Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, about a Japanese family in poverty whose members must steal to support the family, exudes humanity in a captivating and truly moving way, writes Monday Magazine reviewer Kyle Wells, who made it his No. 1 pick of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

VIFF wrap-up: Finely crafted films part of festival finale

Monday reviewer Kyle Wells puts a cap on his 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival experience

By Kyle Wells

Monday Magazine contributor

(All ratings out of four stars)

Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

Tonally, there is something about Kore-eda’s film that simply makes it rise above the pack of family dramas one inevitably sees many of at a film festival. There’s a warmth to his movies, and especially Shoplifters, that allows you to be embraced by the characters and unfolding story in a way that feels personal and enormously rewarding.

The movie centres on a motley crew of a family, living on the edge of poverty in Japan, five of them in a tiny dwelling, shoplifting to make ends meet. One day the father and son of the family find a young child who has been locked outside of her house in the freezing cold. They take her in and the family numbers six from then on. This is a film not merely about love and family, but with love and family in its bones. Through Kore-eda’s gaze and the masterful tone and pace he conjures, it exudes humanity in a way both captivating and truly moving. It’s the kind of a movie you feel as much as you watch. And there’s really nothing better than that.

RATING: ****

What They Had, directed by Elizabeth Chomko

It just isn’t a proper film festival until you’ve seen Michael Shannon in something. So thank goodness we had What They Had, featuring a par for the course great Shannon performance as a rough-around-the-edges Chicago bar owner whose mother’s dementia is going downhill. Even better is that this ensemble piece is filled out with a perhaps even better performance from Robert Forster as the grumpy dad who doesn’t want his wife to be put into a home and the grounded, straight-man lead turn by Hilary Swank as the sister, who is always a pleasure.

This family drama could have easily achieved cornball status, but manages to avoid it and earn its heartfelt emotions through an honest approach to the material. By embracing the messiness of aging and illness, and all the family drama and hardship that surrounds it, Chomko doesn’t pander to audiences looking for the easy tears, and the film is all the more touching for it.

RATING: ***

An incredible performance from child actor Zain Al Rafeea (right) helps make Capernaum a masterful portrayal of the realities of poverty and the struggles of refugees.

Capernaum, directed by Nadine Labaki

There are always a large number of misery movies at a film festival, and while most are noble in intent, the ones that excel in execution start to rise to the surface after you’ve seen a few.

I don’t mean to be flippant with the term ‘misery movies,’ because much of the world is in rough shape, and of course cinema reflects that. I just simply don’t believe a movie gets an automatic pass or praise just because its subject matter is important. It still has to work as a movie. All this is to say that Capernaum was the best of the bunch I saw this year. It’s a gripping film, with a simple premise that’s used to explore a character and a larger situation in an enormously effective way.

Featuring an incredible performance from child actor Zain Al Rafeea, the movie is about a boy who runs away from home after his parents marry off his 11-year-old sister. The scrappy youngster ends up falling in with an illegal immigrant single mother and together they struggle to stay afloat in their tough situation. This may sound precious, but the film is never shy to show the reality of the struggle of poverty and refugees, and of the predators looking to take advantage of the misfortune of others.

RATING: ***1/2

Dovlatov, directed by Aleksei German

Admittedly, how much you know and care about 1970s Russian poetry will have a large impact on how much you get out of German’s accomplished but plodding film. Credit is due for his avoidance of biopic clichés by focusing on one chapter of Sergei Dovlatov’s life, rather than attempt to encapsulate his entire life and career. And the film is frequently visually striking, with its beautifully filmed Russian locations and its warmly lit interiors of artists huddled together discussing poetry and politics.

Unfortunately, the film’s incredibly slow pacing and hyper-focused attention to a character that is outwardly not especially compelling makes it a challenging watch. Obviously Dovlatov had a rich interior life, leading to his now-famous poetry, but as a character to spend two hours with, he is painfully inert. He is occasionally playful and funny when subtly screwing with strangers, but beyond that his constant struggles over whether or not he is an artist of substance, all played out with dead eyes and passionless pontificating, come off as sophomoric.

Again though, the right person, perhaps a Russian poetry professor, might connect with this film the way the filmmakers are striving for. For everybody else, the experience will likely be tedious.

RATING: **

Birds of Passage combines a violent crime story of drug dealing with an ethereal and vibrant family drama that pits the temptations of modern excess against the humbling nature of tradition.

Birds of Passage, directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

We’ve all seen enough rise-and-fall drug dealer dramas by now to require something truly special for a new entry into the genre to rise above the pack. Luckily, Birds of Passage is something special, thanks to its impeccable direction and the grounding of its Narcos-like tale in the traditions and culture of the Indigenous Wayuu people of Colombia.

The film’s violent crime story is paired with an ethereal and vibrant family drama that directly pits the temptations of modern excess against the humbling nature of tradition. And as the film reveals, no one is immune. Beautifully filmed and presented with a patient and clear-eyed perspective, the film is a slow burn in the best of ways, with plenty of visuals and performances to savour. It’s not exactly breaking new ground, but like a great folk song, it makes the best of the basics.

RATING: ***1/2

Winter Flies, directed by Olmo Omerzu

This is a slight, but entertaining film about two teenage boys driving across the Czech Republic in a stolen car and coming across a series of oddball characters and situations along the way. This crude coming-of-age film contains enough juvenile humour to keep things interesting. And Omerzu’s light touch is mostly satisfying, although it does mean the more serious episodes in the film and attitudes of the boys are sometimes jarring, in juxtaposition to the rollicking good time we’re seemingly supposed to be having.

For instance, the casual sexism and homophobia of the average teenage boy is presented without comment, keeping the film breezy but shallow. Still, the growing comradery of the leads and their ability to make the best out of bad situations is at times a joy to watch, particularly during the film’s wonderful finale.

RATING: **1/2

A Private War, directed by Matthew Heineman

There are so many movies worshipping male main characters willing to sacrifice their personal lives in order to excel professionally that it’s quite satisfying to see a similar lens turned towards a woman. And it’s all the better to then have the film rise above those conventions to show the true toll.

There’s plenty of hero worship in A Private War, and rightfully so. Rosamund Pike plays Marie Colvin, who was an American journalist who reported from such international hot spots as East Timor, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, you name it, all at times when things weren’t exactly going well. In fact, she lost the sight in one eye during an RPG attack in Sri Lanka. She was the real deal, and Heineman’s movie treats her accordingly, letting Pike’s no-prisoners performance dominate the movie while surrounding her with dirt, debris and ricocheting bullets.

But the film goes beyond that to show the toll of her commitment to truth, following her as she struggles with PTSD, failed relationships and growing alcohol dependence. Her addiction to the action, and the resulting personal trauma, is deftly explored and the film leaves us with a fully fleshed out and well-rounded portrait of someone who put herself in these dangerous situations because she simply had to.

RATING: ***1/2

Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong

With all the praise it has been receiving, I went in to Burning with high expectations. Unfortunately, the main thing I left with was befuddlement.

Not that the film isn’t frequently fascinating or beautiful to behold. It is. Chang-dong’s imagery is incredibly rich, and his eye for filming both urban and rural landscapes is a strong point of the movie. And the film’s love triangle tale, framed by social inequality and tossed with a Hitchcockian mystery, is often hypnotically compelling. But it demands perhaps a bit too much on the part of the viewer, and what should be fascinating is too often frustratingly nebulous.

In many ways this is a gentle wisp of a movie, with Chang-dong only offering the finest of threads to hold on to as the elusive story unfolds and our main character stares gap-mouthed at the world around him. While often masterfully executed, this subtlety is at other times irritating as it’s stretched so thin you’re left wondering what it is you’re supposed to be getting out of a particular sequence, rather than marvelling at the unfolding story and characterizations. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if repeat viewings reveal the masterful touch at work behind this frustrating film.

RATING: ***

Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of failed 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Gary Hart in The Front Runner falls a bit flat in its storytelling, muddling Hart’s personal story with the way the political and media landscape changed forever as a result of his fall from grace.

The Front Runner, directed by Ivan Reitman

It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly it is about The Front Runner that prevents it from reaching its full potential. It has the bones of a fascinating fast-paced political procedural, with a relevancy to today’s politics that is undeniable. And it’s based on an excellent book about the rapid fall from grace of 1988 assumed next president Gary Hart.

But somehow, despite the hurried pace and the Altman-esque long takes and overlapping dialogue, the film falls flat. It may be because when it comes to the curious case of Gary Hart, the particulars of who did what and how it unfolded are not the most interesting aspects. What is most fascinating is how the political and media landscape changed following the Hart affair and how the long-term effects are still being felt to this day.

And while the movie makes a valiant effort to make this the point, it’s a harder thing to show than it is to analyze and unpack in a book. That being said, the film is by no means a disaster and features at its centre an impressive turn from Hugh Jackman as Hart, a skilled politician with so much to offer his country, who is taken down by his own inability to see or conform to a rapidly changing political arena.

RATING: **1/2

Destroyer, directed by Karyn Kusama

Nicole Kidman’s second film at VIFF (the other is Boy Erased) is a decidedly different look for her, as an alcoholic, guilt-ridden mess of a LAPD detective out to find a criminal who slipped through her fingers once before.

Bordering on a Bad Lieutenant vibe, Destroyer is a gritty and grim turn for Kidman and she mostly nails it, although there is a natural grace to her that isn’t always perfectly hidden behind the bags under her eyes. The movie itself mostly works as a character study and a streetwise crime drama, but it also at times seems to want to be more of a Point Break-type movie of broken allegiances and undercover drama, which confuses the matter.

Still, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of a bedraggled Kidman cruising the mean streets of LA, pistol whipping perps and chasing down scumbags. If the film had leaned into either being a serious character drama or a bad cop action movie a bit more, instead of trying to be both, it may have been more satisfying, but as it stands Destroyer is a compelling watch with an appealing performance at its centre.

RATING: **1/2

******

Best of the Fest:

I had a fantastic time at the 37th annual Vancouver International Film Festival, as usual. I saw over 30 films all told, which is only a drop in the bucket of the more than 200 feature films which screened over the course of two weeks. So please keep this in mind as I make my picks for the best of the festival.

1. Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

2. United Skates, directed by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown

3. Capernaum, directed by Nadine Labaki

4. Birds of Passage, directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

5. Under the Silver Lake, directed by David Robert Mitchell

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