Black rage in The Birth of a Nation, countering Holocaust Denial and more VIFF picks

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SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE: I wondered too if this was going to be maudlin. Good to say, it is not. It is quite moving though to see John Mann, lead singer of Spirit of the West, cope with the early-onset Alzheimer’s that has afflicted him.

We see him still singing and bouncing around on stage at a Massey Hall Concert in Toronto though getting help remembering the lyrics with an I-pad as a teleprompter. The opening line from their best known song, “You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best,” drips with irony.


This snappy film by Pete McCormack gives us plenty of clips from when he was at his best, starting when he was recruited into the band in North Vancouver from a drama class and brought a theatrical flair and a great voice to it.

Band members, industry types like Bob Rock and Sam Feldman, Tom Harrison of The Province, Mann’s wife and Mann himself talk about the band’s entire career and influence and how the Alzheimer’s affected it. The mood is emotional but always optimistic. The most affecting sequence is from a concert where Mann does lose the words and the entire audience sings them for him. (Screens Sat and Oct 12)  

STRANGERS ON THE EARTH: Those waiting in line last Sunday for the “world premiere” of Strangers on the Earth resembled a college reunion, swapping tales and memories of a wonderful, sometimes, difficult time.

What brought them together was walking the fabled, 800-kilometre Camino across northern Spain, ending at the majestic cathedral in Santiago de Compestela. For those, like myself, who have hiked the Camino, it’s an unforgettable experience. Director Tristan Cook’s beautifully-filmed documentary seeks to capture the essence of the increasingly-popular journey and what drives so many to endure blisters and pain to complete it. 


The film follows the footsteps of American concert cellist Dane Johansen, who back-packed his bulky instrument to record a series of concerts along the way. The soundtrack featuring Bach’s Cello Suites played by Johansen, as the landscape rolls by, is a highlight. The focus bounces back and forth too much between Johansen and others on the Camino, with no consistent story line.

But rewards are many, besides the scenery. Touching moments, profound observations by a number of pilgrims and some surprisingly honest conclusions make Strangers on Earth a satisfying depiction of this incomparable land voyage. I can’t wait to go back. (Rod Mickleburgh  wrote this one for me because, as he said, he’s been there.) (Screens again Sunday morning)

NERUDA: Pablo Larraín from Chile gave us a film called No, a few years ago,a sly comedy about the referendum that undid the dictator Augusto Pinochet. This film is just as witty and political though with a dead policeman narrating it, more laced with fantasy. Gael García Bernal plays the cop who tails Pablo Neruda, Chile’s great poet who was forced to flee because he was a Communist.


The poet is tenacious and principled in Luis Gnecco’s performance. He’s also playful (he sends the cop crime novels to taunt him). And he’s an egotist. The cop meanwhile is insecure and worried about his status.

Neither man is what you’d expect, but then this is not a film pushing a political agenda (although Pinochet does show up briefly, running a prison in the desert and thereby as a harbinger of what would eventually come. The film is from a crafty director having some fun with his country’s history. It’s a bit too mannered and arty, but also sly and entertaining.  (Screens Sunday) 




More in New Movies

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Unruly Harley Quinn, morality by The Traitor and Elijah Wood’s psychic adventure in Tofino

Also two queer films and dancing to fight colonialism as part of Black History Month

Mostly Oscar contenders this week: including Corpus Christi and three classes of short films

Thank heaven for the Oscars. Three new films this week weren’t available to preview but a batch of Academy Award nominees were. Including all the shorts. They’re showing at the Van City Theatre and...
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