DOXA preview

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

houses on cranes
The documentary Microtopia profiles unique, small dwelling spaces.

• Spring is here and with it a new batch of top-notch, international documentaries at the DOXA Festival (www.doxafestival.ca), the west coast counterpart to Toronto’s world renowned Hot Docs.

DOXA opens with Virunga, at the Playhouse on May 2. The documentary depicts the heroics of rangers protecting Africa’s oldest national park in Eastern Congo – and, in particular, the rare gorilla population – from poaching and war. Just last month, the park’s chief warden was shot four times in an assassination attempt, showing how dangerous this conservation work is. Judging from the dramatic trailer, this is going to be a powerful and moving one to watch.

DOXA director of programming Dorothy Woodend has gathered a wide-ranging festival of 90 films in 78 screenings. Pop culture gets pride of place with a profile of Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu and septuagenarian, gay rights activist George Takei in To Be Takei. The festival closer on May 11, A Brony Tale, looks at the frankly bizarre phenomenon of male fans of My Little Pony. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s serious political intrigue in Plot for Peace, in which a French businessman engineered the release of Nelson Mandela from prison; and Johanna Hamilton’s 1971, an expose of the dirty tricks of Hoover’s FBI. In fact, Woodend has devoted a whole strand of documentaries to subterfuge in a spotlight entitled “Secrets & Lies.”

DOXA also has a good selection of environmental docs. DamNation is particularly impressive and pertinent given the BC government’s plans to build the Site C mega-dam. Focusing on “how the conversation has changed” with regard to US hydro power, it’s beautifully shot and put together with cheeky humour and fascinating insights into the US’s legacy of dams. Ultimately, it captures the raw emotion and pure wonder we feel about wild rivers and salmon, particularly after a dam has been demolished.

Microtopia, which profiles small dwelling spaces, is also enjoyable. The homes range from the outlandish to damn cute: there’s a floating island of recycled plastic, a pod hanging out of a tree and a shrunken wooden chalet where every inch has been fastidiously built for optimum use. Living space is treated almost as a living art project and it leaves us mindful of how easily clutter creeps into our day-to-day lives.

On the music side, Jeremy Xido’s Death Metal Angola is a revelatory portrait of how kids at an orphanage in war-torn Huambo are finding a kind of catharsis in a very western brand of hardcore metal. There is also a screening of Robert Elfstrom’s 1972 documentary Pete Seeger: A Song and a Stone.

Beyond DOXA, it’s good to see a big-bucks series such as Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously (www.yearsoflivingdangerously.com) tackling the vexed issue of climate change. Harrison Ford and Don Cheadle are among the stars trying to get to the heart of the matter in the first episode (free online).

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate. Crowd-funding campaign donations are welcome at www.fund.runningonclimate.com

The same, but different

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Ed Harris and Annette Bening in The Face of Love. © 2013 IFC Films.

• The truth will out. The surprise in romantic drama The Face of Love (due out on the 18th) is that it takes so long to arrive. Annette Bening plays Nikki, a designer still grieving the loss of her husband Garrett (Ed Harris) five years earlier. One day, she spots a dead ringer for Garrett and tracks the stranger down to the local university. After some embarrassing awkwardness, she enrolls in his art class. Tom (also played by Ed Harris) finds Nikki’s flirtatious and freaky fascination with him somehow alluring. Nikki, meanwhile, doesn’t want to do anything that will break the increasingly fragile illusion. Bening and Harris work well together and manage to paper over some of the gaping holes in the story: such as how Tom and Garrett – the latter who we see in vignetted flashbacks – could be so alike. The chic, sun drenched LA backdrop somehow adds to the sense of normalcy of the situation, but the pay-off is too slow in coming and an interesting late change in the film’s tone into psychodrama territory is a case of too little, too late.

Whenever sci-fi fans talk about David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune, it is in tones of regret about missed opportunity. A new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune (due out 4th), asks what if instead of David Lynch’s 1984 flop, cult Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had adapted Dune for the big screen? In 1975, Jodorowsky had lined up a stellar cast: Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and David Carradine. Even Salvador Dali and the director’s own 12-year-old son Brontis were apparently on board. There was a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and art by the era’s big talents H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. However, after two years and 3,000 storyboards, financing didn’t happen. Directed by American Frank Pavich, the head-trip of a film includes some unseen realizations of Jodorowsky’s vision and interviews with the director himself, now in his 80s.

Anyone interested in the idea of capitalism being more “conscious” and “caring” should check out the hour-long documentary Not Business As Usual, which profiles a number of local entrepreneurs trying to fashion businesses that balance social values with the profit motive. The doc, directed by Lawrence Le Lam and written by Rik Klingle-Watt, seems to be an advocacy vehicle for its producer, the business accelerator Institute B. But there’s a lot to like and learn as entrepreneurs candidly share their struggles and successes. You can watch the doc for free on Vimeo (http://vimeo.com/83898645) or better still catch a special screening and panel discussion at Vancity Theatre on the 8th, 6.30PM.

The annual Reel 2 Real Film Festival (www.2014.r2rfestival.org) returns to Vancity Theatre from April 4-11. Aimed at six to 19-year-olds, the festival program is a real mix.

Robert Alstead is making Running on Climate, runningonclimate.com

It’s eerie in Finsterworld

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Finsterworld movie
The black comedy Finsterworld takes its name from “finster,” which means “dark” in German. The title is a wordplay on the director’s last name.

• The annual Vancouver International Women in Film Festival (www.womeninfilm.ca) takes place at Vancity Theatre from March 6-9. The fest opens with BC director Karen Lam’s supernatural thriller Evangeline, a genre that organisers say is under-represented by women directors. It also includes the intriguing drama Finsterworld, screening on International Women’s Day (March 8, 7PM). The film takes its name from its director Frauke Finsterwalder. A thoroughly idiosyncratic and often plain eerie take on German identity, it manages to knit plotlines about an animal suit-wearing policeman, a class trip to a concentration camp and a lonely pedicurist into its unsettling vision.

Notwithstanding bangs to the head, documentary Last Woman Standing (Sunday 4PM) is a gripping account of the great rivalry between two top Canadian boxers and best friends Ariane Fortin and Mary Spencer as they fight for a single place to compete at the London Olympics in 2012. Directors Lorraine Price and Juliet Lammers focus on the emotional rollercoaster behind the scenes, including the close-knit group of fans and trainers caught up in the Olympian dream and the pressure on the women’s friendship.

VIMFF is also screening Chi, Anne Wheeler’s emotional portrait of west coast actor Babz Chula who died in 2010. The vérité documentary follows the much-loved Chula as she embarks on a trip to Kerala, India, for treatment by a renowned Ayurvedic healer to help her in her six-year battle with cancer.

Francophone cinema is spotlighted at the Cinematheque this month with DiverCiné 2014 (March 28-April 2). The eight features include old-school slapstick-style comedy in The Fairy; Three Kids, a drama set in earthquake-stricken Port-au-Prince; and Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture, which uses clay figurines to document Khmer Rouge atrocities in the seventies.

“Never work with animals or children,” W.C. Fields once famously quipped. Among those who have had great success ignoring that advice is Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, drawing critically acclaimed performances from his young casts in films such as Nobody Knows and I Wish.

Koreeda’s latest, Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru) is a characteristically heartfelt drama about familial bonds. Regimented Tokyo architect Ryoto discovers that his six-year-old son was switched at birth and is being raised by a working class couple. What follows is a struggle of emotions and ties as the film raises questions about nature versus nurture, fatherhood and the value of intimacy. It won the Audience Award for international films at last year’s Vancouver Film Festival and the Jury Prize at Cannes and the two boy actors Keita Ninomiya and Hwang Shogen have been roundly praised. While the film is clearly relevant to patriarchal Japanese society, DreamWorks saw the story sufficiently universal to recently acquire remake rights. (Opens March 7.)

Finally, I expected more from late-night thriller Cheap Thrills, which takes as its premise that a mild working class man will do anything for hard cash to support his family. There’s no doubt that desperate people will be driven to extremes: the kick-in-the-groin for cash videos in Vancouver that surfaced last month being the latest example. However, after hooking into a good idea, Cheap Thrills gets fixated on the gross and violent with little time for moral subtleties as it tracks towards an all-too-familiar, blood-spattered, Tarantino-esque denouement.

Robert Alstead is making Running on Climate, runningonclimate.com

A heroine’s journey and other feats

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Laura Dekker in Maidentrip
From Maidentrip: Laura Dekker on her solo, around-the-world sailing voyage.

• The annual Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival is not just about mountains and it’s not just about film. The fest, which launched in North Vancouver in 1998, includes films and guest presentations on a whole bunch of outdoor adventuring activities over its nine-day run, including snowboarding, kayaking, cycle touring and trail-running. (www.vimff.org)

But mountain highs do form a big part of VIMFF, which takes place at the Centennial, the Rio and the Cinematheque from February 7 to 15. For example, The Last Great Climb (61-mins.) offers the vicarious thrills of trying to scale the sheer rock face of the remote Ulvetanna Peak (Norwegian for “wolf’s tooth”) in Antarctica. And the genre-bending Valhalla (64 mins.) takes an almost mystical view of surfing the white powder. This back-to-nature fiction about a dude’s search for the fire of his youth is ultimately an excuse for some serious planking action, frequently in slo-mo, occasionally naked, in BC and Alaska’s stunning outback, distilled into a heady brew with a sixties-ish soundtrack and psychedelic visual effects.

A standout of the festival, Jillian Schlesinger’s gripping documentary Maidentrip (81 mins.) rarely gets above sea level. Maidentrip follows 14-year old Dutch girl Laura Dekker’s two-year voyage to become the youngest person to solo circumnavigate the globe by sailboat. Shot mainly by Dekker herself, the video diary captures both the excitement – and sometimes tedium – of her epic 27,000-nautical-mile trip, as well as the growing pains of a fiercely independent adolescent girl.

Schlesinger weaves additional “vérité” and family footage into the film to reveal Dekker’s background: divorced parents, a lonely upbringing with a dad who was always working and her escape to sailboats from a young age. Dekker proves herself brave and hugely capable, coming through fierce storms and adapting well to the solitary life aboard her trusty 40-footer, Guppy. There’s an amusing eloquence to some of her updates such as her wonderful declaration of frustration one day: “I could have just kicked the waves to the moon.” A rain storm after a period of calm is “…really super, awesome.” Youthful naiveté is rarely so inspirational.

Shifting gears, Paolo Sorrentino’s visually exquisite and surreal The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) has an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Language Film category. Toni Servillo plays the suave, chain-smoking journalist Jep Gambardella, who on his 65th birthday starts to reflect on his life with a sense of melancholy and uncertainty. After writing a single, celebrated novel about his first love as a young man, he has risen to the pinnacle of his ambition to be the “king of the high life” in Rome, epitomized by the wonderfully debauched exuberance of various party scenes with Rome’s fashionable elite. Jolted by unexpected news, Jep wanders Rome’s ornate streets and buildings, observing the humanity, looking for answers to life’s big questions. There is not much of a story, but Sorrentino paints a visually rich tapestry where surface trickery and gaudiness belie sweet intimacies, inevitable loss and mystique. The film oozes style in every frame, teasing at something deeper.

Robert Alstead is making Running on Climate, runningonclimate.com

Dreams of fame and glory

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Lance Armstrong
Photo of Lance Armstrong by Maryse Alberti, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. From The Armstrong Lie.

• Few sporting heroes have had as precipitous a fall from grace as Lance Armstrong. He’d beaten cancer and gone on to win seven Tour de Francetitles and the Livestrong charity he founded had generated hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer survivors. But after years of aggressively fending off doping accusations, the “Armstrong lie,” as a French newspaper dubbed it, could withstand no more. As the legal battles and investigations piled up, Armstrong came forth with his qualified, primetime confession to Oprah and the multi-million dollar edifice that was the Lance Armstrong brand caved in.

Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney started following Armstrong in 2009, before the doping scandal really broke loose. Gibney was originally making a comeback story, a film he called The Road Back, about Armstrong’s emergence from retirement in a quest to win his eighth Tour. That all changed as former teammates began to expose Armstrong’s deceptions. And for Gibney, not only did he have to re-evaluate what he was doing with his film, but it also became personal. Putting himself in the frame, the director felt compelled, with The Armstrong Lie, to tell the audience he felt cheated, like another cog in the Armstrong branding machine. Gibney demanded an on-camera explanation, providing a telling interview. Armstrong’s greatest regret appears to be that he got caught.

The narrative of Gibney’s two-hour documentary is thorough but feels a little choppy as it jumps from the drama and hoopla of the Tour to interviews putting Armstrong’s doping activities within the context of a culture of doping. Armstrong himself remains something of an enigma. We see how the fatherless boy, turned angry young man, managed to channel his fierce competitiveness in a positive way to fight cancer. But he was also a domineering bully who made life a misery for anyone who threatened to expose him.

I’m looking forward to the Coen brothers’ latest movie, the comic drama Inside Llewyn Davis, due for release on Christmas Day. A meditation on the trials and tribulations of artistic ambition, it follows a struggling solo singer-songwriter as he finds himself at a career crossroads on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the winter of 1961. The reviews from Cannes were very favourable. Parallels have been drawn with the Coens’ earlier musical drama, 1930s-set O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its strong period soundtrack and the way the titular character, played by a bushy-haired Oscar Isaac, finds himself on a Homeric-like odyssey of misadventures – much of his own creation – in his bid to make a career breakthrough.

Coen fans should also note Vancity Theatre has timed a Coen brothers mini retrospective over Christmas, dubbed Coenpalooza! with screenings of old faves such as Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski.

Another to watch for at Vancity Theatre is The Summit (from the 6th). On a cloudless day on August 1, 2008, 25 climbers attempted to scale the Himalayan peak of K2. Eleven never came back. Debut director Nick Ryan attempts to uncover the mystery of what happened that fateful day, on the world’s second highest and one of the most deadly mountains, using first person accounts, re-enactments and footage shot by climbers.

Robert Alstead is making Running on Climate, www.runningonclimate.com

 

Fan-funded films

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Milton’s Secret co-author Eckhart Tolle and director Barnet Bain.
Milton’s Secret co-author Eckhart Tolle and director Barnet Bain.

• Retiring VIFF artistic director Alan Franey said he was amazed only four 35-mm films screened at this past fest. Two years ago, he never expected digital projection to be adopted so quickly. Technology is also fast reshaping the way films are funded. Crowdfunding sites such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, which launched a Canadian platform in September, provide filmmakers with a vital route for fundraising and getting the word out about a new project. In return for their money, funders can “claim” from a range of the filmmakers’ “perks.”

Hilary Henegar led a successful campaign to raise completion funding for Fractured Land (http://fracturedland.com/), a film about Caleb Behn, a young indigenous lawyer fighting the fracking industry in his traditional Northern BC territory. Vancouver directors Damien Gillis and Fiona Rayher had already gathered two years of footage when the team launched the month and a half-long campaign in December last year on Indiegogo.

“It’s a fantastic tool,” says Henegar, citing the “sense of ownership and engagement” it helped create among supporters, who in turn generated buzz about the film via social media. As the campaign built momentum, broadcasters started calling. She also felt the campaign “changed the frame” of the film from a “binary David and Goliath struggle… We felt less like the underdogs.”

In the final week, the project surged past its target of $50,000 to $52,520 by campaign deadline (shortfalling campaigns pay five percent more in fees to Indiegogo). A total of 761 small funders contributed from $15 to $1,000 for perks ranging from networking tickets to handmade mukluk boots.

“It’s a lot of work. You’ve got be prepared to work your ass off,” cautions Henegar, who prepared for around six months and took another six months to recover. “I didn’t want to hear the words ‘fractured land’ for three of those.”

Another production currently in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign is Milton’s Secret (http://miltonssecretmovie.com), an adaptation of the titular children’s book by Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle and Robert Freidman, illustrated by Frank Riccio. The film, being made by Vancouver-based Hulo Films with the supporting sponsorship of the Dalai Lama Center, stars Peter Fonda and will be directed by What Dreams May Come producer Barnet Bain.

The producers have an ambitious goal to raise one million by November 8, 2013. They say that, with a good slice of the budget raised through their target audience, it will allow them to protect the “integrity of the message.” Bain explains the film will “model a very different response to the challenge of being alive” through the story of a “stressed-out young boy, in a very stressed-out town, in a family where the marriage is coming apart.” Bain fears the transformational nature of the film, speaking to one’s inner life, would be compromised if it went through the “industrial filmmaking complex.”

At time of writing, the campaign had reached $235,838 from 1,893 funders with 12 days to go. The role of the boy has not been cast, yet the campaign has pre-sold hundreds of digital downloads of the film and screenings in theatres and schools. Perks, such as visits to the set, tickets to the premiere (Thanksgiving 2014 is pencilled in) and even small talking parts in the film have all been “claimed.” One funder stumped up $25,000 for a bundle of goodies. With the help of offline parties in Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York, the producers hope they will get the final surge to take them over the top.

Quick mention: Take Back Your Power is a documentary that questions the motives and health impacts arising from the ubiquitous installation of smart meters (www.takebackyourpower.net).

Robert Alstead is making Running on Climate, www.runningonclimate.com

Saving ourselves

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

The Expedition to the End of the World movie
From The Expedition to the End of the World. A quixotic voyage aboard a schooner through the fjords of North-East Greenland.

• How does humanity deal with the threat of annihilation of itself and the biosphere? Three documentaries at the Vancouver International Film Festival offer very different responses.

In The Expedition to the End of the World (Ekspeditionen til verdens ende), Danish director Daniel Dencik follows a crew of artists and scientists on a quixotic voyage aboard a schooner through the fjords of North-East Greenland which, thanks to a warming climate, is now navigable for a few weeks each summer. Framed artfully against an exquisitely still landscape, the team members philosophize on the nature of being and douse existentialist angst with dry Northern European humour. It’s beautiful visually and sometimes very funny.

Oil Sands Karaoke (October 4, 6, 11) is like a television talent competition except it follows workers in Fort McMurray, Alberta, bonding in a pub over a karaoke competition. The contestants share why they work in one of the most vilified industries in the world – a good pay cheque is a big part of it – and how karaoke relieves the loneliness and grind. The broader health and climate issues of the tarsands are muted, while director Charles Wilkinson (Peace Out) lets the visuals of the eviscerated landscape speak for themselves. In this harsh environment, with people struggling to redeem or enrich themselves, a social conscience seems to be treated like a liability.

In From Neurons to Nirvana (October 1, 9), Oliver Hockenhull’s thorough exploration of banned psychedelic drugs brings a much-needed dose of sanity to the discussion about the use of ayahuasca, MDMA, LSD, psilocybin and marijuana. While proven to have beneficial medical applications, these drugs are treated on a par with hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The documentary makes extensive use of archive material and experiments with an array of visual graphics to make its points and shows how drugs act upon an individual. The fact that psychedelics are in the public domain made them a target, suggests Hockenhull, with Big Pharma’s philosophy being, “If you can’t patent it, then prohibit it.” Perhaps most interesting is his argument that responsible use of psychedelics could possibly open doors in our consciousness that could mean the difference between our “salvation or destruction.”

Documentary Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve ( October 5, 8 ) is a polished, accessible account of the shadowy world of central banking. It tracks the causes of the financial meltdown and conveys an overarching sense that US monetary policy makers continue to juggle with fiscal dynamite. While “Fed” interviewees are only too happy to share insights and mea culpas, this doesn’t have the same moral urgency of earlier doc Inside Job when exposing transgressions.

As VIFF closes on October 11, Watermark, a new documentary from Manufactured Landscapes Jennifer Baichwal and renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky, opens in Vancouver. Pulling from 10 countries, the film navigates 20 stories on the theme of water. These range from the construction of the Xiluodu Dam – six times the size of the Hoover – to the Kumbh Mela festival where 30 million gather for a sacred bath in the Ganges at the same time, to the water-intensive leather tanneries of Dhaka.

Finally, an important new film recently opened in the US: OMG GMO reveals the pervasiveness of genetically modified food and searches for a way to break out of that reliance. See the feature article in this issue of Common Ground. www.gmofilm.com

Robert Alstead is making Running on Climate, www.runningonclimate.com

 

Our VIFF – global, local, loveable

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Like Father, Like Son movie
In Like Father, Like Son, a father learns that the son he has raised was switched at birth with his own biological child.

• This has not been the easiest of years for the Vancouver International Film Festival to prepare for. The closure of the Empire Theatres Granville 7, which had provided the Festival with multiple screens in an affordable, central hub for 11 years, presented organizers with a challenge.

Fast forward to September and VIFF is back with a new set of venues: three screens at Cineplex Odeon International Village, SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, the Vancouver Playhouse and the 1,800-seater Centre for the Performing Arts. Despite concerns that the new owner of the latter venue – the evangelical Westside Church – would not accommodate the annual fall film frenzy, VIFF is programming three films daily there for each of the fest’s 16 days, including the opening gala on the 26th. East Van will welcome VIFF’s use of the Rio this year while, downtown, the Pacific Cinematheque and VIFF’s home base, Vancity Theatre, complete the circuit.

This year’s smorgasbord of 350+ films – 200 of them features – includes lauded new films from Cannes like the raw, lesbian romance Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle), which won the Palme d’Or, and Koreeda Hirokazu’s Jury Prize-winning Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru), in which a father is forced to question his assumptions about fatherhood after discovering his son is not biologically his.

Ken Loach’s documentary Spirit of ‘45 provides a warm, nostalgic look at the achievements of post-war Britain, where the Labour government strode out of the rubble of war to reduce national poverty and inequality. With his unabashedly partisan view, Loach weaves a persuasive narrative through the eyes of those who lived it, with copious archive footage that makes socialist wisdom sound like manna from heaven.

Among the environmental documentaries, The Last Ocean recounts the struggle to protect the population of toothfish – marketed as “Chilean sea bass” – of the remote and relatively pristine Ross Sea in Antarctica. The great white south is captured in all its icy and fearsome glory, with the loveable penguin population playing a starring role. As marine scientists navigate the layers of government in a bid to establish a conservation zone, international fishing fleets continue to press for access to the area’s dwindling bounty. It left me questioning the efficacy of the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) certification.

My sense of desperation probably hit rock bottom watching A River Changes Course. Kalyanee Mam’s controlled, vérité portrait of three Cambodian families depicts traditional fishing and farming life in collapse. Forests are being torched, rivers fished out and teens are being driven into the low-paid work of migrant labour or garment manufacturers for the West. This is the bootprint of globalization most vividly conveyed.

Gentler on the spirit is Breathing Earth: Susumu Shingu’s Dream, Thomas Riedelsheimer’s account of Japanese windmill artist Susumu Shingu’s global quest for a location for his eco village project Breathing Earth. With his oscillating, tumbling sculptures and hypnotic mobiles, he wants to help us re-connect with nature. The doc meanders hither and thither, much like one of the delicate, kinetic contraptions, but the shared fascination of artist and filmmaker in the invisible power of wind is quietly restorative and inspiring.

The full Viff programme goes online at viff.org on September 5. The Vancity Theatre box office (open daily from noon to 7PM) opens on the 14th and the glossy catalogue comes out on September 19.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com

Toeing the party line

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine
Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. Photo by Jessica Miglio ©2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

• Political reporter Sean Holman’s 43-minute documentary, Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline, is now free online at www.cpac.ca (Search for Whipped.) Holman’s self-narrated piece looks at how BC’s political party culture stifles public debate and democracy. It’s the kind of insightful and authoritative look you would expect from a veteran reporter of political affairs.

It’s no secret that BC MLAs very rarely vote against their own parties, but people might be surprised at just how rarely it occurs. Raking through the voting records, Holman found that a mere 0.25% (or 80 out of 32,328 votes) broke party lines between June 2001 and April 2012. By comparison, MPs in the UK voted against their parties seven times more often, he says. Holman notes you have to go back to a minority government in March 1953 to find the last time a government bill was defeated in the BC legislature.

What goes on behind the closed doors of party caucus – where the party line is supposedly decided upon and then enforced by the party whip – is a mystery. A succession of former NDP, Liberal and Social Credit MLAs explain how they were often required to vote against their own principles and the interests of their constituents in order to maintain the facade of party unity. Former NDP MLA David Chudnovsky talks candidly about how he was “ashamed” early on in his stint as an MLA to support a bill to give members a big pay raise. Why do it? Because at the time he accepted he had “to stand together” with his caucus.

Former Liberal MLA Dennis MacKay said he resigned his position because the leadership stopped consulting with its members about policy decisions and the only time he was needed was when it was time to vote.

MLAs who rebel say they were ostracized both politically and socially. They lost influence and jeopardized career opportunities. Former NDP member Michael Sather talks of “the scars” of a six-month suspension in 2006 for voting against the Tsawwassen Treaty, out of fears of port development on farmland and bird habitat. The experience led him later to back the NDP position of opposing the carbon tax, against his principles.

Holman suggests provocatively that perhaps BCers are satisfied with the status quo where the inner sanctum of the governing party wields all the power because it offers a more stable government. However, he is clearly not convinced by that line of reasoning himself and the subjects in this welcome documentary provide a compelling case for party leaderships to loosen their grip, provide more transparency and let a little more democracy flow.

In Woody Allen’s latest comedic drama Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett gives a wonderful, complex portrait of a woman trying to pull out of psychological freefall after experiencing financial ruin. When her deceitful husband’s Bernie Madoff-style schemes collapse in ignominy, Jasmine is forced to move in with her sister (Sally Hawkins), a grocery cashier in San Fran. She adjusts to the working class lifestyle, but the high-strung former Manhattan socialite seems to insult everybody with her condescending airs. Yet she still manages to cut a sympathetic figure as she desperately tries to get back on an even keel. It’s classic Allen fare, although with a more tragic than comedic undertow.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com

Campy comedy flies high

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

I’m So Excited movie
Flying high in I’m So Excited. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

• With his high-flying comedy, I’m So Excited (5th), Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar is back in the campy, over-the-top comedy territory of his early career. When a passenger flight, on its way from Spain to Mexico, experiences landing gear problems, the preening stewards (Javier Cámara, Carlos Areces, Raúl Arevalo) move into action to stave off panic.

First, they sedate the economy class with drugs. Then they distract the business class by breaking out the booze and launching into a song-and-dance routine down the aisle, performed to the Pointer Sisters’ titular hit. As the booze flows, the cabin becomes a hotbed of sex and spilled secrets. With a cast that includes many Almodóvar alumni – Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Cámara, Lola Dueñas, Cecilia Roth and Blanca Suárez – the frothy, feel-good film should appeal to fans of Almodóvar’s particular brand of sexually charged humour.

Sexual transgression takes on a much more serious and uncomfortable tone in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (19th), a drama based on a child psychologist’s files. Mads Mikkelson, playing against type – he was the icy villain in Casino Royale – is a kindergarten teacher in a close-knit, rural Danish community who finds himself demonized by virtually the whole community, including his deer hunting buddies, when one of his students falsely claims that Lucas exposed himself to her. As rough justice is meted out, Lucas’s difficulty in proving his innocence begs important questions about community and family values.

Injustice is also at the fore in Fruitvale Station (26th), a dramatic recreation of the tragic story of Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), who was killed, allegedly by accident, by a police officer at the Fruitvale rapid transit station in Oakland, California in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Ryan Coogler’s debut film has been picking up awards on the festival circuit and praised for its strong performances and the director’s deft handling of race issues that play such an important part of the story.

On a lighter note, Sebastián Silva’s Crystal Fairy (due out on the 26th) is a satirical, coming-of-age comedy starring Michael Cera (of Arrested Development fame) as Jamie, an obnoxious, uptight American on a quest to experience the hallucinogenic properties of a San Pedro cactus. At a party on the eve of his expedition, a wasted Jamie invites far-out flower child Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) and then regrets it when he sobers up, but his three Chilean companions won’t let him dump her. As the group venture into the Chilean desert on their drug-infused adventure, the loosely improvised road trip revolves around the personality clash of impatient Jamie and free-spirited Crystal, with a message about assumed identities in the final act.

Fans of anime will welcome the return to the Cinematheque of a major retrospective of 16 epic anime films by the world renowned Studio Ghibli, entitled “Castles in the Sky.” The Cinematheque said the original retrospective in December was its most popular large-scale series in years so it’s back with the addition of a further two films – children’s favourite Ponyo and the recently released From Up on Poppy Hill. The fantastical animation series also features the studio’s debut feature Castle in the Sky and the mesmerizing hit Spirited Away.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com