VIFF 2021 Review: Official Competition

Written by Taylor Baker


Co-Directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat craft a meta-fictional criticism of art, wealth, and awards. Official Competition begins with José Luis Gómez’s Humberto Suarez, a lavishly wealthy man nearing the end of his life and wanting to create a legacy. Not out of sincerity, but rather because people don’t think of him how he wants them to. He considers erecting a bridge, and humbly naming it the Humberto Suarez bridge. He also realizes he could make a film, the best film, with the best actors, and the best director. Thus Official Competition, a film commissioned by an old wealthy man to control the conversation of his legacy begins.

Infrequent Director Lola Cuevas is brought in. She wants to make a film based on a book called “Rivalry”, which costs Suarez an enormous amount of money. He hasn’t read the book and demands that she explain it to him which is the start of a running gag of his being out of place whenever he’s near the artists whom he commissioned for his vanity project. Lola is a critical darling, and Cruz presents her as a hilariously ludicrous caricature of many of cinema’s most capricious and self-absorbed directors. 

Worldwide superstar Antonio Banderas plays worldwide superstar Félix Rivero and believes that one should have no interiority when acting and simply bring the character to life as best he can in direct response to the instruction of the director. Under-known and under-appreciated Argentinian actor Oscar Martínez plays the opposing brother within the film being made, Iván Torres. He believes in interiority and embodying the character getting in their headspace and the practice of staying in character during the scene. Crying sincerely rather than applying menthol to induce tears as Banderas’ Rivero does.

All three together form a sort of an odd couple. The serious bits of drama and process develop into gags and show-stealing bits of comedy. Whether it’s both actors forced to recite their lines under a rock hoisted up by a crane or a test kiss sound session where both men are laughed out of their test and Cruz shows them the right way to kiss a woman and she ends up on the floor pressed against the actress, who happens to be Suarez the film producers daughter. Which causes him to stumble out uncomfortably. The film in many ways becomes the very text that the filmmakers within it are attempting to create. Playing subversively with various notions and expectations of the audience, both overtly with the roles of the actors playing actors in the film and more delicately with Cruz’s arc as director. Her character leads along the events and delivers heights and lows that neither actor does. Official Competition balances style and performance against a self-aware if reflexive criticism of the process of creating behemoth films all while being fun and rewarding to watch.

Official Competition Trailer

Official Competition was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

DXIFF 2021 Review: United States vs. Reality Winner

Written by Taylor Baker


Sonia Kennebeck follows up her 2020 documentary Enemies of the State up with a piece of trial propaganda entitled United States vs. Reality Winner. From the get-go there’s no question whose side we’re on, despite no clarity on why. It seems that playing flashy bombastic moments of Donald Trump on television are in Sonia’s opinion or her editor Maxine Goedicke enough to justify Reality’s leak of classified documents. It’s not that there isn’t a good argument for leaking documents(in my opinion), see Edward Snowden. It’s that there isn’t a justifiable case made. It’s presented as if we’re supposed to agree with these choices without any critical faculties. Betsy Reed, Editor in Chief of The Intercept at one point appears, asserting the importance of sharing these documents about the targeted attack on voting machines by the GRU, Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate. The same Betsy Reed who has taken the opposite position when democratic leaders have won elections in The Intercept. Which makes one want to ask, “Which is it Betsy?” It’s times like this that one can see why Glenn Greenwald left the news institution he founded. For anyone perhaps needing a refresher, the man who collaborated to publish the documents leaked by Edward Snowden co-founded a news outlet entitled The Intercept. In October 2020 Greenwald formally broke ties and left the home he helped create, citing ideological directives and a lack of journalistic integrity. It seems the old journalist is right.

Reality Winner, who was freed this year, was a low-ranking counterintelligence contractor who worked as a translator. She was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, the most for any classified document leak. Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things fame plays Reality Winner’s voice actor in the film. As we run through the gamut of what happened to her after leaking the document. Despite no actual interiority or interrogation as to why this was the right choice. One gets the sense that none of this behavior would have been exhibited by Reality, nor by Sonia in making the film if literally, anyone other than Trump was in office. Which raises the question, if you wouldn’t take this action with another president in office, then why do you think you think we should give you carte blanche in this situation? Comey being fired is shown to coincide with her decision. But Reality never asserts this point within the film. No letter shows her saying she felt the intelligence agencies were all corrupt. Instead, we learn of her worrying about a date she couldn’t make after being arrested, being upset she couldn’t teach a yoga class. Human concerns that are affecting to be sure. But she never owns up during the interview to having leaked documents when asked. Which she did do. It’s hard to find the hero in such a mixed and politically motivated character. One that hasn’t demonstrated a pattern of truth-telling in a project that clearly and deliberately is meant to be trial propaganda like other documentaries released before it this year, LFG, Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil, Stockholm Syndrome. 

After a cut to an exterior shot of a rural home with a truck parked in front, we hear her parents trying to speak to her on the phone but there’s a bad connection. “For what purpose?” You might ask. It makes as much sense as not explaining in detail her thought process and premeditation to leak the document. I have no idea. What’s particularly interesting is the allegation that Richard Esposito and Matthew Cole, two reporters for The Intercept at the time are said to have turned over a copy of the document and possibly incriminated multiple sources. The allegation seems on its face to be especially convincing and damning of Esposito who currently serves as Deputy Commissioner of Strategic Communication for the NYPD after previously serving as Department Commissioner of Public Information for the NYPD. Both he and Matthew Cole who is still with The Intercept did not choose to comment. But for those intrepid few who seek further information you may learn this actually a common career evolution for journalists and requires much more noncircumstantial evidence. Rather than a documentary on the issues that may be raised with the 1917 Espionage Act United States vs. Reality Winner concerns itself with why it’s everyone but Reality’s fault for her choices. Which is odd when the premise you’d think they’d want to argue is that she had a responsibility or duty to her nation. It’s also curious how deliberately unclear the film chose to be about Reality’s present circumstances until the very end. Perhaps they’d painted themselves into a corner with how heavily they leaned and shot the film with the goal being for her defense. Its points are largely lost now due to her release.

If you’re interested about this topic and wish to learn much more than the documentary details I recommend listening to Glenn Greenwald discuss it with Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper on the Useful Idiots Podcast. Their discussion begins at 41:50.

United States vs. Reality Winner Trailer

United States vs. Reality Winner was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

DXIFF 2021 Review: 3212 Un-Redacted

Written by Taylor Baker


Brian Epstein’s 3212 Un-Redacted presents a damning expose on the betrayal, cover-up, and conspiracy that occurred in October 2017. Deployed in Niger ODA(Operational Detachment Alpha) 3212 who were tasked against their Captain’s recommendation with pursuing a significant target in Tongo Tongo by their AFRICOM leadership. The secret sauce to the conspiracy? They were accompanied by CIA agents tasked with assassinating DounDoun Cheffou. The presence of these agents was redacted from all public and official documentation of what happened that day. Instead, we learn that AFRICOM labeled them in their presentation of what occurred that day as an unassuming “truck number three” with no real difference or distinction between them and any other truck within the presentation.

So why were they framed? Why did leadership lie? And how do we know for sure what is true? That’s the trick. We can’t get absolute truth about the series of events due to the redaction of the information. Epstein in conjunction with James Gordon Meek paints a damning examination of what can be asserted with absolute fact and what can be assumed based on the unredacted paper trail and soldiers who had worked alongside with ODA 3212. We know it was in the best interest of leadership to cover up a failed assassination mission where the captain told his superiors that he didn’t think the mission could be executed. We know they smeared a member of 3212 for allowing what occurred to happen despite him being in the United States to watch the birth of his daughter. And we know that the true events of the day have been put under a 25-year redaction.

The members of ODA 3212 that were on mission passed away that day in a firefight against an enormous force. They were wearing body cams and the film is compromised of large portions of those fateful minutes where each member was shot in gripping presentation and depressing detail. The documentary painstakingly shows the day-to-day lives of the family members that the fallen ODA members are survived by in conjunction with ABC Investigative journalist James Gordon Meek walking us through not only the details of the day. But the decisions made by different positions of power within the military to cover it up.

There’s a hard limit to how much we can know due to the top-down denial that accompanied the mission from the start. How could 3212 be out on an unsanctioned assassination mission when less than a day before the mission their Captain had asked to wait? Why weren’t any of the requested and available US support teams deployed? Why did the French display the show of force to eventually drive back the insurgents? We may not know now, but we should learn more in 2046. Unfortunately, many of the parents of the fallen soldiers may not be alive for answers then. 3212 Un-Redacted isn’t a glossy, shiny, overproduced documentary, it’s a gritty documentary composed of investigative rigor and direct presentation. It’s the type of documentary that reminds you there are still great journalists working in the medium of film.

3212 Un-Redacted Trailer

3212 Un-Redacted was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and is currently streaming on Hulu.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

VIFF 2021 Review: Wife of a Spy

Written by Anna Harrison


Horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy has all the elements of a thrilling period piece: beautiful costumes, state secrets, wartime backdrop, all of it anchored by Yu Aoi as Satoko, whose determination to uncover the truth regarding her husband, wealthy merchant Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), who may or not be a spy, and the government mysteries swirling around the edges of their lives. There’s an ever-growing sense of unease around them as the number of uniformed men throughout their home city of Kobe grows and World War II ramps up, but Wife of a Spy never quite lives up to the promise of its premise.

Satoko begins to suspect her husband of adultery, and then of spying after childhood-friend-cum-military-police-chief Taiji (Masahiro Higashide) confides his own suspicions in Satoko. Yusaku makes trips to Manchuria with his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando) and returns with the beautiful Hiroko (Hyunri), who turns up dead soon after, and Taiji’s advice to Satoko becomes tinged with a threatening aura. Satoko reacts with horror at her husband’s actions, but as she picks at and begins to unravel the threads connecting everyone, her worldview slowly becomes more complicated, and the navigation of her life becomes that much more difficult. 

All of these plot machinations that lead Satoko to the truth are less interesting than the woman herself and how she interacts with them; the generic plot distracts from Aoi’s performance and the interesting ideas at play here. Yusaku’s secret trips are less compelling than the offhand comments about Western versus traditional Japanese dress (Yusaku and Satoko’s Western clothes and house design pile on even more suspicion) or Taiji’s fervent, unsettling nationalism in the face of a global conflict, and the performance that Aoi gives as Satoko elevates moments in the script that, in the hands of a lesser performance, could have tanked the movie.

Even with these missteps, Wife of a Spy has surprising grace when dealing with questions of nationalism and the atrocities committed during World War II. When we finally learn that Yusaku has uncovered evidence of (presumably) Unit 731’s war crimes in Manchuria, the film becomes less a paranoid thriller and more an interrogation of what it means to be patriotic, and thus becomes much more interesting as it forces Satoko’s blind nationalism to evolve into something more complex. 

Yet even as Satoko grapples with her own country’s transgressions, we watch American forces bomb Hiroshima, adding another layer of complexity as we are shown the unutterable destruction caused by the “good guys” to whom Yusaku was trying to pass information. Satoko’s grief is made all the more potent by the more complicated feelings she now has over Japan’s role in the war, and the final scene, while melodramatic, certainly packs a punch. As a spy thriller, Wife of a Spy leaves something to be desired, but as a lesson in gray morality and against excessive nationalism, it becomes something much more intriguing.

Wife of a Spy Trailer

Wife of a Spy was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival and is currently available in limited theatrical release and virtual cinema screening through Kino Lorber.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Raindance 2021 Film Festival Review: The Noise of Engines

Written by Alexander Reams


Loud noises, going in a straight path, exotic colors, wild outfits, in this race a star can be born, I could be describing RuPaul’s Drag Race, alas I am not. Instead, I am describing the modern culture of drag racing. Two (or in some cases four) cars in the same class (stock, superstock, street, super, street pro mod, top fuel, top alcohol, funny car, alcohol funny car, pro mod, pro stock motorcycle, to name a few) race down a quarter-mile track, much more exciting than stock car racing. This was a tradition to go to the closest drag races (which were in Charlotte, NC) and spend the weekend inhaling nitrous fuel, eating bad food, and seeing crazy races. This culture has been in my veins since I got my first whiff of nitromethane, and from the get-go in The Noise of Engines, I could smell that wonderfully cruel (to my sense of smell) fuel again. 

Philippe Grégoire’s debut is without a doubt one of the weirder concepts to hit screens in 2021. A Canadian customs agent (Robert Naylor as Alexandre) is placed on leave and heads back to his hometown, he strikes up a friendship with an Icelandic drag racer, (Tanja Björk as Aðalbjörg) and simultaneously becomes the center of a police investigation into sexually explicit drawings popping up all over town, after he returns home. The premise of a film can intrigue me, but it’s seldom that it will cause me to raise an eyebrow, this one did. In part because of the drag racing aspect. This form of racing is rarely covered in the film and to see it here was welcome, and even more so because it was done so well. The respect for this sport is evident throughout, and the care given to it. 

This care and reverence do not extend to its woefully miscast lead, Robert Naylor as our main character, Alexandre. From the get-go, he is in over his head in a script that is very smart and aware of its subject matter, and instead, Naylor always has this expression that looks like the beginning of a punchline that we haven’t heard the setup to. This takes away from the countless serious moments and instead are even more awkward encounters than Grégoire intended to have in his film. This flaw is extremely detrimental to the overall quality of the film due to the way the story is framed, if we were following Björk instead of Naylor, then the film could’ve had a better RT (reaction time) rather than the red light going throughout the film.

The Noise of Engines Trailer

The Noise of Engines was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Raindance Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Raindance 2021 Film Festival Capsule Review: Death Is Smoking My Cigars

Written by Alexander Reams


“You know: I’m drunk once again, here, listening to Tchaikovsky, on the radio. Jesus, I heard him 47 years, ago.”

In 1987 Charles Bukowski scribed the poem Death Is Smoking My Cigars, an existential and reflective piece of poetry in which Bukowski reflects on his life and career. 34 years later, Misfit Productions adapted the poem into an animated short film. The best medium of film to adapt one of Bukowski’s poems. His surrealism and existentialism translate beautifully into animation. The style chosen is reminiscent of an indie game you would play on your phone to pass the time during work (just me? Okay moving on.) which has become one of my favorite animation styles, but can outstay its welcome if done poorly. Here it never does because the film doesn’t exceed the length of the poem, forcing the creators to stay between the length of the poem, it can be stretched to a degree, but will suffer, here it is not stretched. A truly moving and thought-provoking film that left me thinking long after the (very) short runtime ended.

Death Is Smoking My Cigars Trailer

Death Is Smoking My Cigars was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Raindance Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

VIFF 2021 Review: Belfast

Written by Taylor Baker


Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh’s latest film Belfast is a love letter to a time gone by. Like a mid-size jawbreaker, you know what it is from the outset, but there’s no way to speed up the process of engorging it. As every painfully sweet minute of Belfast rolls by you’re painfully aware that you can’t just chew through it, to do so would be a disaster. Instead, you let the film slowly pour itself onto you like syrup on a flapjack, it oozes along the length of it layering the top, the sides, and eventually the bottom. The sticky liquid seeps in from all around changing its quality and consistency. In this way so too does Branagh convey the life of a small picturesque block in Belfast between neighbors, where everybody knows each other.

Caitriona Balfe plays our surrogate adult lead character, listed simply as Ma. She staunchly wrangles her two sons and husband as best she can, expecting the best out of them. When off-screen her shadow is bled into the decisions and locations of the characters and city. Buddy, our budding new young child star, is invited by his cousin to join a gang and we see in the expression on buddies face his concern and frustration at the idea of being caught by his Ma and what would happen to him consequently.

Belfast starts with Ma hollering for Buddy to come home, that the whole neighborhood recounts up the street and over until eventually Buddy through the neighborhood’s voice here’s her call. He’s brandishing a wooden sword and metal trash can lid for a shield, dueling with another youngster of the neighborhood. He starts rushing back to meet his mother at their walk-up downtown two-story home number 96 when a legion of men at the far end of the street where it t’s amass and begin throwing Molotov cocktails, shattering windows, beating up those in the street, and eventually blowing up a car. 

The magic, the joy, the friendliness, and the closeness of this neighborhood has evaporated, like someone putting on the wrong glasses prescription everything looks wrong, then when you take them off your vision goes mostly back, but some things are uglier now. There’s razor-wire barricades, a man taking stock of whose coming and going as you walk through the barricade, it looks like a mini military outpost or something one would see when traveling between the two sides of Germany before the wall fell. It’s not the neighborhood that’s fallen and changed though, it’s the world around this idealistic block that’s shifted. The religious civil war between protestants and Catholics occurring.

Dame Judi Dench plays Granny and Ciarán Hinds is Pop. They draw a strong sense of life and roots to the family, like a sturdy foundation one gets the sense that the neighborhood stands exactly as it does because of the lives these two lead long before we came to lay eyes on them. Jamie Dornan’s Pa is frequently out of the picture hopping across the channel to work in England and leaving the boys and Ma by themselves. As the signs of civil war move up the street to their literal doorstep Pa begins to express his desire for the family to move on from Belfast. To a new country like Canada or Australia where they will no longer be in debt and he can spend time with the family in a place without violence. Ma doesn’t want to walk away from a whole community that loves and raises each other up. The tenuousness of their stance implicates itself on their relationship that doesn’t remove the love the two have but indicates the possibility of a need for separation. As he increasingly spends more and more time away from the family.

Belfast is a story of loss, longing, disillusionment, and family. Branagh’s life itself is reflected on his story with fun nods to a Thor comic and a Hercule Poirot novel from Agatha Christie titled Hallowe’en Party. One can’t help but hope that this may also be a sign of what may come, not just what’s been done by Branagh previously.

Belfast Trailer

Belfast was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

VIFF 2021 Review: The Book of Delights (O Livro dos Prazeres)

Written by Maria Athayde


The Book of Delights co-written and directed by Marcela Lordy is a loose adaptation of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s book Uma Aprendizagem ou o Livro dos Prazers. It tells the story of Lóri (Simone Spoladore) an elementary school teacher on a journey of self-discovery as she navigates her monotonous professional life and a series of sexual and romantic relationships. As the movie progresses Lóri develops a primarily pseudosexual relationship with an Argentinian philosopher called Ulisses (Javier Drolas) and it is this relationship that opens her eyes to new possibilities.  

As Lóri and Ulisses’ relationship becomes more intimate, we start to unravel all of her layers. We learn that Lóri is dealing with intense personal trauma, the death of her mother, and fractured family relationships that make her closed off and stand offish to the world and people. Ulisses can see past this façade and encourages Lóri to be more compassionate with herself and let others in. Their relationship is transfixing and sexy and sets much of the tone for the movie, It is through this relationship that Lóri starts to rediscover herself.  

Ultimately, what makes this movie work is Spoladore’s performance. She is sublime and the camera gravitates towards every frame she’s in, which is the majority of the movie. Spoladore’s performance is complemented by Lordy’s directorial touch. In particular, Lordy’s use of color really caught my attention. The scenes where Lordy uses fiery and passionate red hues coupled with cool darkness of the ocean at night time really drew me in. This movie does not do anything extraordinary but it does several things that will draw you in and make you keep watching.

The Book of Delights Trailer

The Book of Delights was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

VIFF 2021 Review: The Sanctity of Space

Written by Taylor Baker


The Sanctity of Space marks the first time either co-director/climber Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson have eclipsed a sixty minute runtime. It details the passage of the climbers on a collection of peaks that was plotted by renowned photographer, cartographer, explorer, and climber Bradford Washburn. The documentary serves as both historical reenactment of moments of Bradford’s life and a detailed recounting of Renan, Freddie, and Zack Smith’s attempt to climb the route. The route itself is drawn on a gorgeous enormous photograph that Bradford had taken back in the 1930’s. Leading us down an investigation into the life, experiences, and artistry of the Massachusetts native that fell in love with climbing as a child after a perpetual hayfever he suffered from cleared up during an ascent. 

The film quickly turns from historical reenactment and pursuit of a historically documented but unattempted climb to a personal retelling of dead friends, emotional experiences of our central climbers roughly between 2007 to 2013, and a few failures at the climb. It’s not at all clear why exactly the post production for the film took such a long time. But it’s clear that the choice to frame the film around Bradford Washburn came deep into their creative process. The historical reenactments are of great quality and convey a sense of the expedition that he was on and the risks he undertook.

There are a half dozen talking heads that walk us through the legacy of Washburn from his advice to Amelia Earhart that after being disregarded directly led to her death, and his over forty year term as Director of the Boston Museum of Science. It’s hard to imagine that I knew nothing of Washburn nor his legacy overtly before walking into the film. It stumbles where it attempts to juggle the intimate lives of our climbers with the nature of their expedition, like summiting the peaks themselves the film gets lost and loses its definition–its communicatory conveyance of the details of their physical climb. We don’t know exactly where they are or the way it felt to attempt the summits. They do overtly tell us at various points but as viewers we’re lost in the enormity of the mountains trying to tracing the route with them. Instead we witness only what we can, which is what they’ve captured and it doesn’t connect.

The Sanctity of Space was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

VIFF 2021 Review: Azor

Written by Maria Athayde


Azor is a Franco-Argentinian-Swiss co-production co-written and directed by Andreas Fontana marking his feature film debut. From the first shot there is something disorienting about the film. We see a somewhat disoriented man, surrounded by foliage, looking straight into the camera and shortly after we see two young men being questioned by the police at gunpoint on streets. At the same time, we observe a Swiss couple in a nearby car that are startled by this image as they make their way to their hotel after just landing in Buenos Aires. One of the things that contributes to this sense of disorientation is that characters often switch between Spanish, French, and English in the same sentence. So, understanding the context in which this film takes place helps enhance your viewing experience.

The film takes place in Argentina during the late 1970s early 1980s, a period of social and political unrest in the country. This period would later become known as Guerra sucia, or Dirty War in English. During this era thousands of people were killed or disappeared. The majority of those that went missing were seen as a threat to the military junta. It is within this fraught context that Azor takes place. Told through a series of distinct chapters we are introduced to Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), a Swiss banker, and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) as they embark on a journey to discover what happened to De Wiel’s partner who goes by the name Keys.

As the film unfolds, things become more unsettling. The plot is a bit sparse but there is a general understanding that finding Keys is the throughline which guides everything that happens on screen. The feeling of unease I had while watching this was also due to the economical and superb score as well as the dimly lit shots of De Wiel in Keys’ apartment trying to piece together what happened to his partner. Sharing anymore more would spoil the delicate surprises the rest of this film has in store. This film is an impressive socio-political character study that never feels heavy handed. Fontana’s precision and subtlety kept me invested even when not much was going on. All these achievements are more impressive considering this is Fontana’s debut feature. Azor is a definite recommendation on my list and one of the best films I’ve seen in 2021.

Highly Recommended

Azor Trailer

Azor was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.