Category Archives: Reviews of film and video

Movie inspires without saccharine

Searching for Sugar Man
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Empire Theatre, 3980 Shelbourne Street

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

“Thank you for keeping me alive,” Sixto Diaz Rodriguez says to the ecstatic South African crowd.

The words capture a triumphal moment in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. If you don’t manage to see it at the Empire Theatres this week, don’t mourn; it will be popping up again at Cinecenta on the University of Victoria campus.

Although the haunting snatches of Rodriguez’s song “Sugar Man” lured me to the theatre, the sharply told documentary soon captured my attention. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, the Swedish/British film started making waves at Sundance earlier this year. It encapsulates the search by two of Rodriguez’ South African fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, as they looked for the mysterious singer whose bootlegged album, they claimed, had provided “the soundtrack to our lives” and been such an important part of the anti-Apartheid struggle.

Everyone knows the facts now: Detroit-born Rodriguez, now 70, is a Mexican-American singer whose early promise – two albums, Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming from Reality in 1971 – never quite materialized. Apparently unbroken, he went on to live his life out of he spotlight: a BA in philosophy from Wayne State, lots of hard labour, fathering three daughters. Meanwhile, the rumours in South Africa were that he was dead by suicide or drug overdose.

Writing as Craig Bartholemew, here is how Strydom describes his search: “In 1996 I determined to find the man, dead or alive. After nine months, 72 telephone calls, 45 faxes, 142 e-mails, long nights reading through encyclopaedias, music books, dead ends, loose ends and fag ends I reached him. ‘Yes . . . it is I, Sixto [Seez- to] Rodriguez,’ said the voice on the other end of the telephone.”

As director, Bendjelloul focuses on the initial mystery and the fans’ search. In doing so, he elides much of Rodriquez’ personal story, including the singer’s career in regional politics, his local music career, his two visits to Australia, one of them touring with Midnight Oil, in order to tell the story from the South African perspective. But even though you are not getting the entire picture in Searching for Sugar Man, the movie keeps you entranced from beginning to end. And despite its title, it manages a feel-good ending without saccharine coating.

Scant Magic Lights Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children
Directed by Deepha Mehta
Screenplay by Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta
Preview: Odeon Theatre, Nov. 1, 2012

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

I’ve always said that Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s 1981 book about India’s independence, is the best novel the author has ever written. So you’d expect me to come away from the movie unimpressed, wouldn’t you? Because the book is always superior to the movie?

I was eager to see the movie and wanted to love it. Midnight’s Children is lovely to look at, studded with accomplished Bollywood actors and moments of humour and pathos. But, after what felt like a very long time, I left the theatre feeling somehow manipulated, as if I’d seen a sanitized and too-carefully-handled version of Rushdie’s magic realism. The movie captured the events of the novel but recreated none of its spirit and power.

Perhaps Mehta and Rushdie tried too hard or were too enamoured of each other’s reputation? Perhaps the book’s sprawling timeline is too difficult to manage as a movie? But where the novel manages to capture the teeming vitality of India, of its independence from Britain and the partition that followed, the movie feels as shackled to linear narrative (despite Rushdie’s voiceover) as the book’s characters are “harnessed to history.”

The children born on August 15, 1947, at the stroke of India’s independence, have special powers, and they are the promise of the “new India’s future.” As current events in Pakistan and Bangladesh daily reinforce, that legacy has gone awry. At the heart of the movie lies the “switched at birth” trope: Nurse Mary (played by Seema Biswas) impulsively follows her activist lover’s dictum (“Let the rich become poor and the poor become rich”). She switches wrist tags on the heir of a bourgeois couple with those of the son of an itinerant street musician. So the poor child Saleem “steals the life” of the rich-born Shiva. Saleem (Satya Bhaba) grows up in comfort while Shiva (Siddharth Narayan) rages against his poverty and becomes an acclaimed soldier. Neither boy learns of the swap for many years, but it is Saleem’s magic gift – his ability to summon his midnight-born peers with a snort of his gigantic proboscis – that lifts the show from its torpor.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t see the movie – Zaib Shaikh from Little Mosque on the Prairie has a cameo role – but I won’t leap up and down and urge you to go. It’s not bad, and some might find it educational, a cross between a Knowledge Network feature and a Merchant-Ivory film.

Adventures of a TIFF First Timer

Adventures of a TIFF First Timer

By Connor Gaston

After being exposed to UVic’s student film festival in 2010, I thought, Hmm, maybe I can do that.
In the summer of 2011, I shot my first short, Shoulda Coulda. It got in the following year and, to top it off, received “best director”—but I was happy just to be there.

After that boost to my confidence, I decided to shoot a short every summer. Only one year later, my modest goal paid off: I received the magic phone call and an invitation to premiere my latest short, Bardo Light, at the Toronto International Film Festival, called TIFF by all in the know. I felt like the prettiest girl at the dance.

TIFF-bound on the plane, my giddiness still fresh, I banged away on my laptop, trying to pump out my first feature film script. I looked around the plane, my ego wishing for someone to ask why I was headed to Toronto so that I could adjust my monocle and pronounce, “I’ve been summoned to show my film.” The plane load of non-TIFFers would gasp collectively. In short, I felt like a big shot. When I got off the plane, a TIFF volunteer holding a sign with my name on it added to my euphoria. Of course, my ego quickly deflated once I met fellow filmmakers with more experience, bigger budgets and much better films.

My TIFF experience revolved around movies and parties. If I wasn’t teetering by an open bar, I was in a sold-out theatre. On opening night, I was 10 minutes late for the world premiere of Looper and, if that wasn’t devastating enough already, I missed Joseph Gordon Levitt and director Rian Johnson introduce the film. I was invited to lots of parties, and some bigger parties I was less invited to. I clung to my fellow short filmmakers at the bigger parties for the first few drinks. After enough liquid confidence, I ventured off to schmooze more openly. I talked to producers, actors, distributors, and all types of people in the biz. Nearing the end of the night, I usually was found hunched over the cheese wheel cart, which was somehow endlessly replenished. Every night I stumbled back to the hotel with a handful of business cards, fewer business cards of my own, a silly how-did-I-get-here grin on my face, my pockets bulging with Gouda.

My short film, which I shot with top-quality gear (RED camera) but with a budget of just $50 and a couple of cases of beer for my workers, was the very first one shown in the shorts program. (700 shorts were entered from across Canada, of which 44 were selected.) In front of 250 people, I mumbled an introduction to my film, mostly thanking TIFF and the short-film programmers. The theatre finally went dark, Bardo Light started playing, only to cut to black a few seconds in. Apparently, all last month’s nightmares were actually premonitions. But after a few long minutes of darkness, the projector hummed to life, and I got to see my film played on the big screen. The audience seemed to like it; I thankfully didn’t catch anyone checking their cell phone or whispering, “What the hell is this?” I was instantly humbled by the shorts to come after mine: some with Hollywood production values, others with perfect dark comedy and one expertly crafted experimental documentary which went on to win the short category along with the $10,000 prize. That night I went out in search of more cheese, happy just to be there.

Connor Gaston is in the first-year of his MFA in Writing. Needless to say, his focus is film-making.


Move Over Rocky Horror Picture Show: The 21st Century Has Its Own Midnight Movie

By Matthew “Gus” Gusul

If I were to re-visit the 2010 version of myself he would never believe that in two short years, he would be writing an article about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. In 2010, when I was first forced to watch the movie by my wife and brother-in-law, I assumed (and hoped) I would never watch The Room again. It is a terrible movie. It has very little merit as a piece of art. If someone set out to intentionally make the worst film ever, they would fall short in comparison with this movie. In my opinion, everyone involved in the creation of this work should be forced to sign a decree commissioned by the government, monarchy, papal office, or some Hollywood higher power that all parties involved will never again, under any circumstances, engage in another artistic endeavor in their lives and to do so would be criminally and artistically negligent.

The Room is written, directed, produced, and starring Tommy Wiseau. Hmmm. Warning signals go off at this point. It is the story of a man who is in love with a woman who cheats on him with his best friend. He discovers the affair and the audience sees his world unravel. “Everyone betray me. I am sick of this world.” Also, the movie features a number of sub plots that are briefly introduced and go nowhere. There are major holes in the plot, long pointless panoramic views of San Francisco, characters inexplicably entering and exiting the story, a game of football played in tuxedos in a back alley, and as far as I can see, no reason why anyone should watch it.

Against my better judgment, my wife and I attended The Room at Cinecenta on the University of Victoria campus on a Saturday in late January 2012. I knew little of what to expect going to this movie. All I knew was that the movie was terrible and that we needed to bring plastic spoons. I went with a sense of dread, but I was surprised at my experience. I had fun and my eyes have been opened to a 21st century cultural phenomenon.

It was a packed house filled with over 150 weirdos, nerds, and innocent bystanders (like me), corralled in by the freaks (like my wife) who enjoy this movie. Many of them were dressed like characters from the movie and playing catch with a football. This cult even has its own greeting, borrowed from the movie. Instead of saying hello to each other, the greeting of choice was “Oh hai, Marc”, a quote from the movie. Okay? …The movie started and we quickly learned some of the rituals of audience behaviour. Every time a character would inexplicably exit the scene, the audience would yell, “But you just got here!” During the long panning shots of the San Francisco skyline the audience would yell, “Go! Go! Go!” until we were returned to the action of the film. At several points in the movie, audience members threw plastic spoons at the screen and yelled “Spooooooooooooons!” It took some time to sort out what was going on, but I eventually realized there was a framed picture of a spoon in the main room of the house where the couple lives together. If you see the picture – yell and throw. Throughout the entire show people yelled or booed or cheered at the film, except one scene that takes place in a flower store. At the beginning of the scene, people in the audience shush everyone. The audio and video are not in sync and the audience finds humor in this poorly executed editing. This moment highlights the delight the audience finds in this poor quality film.

This phenomenon is not unique to Victoria. It has been happening since 2003 all over North America, and is just starting to enter Europe. Originally, The Room was released as a drama. Audience members started showing up to screening to mock the movie, and creator Tommy Wiseau changed the film’s listing to dark comedy. Now this movie has drawn a cult following that has made it a full-fledged movement complete with Internet memes, YouTube videos, and merchandise. The beauty of this phenomenon is the community created by moviegoers and fans who attend, not to celebrate brilliance as is often the case, but to celebrate poor quality; the epic fail that the movie represents. This movie is something we can all excitedly boo.

Perhaps this says something of a generation and of 21st century art culture. We have been wowed in so many ways. How many times has a masterpiece been crafted for cinema? All of us can name titles of tens, if not hundreds, of excellent films. The new generation has proclaimed that it enjoys poor quality art, giving rise to 21st century art culture, one that enjoys celebrating and making light of the shortcomings of The Room.

This is a phenomenon that will not go away. Trust me, I checked with the 2020 version of myself on this one. If you haven’t done it yet, go see this movie. If you don’t, you will be left wondering what all these weirdos, nerds, and innocent bystanders are laughing about.


Directed by: S. Shankar. Starring: Rajnikanth and Aishwarya Rei.

2010 Sun Pictures. In Tamil with English subtitles.

When I was growing up on Montreal’s South Shore, a trip to the local Indian grocer was always a treat. It was one of the few connections my sister and I had to my mother’s native land. The pungent aromas of masala and the fine mist of dust would always coax a sneeze as we stomped off past the syrupy laddus and salted treats to the video rental section to choose a movie, usually one which featured a sassy monkey. Most Indian grocers in Canada have a well-stocked selection of Indian films and music, a tradition that continues today.

Not that I’ve moved to the west coast, I find myself missing my connection with the South Asian community. Burdened with that longing, I stumbled upon Enthiran, a recently released Tamil-language Indian sci-fi blockbuster.

Enthiran means “The Robot,” and this isn’t a Bollywood movie. It’s actually Kollywood. The difference? Bollywood movies are usually in Hindi and filmed in Bombay (my family will never call it Mumbai), whereas Kollywood caters to Tamil speakers and is located in the state of Tamil Nadu, the southernmost point of the country.

Enthiran is like a mash-up of The Terminator, The Matrix and the live action Transformers. Dr. Vaseegaran, a brilliant robotics expert creates Chitti, a sophisticated, sunglasses-wearing robot made in his master’s image. This allows both roles to be played by Rajinikanth, a big action star in Indian cinema. Think of him as the 61 year-old Indian version of Chuck Norris. Indian make-up artists have a true gift, as the actor doesn’t look a day over 35. Chitti forms a bond with Vaseegaran’s girlfriend, Sana (played by veteran Bollywood star and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai) and helps her get into and out of several mischievous (and some very dangerous) situations.

Hoping to make his creation a masterpiece, Vaseegaran gives Chitti emotions, which leads him to fall madly in love with Sana. This doesn’t jive well when Chitti’s evaluated by the military. Apparently stuffing roses into live grenades and telling the army brass you’re in love with your creator’s girlfriend is NOT appropriate behaviour for robots in the Indian Armed Forces.

Every hero needs a villain, and Enthiran doesn’t disappoint. Enter Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa), Vaseegaran’s mentor, friend and competitor in the robot-making business. Bohra is incensed that his robot can’t even walk while Chitti single-handily caters an Indian wedding. Suffice to say, when Bohra finally gets his hands on Chitti, he turns it/him into a murderous machine fuelled by rage and leather jackets.

In order to appeal to a more general audience, the filmmakers invest considerable screen time into the love story. Comedians Santhanam and Karunas appear as Vaseegaran’s dim-witted assistants and provide most of the comic relief. Their scenes are often over-cranked, a film technique where the slapstick action is slightly faster and jerky. The effect is like watching Buster Keaton and the Keystone Kops try to trip up The Terminator. It’s silly, but it works.

If this were a standard Hollywood blockbuster, we’d already be into sequel territory. Director S. Shankar will have none of that. Barely passed the intermission, you really do feel like you’re getting two movies for the price of one, and the 165 minute run-time reinforces that feeling. Unlike western films that favour a three-act structure, Enthiran‘s structure is closer to five.

And yes, in matching with its Bollywood cousins, there is singing. And dancing. And dancing robots who sing. Shot in locations like Machu Picchu, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro and Hanoi, each musical number has its own theme, style and feel. One musical number serves as a visual representation of Chitti morphing from an emotionless robot to a love-struck Casanova. Digital flowers and butterflies bloom from circuit boards as we’re flung through a fibre-optic cable into a giant metallic room with a silver-suited Chitti and techno-clad Sana surrounded by dancing robots with an uncanny resemblance to Doctor Who’s Cybermen. Canadian musicians could only dream of making music videos with these kind of production qualities.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Enthiran, and recent Indian cinema, is the inclusion of English dialogue. Whenever a character gives an order, or makes a firm, technical statement, it’s in English. Since I hail from La Belle Nation Province, where our two official languages co-exist in a begrudging temporary truce, I was surprised at the film’s bilingualism.

That’s not to say the film is without faults. The combination of so many special-effect shots and an extremely tight turnaround time following principal photography means corners had to be cut. Some effects are mind-blowing in their complexity, while others are very noticeably CG. Despite all its flaws, at a budget of $37 million, it’s a fraction of the cost of Michael Bay’s explosive disaster The Transformers and creates an emotional connection between audience and characters. Go figure.

To date, Enthiran has grossed an estimated $82 million worldwide. Not quite in the same league as Hollywood blockbusters, but when you factor in producers’ marketing costs, Enthiran is probably much more profitable. Who knows how much more it would have made with a sassy monkey?

–With a strong background in comedy, Montreal native Ryan Harper-Brown has worked in film, television, print, radio and live theatre. Ryan has an MFA in Writing from UVic and an MA in Film and Television Production from Australia’s Bond University. He currently works as a sessional instructor for UVic’s Writing Department.

Winds of Heaven: Emily Carr, Carvers & The Spirits of the Forest

Directed by Michael Ostroff
Reviewed by Frances Backhouse


Like many contemporary British Columbians, I can’t hike on the West Coast without Emily Carr ghosting along beside me. I don’t even realize she’s there until suddenly a shaft of light strikes a cedar in just the right way and the scene before me transforms into an oil painting on canvas. Ottawa-based director Michael Ostroff seems to be subject to the same kind of double vision and has turned it to magnificent advantage in his latest cinematic offering, Winds of Heaven, which premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in October 2010.

After struggling for recognition as an artist for most of her life, Carr is now widely acknowledged as one of Canada’s pre-eminent 20th-century painters. Ostroff could have simply chronicled her rise to fame, providing a comfortable diversion for her many admirers. Instead, he chose to explore Carr’s relationship to the First Nations culture that so strongly influenced her creative journey. The resulting 90-minute documentary is a nuanced and original take on her work and life, which ViFF executive director Alan Franey calls “[o]ne of the most important films ever made about our province.”

British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, the year Carr was born; by the time she died in 1945, the province had assumed its modern identity. As Carr was growing up, B.C.’s original inhabitants were being increasingly marginalized. Yet, unlike most of her contemporaries, Carr was fascinated by indigenous culture, particularly the work of First Nations carvers. Her paintings of totem poles are among her most famous.  Klee Wyck, a memoir about her visits to First Nations villages, won the 1941 Governor General’s award for nonfiction and continues to sell well. According to First Nations art critic Marcia Crosby, however, Carr’s ongoing popularity does no favours to the people who furnished her inspiration.

“The way [Carr’s] history has been collapsed with aboriginal history has the power to teach very old ideas,” observes Crosby, who, along with ’Ksan museum curator Laurel Smith Wilson and art historians Gerta Moray and Susan Crean, provides commentary through the film. One of Ostroff’s main goals, an admirable one, appears to be refuting those out-dated ideas about the obsolescence and inferiority of First Nations culture. At times this narrative thread threatens to eclipse Carr’s story, but ultimately the integration is successful. My only objection to the film  is that Ostroff comes close to holding Carr responsible for an entire generation’s racist attitudes and hurtful behaviour, not just her own.

Fittingly for a film about art, Winds of Heaven is a treat to watch. John Walker’s fluid camerawork gives us sumptuous footage of wild coastal landscapes and luminous rainforest close-ups that perfectly complement shots of Carr’s paintings, while archival footage and photographs and period recreations fill in historical background.

The dramatizations never show Carr in full—usually only her hands are visible: sketching, painting, typing—but we hear her through the voice of veteran Stratford actress Diane D’Aquila, who reads selections from Carr’s letters, diaries and published writings. What we do see are vivid, believable reconstructions of Carr’s world, including her childhood home, the pension where she lived while studying art in Paris and the Victoria boarding house that she ran for years and memorialized in The House of All Sorts. Scenes of her 1930s painting expeditions into the semi-wilderness around Victoria, with a caravan she dubbed “The Elephant,” are especially striking.

For anyone who is unacquainted with Carr, Winds of Heaven offers an excellent introduction. More important, it challenges those of us who think we already know her to take another look at the artist and her art — and to fully appreciate where both came from.

For more insights into Emily Carr, check out The Other Emily: Redefining Emily Carr, March 2 to October 10, 2011, at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.