Gimme Danger (USA)
What, Steve? Another documentary? Yes, indeed, but this one comes from acclaimed director, and one of my personal favorites, Jim Jarmusch; who actually has two films in the festival. This film, Gimme Danger, is about the career of the rock band The Stooges, led by his close friend, Iggy Pop. The movie is a retrospective look at a band who was totally hated and pushed back for the duration of their active career, only really hitting popularity after they were gone from the scene. Through Iggy and archived interviews with the other members, who have since passed, we get the full story of the creations of such iconic albums like Raw Power and Funhouse.
Firstly, I must mention that those two albums are in my top 100 of all time, so this was a movie I was ravenously looking forward to. The simple fact that Iggy and Jarmusch are such good friends makes this documentary fun with its loose style. As the film starts, Jarmusch automatically addresses Iggy by his real name, Jim Osterberg, calling it an “inquisition”, which sets the unflinching tone for the film. The sheer success in storytelling Jarmusch presents with The Stooges makes me yearn for more or this, like maybe a Tom Waits documentary? Either way, Gimme Danger is one of my favorites of this year’s festival. 5/5
The Unknown Girl (Belgium/France)
From Belgium and France comes The Unknown Girl, the new film from slice of life directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, who have given us stellar films like L’Enfant and Two Days, One Night, which earned Marion Cotillard her second Academy Award nomination. The film follows a clinic doctor, Jenny, who finds herself in the role of a detective when an unidentified woman’s body is discovered near her building. The woman is shown on the surveillance tape Jenny pulls from her security camera and she is unable to shake the thought of her body going into an unmarked grave. As her investigation deepens, her resolve and patient relationships are tested as she tries to uncover what may possibly be a murder.
Being one of my more anticipated films in the first couple days of VIFF, I was pretty let down by this latest Dardennes venture. This isn’t to say that this is a bad film, its just middle of the road when it comes to the very minimalist auteurs. The Unknown Girl only loosely ropes you in with its intrigue but by the time all the cards are revealed and on the table it feels very slight and ineffectual. Both of their films that I mention at the top of this review have so much weight, both very powerful films that leave you with an explosion of thoughts afterward but this one feels low on resonance with me. By all accounts, I may have forgotten about this one by the festival’s end. It’s not bad, it’s just not enough. 3/5
Operation Avalanche (Canada/USA)
The best thing about Vancouver International Film Festival is getting to see the little gems that have been doing the rounds at festivals around the world, garnering buzz wherever it goes. This is definitely the case with Operation Avalanche, an American and Canadian co-production that I’ve been hearing about since Sundance. The film is a mockumentary that is an almost “what if” story about the Apollo 11 moon landing. What if the whole thing was faked by some film school student the CIA hired?
The film is told from the perspective of Matt Johnson – who is also the writer and director of the film under his real name – and becomes your conduit into the film as a real go-getter character. He’s immediately likeable, as in real life, and gives you an attachment to this massively ambitious project, one that mirrors the same ambition shown by the filmmakers of Operation Avalanche themselves. This film is an inspiring one just by the sheer amount they could pull off with little to no money and the attention to the 1960s time period is astounding, given that low budget. This is, right now, my favorite Canadian film at the festival. 5/5
Under The Shadow (UK/Jordan/Qatar)
From my experience last year at Vancouver International Film Festival, the programmers usually line up something creepy for their Midnight Madness-style screenings, Fridays at The Rio Theatre. This year is no different as Under The Shadow was the pick for the first Friday of the fest, a ghostly creeper from Iran. Shideh lives in 1980s Tehran with her husband and daughter. Their community is constantly bombed during the country’s ongoing dispute with Iraq. The film deals with Shideh feeling inadequate as a provider for her family, as well as internalizing the criticism of her own mother in how she cares for her daughter. Things get even rockier when her daughter starts saying that she feels the presence of a djinn, which Shideh dismisses at first until evidence starts mounting up.
This film is both entirely unsettling and an intriguing look into a time and place we don’t see in a lot of films. The director makes Shideh’s unhappiness with her position in life the most focal point, something she uses to drive her husband to be a workaholic and also keeps her daughter at an arms distance, which is interesting on a character level. It’s also fascinating to see as the story progresses, all the tenants within the building leaving for safer ground, abandoning the mother and daughter to their fate, step by step. The horror is almost a Japanese “wraith” style supernatural story with very effective uses of the wide lens, utilizing the space on screen in inventive ways, including a rotating shot that iI found absolutely delicious. This is a fun one. 4/5
Shepherds And Butchers (South Africa/USA/Germany)
Who knew Steve Coogan could get so serious? Its commonly stated that every comedic actor has a certain darkness to them, and maybe Coogan has explored this a tiny bit in his “The Trip” movies, but there are definitely no laughs in this courtroom drama from South Africa, the US and Germany, Shepherds And Butchers. The film has Coogan playing defense lawyer Johan Webber, an advocate against the death penalty, whose current case has him defending a young man who shot and killed seven men. As the story opens up, we learn that the defendant’s day job is as a prison warden, escorting inmates to be hanged. Webber then tries to make his case on the damaging psychological effects of that profession.
I found this movie utterly fascinating. Starting off with the brutal murder in question, we are immediately thrust into this story with a very baby-faced killer at the helm. As we dig into the case more and more, we start to feel sympathy for this young man. No one can know for sure what mental and emotional trauma can do to a person’s actions and as he keeps reiterating through most of the film, he is unable to remember his actions on that night of violence. The taught emotional drama and delving into the South African legal system and prison system keeps you engaged for the whole film and even throws a couple of curveballs. If you like a film with some heavy subject matter, give this one a watch. It will definitely start some conversations. 4/5