VIFF 2021 Review: Azor

Written by Maria Athayde

80/100

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.

VIFF 2021 Review: Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades, Paris 13e)

Written by Taylor Baker

86/100

Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District is a metaphorical mic drop on the anthology romance films you might know from the last twenty or so years like New York, I Love You or Berlin, I Love You (very original titles, as you can see.). Audiard last flooded cinema screens with 2018’s The Sisters Brother. An unorthodox western built on great characters and beautiful cinematography. Based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name. Likewise Paris, 13th District is based on a previous written work. Four of Adrian Tomine’s short stories, Amber Sweet, Killing and Dying, Summer Blonde, and Hawaiian Getaway.

Each narrative is woven together building on the characters and tensions of the previous segments. It first builds itself on the back of a very capable newcomer to film Lucie Zhang as Émilie Wong draped nude on a couch singing karaoke to her new lover and a character we’ll come to spend a large amount of the next hour and forty so minutes with Camille Germain played sincerely and unquestioningly by Makita Samba. One day Camille knocks on Émilie’s door inquiring about a room for rent. Which leads to a weeklong passionate fling between the two. Ending as suddenly as it began with cold and delicious spiteful humor from Émilie sitting at breakfast dummying up new roommate rules now that they won’t be romantic partners.

If it seems a bit conventional and unsubstantial that’s because it is on the surface. The pain these twenty and thirty something budding adults are navigating is at the periphery of the story. Émilie’s grandmother is slowly dying. The apartment she’s living in and renting out the room to Camille is also her grandmothers, who now lives in a nursing home a short distance away. Yet Émilie cannot bring herself to face her, despite her demanding mother’s insistence that she go see her. Camille is likewise navigating his own heartache which in his words has him not ready to date anyone, not just Émilie. Naturally this assertion evaporates when he meets his teaching replacement, Stéphanie played by Oceane Cairaty. 

Camille leaves Émilie and moves in with Stéphanie. At this point the film’s introductory segment that starts with Émilie singing karaoke on the couch ends distinctly with an image of Jehnny Bett’s Amber Sweet beginning a cam show mostly nude except for some lingerie while brandishing a vibrator. It’s a powerful shift tonally and visually that resonates long after the credits roll. Two women brandishing mechanical objects trying to play at something, to feel something, to reach something. It’s not a clean metaphor nor is it a clear one, but it leaves something in your teeth to think about, especially as each of these women develop throughout the film.

This second act though actually isn’t as much about Amber Sweet as it is about Noémie Merlant’s Nora Ligier. Nora, a 33 year old woman, recently left her career in real estate with her uncle to go back to school in Paris with the goal of achieving a law degree. While attending university she decides to attend a party with her classmates. In preparation of the event she purchases a wig and dolls herself up. While at the party the boys Amber was performing for at the beginning of the act mistake her for Amber. Which leads to a university wide rumor of students laughing at Nora. Climaxing in a cacophony of phone notifications and a wall of students in a lecture hall each bathed in the light of their smartphones watching Amber’s videos in stifled laughter while Nora attempts to stutter her way through a question for the professor.

Each of these characters has an intimate pain which you might call trauma at their core, a past, present, or looming future tragedy on their mind and in their heart. Trying to process who they are and who they want to be while navigating the eternally messy all too human pursuit of romance. Hurting each other and themselves as they stumble through life. At once a beautifully photographed fully realized vision of contemporary life for meandering millennial adulthood in Paris, and a sterling depiction of how short stories can be seamed together to reach something deep and beautiful in film. One of my favorite scenes of the year which encapsulates the eternally human with the new technological age is Émilie playing an old piano reading sheet music off an iPad, eventually she has to lift her hand up to scroll to the next section. It says everything, and nothing. Some things never change, despite our new tools, and new ages.

Paris, 13th District Trailer

Paris, 13th District was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver Film Festival.

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

Raindance Film Festival 2021 Capsule Review: A Family That Steals Dogs

Written by Alexander Reams

62/100

Reflection is often our own therapy. Reflecting on what has been happening in your life, the choices you’ve made, so they can help influence your future decisions. Such is the case for Writer/Director/Narrator John C. Kelley. Following an artist after a death in the family as he retreats to a cabin to reflect on his grief, the family, and his own mental illness. Utilizing the animation medium to convey his frustrations through a narrative that seems all too real. With most of his dialogue being very nihilistic and philosophical, Kelley truly exposes the raw nature of this film. It’s to vent, to verbalize his frustrations. This is what set A Family That Steals Dogs apart from most animation that I’ve seen this year. The raw nature of Kelley’s dialogue, as well as the animation style. He opted for hand-drawn, and not hand-drawn that is converted to look like traditional animation, the film looks like a first draft of animation, and the film is elevated to another level because of this. I love hand-drawn animation and without it here who knows if the film could’ve been as affecting as it was. My only issue with the film is that it is too short. I wanted more, this very much feels in the vein of Don Hertzfeldt, particularly It’s Such a Beautiful Day, mainly due to his nihilistic and existential themes, which run rampant throughout both films. I loved what this film had to say. Kelley is clearly a new voice but his raw talent cannot be denied and should be celebrated.

A Family That Steals Dogs Short Film

A Family That Steals Dogs 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: Bye Bye Morons (Adieu les cons)

Written by Maria Athayde

20/100

Bye Bye Morons written, directed and starring Albert Duponte as Jean-Baptiste Cuchas is one of the weirdest and worst movies I’ve seen all year. On the surface, it had an interesting premise a woman, Suze Trappet, (Virginie Efira) dying with an autoimmune disease; a disgruntled employee – who was just fired from his job – and a blind man Serge Blin (Nicolas Marié) form an unlikely friendship while on the run from the cops and in search of Trappet’s long lost child. But beyond this unusual premise a lot of this movie just gets “lost in translation”.

The comedy of error and running gags throughout the movie do not translate well to non-Francophone speakers. Most of the gags were mispronunciation of French words and names that went way over my head given my limited proficiency with the French language. The subtitles also do not the jokes justice.

Beyond this basic premise and the pairing of three unlikely people nothing really happens. They basically run from the cops and make a few jokes that I did not understand. It is just one of the movies that is too specifically rooted in language for audiences that aren’t familiar with France and French culture. While this movie did well in the French box office I have a hard time seeing how it will find an audience elsewhere.

Bye Bye Morons Trailer

Bye Bye Morons was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival and is currently available to rent and purchase from most major VOD platforms.

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: A Tale of Love and Desire

Written by Maria Athayde

50/100

Writer-director Leyla Bouzid’s A Tale of Love and Desire follows the story of two college students Ahmed (Sami Outalbali) and Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor) on a journey of lust, love, and self-discovery. The movie picks up on the first day of where Ahmed and Farah attend a comparative literature class focusing on Arab and western literature. From this point on, Ahmed and Farah develop a friendship that guides us through the rest of the movie.

This movie completely hinges on Outalbali’s and Belhajamor performance and both actors do a fantastic job conveying the emotions and sexual tension both characters feel. We have Ahmed, the French-Algerian student that is struggling to come to terms with his identity. At times, he does not know if he feels more French or Algerian. His internal struggle makes him seem closed off, defensive, and high strung. Then we have Farah, a confident Tunisian immigrant who is adjusting to her new life in college pretty well.

The friendship these two characters develop starts with a discussion of what should be considered literature and what should not. As they read The Perfumed Garden by Nefzawi, a 15th century sex manual of sorts, they start to grow closer and the movie starts to explore what love and desire mean. Throughout this exploration the movie is never voyeuristic or overtly explicit; it is more contemplative about what love and desire evoke in each of us. In the end, this movie feels just like a “slice of life”. There is nothing too remarkable or profound about it but, instead, it makes you sit with your feelings and think about your own circumstances.

A Tale of Love and Desire Trailer

A Tale of Love and Desire 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.

Raindance Film Festival 2021 Preview | with Thomas Stoneham-Judge of ForReel

Raindance Film Festival 2021 Preview | Taylor Baker speaks with Thomas Stoneham-Judge of ForReel about what their each looking forward to at the Raindance Film Festival and what great films the festival has that they’ve already had the opportunity to see.

The 2021 edition of the Raindance Film Festival runs from October 27th to November 6th. To learn more about the festival and see more of what Raindance has to offer, visit https://raindance.org/

VIFF 2021 Review: Sinkhole

Written by Alexander Reams

62/100

There is always the calm before the storm. Peace before the war, silence before the rooster begins screaming and wakes me up from my lovely sleep, then the ensuing cursing of the rooster and attempting to return to my sleep. The latter being the case of the Korean master of disaster, Kim Ji-hoon’s latest film, Sinkhole. Park Dong-won has saved money for over a decade to buy a nice home for his family in the capital of South Korea, Seoul. Shaking off a few peculiarities the family notices in their new home until this culminates in a housewarming party for the Dong-won family when the building collapses into a pit and those who remain try to survive and escape their new, less than desirable abode. 

The most common issue with disaster films is that the characters never come first, always the destruction and death, which leads to emotionally void films that we never care about unless we turn our brains off. Ji-hoon goes the opposite route here, putting characters and their relationships with one another first, at least for the beginning, however that development is far and beyond better than your average disaster film. Once that first crack in the floor hits nothing but the bare minimum character development follows. An unfortunate reality for the film after that fantastic beginning.

The destruction is well filmed and the visual effects employed are fantastic, better than most superhero films. However, the destruction gets to a point that I never cared when another piece of rubble fell and almost killed a character. I never cared if they survived or not because all of the development was null and void after the building was destroyed. That was Dong-won’s entire goal of the film and it went away all too quickly. The runtime of this film is not too short or too long but misused. Too much time is put towards destruction and the race to survival, instead of actual and meaningful character development. Mismanagement of time just like the mismanagement of where the building was built.

Sinkhole Trailer

Sinkhole was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International 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: Maya

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Maya starts as the story of a relationship between a tiger, Maya, and her keeper, Mohsen Teyerani, a taxidermist-cum-zookeeper at the Mashhad Zoo in Iran. Mohsen hand-raised Maya as a cub, and home videos reveal her frolicking around his house, playing with his wife and children; eventually, she moved to the zoo, where she and Mohsen have become an odd couple celebrity: he is completely at ease with the tiger, calling to her and petting her like she’s a dog rather than a 300-pound feline. Zoo guests can even get in the cage with Maya as Mohsen looks on.

It’s a simultaneously touching and unsettling sight. Mohsen clearly adores Maya, and she seems to adore him, yet her cage is small, the flooring is concrete, and there is nowhere to hide from the guests; we watch her pace restlessly up and down the fenceline, bright golden eyes glittering. Directors Jamshid Mojaddadi and Anson Hartford, while they give commentary elsewhere in the film, only use the camera to show us this, condemning nothing but allowing viewers to take in the strange dichotomy found in Mohsen and Maya’s relationship: he loves her, but is that love enough? 

Mohsen takes Maya out to the fields of the Caspian Sea for a film, and there she experiences the outdoors for the first time, becoming the first tiger seen in the area for 60 years after the Caspian tigers were driven to extinction. Mojaddadi and Hartford craft some beautiful shots as Maya prowls the grasses, and it’s clear that she is far more comfortable here than her concrete cage. Mohsen knows this too, but knows that she can’t be released into the wild, either, and so they have to go back to the zoo. “If Maya could talk,” Mohsen tells the camera, “she would tell me that I gave her false hope. It was like a short-lived dream. ‘You showed me a whole new world, I got used to it, I learned to love it, then you took it away from me and brought me back to this horrible place.’ These are the things she would say to me, and I wouldn’t know how to answer that.”

After her sojourn to the Caspian Sea, Maya evolves into something else when news of tiger remains found at the zoo comes to light. Suddenly a whole lot more ethical questions pop up, and some of them implicate Mohsen; while he claims innocence, at one point, the phrase “just following orders” arises, which unearths a set of very thorny questions. Questions of power and economics come into play, government employees investigate the zoo and rattle off canned lines about protecting the environment and the animals, and the stress causes Maya to lash out in various ways. While some of these questions were gently posed at the beginning of the film (so gently in fact that you would be forgiven for forgetting these elements, which would have more weight had they been brought up with more frequency), they are thrown into sharp relief here; by and large, Mojaddadi and Hartford leave the audience to come to their own conclusions, and while they occasionally offer their own thoughts, the most effective moments come when they let the camera do the talking. The second half proves more interesting than the first as Maya wades into some moral quandaries, many of which pose tantalizing questions that are left unanswered, but the film proves a quietly affecting piece, even if it’s better at raising questions than addressing them.

Maya Trailer

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

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

DXIFF 2021 Review: The Rescue

Written by Taylor Baker

50/100

Oscar Winning Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi follow up their harrowing Oscar Winning documentary Free Solo with a film about the extraction mission conducted by Thai Seals and Divers in Thailand to save a youth soccer team that was trapped in the cave. The film is composed primarily of historical reenactment footage, with event footage captured by the many cameras on site during the extraction, and talking head style interviews recounting the process and journey undertaken. The Rescue begins with some shots of flooded farmland in Thailand before cutting to Vern Unsworth pointing at a map trying to explain the only way they can get the children out of the cave while someone translates his English to Thai so the man who seemingly presides over the operation can understand. It effectively puts you immediately in the middle of the chaos in an effort to feel what it’s like to accomplish this extraction. Not unlike Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi’s way of looking straight down the sheer cliff faces in Free Solo to put you right there on the mountain side with Honnold.

The boys had wandered into the cave playing that day while celebrating a birthday. The cave functioned as a sort of playground for them to play in and typically when the cave system begins flooding in July it is closed off. But in June when they boys entered it and had not yet been sealed to the public. While they were inside a sort of flash flood occurred that immediately sealed the cave system with water forcing them up to the highest point in the caves with limited oxygen supply in the pocket they made it to. Vern Unsworth(who you may know from the kerfuffle with Elon Musk during the extraction.) instructs the team heading up operations that the only chance they’ll have to successfully rescue the boys is to get the best cave divers in the world.

Which leads us into an introductory sequence with Rick Stanton and John Volunthen, renowned as the world’s best cave divers. From there we get an amalgamation of stitched together footage and voice over recounting their arrival to the camp and their recollection of the difficult process to convince the authorities to not only allow them access to the caves but to let them perform the extraction one at a time by injecting a medication to knock the boys out so they could be extracted one at a time by the divers. Convincing Dr. Richard Harris one of the best anaesthesiologists in the world to come up from Australia to help with administering the drugs. It would be a harrowing documentary if we didn’t already know how it ended more than three years ago. It plays like a thriller and a bit like PR film for the subjects. Their look at Honnold was much more neutral, it was clear they loved him, but they let in his faults, his ego, and some of his callousness. Characteristics that would have been welcome this time around from anyone besides those who are presented to have impeded the rescue mission. Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi are clearly here to stay. Let’s hope the next thing they turn their cameras toward they’re a bit more objective or more transparent about their roles during filming.

The Rescue Trailer

The Rescue was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and is currently screening in limited theatrical release nationwide.

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

VIFF 2021 Review: Sin La Habana

Written by Anna Harrison

45/100

Director Kaveh Nabatian’s Sin La Habana has grand ambitions, much like its protagonist, Leo (Yaneh Acosta), a talented Afro-Cuban ballet dancer who dreams of leaving Cuba to find a better life elsewhere. Together with his girlfriend, Sara (Evelyn Castroda O’Farrill), Leo decides the best way to get out is to seduce someone, and the easiest target is Nasim (Aki Yaghoubi), a lonely Iranian-Canadian tourist who enrolls in Leo’s dance classes. Soon enough, Nasim extends an invitation to Leo to join her in Montreal, and Nabatian swaps the colorful and chaotic streets of Cuba for the snowy and stark landscape of Canada. The contrast could not be starker, and cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez beautifully frames the different cities, one warm, one cold.

As Leo settles into his new life, he struggles to avoid the pull he feels from Nasim, and Nasim struggles to avoid the judgement of her family. Leo struggles to find success as a dancer despite his talent, instead faced with cultural barriers and lack of opportunity for someone who looks like him; while the dance scenes are engaging, and Acosta’s background as a professional ballet dancer clearly shows, for a movie that seems to place so much emphasis upon dance it feels surprisingly hollow: how did Leo start dancing? What moves him to dance? Why is it so important to him that he keeps trying, no matter how many rejections he’s handed?

It’s issues like these that prevent Sin La Habana from grasping those aforementioned grand ambitions: it tries to juggle so many ideas that none of them are given enough weight. In a movie that tries to position itself as a profound meditation on race, gender, immigration, identity, and all the things that come with it, it largely skates over these issues, giving them only cursory but obvious glances which retread well-worn ground. In particular, there is one baffling scene where Nasim’s father calls Leo the n-word, and while the movie certainly attempts to explore the prejudices of racism and xenophobia, this slur comes out of nowhere and is dismissed with practically a wave of a hand. It occurs quickly and is ignored just as quickly, doing nothing to the story or the characters, only leaving a sour taste in the mouth as Nasim barely reacts to this offense and barely even acknowledges it. (It should be noted that technically the subtitles called Leo the n-word, as Nasim’s father is speaking in Hebrew, so perhaps the Hebrew equivalent doesn’t carry the same weight as the n-word does to any American viewers like myself, but why would the subtitles go for that exact word as opposed to something less blindsiding in a movie that, up to this point, had been more subtle in its observations?) 

These issues are compounded by a lack of chemistry from the lead actors, sapping the love triangle of any potency and instead rendering it a young adult cliché. When the three of them collide, what should be a taut, climactic moment becomes dull and uninteresting. Sin La Habana has all the promise in the world, but sadly squanders it in a scattershot film that never focuses long enough on anything to make it interesting.

Sin La Habana Trailer

Sin La Habana was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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