Editor’s Notes: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
The Vancouver Asahi
Dir. Yûya Ishii
The Vancouver Asahi was a Japanese baseball team based out of Vancouver in the 1930s. The team faced adversity in the form of: physical size, skill, racism and poverty. The source of hate in this film comes in the form of Caucasian Canadian males: double their size, earning double wages and living a better life. The audience is reminded of these facts over and over again.
There is no subtlety here. The opening hour or so drives the point home far too hard; the Japanese had a difficult time fitting in and progressing from an economic standpoint. There are far too many scenes illustrating the ideas above. The repetition halts the pace, bursting the runtime (134 minutes) and leads to an experience that makes the audience feel every agonizing second.
The story centers on Reiji (Satoshi Tsumabuki), the captain of the Asahi. He’s a young man leading a group of older men. He’s also the mastermind behind the tactics that gave the team an edge in the ballpark, placing an emphasis on their speed and agility. The baseball scenes are hardly exciting and the action shows up far too late in the film. The baseball scenes are repetitious and border on frustrating to anyone who has ever played or coached baseball.
The slew of characters plagues this film because none of them really hook the audience. Reiji apologizes throughout the film, another character is quietly mad and Reiji’s sister goes through a mini “The Help” side-story that offers manipulative emotions that will work magic on audiences that are easily moved. There is one emotional beat that plays like homage to Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” but the scene sticks out like a sore thumb. This film could benefit from a Harvey Weinstein-esque edit.
This film played like gangbusters in Vancouver as it won the Rogers People’s Choice Award. I’d be curious to see how it plays outside this market. The bloated budget reflects the bloated runtime. There is little to see here unfortunately. Skip this one.
Welcome to Me
Dir. Shira Piven
Welcome to Me explores what would happen if a mentally unstable Oprah super fan won the lottery. Alice (Kristen Wiig) wins the lottery and decides she wants her own talk show, like Oprah. Alice has countless VHS tapes of Oprah’s shows along with other self-help, motivational videos. Alice speaks in power lingo clichés and it’s absolutely adorable and funny each time.
Played as a satire, this comedy will turn off many audiences unprepared for an unhinged experience. Alice says the wrong things at the wrong time, she has no filter and uses her money to turn her show into the most ridiculous talk show imaginable – she insists on entering the stage on a swan. That’s just a shred of the hilarity the audience witnesses.
Wiig anchors this film with her finest performance to date. Her range far exceeds the zany characters she played on Saturday Night Live and her roles in feature films. Her outbursts border on over the top but her performance is controlled. There were moments when I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry so I settled on something in between.
If you buy in to the premise of the film and roll with the punches this is a thoroughly entertaining film that is paced beautifully. Wigg is endlessly entertaining and Shira Piven (Director) does a fine job assembling the ensemble cast for well-deserved laughs and quiet emotional payoffs.
Dir. Damien Chazelle
The closing night film of VIFF is the latest from Damien Chazelle. Chazelle penned the script of the thriller, Grand Piano that was well reviewed by Next Projection. Chazelle follows up with a riveting thriller that builds the tension and erupts like a volcano. The narrative is simple. J.K. Simmons delivers a career-best performance and Miles Teller adds yet another terrific performance to his young career. Andew (Teller) is a young jazz drummer on his journey to becoming “one of the greats.” Standing in his way (or to help him on his way?) is his ruthless instructor, Fletcher (Simmons). Fletcher’s tactics resemble that of R. Lee Emery in Full Metal Jacket. Fletcher is more cruel however because the audience expects a drill sergeant to be mean; we are not conditioned to believe the same from a music instructor.
Andrew and Fletcher clash on the screen like a pair of silver back gorillas in a power struggle. Fletcher’s cold, calculated approach intimidates all of his students. Kudos to the extras involved for adding to the uncomfortable tension felt throughout. Andrew absorbs Fletcher’s energy, in some ways becoming like Fletcher in his approach to his music and every day life.
The music is energizing, loud and catchy. The main song Whiplash is sweet music to the ears. If there is one gripe with the film it’s that the audience may have a difficult time understanding when a musician is out of tune or at the wrong pace. Fletcher steps in to clarify any confusion with an exclamation mark.
Whiplash is a wonderful experience. The outcome of this film is 50/50, he’s going to make it or he’s not going to make it. If you guess correctly, avoid treating this as a “predictable ending.” Congrats, you guessed correctly on one of the two outcomes of this film. Chazelle never treats this as a mystery. Sure there are some curve balls thrown in for good measure to add to the thrilling experience but there is no deception in the finale. You will have a better time if you sit back and enjoy the ride.