Tuesday 3 October 2017

VIFF 2017 Mini-reviews #1

Alexander, Chris and William are at the 36th Vancouver International Film Festival, running September 28 to October 13. Here's our first instalment of mini-reviews: Machines, Luk'Luk'I and Public Schooled. We'll have mid-festival and post-festival podcast episodes for you later.


Rahul Jain’s documentary about textile factory workers in India presents a disturbing portrait of exploitative labour. With its subdued approach, Machines is also worth seeking out as a counterpoint to the alarmist environmental or factory farming documentaries that are filling up our Netflix queues. While the film has been praised for its skilled camera work and stunning visual display of an ugly setting, the more revealing element is Jain’s interviews with the workers.

While there are only a handful of short interviews spliced throughout the 70 minute running time, the workers reveal themselves to be acutely aware of their situation, and the capitalist dynamics that have lead to their exploitation. It is revealing of my ignorance and privilege as a viewer that I would not have expected these men to be discussing the limitations of creating unions, along with other profound commentary on Indian society. Perhaps the most insightful remark was the man who said, while squatting over a heap of unrefined mounds of cotton, that the only solace in his life is knowing that there is nothing material for anyone in death, and that even the rich lose their many possessions when they die. While challenging in its subject matter, Machines is a worthwhile experience to give perspective and voice to a group of people often left in obscurity. [AC]


Set in stark relief against the backdrop of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Luk'Luk'I tells overlapping stories of five people living in Vancouver's poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. They are a labourer, a residential school survivor, a prostitute, a paraplegic and a roller skating artist. Wayne Wapeemukwa's feature debut pushes for authenticity with its casting of neighbourhood residents in these starring roles. If you spotted these marginalized characters in real life, you would look away for fear of being caught staring and inviting confrontation. Average viewers may not be able to imagine walking a mile in these people's shoes but their stories writ large on screen commands your attention and empathy.

Wapeemukwa's strength in story and characterization is matched by his command over the film's visual style. I was enthralled by its playful inventiveness even when it seemed jarringly uneven. At times, it looks like a neon-lit future noir, then a rain-drenched, back alley slice of urban verité before drifting into a dream realm for a fleeting moment of joyous escape. Ironic that this film set in what is reputedly "Canada's poorest postal code" features such rich cinematography.

The film's only weakness is its overreach in setting it during the 2010 Winter Games. The street scenes fall short of convincingly mimicking the overcrowded energy of a city hosting an international audience and the characters themselves are only marginally interested in the gold medal hockey match that capped off those games. If the film was set in contemporary times during a big playoff run by the Canucks, nothing would have been lost--except perhaps credibility. [WL]

Public Schooled

Kyle Rideout's sophomoric feature, a Vancouver-homegrown version of an awkward teenager comedy, searches for a comic tone somewhere between the stoner conviction of a Seth Rogan joint and the laugh track assisted, broad yucks of the Royal Canadian Air Farce. Where it lands isn't for me but Public Schooled may generate laughs with the right audience. Quirky characters populate this surreal coming of age tale that feels like an imitation of those "indie" discoveries from the Sundance film festival.

Liam is a home-schooled brainiac who mildly rebels against the too close care of his mother. He deliberately flunks his high school graduation equivalent exam so he can spend some time in public school to make friends and pursue his dream girl. Unfortunately, Liam feels like a collection of scripted mannerisms rather than a fully realized character. At turns he's a mama's boy, a nerd and an average restless teen but there isn't a natural development of his personality through these identities. Rather, it's what individual scenes require. So in one instance Liam is coached in swearing by his mom and in another he's the lone sane voice protesting his mom's enticement to smoke marijuana in the school parking lot.

From the opening moments of Public Schooled, the movie misses the opportunity to establish a world weird enough to justify the craziness of this story. It feels too much like the real world and, consequently, the actions of characters come off as conveniently dumb rather than comedic. For example, the principal allows Liam to assume the identity of a female student rather than deal with the paperwork related to her extended absence. Look past the TV situation comedy premise and you may enjoy the game performances from an attractive cast. [WL]

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