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My picks for the first few days at the Vancouver International Film Festival

Nina Hoss stars in Gold, a German western set in B.C. and one of my picks

 

The Vancouver International Film Festival kicks off its 32nd edition on Thursday offering us a binge 16 days of movies from 75 countries. But as you may already know, things are different this year. The Granville theatre is gone; the venues are much more spread out and it’ll take much more careful planning if you’re intent of catching more than a few films. 

But as usual talk to people in line ups and hear what films they recommend. Here are mine for the first few days.

I’ve previewed quite a few already and as usual only list the ones I liked.

Some of the obvious choices which I haven’t seen yet but intend to, include Nebraska, which Bruce Dern’s celebrated performance, Blue is the Warmest Color the artful and graphic lesbian romance, Camille Claudel starring Juliette Binoche and The Invisible Woman with Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens.

But these I have seen. I list them dramas first; then documentaries.

 

The dramas … 

GOLD: This film has problems but I’ll recommend it because it shows off British Columbia so well. It’s a German drama about a group of people trying to get to the Klondike gold fields in 1898. They look and act like they’re in a western (there’s even a climactic shoot out) but that aspect feels artificial. What does work is a survival epic with an arduous trek. It reminds me of the wagon train film Meek’s Cutoff while the spare guitar music on the soundtrack is much like what Neil Young played in Dead Man. The story, though, is weaker than those films.

Seven Germans from the United States have paid a promoter who promises to get them to the Yukon. They meet at Ashcroft with a six week trip ahead of them. It starts well, although a classy blonde woman, played by Nina Hoss, appears standoffish. She’s a resentful divorce. The leader claims to know the country but when he rejects the advice of a couple of Indians the trip gets progressively harder. A broken down wagon and a bear trap figure prominently. In true western style, but not proper here, a couple of vigilantes are searching for the horse packer in the group. There’s a laconic mood to this film which works well with the great scenery and locations. The story doesn’t reach the eerie, mythic feel it seems to be after.   (Saturday morning and Friday Oct. 11)

GOOD VIBRATIONS:  This is the strongest representation I’ve seen in a movie of the time punk shook up popular music. And it’s not even set in the usual places, New York or London.  This is Belfast in Northern Ireland, in the 1970s where Terri Hooley (played by Richard Dormer) opens the Good Vibrations record shop “to sell reggae” and oldies like The Shangri Las “to the masses” while trying to disregard the troubles outside. A night at a club to see a new band opens his eyes. The music was angry, like the mood on the streets; the reaction was electric.

 

He starts a label, records the band (although they don’t seem to care less) and goes to London to get a big company interested. No dice but joy comes later. The BBC’s trend-setting DJ John Peel, loved the record so much he played it twice in a row. The film, building up great momentum, gets across the excitement of the time and the elation of success, culminating in a massive concert.  It also mirrors the character of the city, tough, aggressively ambitious and sentimental and gives a rare positive view of Belfast Protestants.  (Saturday evening and Sun. Oct. 6)

LA JAULA DE ORO:  That’s “the golden cage” in Spanish which here characterizes the drive by many Latin American young people to get to the supposed riches of the United States. It’s been told before. Remember El Norte and Sin Nombre? This is as powerful a film as those two.

It starts in Guatamala where three teenagers come together for the trip. The girl in the trio straps down her breasts and cuts her hair to look like a boy. On their way through Mexico they’re joined by a young Indian who, because he can’t even speak Spanish, irritates the group’s leader. Tensions among them build, even turning to fights, as they make their way on buses, freight trains and a boat. They’re robbed, threatened at gun point and the girl’s identity is blown. Cops arrest them and steal their boots. We’re with them through every setback and even a few positive events. The film is often tense and delivers a strong message, not by telling, but by showing.  (Sat. and Thurs. and Sat. next week)

TRAPPED:  Here’s a different look at Iran today, and it’s intriguing. This is not about politics, the repression of women or any of the usual subjects, but a modern view of youth. A university student rents a room in another young woman’s apartment and is drawn into her tangled life style. Noisy friends drop over; the boss at the perfume store she works at accuses her of theft, and a man who lent her money sends the police acting on “a private complaint.” She’s tossed in jail and the student, who is asked to “pledge for her,” learns much more about her life. All the while she’s trying to support herself by tutoring high school students and sometimes clashing with parents who try to cheat her. The story draws you in and holds you firmly through all the revelations.  (Thurs. and Sat.)

WOLF CHILDREN: A wonderful piece of Japanese animation, not by Hayao Miyazaki or his studio but very much in his style by Mamoru Hosoda. It’s colorful and fanciful and explores several themes not least of which is a Japanese favorite: shapeshifting.  Also single motherhood.

 

This mom had married a werewolf and as a result of his wilder tendencies is left alone with two children to raise.  And teach restraint. They’ll turn into wolves at will and need to know when it’s OK and when it’s not right. Anytime there are other people around can be perilous.  To improve the odds, she moves her family to a small town, where she takes up gardening, but her son hears the lure of the wild world.  The film comes to a highly emotional climax. (Sat. and Oct. 5 and 11).

THE ROCKET: Set in Laos, but made by Australians, this film is far from dull. It entertains by breezing us through several stories starting with a young boy who fears he's cursed. He was born a twin. Village custom says one in such a pair is evil, but since his brother was stillborn, he can't tell if he's the one or not.

 

His family is forced out of their valley for a hydro project and resettled. The amenities they're promised are always said to be on the way but never arrive. He befriends a village outcast, a man who collaborated with the Americans when they were making war in south-east Asia back in the 60s. The film leads to an annual rocket-firing competition. With great attention to local details -- director Kim Mordaunt previously made a documentary in Laos -- and good performances from the actors in their own language, this one is worth your time. It’s a crowd-pleaser. (Thurs., Sat. and Tues.)   

The Documentaries …

MONEY FOR NOTHING: Here’s another documentary about the financial meltdown of five years ago and I think it’s one of the best.  It focuses on the Federal Reserve, the American central bank and not only will you learn a lot of history (told in a bright, entertaining way) you’ll understand the current debates in the news.  That includes “quantitative easing,” by which the Fed is trying to coax the American economy’s recovery. And who should replace Ben Bernanke as chairman.  And sure to be controversial: what the Fed has done wrong over the years. It was formed in 1907 after a financial crisis and just 20 years later failed to solve the next one, caused the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression.  That’s according to this incendiary film, which says the Fed improved over the years, learned to use its powers like a gas pedal to speed or slow the economy but then created the conditions for and thereby actually caused latest meltdown and the world-wide recession that came with it. Surely the bankers and the mortgage hucksters were more at fault. Still, how many financial essays give you everybody from Paul Volcker to John Stewart to The Road Runner?  (Sun. and Oct. 5 and 8)

RAP IS WAR:  I’ve been to Cuba, toured right around the island and saw little of what this documentary dares to reveal. Jesse Acevedo, an American  born in Mexico, went  to make a film about a rumba dance competition and turned instead to an underground music scene that claims to be part of a new revolution. 

The film is about a pair of rappers called Los Aldeanos who sing about injustice, repression and poverty. Their music is banned from radio but their unauthorized, secretly-promoted concerts draw thousands. The film has generous excerpts plus views of pumped up fans enjoying the message. “We’re writing a new chapter in Cuban history” the band says. Of course they’re playing to kids who weren’t there for the Castro revolution and wear Tupak Shakur T-shirts appropriate other American styles.  The film illustrates the difficulties in keeping a revolution going but doesn’t give much context to really evaluate what’s going on. It does takes us into the homes of  the poor (official tours don’t get close) and introduces a mother whose sons were tossed in jail just for listening to the group’s music. (Fri., Tues. and Oct 10.)  

HUE: A MATTER OF COLOR: This is an important subject that Vancouver filmmaker Vic Sarin has taken on. Colourism is not quite racism but it is a form of discrimination. It makes people wish their skin color was lighter, a pale brown is better than a dark brown or black for instance. Sarin, who’s originally from India, admits to having had those thoughts himself.  And feeling judged. “But how much of this was real, or only in my mind,” he asks. It’s sure real in the many places he visits, including Brazil, South Africa and India where every girl, it’s said, wishes she had lighter skin. He doesn’t get to China where he’d surely hear some good stories but he does visit the Phillipines to talk to a woman who’s a skin whitening entrepreneur. Tanzania gives him a horror story: albinos killed for their body parts. For Sarin the quest was also a form of self-exploration, only part of which seems connected, but what he finds on the tour is fascinating.   (Sat., Tues. and Oct 11)

VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD:  Well, the Canada side of Greenland anyway but it is remote and, with the fish plant shut down, it’s dying. Only 53 Inuit are still hanging on, some,  like the school teacher-mayor, urging the community to unite, buy the plant and run it as a co-operative, others feeling they’ll have to leave. “What is our future?” they ask. This fascinating documentary captures all these strains with telling details. A teen boy is desperate to get out and explores New York City via Google Earth. There’s joy all round when the snowmobiles return from a hunting trip. And irony when everybody dresses up in traditional costumes to welcome a cruise ship bringing tourists delighted to meet “people who have not changed.”  We get to see the rhythms of life there and they’re not at all gloomy.  (Thurs. and Oct. 10)

THE LAST OCEAN: We’ve been told often enough that the oceans are being fished out. But Antarctica is safe, we might have thought. Not so.

Back in 1996 a New Zealand fishing boat entered the Ross Sea to catch toothfish and opened up an environmental controversy. Some 12 countries now fish there. Their catch is served in restaurants as Chilean sea bass, a marketing whiz having brought about the name change.  This film makes a passionate case for protection by banning the fishery.  Scientists are warning of great damage to the ecosystem in the supposedly pristine waters. A New Zealand fisheries executive says good management, not a ban, is the answer and a joint plan with the US to simply reduce the areas open to fishing has met opposition. It’ll be considered at another meeting next month. Here you get the science, the politics and the pictures of a story that’s brand new to most of us. Daniel Pauley of UBC, a world expert on overfishing, is one of the experts seen talking.   (Fri. and Oct 9)

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