. One would be surprised how a story of an undine in modern Berlin would come to be.

This is another good film by Christian Petzold. Petzold has become one of Germany’s most heralded directors in recent years with films like Barbara, Jerichow and Phoenix. Here he delivers another good film. It’s very well-done, but it does have its flaws. The energy level does seem to get lost somewhere near the end. Nevertheless it is mostly well-written and well-acted. Paula Beer is also excellent as the mythical Undine. Her role may have lacked dimension, but she was very good in capturing the mythical figure of the undine well. The two leading men, Franz Rogowski and Jacob Matschenz, were good in their roles, but I felt their roles were underdeveloped. Hans Fromm did an excellent job with delivering the cinematography for the film.

Undine has done quite well on the film festival circuit. At the Berlin Film Festival in won the FIPRESI Prize and was nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film. Beer herself won the Silver Bear Prize at that Festival for Best Actress. It’s also been a nominee for Best Film at the Denver Film Festival, Beijing Film Festival, Seville European Film Festival and a Best Narrative nominee at the Montclair Film Festival.

Undine is a good attempt at telling a modern-day story of the undine myth. It doesn’t keep the energy or the vibe consistent throughout the film, but it is picturesque and has a good sense of the characters.

VIFF 2020 Review: Cured

Cured is a documentary that retraces what is arguably the first hurdle cleared by LGBT activists and would pave the way to rights gays and lesbians have today.

The VIFF presents a lot of documentaries and a lot of LGBT-themed films. Cured is an LGBT-themed documentary that focuses on what one arguably considers the first hurdle they had to overcome.

The documentary begins with an introduction of the American Psychiatric Association. In 1952, they published their first edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They included a chapter on sexual disorders. At the top of the list was ‘homosexuality.’ No doubt it was controversial. Psychiatrists bought it up, had ‘treatments’ and ‘therapy methods’ invented to ‘cure gay men and women, and really created a stigma. Most outraged were the gays and lesbians. They would hate how something like this would demonize them and how they lived and loved.

Once it was declared a form of mental illness, and had treatments listed, people were sent to hospitals like Utica, NY for painful treatments like electroshock therapy or in extreme cases, a lobotomy. However there was a slow but sure number of LGBT people that would start things to get this overturned. The first was a lesbian group led by couple Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen. They were joined by Frank Kameny. During the 1960’s they worked to start support groups and organize rallies to spread awareness and end the negative stigma the public had towards gay people. Besides fames sexologist Alfred Kinsey published shocking studies in 1948 of a good percentage of men engaging in same-sex behavior.

After gaining a lot of support, the next step was to influence the APA to remove homosexuality form the list of mental illnesses. They would soon find support among doctors. There was one psychiatrist, Dr. John Fryer, who not only supported them but was gay himself. There were times they had to go to meetings and rallies involving the APA and ‘crash’ them. During the meeting they ‘crashed’ in San Francisco, they encouraged doctors to come sit with a homosexual and listen to what they have to say. For two hours, many doctors were willing to do so.

Over time, there were a growing number of doctors with the APA who soon adopted a gay-friendly attitude and were supportive of the group’s pleas. However there were still stubborn naysayers like Drs. Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides who were determined to have it kept listed as a mental illness. Gay and lesbian groups would hold information booths at APA rallies with titles like ‘Gay, Proud And Healthy.’ Then would come a meeting in 1972 to have gay activists openly speak to the APA. Dr. Fryer would be one of the speakers, but with a clown mask and under the name Dr. H. Homosexual to keep him from losing his job. In 1973, the APA soon removed homosexuality in its list of neurological disorders. However it would still be subject to a vote at a 1974 APA meeting. The majority voted in favor of the removal.

You think of all the milestones LGBTs have made over the past fifty or so years. There was Stonewall, decriminalization of homosexuality, allowing gays to teach and own houses, lobbying for funding for AIDS research, allowing gays in the military, and the legalization of gay marriage. It’s easy to forget this is one of the most important moments in LGBT history. and arguably their first victory in the US. We shouldn’t forget LGBTs have been through worse. There was a time centuries ago gays and lesbians were executed worldwide. In fact Thomas Jefferson’s recommendation that gays be castrated was a ‘liberal’ recommendation during a time when they were hanged. It was a universal norm throughout most of history that a man should love a woman and a woman should love a man and that’s that. Anything else was deviant and criminal. So it should be no surprise a national psychiatric association would label same-sex attraction a mental illness. I’m sure the US wasn’t the only nation that did so.

This is a documentary that’s an important lesson for LGBT people to know. I’m sure there are a lot of young LGBT people who still don’t understand why many in the heterosexual majority consider them inferior. But like Bill Maher once said: “If you think you have it tough, go read history books!” Today’s LGBT young people have it better than any generation of LGBT young people before them. In the past, such young people would be subject to disowning from family, criminal prosecution, and way back having next-to-nobody to turn to. Since the history of humanity on the planet until just after World War II, the gay or lesbian lifestyle or attraction was universally condemned and even criminalized and you could easily lose your job if your ‘secret’ was unraveled. The moments in this documentary are a good indication of the feeling and the attitudes of the times. It’s also important for young LGBT people know how pride movements started out or came to be. They’ll learn of people who started pride at a time when there was no one to turn to and a time when fierce opposition was eventual. The LGBT activists of that era were especially important in paving the way to the liberties, freedoms and social acceptances today’s LGBT people have today.

This documentary is also beneficial today for two main reasons. The first is that there are still people, mostly religious leaders and their followers, who still believe that homosexuality is a mental illness and conversion therapy is the answer. Many will remember advertisements starting in the late-90’s about faith-based conversion therapy programs. If the failure rates of programs from psychiatrists were high, what do you think that says about these unproven faith-based programs? It’s all a political game. The second is that it shows how something that starts off as a grass-roots movement can grow into something nationwide and have a big impact. Even paving way to the civil liberties and rights LGBTs have today.

Top marks go to directors Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer. This documentary may not be too original in terms of style, but it’s excellent with interviews, both original and archived, and rare footage. They have the facts together in stringing this story together about what is an important part of LGBT history and celebrates a lot of lesser-known or forgotten founders of the LGBT movement. It’s also important that they show the shocking footage of the electroshock therapy and other ‘conversion’ methods used in the time. Because the LGBT of today need to know what the past had to fight,

Cured is a documentary about history being made by those who made the history. It’s important history for today’s young LGBT’s to know what those of the past have overcome. It’s especially relevant today since there are many opponents who harbor those similar thoughts today.

VIFF 2020 Review: Time

Time is a documentary of how Sibil Fox Richardson (left) fights for the freedom of her husband Robert (right).

Normally I don’t like to see documentaries. I’ve seen enough one-sided documentaries in the previous decade to turn me off them. However I took an interest in Time. Injustice to African-Americans has been a heated topic this year and I felt Time was worth seeing.

The documentary consists mostly of filmed footage from court appearances, church appearances and camera phone videos of various moments and shown in black and white. The film begins with Sibil Fox Richardson trying to get a result back from the legal system for the freedom of her husband Robert. Robert was sentenced to prison for 60 years for an armed robbery he committed. It was his first offence. It’s a sentence many, including Sybil, feel is unjust and she’s working to get him freed.

The story is a long process as Sibil is trying to get a result or even a simple answer from the Louisiana Justice Department. It’s been a long wait over years. Each time she’s been calling, she gets a message that they don’t have a result or even an answer for her. Even when they give Sibil a due date when they’ll have it ready, it’s the same response: no answer.

You may ask how did this all start? It was in the 1990’s when Robert and Sibil had plans to start a business of their own. They planned on starting a sportswear store of their own in Lafayette. It seemed destined for promise as sportswear was all the rage in the 1990’s and Lafayette is a big football town. However business didn’t go as well as they hoped. The two decided to rob a bank in 1997; Robert did the robbery and Sibil drove the getaway car. They were eventually caught and convicted. Robert’s sentence was 60 years in prison and Sibil’s was 2 1/2 years.

Since Sibil’s release, she’s been able to get her life together. She’s been able to maintain a successful career, become a responsible member of the community, and has had six children — all boys including two twins — through Robert. She’s also done a very good job of raising her sons. Her oldest son graduated from a medical college. Her twins are also very good academically. One son is on the school debating team and plans to pursue a career in justice.

One thing is still missing. Robert is not free from prison. His prison sentence was excessive. Sibil has stayed loyally married to Robert during the time and it has been her goal to get him out of prison. It’s a goal in which she’s been struggling with for years involving lawyers, court appearances, legal department negotiations, and even media interviews. She even has a life-sized picture of Robert in his prison uniform glued to a cardboard cutout in the kitchen. It’s a reminder to her and her sons what she’s fighting for.

The battle is undoubtedly a personal one. She loves Robert unconditionally, but it’s hard seeing him imprisoned. It’s hard for her to see it both as a wife and as a mother. She knows how hard it is for her sons to see their father imprisoned. It’s hard when the Justice Department promises something by a certain date, and even has a time limit by law, but they don’t have the answers and it is delayed. She’s polite about it over the phone to whoever she calls about it, but her angry feelings become obvious once she hangs up. It’s also a personal burden for her with her being the getaway driver of the robbery. She served her time, raised her family well, received forgiveness from others, but something’s missing. She may have been forgiven by others, but she never asked her own mother for forgiveness. She’s even seen at her local church during a service asking for forgiveness from her community.

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending. However at long last, Robert is free. We see the video of the day Robert is released and driven home by Sibil. The trip ends with a kiss: the first kiss during Robert’s freedom! The family celebrates with a backyard barbecue. The final act of the celebration is the family can take the cardboard picture of Robert and burn it on the barbecue.

This is a case of the right documentary at the right time. Systemic racism has been a very heated topic of 2020. George Floyd isn’t the first African-American to be killed at the hands of police. Police brutality has caused the deaths of many African Americans for decades. However when the news and video hit the public eye, the outrage grew. It was like the outrage over a common injustice had been hidden for so long and just exploded at that moment. Like a bubble bursting. It’s especially frustrating when they live in a country with a president who denies the wrongdoing and wants to label protesters ‘thugs’ and ‘extremists’ all for the sake of winning the upcoming Presidential Election. And talk from right-wing media pundits who remind the public of crime statistics involving African Americans aren’t helping to put out the fire either. The outrage was not restricted to the United States. Protests were worldwide as people were united in solidarity not only of what happened in the US but of racism in their own countries.

This documentary is about another failure of the system towards African-Americans: the justice system. In the 1980’s, a lot of Tough On Crime acts were enforced into law. This has especially hurt African Americans as prison populations escalated and African Americans make up more of the percentage of prisoners that white prisoners. Much of the problem is predominantly black neighborhoods being overpoliced and black convicts receiving harsher prison sentences. While crime by whites have gone either overlooked or underpunished.

The documentary gives a very good example of this injustice. It puts a human face on what it’s like to be the wife of a husband of a harsh prison sentence. Times like these make you wonder what they’d give a white man who committed the same crime. Sibil comes across as a strong woman who’s determined to beat the odds on the outside, but her inner frailty soon becomes obvious. She ends a phone call with the justice board politely despite the disappointing news, but speaks her anger about how she feels about it. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind about the racism she senses once the call ends. She’s proud of how her sons have grown up but she is still upset that they’ve all only own their father behind bars. She talks of how difficult, but necessary, it is to keep her family intact. She even wrestles with the personal demon of being part of the crime. She served her full sentence long ago and appears to have more than made up for it, but personal things like repentance to those she hasn’t repented to still bother her. The use of personal camera work is best at showing the human side of the matter because it gets the honesty of what’s happening.

The film focuses on the injustice, but it also focuses on rays of hope. Getting Robert freed from prison isn’t the only ray of hope in the film. The first ray of hope is seen in Sibil’s own life and parenting. Sibil is an oddsbeater. She refuses to make a repeat offender of herself. She’s become a responsible person in her community and church. She acknowledges the past wrongs she and her husband did and wants to move forward. As for parenting, statistics state children of parents in prison most likely grow up to become criminals themselves. That’s not the case for her sons. Their oldest graduates from a medical college. Both of her twins do well in high school and one is active on the school debating team. He plans on pursuing a career in justice. I’m sure seeing the unfairness his father endured is probably what fuels his ambition. The husband’s freedom is also a symbol of why it’s important never to quit on doing the right thing. There are a lot of injustices to overcome, but it’s worth it no matter how hard it gets.

The biggest praise should go to director Garrett Bradley. This film won the Best Director award in the US Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival (the first African American director to win this award), the Charles Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Filmmaker Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Bradley does an excellent job in showing the images that tell the story. With straight film footage that doesn’t have a voiceover and allows the main subject do most of the talking, we get a no-nonsense undistorted story and a proper unmanipulated point of view. Filming takes places from multiple angles and we get the truth exposed. It presents the solution, but also with the huge problems it overcomes. Showing the images in black and white is appropriate because while justice shouldn’t be black and white, the system has turned it into a black and white issue. Even titling the film Time adds to the film’s quality. It’s about time served, time to rebuild your life, time to make a family happen, time to raise your children, more-that-necessary time behind bars and the seemingly-endless time to make justice for your husband happen. Above all, the time to tell the whole story and time to expose the problems in achieving the solution.

Time is more than just an excellent non-nonsense documentary that does an honest portrayal of its theme. It’s the exact documentary we need at a time like this. Also it’s a reminder that ‘Liberty and Justice for all,’ should mean all! No exceptions!

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 2016 Review: Under The Shadow (زیر سایه‎‎)

under-the-shadow

Under The Shadow is a film of a woman and her daughter who should leave their war-threatened apartment in Tehran but can’t for some mysterious reason.

One of the objectives of the VIFF is to show films each year that take us to another dimension or the supernatural. That’s shown in their Altered States film category/ The first Altered States film I saw was Under The Shadow which showcases a supernatural occurrence during a moment in world history.

This takes place in Tehran during the later 1980’s during the Iran/Iraq war. The war has been going on since 1980 with lots of lives lost, everyone in Iran threatened, and no end in sight. Shideh, just recently expelled from her law school for participating in a protest, has returned to her apartment as a housewife. Only she learns her husband has been drafted in the War. She’s left to tend to her daughter Dorsa alone. Her workout tape to Jane Fonda– forbidden under her country’s religious law along with the VCR hidden in a locked box– becomes her one escape from the stresses in her life.

One night, an Iraqi missile hits the apartment but doesn’t explode. There’s only one fatality but he dies of a heart attack. Mysteriously Dorsa won’t stop crying for her doll until she has it despite the wreckage to the apartment building.

Shideh decides to stay with Dorsa despite other tenant leaving the building for a safer place to live one by one. Dorsa mentions of a mysterious man, or djinn, and that’s what keeps her there. It’s not easy for Shideh to deal with this as she’s constantly being left behind by the tenants, worrying about her husband constantly, looking after Dorsa all alone and dealing with authorities in a country under strict religious law. Things take a turn for the worse as this djinn causes things to move out of place. It even rips up her Jane Fonda tape.

Soon the last of the other tenants– the daughter of the man who died in the missile hit– leaves the apartment with Shideh and Dorsa on their own. Nevertheless Shideh is determined to face the djinn before she leaves and despite the threat of a collapsing roof. Shideh does have her moment to finally confront the djinn and deal with it.

There are a lot of stories about the supernatural in the past. The unique thing about this film is that it features a supernatural character traditional to Arabic literature: the Djinn. The djinn are common in ancient Arabic mythology and are even mentioned in the Qu’ran. The most common form of the djinn in entertainment is the ‘genie in a bottle’ or the ‘genie in a lamp’ that’s common in the most popular Arabic stories. Yes, the genie we all commonly know originates from the djinn myth. However the djinn goes beyond the genie most of us commonly know. The djinn can be either good, evil or neutrally benevolent possessing the same free will of humans. In fact the word djinn comes from the primary meaning ‘to hide.’ It’s the ‘shaytan djinn’ that are the most demonic.

Here the djinn Shideh is dealing with is far from a genie that will grant you three wishes. It’s obvious that this djinn has something to do with Shideh’s personal issues. And she has a lot of them as seen in her life. Her education was cut short because she participated in something that’s a right in most other countries. Her husband has to fight in the war. She’s now on her own looking after her daughter. The only place she appears to find relief in is in her Jane Fonda workout tape which is banned by the government along with her VCR. However this is a djinn that goes beyond just appearing to Shideh. It also carries a sense that it’s present in Dorsa’s doll, too. It’s apparent Shideh has to deal with this djinn to the point she refuses to vacate the apartment with her daughter like all the others until she’s finished.

It’s interesting how this story intertwines with both the supernatural and both a moment in world history. You can notice how there are so many things mixed in with this story that tells of the times in Iran during the war. There’s the forbidden Jane Fonda tape, there’s Shideh punished for being in a demonstration, there’s the police threatening to arrest Shideh for not being in a hijab. You even hear it echoed by the police there: “This is not the same country. We now have our values back. We have men fighting for those values.” Sometimes you wonder if the times of Iran have a lot of influence in the djinn Shideh has to deal with. I often feel that’s what the filmmaker is trying to do here.

I will say one of the top things of the film is that it often succeeds at adding horror elements to the film. The djinn is a mysterious spirit but it does a good job at scaring Shideh in her dreams. It also does a good job in scaring the crowds. I know the film succeeded in scaring me a few times.

It may seem odd for the United Kingdom to submit a film in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars but it can be done since Iranian-born director Babak Anvari lives in London. Anvari was actually born during the Iran/Iraq war so this is an incident in history that really touches upon him and has a lot to do with why he prefers to live in the UK. This is his first feature-length film and it’s an impressive work as it does a good job in capturing a moment in history and incorporating the supernatural into it. It was also successful in scaring me too at times. Narges Rashidi did a very good job of playing Shideh: a woman who’s both scared and angry. Rashidi herself was born in Iran and is familiar with the Iran/ Iraq war she had to endure with before escaping to Turkey. Young actress Avin Manshadi was also very good as Dorsa.

Under The Shadow is an intriguing story of a mysterious spirit that comes to a woman during wartime. It also makes for a fitting scary movie too.

VIFF 2014 Review: Still Life

Still Life is a story of a man who's as alone as the deceased subjects he works with.

Still Life is a story of a man (played by Eddie Marsan) who’s as alone as the deceased subjects he works with.

Still Life was the last film to do with the VIFF that I saw. It was a surprise that I saw such a downer film as my last one but it wasn’t a complete downer. In fact it has a lot of good elements worth watching.

The film begins with John May doing his job. He’s a council case worker in South London who looks for relatives of those found dead and alone. It’s not an easy job to do. In fact it’s very hard sometimes when he deals with relatives who want nothing to do with the deceased. Not even their own children. He arranges funerals for them even if he ends up being the only one attending and gives them a respectful burial. He even takes the pictures of those whom he was the sole attendee at their funeral and puts them in his own personal album.

Problem is John himself is an ‘alone’ person living by himself in an apartment with no real contact with neighbors. His job which he’s been doing for 22 years appears to be his only real purpose or his only interaction. However the news breaks one day. The company’s changed ownership and he’s about to be laid off by the new owners, feeling his services to those he buries are too ‘costly’ and are making the move to ‘efficiency.’

John wants to make his last case work especially since the deceased, Billy Stoke, lives in the same apartment as him. He comes across a photo album that shows pictures of his daughter ending in her teen years. He tries to get more information like from two people on the streets who used to drink with Billy. He finds out that Billy used to live in Truro. He meets with people who knew him like his ex-wife and former co-workers but none are interested in paying their last respects to Billy.

Finally John meets his daughter Kelly but she doesn’t want anything to do with Billy either. John proceeds with having a tombstone made and finding a burial spot. Just when John thought it was all over for him, he gets a call from Kelly. Kelly hears all that John has done and is happy about it. She even invites John to come see her on the weekend, to which John accepts and appears to finally come to life. Then comes a moment no one expects. It appears to set up for a very sad ending but instead ends on a positive note that appears appropriate.

It’s a question whether the film was trying to convey a message about lonely people or not. Mind you it does touch on a lot of things such as some who left other relatives estranged, some who lost all their friends because of their surly attitude or some who just have no one. There’s one scene that catches my eye and that’s where John looks over the photo album of those he arranged a funeral for. As each picture was seen, it reminds you that those people that died alone with no other loved ones used to be a somebody to others some time ago in their life. Sad how life made a turn for the worse for them. It is good to see someone like John May out there who does give such people found dead and alone a dignified last respects. Another scene that stands out is when John arranges Billy’s grave at the cemetery. Soon he sees the people that are to replace him and what they do is just simply cremate the bodies and pour the ashes in a mass grave. No funeral, no last respects, no nothing. Hey, it’s more ‘efficient.’ It only makes what John’s always been doing look like the right thing.

The most surprising thing about this film is that this first appears to be the downest of the down films ever made. It has all the making for it: a story of a man who has no family and friends trying to give a respectful last respects to those who died alone. The film does have a morbid feel to it and even John looks like the walking dead at times. What kept it from being a complete downer were some humorous moments. They were easy to spot. The film had a way of making humor of certain moments come unexpectedly like John at the intersection, John eating that shepherd’s pie after being told what Billy did after he was fired or even when a drunkard pours liquor on Billy’s coffin as a farewell. Even the scenes near the end as John is seen smiling to Kelly gives the movie an unexpected warmth and a welcomed warmth. That scene as John sees Kelly off was that moment where John appeared to truly be alive. Even the ending added to the quality. It didn’t end suddenly fluffy and happy like so many Hollywood movies would do.  The audience would first think this will be the saddest ending in all of movie history added to the quality. Instead it doesn’t as it ends with an ending that will have you saying: “Yes, very appropriate.” To this day, the ending of Kids remains the most depressing film ending I’ve seen.

This was a very good film written and directed by Unberto Pasolini. He takes what would normally be a very down topic and makes a very good and very watchable story about it. This has to be his best work since his production work on The Full Monty. Also good to see he didn’t give a fluffy ending that was still positive despite the circumstances. It’s not to say that it didn’t have its imperfections. Like we don’t know exactly why John himself is all alone. Did his parents die? Was he ostracized? Was he so fixated on his work, he ignored everything and everyone else around him? There’s that lack of clarity.

Excellent acting from Eddie Marsan. For all intents and purposes, this was his film. He does a very good performance of a character who actually feels like the walking dead. Only he adds humorous elements to him and makes him into a 3D person rather than a stock character he can easily become. The supporting actors were also good as a whole however it’s Joanne Froggatt who’s the one with a role with the most dimension. The only other standout is the music from Rachel Portman. It does a good job of creating the mood.

Still Life is a surprising film in more ways than one. It makes a film about loneliness with a protagonist being its epitome and actually makes it quite watchable rather than completely depressing.

And that does it for reviewing VIFF films. I didn’t have time to see them all. In fact there some I had a chance for but I was either ill or too exhausted to see. Anyways it made for an exciting festival. My wrap-up of this year’s VIFF coming soon.

Baby Boomers: Still A Draw To The Box Office

Maggie Smith stars in Quartet, a film of aging musicians that did well with critics and scored well at the box office too.

Maggie Smith stars in Quartet, a film of aging musicians that scored well with critics and the box office too.

“Initially you’re overwhelmed. But gradually you realize it’s like a wave. Resist, and you’ll be knocked over. Dive into it, and you’ll swim out the other side.”

-Evelyn Greenslade from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

In the last two years, it seems like movies are mostly set out for the Echo or Millenial generation but also intended to attract Generation X and today’s children too. It seemed like the Boomer Generation was a movie crowd that had many years and decades in the sun in terms of movies and its now past. But not so fast. They’re still leaving one last impact that been especially present in the last two years. I’ve noticed it in three films from the past while and even a current release. It’s positive there will be more to come but it does face challenges.

It’s hard to exactly pinpoint what birthyears define a generation. There are common assumptions of what years consist of the Baby Boomer generation but I was commonly told it was the generation that began just after World War II had ended. The most common birthyears I have seen associated with the Baby Boomer generation are from 1946 to 1964.

The Baby Boomer generation is a generation that has made an impact in many ways but is especially noticeable on its impact in movies. We first saw it in the 70’s when they went to see thrillers by Spielberg and Lucas and dramas from Scorsese and but also experimental movies like Clockwork Orange and Pulp Fiction. They’ve also made their own sets of stars like Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Tom Hanks, Geena Davis…I could go on. Baby Boomer filmmakers, actors and audiences have contributed to the changes greatly in both Hollywood film and films of other format. Even Baby Boomer women left their mark as many showed they didn’t simply have to be in front of the camera but behind the camera too.

Even as they were getting older as the late-80’s came, they still showed that they were a viable audience market worth major focus and continued to have films and movies with them in mind. They also showed that an actor or actress can get older in age like their 30’s and 40’s and still be a big draw. They also changed family movies in the late 80’s/early 90’s too as the movies directed to their children would also have to include elements in which parents could watch and enjoy too.

Then it appeared at the turn of the millennium, it would be handed to the younger generations like Generation X and especially the Echo/Millennial generation mostly comprised of their children while most boomer actor would be relegated to supporting roles. It was thought that they would now have to make way for them. Even now with the Boomers getting older and many entering into their Golden Years, it appears the core audience for movies is now the Millennial generation mostly composed of their children or children of the generation after them. Even though the Boomer generation no longer has that decades-old grip on movies they used to, they appeared to still have a spark in them that allowed for films to be released with them in mind.

I believe the first trigger was back in 2007 with the hit movie The Bucket List. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Justin Zackham, this featured Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two men with terminal lung cancer giving themselves goals to achieve before they ‘kick the bucket.’ The movie was a hit achieving $93 million at the US box office and $175 million worldwide. The box office success sent the message that Boomers and the generation before them were still a marketable film crowd and that younger generations can also be entertained by movies featuring older movie stars. Hey, didn’t we like Grumpy Old Men back in the 90’s?

The first movie that caught my attention to this was a British movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The movie was directed by 64 year-old John madden and its ensemble cast consisted mostly of British actors in their 60’s and 70’s like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy. The movie was about older retired people who come to live at what they think will be a nice hotel in India. Instead it turns out to be dingy. Over time they discover more about themselves and many learn that their life doesn’t have to end in their golden ages. They can start a new life. One can free their soul. One can even finally meet Mr. Right. The movie did very well grossing $46 million in North America and $134 million worldwide.

There was a second British movie also based on aging that scored well: Quartet. This was the directorial debut of American Dustin Hoffman. The movie starred Maggie Smith, included Ton Courtenay and Michael Gambon, and is based off of a hit British stage play. The movie is situated in a retirement home for former professional musicians. The home has always had financial issues but has always kept themselves going by teaching to young people and holding an annual gala. The gala has had its issues as many of its top former musicians have died over the years. Their best hope is to have a famous quartet as their main attraction. Their best hopes rest on soprano Jean Horton who actually is an ex-wife of one of the other quartet singers and both failed to heal the bad terms between them.  The movie was not just about healing relationships. The movie was also coming to terms with aging and dealing with the changes; especially since the artistic giftedness that once made their greatness withered away with age. The movie scored very well with the critics and made $55 million worldwide at the box office.

You may have noticed that not every star actor in the movie is a Baby Boomer. Not Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Michael Gambon. Nevertheless the theme of aging is a common theme Baby Boomers can relate to especially since the first wave of Baby Boomers–born in the first few years following World War II– have now entered into their 60’s and are dealing with the issues with aging and also attempting to overcome the obstacles associated with it.

Hollywood has noticed that too and they even sent out a more commercial movie about getting older called Parental Guidance. Since it stars Bette Midler and Billy Crystal, you know it would be a comedy. It’s not necessarily about aging but about the role of grandparents who come into the lives of their daughter, her husband and grandchildren. The movie is about grandparents trying to raise the grandchildren while the parents are away. They have a wide array of obstacles to deal with like new technology, children’s behavior, modern methods of parenting and psychology, a musically gifted granddaughter making social sacrifices, a new job pursuit and above all the role as grandparents. This was a unique movie upon release as it appeared marketed to Baby Boomer grandparents, Generation X or Echo parents and the current generation of children. The critical consensus was not too pleased with parental Guidance but it made 4477 million at the US box office and almost $120 million worldwide.

Parental Guidance may have been a hit but it’s not to say that aging Boomer stars still face challenges in Hollywood movies. Recently there was the movie The Big Wedding which featured an ensemble cast starring older stars like Robert de Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams along with younger stars Ben Barnes, Katharine Heigl and Amanda Seyfried. The movie was written and directed by The Bucket List scriptwriter Justin Zackham. The movie was seen by the consensus of critics as unfunny and predictable. The box office didn’t fare well either grossing a total of $21 million so far.

Even the artistic film industry faces challenges as well. There was the French Language film Amour about an aging couple dealing with their love for each other as the wife suffers a stroke and is left terminally impaired. The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and won Best Foreign Language Film but achieved less than $7 million at the US box office and $20 million worldwide.

The past twelve months have showed that the aging populations, especially the aging Baby Boomers, are still a marketable and profitable movie crowd despite the majority of movies focused on the under-30’s. It’s fair to say that the film industry has done a good job in turning out movies with them in mind but it still faces a lot of challenges in the present and in the future. It’s not just the aging crowds that want to see movies but the aging actors that still want to act and aging stars that want to prove they still have it. Only time will define what works with them and what will continue to draw them to the cinemas.

My Top 10 Movies of 2011

A while back I remember one writer I’m subscribed to  posted their Top 10 list in may with the title ‘Better Late Than Never’. Now here I am three months later with mine. I’ll bet the reason for her list being published late is the same reason for mine. While the professional critics have the luxury of access to all the preview DVDs or special screenings before the year end. I have to wait until they’re released on the big screen or the DVD store to see them. I’m sure it’s probably the same reason for her too.

As for me being extra-late, I’m sure all my writing about Euro 2012 and the London Olympics can explain that. Yeah, I was so hyped up over those sporting events as well as the feedback and the record-setting hits I was getting from my articles about them, I forgot about my movie list. In fact I just watched the last DVDs of 2011 I had left to watch just yesterday. Believe me three DVDs in one day is no easy chore. Interestingly enough one of my articles about certain athletes to watch for the London Games is still getting hits even though the London Games ended two weeks ago.

Anyways it’s about time I created my Top 10 of last year, especially since some people are still hitting my Top 10’s of past years. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Movies of last year along with five films worthy of Honorable Mention:

MY TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2011

1) Hugo

2)The Descendants

3)The Artist

4)Moneyball

5)The Help

6)Midnight In Paris

7)A Separation

8)50/50

9)The Tree Of Life

10)Of Gods And Men

HONORABLE MENTION:

-Drive

-Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

-Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

-The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn

-Super 8

30th Year Of VIFF A Record Year

After sixteen days of showing films, welcoming crowds, making deals, and allowing directors to give Q&A’s to the audience, the Vancouver Film Festival ended its 30th year on Friday, October 14th. I had my excitement with volunteering and seeing seven different shows of differing variety. Those that volunteered, like myself, were treated to a Mexican style brunch at the Waldorf Hotel which consisted of some prize giveaways and small gifts. Almost a week later, the news hit that this year’s film festival achieved new records.

The 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival was the most attended and highest-grossing VIFF. Admissions totalled over 152,000, up from 148,000 from last year. Ticket revenues also hit a record with $1,178,811, breaking the record of $1,074,025 also set last year. Very impressive.  

One thing we learn about hosting film festivals like these is that the money from ticket sales are not enough. Although we hit a new high in ticket sales, the Festival itself costs $3.5 million to put on. The remainder of the baklance is covered by government support (about 10%), private sector sponsorship, and personal donations. One thing about this year is that there was a bigger expense this year in using the Vogue Theatre for showing movies. Although the VIFF used the Granville 7, Pacific Cinematheque and the VanCity Theatre as it did last year, the Park Theatre wasn’t used this year, opting for bigger crowds with the Vogue Theatre. The Vogue served as the Visa Screening Room for all the big premeieres and Gala events, replacing Theatre 7 at the Granville 7. It did pay off as film crowds were bigger for the Vogue.

The success of this year’s VIFF keeps its reputation as one of the Top Five film festivals in North America in attendance and films screened. Here are some of the numbers behind this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival:

-152,000 – total admissions

-633 – public screenings

-600 – industry guests

-386 – total films shown

  • 240 – feature length (60+ minutes)
  • 126 – shorts
  • 20 – mid-length films (20-59 mins)

-97 – Canadian Films shown

  • 39 – feature length
  • 57 – shorts
  • 1 – mid-length

-80 – countries entering films

-49 – North American premieres

-40 – Canadian premieres

-36 – media screenings

-30 – International premieres (first screeening outside home country)

-20 – World Premieres

-17 – entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars shown

-16 – days of showing films

-10 – theatres showing films

Very imporessive numbers indeed and a hard act for 2012 to follow. Also for those interested in the award winners, here’s which film won what:

DRAGONS & TIGERS AWARD for YOUNG CINEMA

  • The Sun-Beaten Path  (China/Tibet) – dir. Sonthar Gyal

ROGERS PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD

  • A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)  (Iran) – dir. Asghar Farhadi

VIFF MOST POPULAR DOCUMENTARY FILM AWARD

  • Sing Your Song (USA) – dir. Susanne Rostock

ENVIRONMENTAL FILM AUDIENCE AWARD

  • People of a Feather (BC/Nunavut) – dir. Joel Heath

SHAW MEDIA AWARD for BEST CANADIAN FEATURE FILM

  • Nuit #1 (Québec) – dir. Anne Émond

MOST PROMISING DIRECTOR of a CANADIAN SHORT FILM

  • Andrew Cividino for We Ate the Children Last (Québec)

NFB MOST POPULAR CANADIAN DOCUMENTARY AWARD

  • Peace Out  (BC/Québec) – dir. Charles Wilkinson

VIFF MOST POPULAR CANADIAN FILM AWARD

  • Starbuck  (Québec) – dir. Ken Scott

So there you have it. Those are the winners of this year’s Vancouver international Film Festival. Great to see the Festival end on a great note. I’m happy to have volunteered for the Festival this year. I hope to volunteer for the Festival again next year and I hope to see its records broken again. Will it be a marquee film festival in the future like Cannes, Sundance, Venice or Toronto? Only time will tell. Nevertheless I commend the VIFF for showing its huge variety of films, showing the most Canadian film and for promoting a wide array of films and talents from the up-and-coming to the established. Also I commend the volunteers for doing a good job with the crowds. Last year my uncle visited the Toronto Film Fest and he said the people thee get treated like cattle. So I myself comment the VIFF volunteers for treating the crowds right.

Here’s to the continued success of the Vancouver International Film Festival and to its success in the future years. VIFF 2012: Starting September 27th. Already I can’t wait!

VIFF 2011 Review: Shorts Segment – Air

This is another shorts segment that I saw at the VIFF. It was not the original movie I planned to attend but when someone at the info desk was giving away free tickets, I told them I already had a ticket for a show that was happening. She offered a trade, which I accepted. I’m glad I did. Like Water, the shorts of Air also had styles and varieties of their own:

 Spirit Of The Bluebird – This is mostly animation that’s very colorful and meant to tell a story. A story about a Native woman killed one night by two strangers. The bluebird is to represent her. At the end, we see her relatives standing by the building near where she died painted permanently with a mural in her memory. This was as much of a reminder that no one and nothing is forgotten as it was a picturesque short of animation.

Parkdale – This is a very thought-provoking short to do about two sisters living in a rough area with a father who’s constantly in trouble with the law. As they try and draw up money for a bus trip to Kingston, this paints an unhappy but truthful statement about street youth and their attempts to try and stay afloat.

Hope – As a war general lies on his deathbed, he confronts images of violence. It’s hard to make sense of it all. I’m sure that through some of the bizarre images the director is trying to make some statement. It didn’t come across too clear or maybe he tried too hard to be graphic.

CMYK – This is another animated movie focusing on the primary picture colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and key. The filmmaker tries to be creative but the short ends up coming off as mind dizzying and drawn out.

Oliver Bump’s Birthday – Oliver’ three older siblings died on their 13th birthday, and he’s doomed for the same fate. While all three made achievements during their lives, Oliver dreamed of the stars and space travel. On his birthday, he leaves his family party, which is quite like a pre-funeral, for his homemade space ship. You’ll enjoy seeing him chase his dream and enjoy a surprisingly enlightening and happy ending.

Theatrics – Two flirty thirtysomethings go for a night out in a movie theatre with surprises left, right and center. Starts off with drinking a drink with horse tranquilizers and then leads to one misfortune after another. Humorous and amusing. Just hope I never have to go through what she went through.

The Provider – Just when we see mention of the droppings of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we think we would get something serious. However we’d be surprised to get a darkly comical story about coming home. Very bizarre indeed.

Cold Blood – I don’t know if it was because I saw a lot of originality of the previous shorts or because I was expecting something else instead, but this short came up less than what I expected. Perhaps it was just meant to represent an aspect of life. Perhaps it was as much about the mother of the two children as it was of the son giving blood for his sister.

The Balcony Affair – This is one comedic short that is completely unpredictable. A lonely Russian man who’s always out on a balcony falls in love with a woman in the apartment across. Will they meet? Will they fall in love? The ending will surprise you, more than you expected.

So there you have it. The shorts that made up Air. All were Canadian. All were unique. Some I liked, some I didn’t. Some were thought provoking. Some were meant just to entertain. Some may go on to bigger and better things. Some may continue to do just shorts. All were worth seeing. It’s good that a film festival like the VIFF showcases shorts from up-and-coming directors as well as from established film companies. It’s what makes the VIFF different from Toronto.