50/50, Restless, Breakaway and VIFF picks for Days 3 and 4
Two films about cancer in one week. Also a Canadian-Bollywood hybrid and three films not available to us for preview. That’s OK. It leaves more space for my latest picks for films to see at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Here are both lists:
50/50 3 stars
Restless 3 ½
Dream House --
What’s Your Number –
And at VIFF …
Waking the Green Dragon
West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson
Blood in the Mobile
50/50: While I applaud Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, his long-time pal from Point Grey High school, for getting this film made, I find it just a bit too light. The subject is cancer after all. The story is their friend Will Reiser’s battle to survive the disease and it starts as a buddy comedy, becomes a romantic comedy and has only a few moments of the terror that must surely have also been there. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in his usual nice-guy mode, plays the patient and Rogen plays his wise-cracking best friend. Cancer can help you pick up girls, he suggests, and his views on a girlfriend’s sexual duties are from the stone age. Typical modern comedy stuff.
A sweet attraction develops with a “supportive care” therapist (Anna Kendrick) and that gives us several lovely scenes. Then, in a cancer ward, we do get some tougher material, from a couple of older patients with a mordant wit. More of that would have made this movie more real and not feel like it’s soft-pedaling. Set in Seattle but filmed in Vancouver where we can apparently run the sea wall right to the Pike Street market. (Scotiabank and suburban theatres) 3 out of 5
RESTLESS: A second film about cancer this week. Well, not as directly. It’s Gus Van Sant’s quirky romance between a terminally-ill cancer patient (Mia Wasikowska, who starred in the most recent Alice in Wonderland) and a damaged young man (Henry Hopper, Dennis’ son). They meet crashing funerals, both playfully looking at death.
The film is more about his problems than hers. He almost died in a car accident that killed his parents, still feels the trauma and claims to know about death because he was out for almost three minutes. He plays battleships with a ghost that looks like a World War 2 Japanese pilot. She’s generally cheerful and cites inspiration from Charles Darwin. “The most important scientific mind there ever was and ever will be,” she says. It all may sound artificial and affected but this film delivers more sincerity and considerably more emotional punch than 50/50. And quite a bit of humor too with a buoyantly upbeat mood. Mia is radiant and natural. And Henry? Well, he’s new. Good at sulking, though. (International Village) 3½ out of 5
BREAKAWAY: A Canadian spin on the story we saw in Bend it Like Beckham. There’s even an overlap. The distinguished Indian actor, Anupam Kher, plays the father in both films. This time he forbids his son playing hockey. The son secretly defies him, forms an all Sikh team to take on the biggest white team around and gets Rob Lowe to coach.
Vinay Virmani plays the son, and wrote the script, inspired by a comedy routine by Russell Peters, who also appears in the film. It’s now broadened into a conflict between assimilation and family loyalty. The son has cut his hair, dropped the turban and dresses like any Ontario man. There are other issues familiar to south Asians. A brother gets bullied for his long hair. League rules don’t allow turbans. Some of the white players are crypto-racists. The script wisely underplays that angle. The point is made without belaboring it. There are a couple of musical numbers that come off like second-rate Bollywood and those are ridiculous-looking helmets our boys come to wear. But overall the film has humor, a lightness of tone and an energy that make it a pleasant enough entertainment. (International Village and suburban theatres) 3 out of 5
Also now playing ….
DREAM HOUSE: It’s not uncommon for small horror movies with no name actors arriving without previews for the critics. But this one has A-list actors, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts and an acclaimed director, Jim Sheridan. Why was it hidden? Maybe the story is too clichéd? Craig and Daniel move out of New York to a placid New England village, into a house, they soon learn, that was the scene of a multiple murder. (International Village and suburban theatres)
COURAGEOUS: Three years ago, Fireproof, a so-called “faith-based” movie was a big hit. It played pretty well off the radar until it pulled in major box-office numbers with a story about a firefighter trying to save his marriage. Here’s another one for that audience, from the same director and writer, Alex Kendrick, who this time also stars. Four cops search for the proper balance between work and fatherhood, struggling with their faith to deal with a tragedy. (International Village)
WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER: The funny Anna Faris, who grew up in Seattle, joins the raunchy women’s comedy movement. She plays a woman who decides to re-visit 20 former lovers to see if one of them is actually Mr. Right. “Hilarious” or a standard romantic comedy with few laughs, depending on who you believe. I haven’t seen it. (Oakridge, Scotiabank and suburban theatres).
And here are my latest VIFF recommendations.
Day 3: Saturday ….
WAKING THE GREEN TIGER: This is a must see if you’re into and concerned about environmental issues. It has an important story to tell and it also helps that the cinematography, the editing and the writing are all excellent.
Vancouver documentary maker Gary Marcuse shows a protest forming in China over a dam building project, and by extension sees an environmental movement building. Some 13 dams were planned for the Nu River and promoted to the local farmers and villagers as progress. Activists showed them what happened on another river, where villages had to move and people are now scavengers. On a third river, a dam was stopped with the help of a new environmental law, a first and a turning point in China. The film explains its importance by showing in detail what came before: Chairman Mao’s dictum to tame nature. There’s great archival footage of masses of people sent out to cut trees, fill in lakes or kill birds, all campaigns that had disastrous consequences. I wonder how much is really changing and had a bit of trouble at point keeping the three rivers straight, but those are minor gripes about a very good film. It plays on two afternoons (Saturday and the last Tuesday) and gets a World Premiere, late on Friday the 7th.
WEST WIND: THE VISION OF TOM THOMSON:
The painting is iconic. I saw it in just about every classroom of the Ontario elementary schools I attended. It captures the stark beauty of our landscape. Now an expert in this documentary compares it to a war painting. This film has much more that’s new for us about Thomson. I didn't know his career actually started in Seattle. He went back to Ontario because of a failed love affair which may have been explained only in a paperback novel. The woman became an author and somebody took the trouble to find that book and read from it. That depth of research is evident throughout. We follow the development of Thomson’s art, note the exact point when his celebrated use of color matured and appreciate his eye for the beauty of Canada in many of his paintings, some rarely seen in public. His mysterious death is discussed of course and now there’s a bigger mystery. Where, really, is he buried? A beautiful film by Michèle Hozer and
Peter Raymont. (Also showing Sunday)
BLOOD IN THE MOBILE: This documentary is an amazing piece of investigative journalism. You've heard of blood diamonds, the trade that finances vicious African wars? The Danish filmmaker Frank Poulsen came to suspect there are blood minerals in his cel phone. Cassiterite and coltan are essential in the wireless industry. They're mined in parts of the Congo where a civil war has been going on for 15 years. Poulsen gets the runaround at the headquarters of Nokia so he heads out to Africa see for himself. In Goma, an army spokesman is evasive about who finances the wars. Another says sometimes war is easier than peace. Poulsen pushes on to a mysterious town called Walikale where a rogue army unit is said to control a mine and some 25,000 workers in virtual slavery. Poulsen finagles his way underground and films a vision of hell. Later he finds a couple of hopeful initiatives for change but more claims from Nokia that they can’t do much. This is strong, committed filmmaking. (Also Oct 8 and 13)
DESERT RIDERS: Last time Vic Sarin had a nice film about a young boy in magical Ireland. This time he's angry. The Vancouver filmaker exposes the exploitation and even abuse of young boys in countries on the Arabian gulf. They're brought there from Bangladesh and other poor areas to be jockeys in the high-level sport of camel racing.
They're promised riches and an education but the stories we hear from some now out of the game are harrowing. Little food. They have to stay small. Camps like pisons, ringed with barbed wire. Accidents and death. Sexual abuse. An organization called Anti-Slavery International takes up their case and causes enough embarassment to spark new laws and, remarkably, some owners to use robot jockeys. How much has really changed isn't clear. Some of the strongest scenes are back in the poor villages the boys came from as parents explain why they let their sons go or complicit traffickers admit their mistakes. Beautiful photography and an ugly story. (Also Sunday)
Day 4: Sunday …
THE SANDMAN: This could be one of the breakout films at this festival because of its intriguing premise and the deadpan way it plays out. It's a comedy from Switzerland about a man who works in a stamp store but really aspires to conduct an orchestra. He's abusive to people around him and for some reason really can't stand a woman who works in the cafe he frequents and lives above. She practices her singing after closing time. He calls her ugly and talentless. She throws coffee in his face.
Meanwhile, he’s been leaving traces of sand wherever he goes. He's leaking the stuff and it's getting worse. A TV psychic and a recurring dream push this allegory along into a very entertaining space and a resolution that will have you thinking. (Also plays Monday)
INNOCENCE: This is a gripping version of the did he, or didn't he? story. It's from the Czech Republic and getting its North American premiere. He is a rehabiliation doctor treating a teenage girl for a broken leg. She accuses him of sexual abuse. A cache of lurid e-mails in his computer suggest he's gilty. The girl's history of making up stories raise some doubt. The film then deftly complicates matters. The policeman assigned to investigate has reason to hate the doctor for taking his wife away years before and leaving him a scruffy and bitter man, "a spiteful loser", as his ex-wife calls him. You won't figure out the truth until the filmmakers reveal it to you. They manage to deftly juggle the twists and lurid details, which at one point involved an exact measurement of a body part, to give us a fine genre movie. (Also Tues.)
BUMRUSH: Weak title but a strong testament that in Canada we can make movies just as violent and twisted as the Americans. You want some torture in a morgue? How about a gang rape? They’re both here along with all the shooting, dissing and intimidation you expect in films like this. The hostility extended over into real life too. One of the stars was murdered soon after filming ended.
That would be the rapper who went by the name of Bad News Brown. He plays the leader of a Montreal street gang of Haitian immigrants. They’ve been used for small jobs now and then by the Italians and the bikers. Now, Loose Cannon, as the leader is called, wants to take over some of their territory. The war focuses on a strip club, where the owner realizes he’s now up against a new, far more volatile breed of gangsters. He hires some ex-Canadian army types, with experience in Bosnia and Afghanistan, for security. The film has suspense, authentic atmosphere with four languages spoken and a good handle on the underworld scene. Brown has a strong presence on screen, although he sounds like he’s from South Central not Quebec, and his music is on the soundtrack. (Also playing Tues.)