Alone (South Korea)
Finally getting to the second of three South Korean films, I was on a winning side of a streak of great movies from this country. This one was Alone, a dizzying little self-contained thriller. The film starts out with a photographer on a roof, snapping pictures of a slum in Seoul: a crisscrossing maze of shacks, stairs and alleyways. In the middle of all of this he sees a group of masked men assaulting a woman on a rooftop and, terrifyingly, they see him taking pictures and come for him, eventually finding hit and seemingly doing away with him with a hammer. He then wakes up naked in the middle of the neighborhood maze and the real mystery kicks off.
From the opening shot, Alone is a massively intriguing offering, as we see a point of view shot of a man trying to desperately clean blood from his small apartment continuing into this first scene to set everything up. Then it quickly lets all the wind out of its sails by being intentionally disorienting with what seems like a complete lack of direction and coherence. Something that could have easily been set up and executed as a short film is stretched out into a ninety-minute feature that, in turn, feels like double that. Easily the most frustrating movie of the festival. 0.5/5
The best thing about the top tier of films that come to the Vancouver International Film Festival is getting to see some of the movies that debuted at Cannes and other European festivals. One I was very excited for was Elle, the brand new sexually charged mystery drama from Dutch filmmaker and icon, Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven hasn’t released a feature film since Black Book a decade ago, making this one a must-see for me. The film is about a rich divorcee who is sexually assaulted in her own home and decides to not report it to the police for, at the time, unknown reasons. The assailant then terrorizes her through texts and other messages, leading her to believe that it may be someone close to her life.
Verhoeven, now seventy-eight years old, has not given up his love for brutal violence and sexually perverse and provocative stories. In a fine return to the feature world, he crafts a story that is intriguing and shocking, with only a few subplot stumbles that take away from the main story. Isabelle Huppert dominates this film in the lead role, with an incredibly intuitive performance that burns up the screen every moment she’s on it. We may not understand most of the decisions that her character Michele makes but she has such a command in it that we never feel a contrived moment within it. If you’ve been waiting for anything new from Paul Verhoeven, especially in this sexually explicit part of his career, Elle won’t let you down. 3.5/5
At last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, the opening gala screening was an Irish, Canadian and American co-production, Brooklyn, a film that was a complete charmer and audience pleaser. This year, a similar movie was chosen, another Irish and Canadian film, Maudie. The film is based on the true story of Maud Dowley, a woman who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis all her life, living in 1930s Nova Scotia. After answering a housekeeping ad from a grumpy fisherman named Everett Lewis, the two start a rocky relationship, at first, which burgeons into a quite beautiful love story between two very odd ducks. Maud makes her home with Everett and becomes a popular painter in the area, garnering some media attention as well.
This movie, like Brooklyn last year, is a charming film that keeps a smile on your face through the majority of the film. It will be a true robbery if Sally Hawkins isn’t at least nominated for her lead performance as Maud. She is entirely lovable and the script comes off as completely darling in her hands. Ethan Hawke plays her husband Everett and really embodies the cantankerous attitude that this man had. Director Aisling Walsh makes this film a beautiful character piece of two very original souls who find each other and can’t let go through any strife. A truly great movie and one people need to see. 5/5
Toni Erdmann (Germany)
After getting out of my screening for the German film, Toni Erdmann, I felt an absolute moment of panic. How am I going to describe this movie? One of my most anticipated films of the festival, this movie was getting rave reviews calling it one of the funniest films of the year, if not the best. To give a loose synopsis, the film follows Winfried Conradi, an older divorced man who lives on his own, aside from his dog, who entertains himself by being a bit of a prankster, complete with fake teeth and multiple personas. When his dog passes away, he feels the need for a reconnection with his daughter, a workaholic slaving away in Bucharest, Romania but the love isn’t exactly reciprocated. Winfried isn’t deterred so easily and creates the character of Toni Erdmann to extend his stay.
Sounds like a standard family drama, right? Well, I can easily tell you that Toni Erdmann is anything but standard. A compelling character film, this story is sweet hearted, cringe worthy and off the wall insane, all wrapped up in it’s over two-hour run time, the first of the festival that I wasn’t annoyed by. The shoo-in to win the best foriegn prize at the Oscars, I feel there isn’t any one certain scene you can pull out to describe to friends, as this movie very much operates as a whole in its appeal. I will say that this film has a third act that no one will see coming and will give you so much to unravel after the credits have rolled. What a treat this movie is! 5/5
Personal Shopper (France)
Last year, I had an opportunity to review Olivier Assayas’s film The Clouds Of Sils Maria, a film that earned actress Kristen Stewart the Caesar Award, a very prestigious European award, and has since become a Criterion Collection film. I absolutely loved that film and was very excited to see his next movie, again teaming him with Stewart, this time in a lead role. The film is Personal Shopper, which follows the assistant to a celebrity dealing with the death of her brother, who may also be haunting their former home. In all honesty, this is a tough one to describe without hitting that dreaded ground of spoiler territory.
Again, Kristen Stewart delivers another fantastic performance, furthering herself more and more from those horrid film choices from a handful of years back. Under the eye of Assayas and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, a man with a solid filmography, she carries the audience through an underlyingly frightening experience. The subtlety in which the filmmaker tackles his ghost story is astounding, leading to some incredible sequences and massively compelling shots. Possibly one of the most interesting filmmakers in Europe right now, Assayas tackles a ghost story in a very different way but one that may not translate for the bigger mainstream audience. I still think it’s brilliant. 5/5