Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

viff_signature-01I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

Odysseys: VIFF 2014

After the official fall film launch of the Venice/Telluride/Toronto triumvirate, the first significant American fest is the New York Film Festival. But due to the quirks of international film festival branding, another event that plays out during roughly the same period offers many of the films showcased in New York as well as a great variety of additional international films. While New York provides the American launches of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (among many others) to great media attention, Vancouver quietly screens them across the country almost simultaneously, hot off their respective World or North American debuts at Toronto. For folks on the West Coast, the Vancouver International Film Festival is not just a great alternative to see these and other films, it’s an easier festival to navigate and an affordable festival to play in. Plus, if you have a particular interest in Asian cinema, it’s the place to find films from those directors yet to be anointed and celebrated in the anchor festivals around the world.


Opening night was set aside for a Canadian filmmaker continuing his Hollywood success story. Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby (who also scripted An Education), is more than a vehicle for its star/producer Reese Witherspoon. It’s an odyssey on a human scale: a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1700 mile journey undertaken without any preparation or training. For Sheryl, pulling herself out of depression and a self-destructive detour into drugs, it’s an American walkabout cleansing by way of a dare, though the only person she has to prove anything to is herself.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

VIFF 2013: Vancouver’s Iranian, European Views

Iranian cinema has a history of couching its criticisms of life in Iran in metaphor. Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2009 The White Meadows offered the oppressive, authoritarian culture of contemporary Iran as a warped Gulliver’s Travels through a lifeless salt marsh of islands out of some surreal medieval world. What’s most startling about Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn is its audacity in projecting a portrait of the authoritarian regime in direct, confrontational terms. Opening on a contract murder that plays like an American gangster picture dropped into dusty slums outside Tehran, the film takes a circuitous route to outline the workings of a totalitarian state that intimidates and terrorizes its intellectuals and dissident writers. Along with the web of writers connected by censored and suppressed works, we follow the thugs doing the dirty work for a vicious minister, including a man whose motivation is simply money to pay for his son’s operation (it’s not a corny as it sounds). He’s constantly stopping along the route to see if the money has reached his account, interruptions that keep the political horror story firmly framed within the banalities of everyday life.

‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’

The script is overly complicated, stirring in characters who appear without introduction, and a little repetitive in the second act, but it seems churlish to complain that such a provocative, covertly-made portrait of the Iranian government as a brutally repressive regime could “use a little cutting.” The confusion sorts itself out as the intimidation turns into outright terrorism, 1984 by way of The Godfather, while an inspired formal twist puts the whole ordeal on continuous loop, a cycle of never-ending despotism. I found echoes of The Lives of Others in the routine surveillance of citizens, but this is more confrontational and brutal and Rasoulof hasn’t the safe distance of exploring a fallen regime. His targets are current and he puts a target on his chest for this. For that reason, he’s the only artist on the film who takes credit; the other names are hidden for fear of reprisals (we assume the actors are expatriates safely out of country). As of now, his passport has been revoked and he is unable to see his family, whom he has already moved out of country. That’s some sacrifice.

Trapped, also of Iran, is a more conventional thriller that opens with a sense of optimism and possibility, thanks to a groovy theme song from Cat Stevens. Nazanin Bayati is a first-year medical student in need of housing (the dorms are full) and Pegah Ahangarani is a fast-living salesgirl with a spare room and manic-depressive symptoms. It seems headed for psychological drama, an Iranian Single White Female maybe, until Ahangarani is arrested for debt and Bayati and ends up tangled with a gangster loan shark.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

VIFF 2013: Drizzle and Dragons

A few weeks after the closing night of the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival, the Granville 7—an old-school multiplex in the heart of downtown Vancouver with screens squirrelled away on four levels (including that funky little screen hidden between two floors)—was shuttered and slowly gutted. It was a failing theater, to be sure, with no investment in the new digital projection technology. But for two-and-a-half weeks every fall, it was the center of screening operations for VIFF: seven screens right downtown, only a couple of blocks from at the Vancity and Pacific Cinemateque satellite screens.

VIFF 2013 has been forced to spread its screenings through downtown Vancouver (and one satellite screen farther afield in the city) and the transition comes with challenges for the staff (a whole new set of venues means new layouts, organizational issues and audience confusion) and for longtime attendees who (myself included) had settled in to the convenience of the old VIFF. This year’s opening weekend weather didn’t help. Day-long drizzle isn’t new to VIFF, but it takes on an added dimension of frustration when you are hiking fourteen blocks from the International Village to the Pacific Cinemateque.

‘New World’

Given those challenges, the transition has been (a few glitches aside) largely manageable, thanks in large part to friendly volunteers keeping their cool through the procedural changes on a day-to-day basis and patiently directing patrons to the correct lines (it got pretty darn confusing at the Cineplex Odeon on the third floor of International Village, where space is so tight that lines were formed on two levels to keep crowds organized).

The signature programming—including the Dragons & Tigers line-up of more than 30 features from Asia, the Spotlight on France sidebar, and the Canadian Images’ focus on homegrown cinema—remains intact but largely packed into the first week and a half of screenings (before a number of theaters drop out of the line-up). Which makes VIFF 2013 just as lively as ever as it picks up dozens of films fresh from a North American premiere in Toronto and shares plenty of programming choices with the much more prominent New York Film Festival, such as VIFF opening night film Nebraska, Palm d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color, Locarno prize-winner What Now? Remind Me (which skipped Toronto entirely and made its North American debut concurrently at VIFF and NYFF), Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, Agnieszka Holland‘s Burning Bush, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son, and Roger Michell’s Le Weekend.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

VIFF 2012: Vancouver Wrap

Vancouver isn’t the critical/awards bellwether that Toronto or Venice or New York or even Telluride can claim to be, but this year its international line-up offers an interesting contrast in temperaments.

Mad Mikkelsen in ‘The Hunt’

On the one hand, there is the cinema of issues and big statements carried by a dour seriousness and emotional heaviness (one might say manipulation), defined in particular by Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden) and Michael Haneke’s Amour (France/Germany/Austria). On the other is the serious engagement of cinematic creativity and narrative mystery and surprise in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (France/Germany) and Raul Ruiz’s Night Across the Street (Chile/France). Here the themes are not hammered into the skulls and skin of the audience but juggled through celebrations of joyous filmmaking and deft play with the possibilities of the medium.

Vinterberg’s The Hunt, a study in rumor and fear fueling self-righteous hysteria, and Haneke’s Amour, an unflinching, almost clinic portrait in the physical deterioration and emotional fallout of old age and debilitating illness), frame their subjects with a mix of objectivity and compassion, and then stack the decks to set out protagonists in opposition to the world. It’s not enough that they face such dire predicaments, but their allies all turn against them. In The Hunt, best friends turns their backs on Mads Mikkelsen, and in Amour, the daughter of the ailing old Emmanuelle Riva repeats clichés instead of educating herself on her condition or offering substantive help in caring for her.

Continue reading at Fandor’s Keyframe

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

VIFF 2012: Vancouver’s Dragons & Tigers and More

It might be an exaggeration to say the well-attended 16-day Vancouver International Film Festival is the greatest little-known film festival on the continent, or it might not be. It is, by design, an audience festival rather than a film critic destination. Opening just weeks after the Toronto International has closed, it offers few major premieres but plenty of quality films shuttling between Venice, Cannes and Toronto, before heading into wide release or traveling further onto the festival circuit.

This year’s edition kicked off on Thursday, September 27, with a gala screening of Midnight’s Children, a Canada-India co-production from Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, and closes on Friday, October 12, with Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. In between are screenings of Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner Amour, Ken Loach’s Cannes Jury Prize winner The Angel’s Share, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Best Actor at Cannes), Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (Best Actress and Best Screenplay, Cannes), Christian Petzold’s Barbara (Best Director, Berlin), Ben Lewin’s Sundance winner The Sessions, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, Pablo Larrain’s No, Olivier Assayas’s Venice premiere Something in the Air, Raul Ruiz’s final film, Night Across the Street, the international premiere of Any Day Now (an audience-award winner at Seattle and Tribeca), and the North American premiere of I, Anna, starring Charlotte Rampling and directed by her son, Barnaby Southcombe, just to name a few of the over 230 features playing over two-plus weeks. I resist the temptation to use the old term “unspool” because only a fraction of the films are presented on 35mm—a sign of the times. Most films are digital now, but unlike a certain major American event, not a single DCP screening in my five-day visit was cancelled for equipment failure.

My focus is and has for years been the Dragons and Tigers sidebar: the biggest focus on contemporary Asian cinema in North America. The Dragons and Tigers lineup is valuable as both an introduction to new films from young filmmakers and a snapshot of commercial cinemas of Asia, from South Korea and Japan to China and the Philippines. It comprises 45 features, a handful of mid-length (under an hour) films, and dozens of shorts—too many to do anything more than sample. Armed with a catalogue, a few recommendations and my own instinct and tastes, that’s what I did.

Continue reading at Fandor

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

VIFF 2012 – Dispatch 1

The Vancouver International Film Festival is one of the overlooked gems of North American film festivals. Opening weeks after Toronto, it screens over 230 features and 150 shorts over 16 days across ten theaters, all within strolling distance in downtown Vancouver. (An eleventh theater, the Park Theater across the bridge, is drafted into service for a few days of special 3D presentations; it’s easily accessible via the Tram.)

Because of its proximity to Toronto, the behemoth that launches the North American premieres of most of the award season favorites, Vancouver manages to grab some of the year’s most anticipated films: Michael Hanake’s Amour, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, Pablo Larrain’s No, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, some of them screening before their American premiere at the New York Film Festival.

But even more interesting for me is the “Dragons and Tigers” section, the biggest focus on contemporary Asian cinema in North America. The Dragons and Tigers line-up is valuable as both an introduction to new films from young filmmakers and a snapshot of commercial cinemas of the Asia, from South Korea and Japan to China and the Philippines. 45 features, a handful of mid-length (under an hour) films, and dozens of shorts. Too many to do anything more than sample. Armed with a catalogue, a few recommendations, and my own instinct and tastes, that’s what I did.

Nameless Gangster

South Korea in particular arrives in force: 11 features (including three in competition for the Dragons and Tigers award) and two “Special Presentation” screenings: Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (dir: Yoon Jong-bin) and A Werewolf Boy (dir: Jo Sung-hee), both bright, energetic, soundly commercial films.

Nameless Gangster is an organized crime drama that is more character piece and offbeat drama than action thriller. It plays on the definition of daebu – godfather – in Korean culture, meaning both an elder member of a clan and a crime boss. Choi Ik-hyun (played by Choi Min-sik of Oldboy), a petty customs officer on the docks who pads his income with bribes, discovers that he is related to a yakuza-connected gangster when he stumbles across contraband heroine and decides to sell it himself. But establishing himself as a clan elder to a genuine gangster isn’t the same as being an actual mob godfather, as he finds out when he tries to flex his power over the men working for his “partner.” Choi isn’t quite a clown and he’s savvy in the ways of bureaucratic bribery and clan affiliations, but he’s out of his depth when it comes to flexing gang muscles in the power games as he greases the rails in a plan to get into the Seoul casino business.

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