Tuesday 4 October 2016

VIFF 2016 Mini-reviews #1

By William Lee

We're attending the 35th Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs from September 29 to October 14. Hear us discuss the movies that caught our attention on our mid-festival and post-festival podcast episodes. In the meantime, here are a trio of short reviews of new Canadian films: Window Horses, Lavender and Hello Destroyer.

Window Horses

Ann Marie Fleming’s animated feature Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming) received a warm reception from the hometown crowd when it screened at the Playhouse Theatre in Vancouver, BC. Fleming asked any of her animators, voice actors and other crew in attendance to stand up so they could share the generous applause from the audience. The director’s interests in mixed cultural identity and the Asian diaspora are explored in Window Horses through the experience of Rosie Ming.

Participating in a poetry competition in Iran, the young protagonist goes through a discovery process of both her artistic voice and her family history. Uncomplicated storytelling and seemingly simple animation makes the movie entirely palatable for younger viewers. Rosie’s cultural and geographical adventure is told like a loosely chaperoned field trip abroad. Even bloodless reminisces of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War are rendered in such a way that those turbulent events and the politics surrounding them can be explained to children.

The best parts of the movie are several fancifully animated sequences—each with a different guest director—that bring another level of visual life to the poems being read at the competition. Comforting vocal performances by Sandra Oh, Don McKellar, Nancy Kwan, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ellen Page help make up for the limited emotional expressiveness in the character animation.


At the Q&A after a screening of Lavender, director Ed Gass-Donnelly revealed he has two fears concerning his career. The first is being pigeonholed as a horror director and the second is making a horror movie that repeats the same mistakes as other horror movies. He prefers to categorize his new movie as a psychological thriller and it most certainly does not commit the mistakes of lesser horror/thriller flicks.

Abbie Cornish plays Jane, a photographer drawn to shooting scary farm houses. Following a car accident, lost memories of a traumatic event from her childhood begin to return to her. That event concerns the killings of her parents and sister. With the support of her husband they move, with their young daughter, into Jane’s old family house in hopes of further jumpstarting her memory.

Here is a tightly constructed thriller that seems to be completely sound within the logic of its world (I write after my initial viewing). The movie plays the game of what is/what isn’t real superbly so that the viewer is guessing along with the characters rather than guessing ahead. There is a good deal of suspense without ever indulging in cheap jump scares. The creepy string music is unrelenting but not oppressive. The opening scene employs some trick photography to achieve a striking visual effect that I’m not sure I’ve seen done before—or at least not done to such perfect effect both technically and thematically. Lavender is an accomplished piece of genre entertainment and I mean that in the best way possible.

Hello Destroyer

Director Kevan Funk examines the fragility of the sports team fraternity in his feature film debut Hello Destroyer. When a rookie enforcer on a junior hockey team perpetrates a bad hit during a game, he is suddenly a pariah. His career on hold and his supporters gradually dropping away, Tyson Burr (played by Jared Abrahamson) is a young man in a state of limbo. Life doesn’t get any easier after he returns to the family home as a disgraced man.

The movie displays Funk’s unquestionable confidence as a formalist. The spirit-crushing atmosphere is palpable in alienating visual compositions that often use shallow depth of field, cold back-lighting, and a constant dull colour palette. Aurally as well, the movie generates discomfort with a constant near-silence that is disquieting with the noise of machinery that sounds like a dead end for Tyson.

Give Hello Destroyer credit for its unflinching wallow in the protagonist’s self-pity. At some point though I wanted him to do something to earn my empathy. After observing Tyson repeatedly take his punishment (deserved or not) without pushing back, it became hard to remember why I was invested in his story.

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