A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to review numerous films at the Vancouver Film Festival for Lotusland Magazine. Although I was unable to review every movie I watched, I would highly recommend attending VIFF and viewing some of the cinematic masterpieces the festival has to offer other than the one’s I had a chance to review, such as films from up and coming actor/director wunderkind Xavier Dolan and Studio Ghibli.
Fifth feature film from Canadian director Daniel Grou is a sobering, multi-narrative film about faith, luck, and coming to terms with one’s self and one’s sins. It begins with a plane crash, from which there is only one survivor, whom our protagonist, a young nurse named Julie (Marilyn Castonguay) develops a deep and testing connection with. She is our central character, whose narrative we follow in relation to her challenging espousal to Etienne (Xavier Dolan), a young Jehovah’s Witness, who is unable to receive a blood transfusion for his terminal cancer according to their scriptures. Through their suffering from the insensitive community they belong to, we are given a disillusioning sermon on the dangers of faith.
We are, as well, shown three other narratives in flashback, which involve three couples, all of whose lives are linked intrinsically by the tragedy. From falling out of love, alcoholism, drug abuse, adultery, and taboo behavior, these couples are nothing but conventional. One story, involving a drug addled casino employee with a gambling problem and his lonely, vapid wife, falls short of sympathy in terms of dialogue and poignancy. Yet besides that the couples bring an interesting dynamic to the film in terms how conflicted we feel about their budding love, knowing their imminent fate.
With a consistently even pace, the film shifts between narratives like an extended montage, which feels referential to the last hour of Magnolia. Each scene is understated and deals with internal pain and difficulty in each character. Especially the narrative of the only crash survivor (Gabriel Sabourin), whose constant attempts to escape his past mistakes make him an empathetic character. Despite him being clearly a morally questionable man. Between the dangerous situations through drug trafficking he survives, and the resolution he finds confronting his demons at the end of the film, he is the only argument for hope in a film that discounts faith as superstitious and impractical.
Time is Illmatic
Marking the 20th anniversary of Nas’ seminal hip-hop album Illmatic, director One9 chronicles the familial, environmental, and socio-economic factors that became internalized in Nas’ lyrics and in the gritty, jazz influenced beats that give the album a sense of rawness, and which make it one of the most definitive rap albums of all time. Starting with Nas’ childhood in Queensbridge in the 80’s and early 90’s, we are shown the devastation of crack, especially in the projects, which were predominantly housing for poor black people. Coming out of this low socio-economic demographic, we see that Nas was exposed to the militarized public school systems unforgiving to black youths, the difficulties of growing up with only a single-mother to support him, and the hostile dangers of gang life. All this pain and loss was embodied in Illmatic, and is equally displayed through the sincere interviews of family members, the most notable being those from his brother and father, as well as from himself.
Parallel to the distilling accounts of hard knock life in the projects are stories related to the music from the eminent producers and featured MC’s who shaped the album along with the twenty year old Nas. From successful music masters like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-tip, we get the process behind the distinct beats and hooks that hold the album together, and that gave the right, dark sound for Nas’ vision. We also get a unique view of Nas’ father, a jazz and blues musician, whose records and literature influenced Nas as an artist, and who even graces the album with a trumpet lick on Life’s a Bitch.
From a critical, objective point of view the documentary does fall short in terms of the brass tacks of telling a comprehensive story. And if one is skeptical about hip-hop, or has not heard the album, the documentary may feel somewhat strange in scope and unfulfilling in terms of narrative, and in terms of contextualizing the album’s creation in its entirety. However, if one likes the album, Nas, or hip-hop in general, it is definitely satisfying to be able to learn a little bit more about the nuances and environmental factors that went into this highly successful album about survival, gain, and the remembering of your friends both incarcerated or six feet deep.
Debut feature film from Slovenian director Rok Bicek plays out as a stark, well-written and acted critique of contemporary adolescent culture, and the school system it is forced to adhere to. Being strongly philosophical in nature, the film explores the inner workings of a staunch, and seemingly cold-hearted German teacher who stands in opposition, for most of the film, against a tight-knit senior class of high school students who are subjected to tragedy (with the loss of a fellow student), conflict, and inner difficulty between and within themselves.
It begins darkly, on the day that senior boy Luka (Voranc Boh) returns to his class after the death of his mother to receive sympathies from his girlfriend Mojca (Doroteja Nadrah), the school grief counselor, and favoured class teacher Nusa (Masa Derganc), who says goodbye to the class the same day for maternity leave. We are then introduced to Igor Samobar, who performs, with phenomenal reservation and collectedness, the role of stern, conservatively dressed Robert. Whose frigid teaching style and obvious sense of superiority turns him into a villain in the eyes of the students.
This minimalist film essay, contained almost exclusively within the walls of a sometimes austere, sometimes endearing Slovenian secondary school, concerns not only high school but also society in general. In that we are shown the darker thoughts of not only the students in light of tragedy, but of the faculty and parents. Who contribute to its grave depiction of how death, responsibility, expectations, and adulthood can ultimately get the better of us. Indeed no one in the film is exempt from morally questionable behavior. And the only hopeful idea exposited in the film is that the problems of life go far beyond peer pressure, the pressures of our schooling systems, and problems with our families. Into the inner battle we fight every day with ourselves, and our ability to persevere through grief. Highlighted by the morbid, yet hopeful Thomas Mann quote Robert brings before the class after the prompt death of a classmate: A man’s dying is more his survivor’s affair than his own.