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FILM REVIEWS: Race relations, refugees and racy romances featured at VIFF

Monday reviewer Kyle Wells presents round 2 from the Vancouver International Film Fest
The grassroots exploration of race relations in the U.S. makes Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is gripping and memorable, writes reviewer Kyle Wells, who is on assignment at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

By Kyle Wells

Monday Magazine contributor

(All ratings out of four stars)

What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, directed by Roberto Minervini

This compelling, fly-on-the-wall documentary dives deep into the heart of race relations in the United States by taking a deeply personal approach. There are no talking heads, no history lessons, no grand statements, just various people trying to find their way through the situation they’ve been handed as black people in America. From two young brothers trying to figure out how to become men, to the president of a local chapter of the New Black Panther Party, to a woman struggling to keep her bar open, the film follows average people up against a heartbreakingly ordinary reality.

By not forcing a narrative, Minervini allows a tone to slowly develop over the course of the film, filled with frustration, anger and deeply rooted trauma and sadness. But the resilience of these people is also inspiring, and despite the hardship that surrounds them and a system that’s stacked against them, the film also makes room for the love to shine through. There are plenty of tears to be shed, but despite the hardship, we see people coming together and finding strength in one another, from a mother doing all she can to keep her sons out of trouble, to a recovered addict sharing her trauma with others to let them know they’re not alone.

By focusing in on the small (a few people in one city in one state), Minervini makes room for the big: big emotions, big empathy and big recognition of how systemic oppression and ingrained racism affects not just groups of people, but individuals, in a very real way.

RATING: ***1/2

Piazza Vittorio, directed by Abel Ferrera

Ferrera has never been accused of being a subtle filmmaker, and his approach to this slice-of-life documentary about the famous Roman square is no different. He frequently inserts himself into the film, getting into arguments with people he’s interviewing, constantly reminding everyone he’s from New York, and generally making his presence known. It doesn’t spoil it, but it is a distraction from what works for the film, namely its Studs Terkel-like neutrality towards what is something of a microcosm for the wider tensions and troubles facing Italy, Europe and, indeed, the world.

For the plaza, once a grand open-air market, is now a melting pot of unemployed immigrants and refugees, older Italians who have seen the square change over the years, tourists, business owners and others. What the documentary makes clear is this is a complex situation.

With its Woody Guthrie-heavy soundtrack and general approach, Ferrera seems to imply that capitalism is the problem, but when the film finds a group of socialists to interview, they end up sounding more like fascists, with their focus on sovereignty. Then you have the immigrants who like Italy, and those who don’t. And then there are the Italians who don’t like the immigrants, and those who do. And while many have complaints, no one seems to have solutions. While there are no easy answers, this interesting movie benefits from its mostly-neutral approach and its day-in-the-life approach.

RATING: **1/2

Dialogue is not a key element of the German film Still Styx, but it offers a very humanist look at the various refugee crises facing the world today.

Styx, directed by Wolfgang Fischer

With minimal dialogue and score and its solo-sailing plot, one can’t help be reminded of All Is Lost when watching this German drama. But rather than her own threat of shipwreck, the primary conflict comes when our solo sailor (Susanne Wolff) comes across an overloaded, broken down ship of refugees in the middle of open water. She calls for help from the Coast Guard, who advise her to stay well away from the boat for her own safety (her sailboat is too small to take aboard all the panicking refugees). But when one boy jumps ship to swim towards her, she can’t help but do the right thing and take him aboard.

This is a deeply humanist take on the refugee crises, one which doesn’t hold back on the severity and urgency of the situation. There are processes in place to deal with these situations, but sometimes the processes cost lives, and shouldn’t that be what matters most? It’s a hard question to answer and a hard situation to watch unfold, but Fischer’s deft film handles it well, both as a compelling sailing procedural and a profoundly caring look at this microcosm of the crisis.


Shadow, directed by Zhang Yimou

The world-building first section of this film by acclaimed Chinese director Yimou is a bit of a chore to get through, but once the film gets going, boy does it ever. This tale of the unraveling of an alliance between two once-warring kingdoms, and the conspiracy that makes it all happen, is a visually stunning and frequently thrilling action movie.

Its battle-filled middle section is breathtaking in its excitement and beauty, with some truly inventive sequences of combat, all lushly presented and wonderfully scored. And its Shakespearian tale of double-crossing kings and mistaken identities is gripping once it really gets going. This is a violent, highly stylized movie, which despite its clunky start is still thrilling and awe inspiring in the best of ways.


The slow-starting One Cut of the Dead is worth sticking with, according to Monday film reviewer Kyle Wells, on assignment at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

One Cut of the Dead, directed by Shinichirou Ueda

It’s a bold move to intentionally start your movie with an amateurish and terrible first half hour, and I’m really glad I was warned to stick with One Cut beyond that point. So here I am, paying it forward: stay with the movie until after the credits role (that’ll make sense once you see it) and you’ll be rewarded with a fun, highly original look at the making of a schlocky zombie flick that’s full of behind-the-scenes high jinks. Even more impressive is that what starts off feeling amateurish ends up having the precision of a Swiss watch.

In this era of the highly fetishized, super serious long take (looking at you Iñárritu), Ueda instead uses the gimmick as a starting point for the film’s humour, with everything built around it. It’s a deliberate and essential choice, not just window dressing or something to make us critics salivate at its technical precision, although it certainly has that, too. Never mind all that though, because the movie doesn’t naval gaze about it and neither should we. Just power through that first sequence and enjoy the pure playhouse moviemaking that follows.


Keep An Eye Out!, directed by Quentin Dupieux

In the middle of a film festival, amidst the depressing realism of modern European cinema and the equally depressing sentiment of Hollywood dramas, a comedy is always a welcome relief. And if it’s as odd and downright funny as Dupieux’s latest, then it really fits the bill.

Best known for his marvellously strange 2010 feature Rubber (perhaps best known for a puppet nodding its head and answering a phone), Dupieux is at home in surreal comedy heavily grounded in a cinematic sense of reality. And maybe that doesn’t make sense, but neither does a lot of Keep an Eye Out! and it doesn’t much matter. Grégoire Ludig is wonderful as our straight man, suspected of murder and facing interrogation by a series of inept cops with no nose (or eye, rather) for crime. But whodunit doesn’t matter because it’s the bizarre characters, the fantastical flashbacks and the movie’s overall keen sense of satire that takes centre stage.

Ultimately, this may be a slight film, but in the middle of the heavy entrees of a film festival, sometimes you just need a salad.


Ben is Back, directed by Peter Hedges

Come from Julia Roberts swearing, stay for the dark journey into the heart of the small town American opioid crisis. Ben is Back is about a young addict named Ben (Lucas Hedges, the director’s son), who is, in fact, back in that he’s left rehab to surprise his family with a Christmas visit. This visit is met by his family with some joy, but mostly concern. Concern that it’s too soon, that Ben will bring unwanted stress to the holidays, but most of all, that he will relapse once surrounded by the triggers that fed his addiction in the first place.

The movie starts out as a somewhat run-of-the-mill family drama, bolstered by high-quality acting and the naturally captivating nature of addiction, but really hits its groove at around the halfway mark when it turns into a mother/son road trip to the sketchy parts of town and into Ben’s checkered past. Roberts truly is fantastic as a mother struggling to love her son and stay strong for him while her heart is broken a little more every time some new terrible twist is thrown her way. And Hedges, who is also in the VIFF flick Boy Erased, manages to convert his aw shucks screen persona convincingly into a troubled soul of a character.

I do hope Hedges branches out beyond the earnest Hollywood drama at some point, however. All told, despite being somewhat formally bland, this film earns its emotional payoffs honestly and is a satisfying look at the cost of addiction.


Non-Fiction would be a good bet for the most French entry in the Vancouver International Film Festival, writes Monday reviewer Kyle Wells.

Non-Fiction, directed by Olivier Assayas

If VIFF had an award for Most French Movie, surely the latest from Assayas would take it. Scenes in cafes? Check. Plenty of wine drinking? Check. Everyone sleeping with each other’s spouses? Check. Endless conversations about art and politics? Double check. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, and in fact Non-Fiction is perhaps the most easily enjoyable film from Assayas in recent years. For this reason alone it comes off as perhaps a bit slight compared to Clouds the Sils Maria or Personal Shopper, but it’s breezier and a lot funnier than those two outings, and that’s not for nothing.

Of course how much interest you have in watching beautiful French people drink, make love and talk about literature will determine how much you get out of the movie, but with its story of middle-aged ennui during our modern era of cultural, political and technological transition, Non-Fiction does have some medicine with its sugar.

RATING: ***1/2

Vox Lux, directed by Brady Corbet

Not even Natalie Portman in full-on trashy Staten Island mode can save this pretentious mess of a movie. And the fact that it starts so promisingly makes the dreariness that follows all the harder to endure.

At first the film’s unique tone and gimmicks (such as opening credits that look like closing credits) seem potentially refreshing, and an early scene of shocking violence is gripping in a way one hopes the rest of the film can match. But sadly, as the movie plods along it becomes clear that while Corbet most certainly believes otherwise, it has nothing of any interest to say. Pop music is vapid. Modern society is shallow. Violence and entertainment have become intertwined. You get it.

These film student sentiments would be more forgivable were they not presented in such a grindingly inert manner, devoid of any humour but with an abundance of self-importance. And its finale of a pop concert (with songs written by SIA) is an insult to any thinking fan of either movies or music. I suppose we’re supposed to recoil at the artifice now that we’re freshly armed with the knowledge of the soul-crushing industry behind it, but honestly, lighten up. As our main character speaks to, early in the film, sometimes people just like to feel happy. Turns out, an entire movie trying to convince us otherwise is just as tiresome as it sounds.


Bel Canto, directed by Paul Weitz

I’ve seen a lot of formally dull Hollywood dramas this festival. Sure, they’re often full of impressive performances and heart-wrenching stories, but with nothing visually or tonally distinctive about them, and once you’ve seen a couple in close proximity they start bleeding into one another.

Bel Canto has been perhaps the dullest of the bunch, despite a strong turn from the always-great Julianne Moore. Based on a novel which was loosely based on true events, the movie is about a group of people held hostage by rebels in Peru in the 1990s. But the film isn’t much interested in what the rebels want or the circumstances which have led to this, and instead focuses on the bonds of friendship and love which form during this stressful situation.

And it’s all tied together by opera, because music is a common language, and despite hardship there is still beauty in the world and you get it. It’s admirable to show the humanity of the rebels and to focus on how there is more connecting us than keeping us apart. But it’s all expressed so obviously, without any real vision on the part of Weitz, that it comes off trite, sabotaging any emotional power it may have managed otherwise.