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Eccentrics, boy sopranos and hockey players show up in the last few VIFF picks

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COMING HOME:  This is the 8th film China’s top director Zhang Yimou has made with his favorite leading lady Gong Li and while it doesn’t match their best (Raise The Red Lantern, Ju Dou) it’s a hit back home and an appealing watch for us here. The hallmarks are there. A deeply emotional story told with crisp direction and strong acting. What holds it back is a melodramatic streak where a more edgy tone would be welcome.

It’s the time of the Cultural Revolution. Li is a dance teacher for productions like The Red Detachment of Women. Her daughter wants to dance the lead. Her husband  is in prison for being a “rightist.” When he escapes, his daughter tips off the police who recapture him in a tense, suspenseful scene at the train station. It’ll be another three years before he does return, rehabilitated and anxious to reunite his family. Major problems.  His daughter is thick with regret and his wife can’t remember him. “Psychogenic amnesia” a doctor calls it. A bit of a contrivance, I say. However, with repeated attempts to get through to her, this is a moving film and something of a tearjerker. No more politics, though. That’s melted away in Lang Lang’s pervasive piano tinkling on the soundtrack. (Screens Wed. Evening and Fri. Midday)  3 out of 5 

LIVING IS EASY WITH EYES CLOSED: You don’t get many feel-good movies at a festival like this. Studies of alienation in Poland are more typical. But here’s a gem from Spain that’ll have you beaming with the warm, humanistic vibe and a snapshot of an era. And apparently it’s a true story. A high school teacher captivated by the music of the Beatles –watch him teach the poetry of the song Help—hears that John Lennon is starring in a movie being filmed nearby (How I Won the War, 1966) and drives across country to talk to him. Along the way he picks up two hitchhikers, a pregnant girl escaping a convent, and a long-haired boy running from his military-tough father.

 

Javier Cámara, familiar from 3 or 4 Pedro Almodóvar films, plays the teacher with a mild but jovial obsession. The Beatles are synonymous with freedom to him. This was the Franco era in Spain and during the car ride he talks a lot about liberty, free will and never giving up on your dream. That also gets him to the movie set. I won’t elaborate on that but will say there’s a tape in the end credits of Lennon singing Strawberry fields. The film is Spain’s submission to the Academy Awards. (Screens Wed. evening)  3 ½ out of 5    

BOYCHOIR:  Fans of choral music should like this one. Their genre doesn’t get into the movies very often and it glows here as directed by Quebec’s  François Girard. He’s known for The Red Violin of 16 years ago and directing operas.  He has brought a fairly standard story alive with the music. A problem boy is sent to a private school in New Jersey called American Boychoir where a strict teacher  (Dustin Hoffman) implores him to stop wasting his talent-his angelic soprano voice- and the school head (Kathy Bates) has to eventually rule whether he should be expelled.

 

Along the way we get his personal story (absent father, mother dies in a car crash, he’s surly and disrespectful) and an environment much like those boarding schools we used to see in English movies. He’s an outsider to some of the snobs there and he has to fight back. Newcomer Garrett Wareing is endearing as the youth, even in his bad-boy times.  We get to see and hear a great deal of rehearsing, the teaching methods and the performing of great choral works, culminating in The Messiah. This would be fine family film around Christmas time. No mention at all of a scandal that made the news at the school. Google it if you must know. (Screens Tues. afternoon) 3 out of 5     

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