God Help the Girl
Stuart Murdoch / UK / 111 mins
God Help the Girl opens so blissfully sweet that the impending toothache to come is obvious just minutes in. The debut film from Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch shows great promise in its opening act, following Eve, a beautiful but lost young woman escaping her clinical confines and finding solace in pop music and new friends James and Cassie. Murdoch is clearly a songwriter first, and the bursts of colourful melody that spontaneously propel the narrative are fun and surprising at first, but like the rest of the movie begin to grate by about the half way point, when it becomes clear that the story and the characters have no more weight to them than a pleasant, twee pop song. The story gets so thin as to be transparent, and despite all the good intentions and immense talent that went into the project, by the time the credits roll it feels less like a feature film and more like a bonus video that might accompany a record, stringing a loose narrative through a collection of, well, Belle and Sebastian songs. It’s a shame but far from a failure, and fans of Murdoch’s and filmgoers with a sweet tooth for something breezy and innocuous will no doubt be satiated.
Nas: Time is Illmatic
One9 / USA / 74 mins
I’ve often wondered if Illmatic is ever a burden for Nas. Despite all of the great records he’s made and the lengthy career he’s enjoyed as a hip-hop legend, it all seems to start and end with his 1994 debut. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a single review or article about him that doesn’t reference the record, typically in the context of it’s towering legacy and inability to ever be topped. 20 years after it’s debut, the album and the history, people, and neighbourhood that brought it to life are memorialized once again in Time is Illmatic.
As hip-hop documentaries go, this is quite good and reminiscent of Tupac: Resurrection, though smaller in scope. Director (and multimedia artist) One9 does an illuminating job opening up Queensbridge in the late 80’s/early 90’s, into the housing project that Nas and brother Jabari (aka Jungle) grew up in, raised separately by a doting mother and world-traveling jazz musician father. Beyond context, the film gives new life to the record’s dense lyricism, providing a street tutorial for film festival audiences and making unmistakable the weight and sophistication of the poetry at play. Those unfamiliar with the rapper or Illmatic are still given the opportunity to become enthralled by an iconic piece of music; for those who’ve already spent years banging the record in headphones, car stereos and turntables, it’s a celebration, and one that the artist himself embraces whole-heartedly.
Daniel Grou / Canada / 110 mins
The lush, layered new feature from Quebec’s Daniel Grou (aka Podz) is ambitious to say the least, studying themes of faith, companionship and family in a number of characters that intersect due to a plane crash. The accident’s sole survivor’s identity remains a mystery, cared for in the hospital by a Jehovah’s Witness nurse who has a husband of her own dying at home (a departure for Xavier Dolan, back in front of the camera), who won’t accept treatment due to the family’s faith. Also woven into the story are two elderly casino employees who find an exciting new romance with each other despite having loving partners at home, a drug smuggler attempting to make amends with his brother’s family, and a compulsive gambler and his alcoholic wife, whose relationship seems well past expiry. The narrative is expertly paced and plotted, with strong performances and a compelling mystery driving the film. It becomes heavy-handed and precious in the third act, working a little too hard to tug at the heart strings and dazzle with plot twists, but Miraculum remains another rich accomplishment for Quebecois cinema and director Grou.
A Dangerous Game
Anthony Baxter / UK / 90 mins
I don’t know if there’s a better documentary villain than Donald Trump. The golden-domed tycoon is just so utterly despicable, yet so camera-ready and quotable as to be an ideal target to pursue for an independent, politically-charged filmmaker like Anthony Baxter, who was on hand to share his new film A Dangerous Game with VIFF audiences. A follow-up to 2011’s You’ve Been Trumped, which chronicled a small Scottish community’s fight against the famous developer’s quest to build an ultra-luxury golf course on their land, Baxter’s new film broadens its scope to examine golf courses and resorts throughout the world, and their hazardous effects on the environment and cultures that they invade. After screening his first film around the world, Baxter was introduced to several other communities going through the same struggle as the simple folk of Aberdeenshire, particularly in the historic Croatian city of Dubrevnik, which is a major focal point of the film. From the middle east to the desert surrounding Las Vegas, the filmmaker makes no bones about the dangers of the bourgeouise past time, and while the film can be polemic and even disorganized at times it makes a truly compelling case and represents a great step forward for Baxter as a craftsman. And Trump himself finally agreeing to sit down to an interview for the film’s climax (after repeatedly bullying the Scot) does not disappoint!
Two Faces of January
Hossein Amani / UK, USA, France / 96 mins
The best novel adaptations are ones that capture the essence of the source material but stand completely on their own as works, requiring no familiarity with original text but also not hindered by it either. The Two Faces of January, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, never quite comes to life as a film despite its beautiful photography, vivid setting and stellar performances from heavyweights Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Inside Llewyn Davis’s Oscar Isaac. All the set pieces are there: Mortensen and Dunst play lovers traveling Athens who become entangled with Isaac’s con man before a surprise act of violence sets the three on a dark journey out across the east Mediterranean. However, Hossein Amani’s film clips along with such sturdy pacing and emotional restraint (set to a distancing score of vintage noir strings) that one can’t help but long for the rich human aspects of the story that the novel no doubt had the time to develop. While enjoyable enough as a viewing experience, there is the sensation that the film is merely recounting the novel’s key plot points, leaving most of the soul and the depth on the page.