At War (En Guerre) centres around a labour dispute between French workers and their German-owned factory bosses. This solid feature film, entered at the Vancouver International Film Festival, features good character development but a rather abrupt ending. mk2films.com

FILM FEST FARE: Labour woes, romcoms, music and more in Vancouver

Monday reviewer Kyle Wells presents his thoughts on Vancouver International Film Fest entries

By Kyle Wells

Monday Magazine contributor

(All ratings out of four stars)

At War, directed by Stéphane Brizé

Your mileage for At War may vary depending on how much you like watching people yell at each other for two hours, but if you think you can take it, there’s plenty of drama and insight to make it worthwhile. It’s surprising how riveting endless meetings over labour disputes can be, but Brize manages to squeeze a lot of intrigue out of this story of a group of French workers fighting to keep their German-owned factory open.

Vincent Lindon stars as the figurehead of these disgruntled workers, and does well to exude a sense of authenticity in what is seemingly a largely improvised series of escalating confrontations. As seen out in the real world, there are no easy answers when it comes to corporate closures of manufacturing jobs tearing the foundations out from under small towns and the families that live in them, so what Brize focuses on instead are the people at the centre and the emotions that drive them.

A clumsy, unnecessary exclamation point of an ending unfortunately shatters the grounded tone the rest of the movie has built, but it doesn’t ruin what is otherwise a compelling and confident feature.

RATING: ***

The New Romantic, directed by Carly Ann Stone

Like its protagonist, this film wants to be Nora Ephron and Hunter S. Thompson at the same time, and that’s quite a tall order. It works sometimes, mostly when in Ephron mode, but Canadian director Stone’s feature debut starts off with a clunky tone and never quite manages to overcome it. Jessica Barden plays a young college student who sets off to find romantic and sexual adventure in order to have something to fill her student newspaper column with.

It’s often a sweet film, with a nice streak of humour (especially from Hayley Law as the best friend), that also has an adept eye for the many ways seemingly nice men can be terrible. One sex scene in particular is honest and heartbreaking. But beyond that, this reductive romcom never manages to either set itself apart from or be as good as the classics of the genre it explicitly strives to be.

RATING: **1/2

Freaks, directed by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein

The genre-bending Freaks has a gimmick and a style that viewers will either be on board for, or not at all. Most of the movie deals in confusion, which, when escalated by Dutch camera angles, cranked-up colour saturation and overbearing carnival music, regularly crosses the line from intriguing to irritating. When the reveals do start coming, the film’s unique spin on superhero stories does settle into a groove where its enjoyably off-kilter performances from Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern and especially child actor Lexy Kolker are given room to shine and scenery to chew. Unfortunately this poor man’s X-Men ultimately comes off as believing itself to be far more clever than it actually is, and not as much fun as it should be.

RATING: **

Under the Silver Lake, directed by David Robert Mitchell – ***1/2 stars

How much you enjoy this film rests on how much you like the sound of hanging out in a movie that feels like an on-screen adaptation of a Lana Del Ray song about Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Personally, I dug it. Sure, it’s a meandering, shaggy dog of a movie, featuring a lackadaisical turn by Andrew Garfield as our perpetually-horny, slacker guide through the dark underground (literally) of a heightened neo-noir LA. And sure the plot never really comes to make much sense, and its emotional payoff is a little wonky at best.

But damn if this long, strange, stylish trip of the movie isn’t a lot of fun to become immersed in. If you can go with the flow and tap into the movie’s wavelength, there’s a fine time to be had, with plenty of humour and intrigue along the way. From the intentionally fake matte backgrounds to the overbearing Herrmann-esque soundtrack, the artifice of movie works to heighten the atmosphere and provide a unique, puzzling and ultimately oddly enjoyable viewing experience.

RATING: ***1/2

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, directed by Sophie Huber

How much you enjoy this documentary on quintessential jazz label Blue Note Records will of course depend a lot on how much you enjoy jazz. But even those with a passing interest should be able to find a lot to love here.

This insightful and captivating doc does well to focus on both the history of the record label and on the process of making music itself. Sure, there are plenty of talking-head reminiscences of Blue Note heyday stars such as Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane and Joe Henderson, but this is supplemented with contemporary recording sessions featuring new blood stars such as Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire playing alongside greats Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. This approach keeps things interesting and helps the film avoid the trap of dry chronological history.

Throw in an appreciation of some of the greatest music photography ever from Reid Miles, and you have the makings of a fun and fascinating love letter to the glory days of jazz.

RATING: ***

The House that Jack Built, directed by Lars Von Trier

Oh boy. What to do with a film like The House that Jack Built? The latest from self-manufactured bad-boy provocateur Von Trier is the kind of film walk-outs were made for, with its intensely disturbing violence and overtly strived-for shock factor. It’s also an incredibly hard watch in light of the #MeToo movement, with its story of a serial killer torturing and killing women in all sorts of horrendous ways. Please be warned. But it’s impossible to deny the material is in the hands of someone with intent and purpose, and Von Trier is as interested in exploring the horror unfolding on screen, and his own role in it, as he is in pissing audiences off.

There is a method to his madness and it’s occasionally fascinating. The question then becomes just because you can do something, does that mean you necessarily should? Jack is a profoundly disturbing and mostly unforgiving viewing experience and how much you get out of it will depend entirely on whether or not you believe the director’s vision is worth the journey.

RATING: **

Volcano, directed by Roman Bondarchuk

If you like your humour dryer than three-day-old toast, the Ukrainian movie Volcano will hit the spot. Serhiy Stepansky plays a city boy interpreter who gets separated from his international agency team while in the backwaters of the Ukraine. What should be a simple solution (getting a hold of his agency and getting picked up) becomes a Herculean task as he attempts to navigate around the backward ways of this strange land. To help him, sort of, is a strange family he ends up being taken in by, featuring an old-school grandmother, a “character” of a father and his beautiful young daughter. Hilarity ensues, but nobody is cracking one liners or pratfalling over the living room ottoman.

The bizarre situations and oddball characters our protagonist becomes involved with provide fish-out-of-water levity, but also speak to a country in transition and conflict, left in the dark ages by years of communism and the continuing threat and influence of larger international players. But the movie never hits you over the head with a message or, well, anything really. Instead it provides a beautifully low-key journey into the heart of oddness.

RATING: ***

One of the best films of the festival so far is United Skates, a joyous and touching celebration of the predominately African-American world of indoor roller-skating rinks. This vibrant documentary traces the roots of roller rinks back to their troubled beginnings in Jim Crow America, up through their instrumental link to the growth of hip-hop culture, and all the way through to the troubled present, where gentrification and a changing times are forcing the closure of these once-essential cultural hubs of Black communities.

Directors Winkler and Brown travel across America to visit the last of these rinks and follow some of the people who find their greatest joy and peace dancing and gliding around in a circle. From a mother in L.A. desperate to keep her kids in a rink and out of trouble, to a man in North Carolina working towards introducing an Adult Night (common code for Black night) to his mostly-white local scene, these contemporary stories show the real impact and importance of this world and the cost of its closure.

And then there’s the skating. Filmed with dazzling colour and motion, the moves we see out on the hardwood are awe inspiring and made of pure joy. It’s in these scenes that everything, the music, the motion, the people, the love, come together in celebratory ecstasy that radiates off the screen and truly captures the spirit of this captivating corner of American culture.

RATING: ****

Transit, directed by Christian Petzold

Phoenix director Petzold loves to play around in the murky waters of identity. Transit is no exception, with characters frequently taking on the identities of others and pretending to be that which they are not in order to survive in a situation where who you might really be can get you killed.

Set in a Second World War-like setting (it’s clearly based on the German occupation of Europe, but the setting is modern and, well, it’s open for interpretation if this is a contemporary take on the past or an alternative present), the movie focuses on a group of people in the south of France trying to secure passage to North America to avoid oncoming invaders. While this may sound like a modern Casablanca, Petzold is much more interested in the dehumanizing nature of the threat of violence than in high intrigue and romance. Not that romance isn’t involved, and our main character (played by Franz Rogowski, who bears an uncanny resemblance both physically and in spirit to Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself, while pretending to be someone he is not, entwined in the lives of other desperate souls.

It’s a captivating film, with a slow-burn tone you can really sink into, and even if its twists and turns don’t come together in an ultimately satisfying way, its suspense and sadness make it a journey worth taking.

RATING: ***

Boy Erased, directed by Joel Edgerton

This is a timely and important, but unfortunately overall rather bland, look at Christian conversion therapy centres that purport to help young people “pray the gay away.” Based on a memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, the movie focuses on a young gay man played by Lucas Hedges whose parents send him to one of these centres after he admits to them that he thinks of men. For anyone with a brain, this is a harrowing peek behind the curtain at just what these young people are forced to go through supposedly in the name of love and Jesus.

That these centres still operate throughout much of the United States is a disgrace, and the movie will crank your indignation level appropriately high. The performances are compelling, especially from Hedges and Nicole Kidman, who plays his sympathetic but initially weak-willed mother. The only drawback is the film hits its emotional beats rather obviously and never asks much of the audience except easily-earned disgust and eventual on-cue catharsis.

RATING: ***

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