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the Gauntlet

Weighing in on the Calgary International Film Festival

Publication YearIssue Date 

CIFF is still in full swing and the Gauntlet is here to give you the down-low on the what the festival has to offer with more reviews!

The Seven Deadly Sins

A vast array of characters introduces us to the perilous indiscretions such as envy, with the exploits of a director whose career fails before it starts in Americana, part of the collection of films called The Seven Deadly Sins. The diverse nature of the collection is sure to invoke introspection in some cases, where the story of the lustful momma's boy Graham and his strange heavenly fetish is sure to disgust and amuse (For the Love of God). The international collaboration involved with the collection is impressive, with the story of a slothful Finnish husband getting his just reward (Harvest Time) and, hailing from Mexico, a depiction of the consuming nature of greed that is far more literal than figurative (Greedy as a Pig), as well as a few Canadian based talents holding their own among the septuplet brood of delightfully sinful shorts. With several of the films earning favour at Cannes and Sundance, The Seven Deadly Sins is a noteworthy independent project and an enjoyable delineation of an all-too-familiar subject.

..Adriana Sveen

Jar City

Set in Iceland's coastal capital Reykjavik, Jar City follows detective Erlundur's attempts to find the murderer of an accused rapist more than 30 years after his death. The intrigue of his investigation heightens as the clues reveal evidence of police corruption, blackmail and a mysterious genetic disease linking killer to victim and the victim to a string of other seemingly unrelated crimes. Erlundur delves into the cobwebs of the victim's past, unearthing treacherous secrets, putting him, his colleagues and his fragile drug addicted daughter in danger's path. A scintillating tale filled with family secrets and undertones of hyper nationalism, Jar City is the third installment in an eight part series of crime novels written by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason. From start to finish, Jar City is sure to surprise and Ingvar and Atli Sigurðsson deliver compelling performances as detective Erlundur and the mourning biogeneticist, Orn. 

 ..AS

Freezerburn: The Invasion of Laxdale

Tom Green stars as Bill Swanson, a washed up NHL hockey player, trying to live out the rest of his life in peace in Laxdale. A series of strange occurrences accompany the appearance of two Dutch businessmen, vying for Laxdale's untapped land. With the help of buxom blonde alien and gang-bang victim Gina and some of the local generic town figures, Swanson uncovers a plot to enslave mankind as bell hops and bus boys for alien tourists. Struggling with the shame of a failed career, Swanson becomes the unwilling rescuer of his sheep-like neighbours. Armed with nothing but a duffel bag of frozen treats and a soup of mixed hockey metaphors, the redneck renegade manages to quell the alien attacks and get laid too. Filmed outside of Edmonton, this sci-fi comedy is an overload of stereotype, innuendo and shock humour good for a few cheap laughs, yet lacking the sincerely obscure strangeness of Green's more recognizable works, something that could have served to brighten up a dull cast.

..AS

Kabluey

This film is a neurotically endearing glance into the life of an average American family divided by the crushing loneliness of a father enduring an extended tour of action in Iraq. As Leslie (Lisa Kudrow) awaits her husband's return, feelings of abandonment and despair begin to overwhelm her, pushing her into the arms of her boss and away from her two young children.  Enter Salman, the hopelessly clueless and all-around doormat brother-in-law. Hoping to rekindle a relationship severed by time and circumstance, Salman accepts the task of caring for the children while earning money as a blue, bulbous company mascot.

Without any real ability to take care of the two boys or himself, he haphazardly stumbles through the days, hoping that in some way his effort would keep his brother's family together. Despite constant terrorizing from his two nephews and a complete lack of gratitude from sister-in-law Leslie, Salman manages to restore some order to the household, under the guise of an unlikely cerulean hero. The dark comedic stylings of writer, director and main character Scott Prendergast meld to create a disarming story that should leave viewers excited for his next project.

..AS

American Fork

Pathetic, overweight 20-something may not be the description of a protagonist usually used to save the day. The endearing quality of American Fork lies in the fact that audiences like to root for this kind of character, even if he tends to be an underdog in a pack of misfits. The unlikely hero is Tracy Orbison, played by the film's writer Hubbel Palmer. The film builds from Tracy's downfall at the Division of Motor Vehicles and monotony of his grocery store clerk existence to his idol worship of low-grade actor Truman Hope (William Baldwin) and attempted mentorship to a pack of burnt out teenagers which he has befriended.

It's evident why Tracy has turned into the man he has, as his mother Agnes (Kathleen Quinlan) seems to employ guilt as if it were the only parenting technique. The cliche of Agnes' role as overbearing mother is well played out by the harboured secrets that are revealed throughout the film. The film starts out poignantly funny, but loses steam as Tracy's character becomes more angst-filled and the film veers towards more serious discourse. Tracy is a flawed hero who is more misguided by other people's ill will than he is by his own lack of discretion. This film goes to show that there is much to be learned from that which pains us.

..Elyse Merriman

Red Race

If you happen to chance upon a world where muscle tone on elementary school students isn't an anomaly but rather the norm, you're likely to be entering The Red Race. The film chronicles the lives of kindergarten-age children through their training at a gymnastics academy located in Shanghai, China shortly before the start of the Beijing Olympics. It follows young gymnasts as they are groomed to embody the thirst for competition while trying to move up the ranks in the impoverished society they have been born into. The documentary stays consistent for its 70-minute run, not losing steam as it powers onward to a competition where the future of these students are decided while presenting shocking incidents as everyday occurrences. This includes gasp-inducing tactics by the coaches that would leave the average North American parent threatening to sue. Although Communist ideology is not overt and is presented in an unbiased fashion to allow the viewer to draw conclusions for themselves, one can sense the undertones of nationalistic indoctrination. The documentary film team of director Chao Gan and producer Barbara Biemann give voice to children who speak, but usually to answer criticisms.

..Elyse Merriman

Glass of a Portrait

The works of composer Philip Glass are nearly impossible to describe in a few words, let alone in one installment of a film. Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts was made by filmmaker Scott Hicks to celebrate Glass' 70th birthday. Many consider Glass the composer who brought art music to the public eye. The film follows several days in the life of Glass, but these days are more than ordinary. Scenes from his vacation home in Nova Scotia, doing meditation with Buddhist spiritual leaders, putting the final touches on an opera in Germany or working on collaborations with film directors and producers are just a few of the many separate parts of Glass. The director uses the opportunity to speak to Glass' life-long friends, siblings and wife Holly to give insight into the eccentricities of Glass without giving him the opportunity to deny them. This film does not over-emphasize the breadth and depth of Glass' genius, but rather uses his humility as an avenue by which the audience can relate to him. Glass may be getting older, but don't expect him to slow down much.

..EM

One Minute to Nine

One minute could be as much freedom as one woman will see for the next 10 years. That's the principle of the film, One Minute to Nine. Wendy Maldonado killed her husband to escape from the abuse he inflicted on her and her children. The film follows her last days of freedom, which her sons painstakingly keep track of on a handmade calendar, up until the point that she sees the outside world for the last time. Filmmaker Tommy Davis uses a collage of home videos, personal interviews and court footage to create a portrait of Maldonado and her fractured family. Maldonado displays the kind of compassion uncharacteristic of a killer through displays of love for her son as she prepares them for life without her. She's resigned to her situation and does not try to plead her way out of a sentence or pull the pity card, but she's still perplexed as to why she committed the crime. Perhaps the most eerie quality of the film is the footage of her late husband, which shows both sides of the coin, his tenderness upon the birth of his children and the after-effects of his violent ways. Davis doesn't sugarcoat the truth nor minimize the gravity of the pain either.

..EM

The Secret of the Nutcracker

The story of the Nutcracker is one of the most beloved tales of the Christmas season. While it might be a couple months before we start trimming the trees and singing carols, The Secret of the Nutcracker is a wonderful movie nonetheless. Filmed entirely in Alberta, and largely in Calgary and the Crowsnest Pass, the film highlights the beauty of Canadian landscapes and utilizes the incredible talent of the Alberta Ballet corps and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra to enhance the tale.

The movie focuses on Clara (Janelle Jorde) and her family as they survive the ramifications of the Second World War and the fate of her husband in a POW camp deep in German territory on their small town community and everyday lives. When Drosselmeyer (Brian Cox), a mysterious stranger from war-torn Europe, suddenly appears in the tight-knit Snow Valley, he brings Clara's family the gift of magic and imagination in a time of repression and fear.

The Secret of the Nutcracker transposes the classic story to the 1940s, utilizing the politics of the era to interweave a complimentary background for the fairy tale. Dream sequences and imaginary scenes drive the film, which are beautifully portrayed with vivid colours, textures, sets and amazing choreography. Overflowing with analogy and poignant symbolism, the film successfully captures both the innocence of youth and the insanity of war. Although lacking a strong story, The Secret of the Nutcracker compensates with moving performances, breathtaking visuals and an enchanting blend of fantasy and reality that truly captures the magic of Christmas.

..Silvia de Somma

Adventures of Power

If Napoleon Dynamite and Hot Rod had a baby, it would emerge in the form of a mystical world where air drumming exists as a competitive sport. Adventures of Power is this child, featuring awkward wholesomeness and infatuation with an unconventional dream as its premise. While the thought of competitors taking the stage for a full-out, televised battle royale of the airskins seems entertaining, Ari Gold's directorial approach, script and performance as the title character miss the mark comedically with most of the movie coming off as a thinly guised attempt at the "indie movie" aesthetic. Michael McKean also takes a disappointing turn as Power's disgruntled father who has a change of heart regarding Power's interests. The stunting progresses further, as Adrian Grenier's part as Dallas Houston seems to add HBO name recognition more than anything else. With a little tweaking, Adventures of Power could have been a good yet silly effort, but the current version comes off as just trying too hard to be funny.

..Amanda Hu

O' Horten

Reaching a crossroads in life is not always a smooth transition. It often means giving up something held dear and part of one's identity. O' Horten portrays this reality with the story of newly-retired train engineer Odd Horten. Without his job, Horten is a lost man. While the premise may seem mundane at the beginning of the film, director Bent Hamer paints the story with a surreal and sometimes completely random tinge, which works well to keep each scene dynamic and surprising. Baard Owe's melancholy yet juvenile and curious turn as Horten adds to the twists from one scene to the next.

As the plot moves into completely unbelievable ground, it almost urges the audience to sit back and stop thinking about this realistic character in realistic terms and just accept the unconventional means that end up saving his sanity. Though almost in conflict with the origins of the story, pure fantasy and realism play together to create a world like the one we live in, except anything is possible.

..AH

Triangle

Melding the directions of three different directors into one film is a difficult task. The fear of disjointed, mismatched styles is valid and often enough to keep anyone from attempting the feat. In the Hong Kong flick Triangle, directors Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To throw caution to the wind, creating a crime flick that gives the audience a little taste of everything. It is fairly clear where the creative turnover happens, but fast-moving scenes, cheeky dialogue and the over-arching plot make the film so enjoyable that it doesn't even matter.

Under the table dealings, tomb raiding, traveling through the Internet, schizophrenic wives, car chases, alligators and ravers make for an entertaining affair and while the juxtaposition of three directing styles doesn't completely mesh, it still makes for an endearing film.

..AH

Real Time

The real time technique suffers from a surprisingly common problem: it takes place in real time and you can't cut out the boring parts. Real Time is a film with real potential that falls victim to the flaws of the technique. While the novelty of moving through the story at the same pace as the characters is somewhat enveloping, the film starts to drag when the obligatory far too long car ride-- because it's in real time, so if you drive somewhere really far away, it takes a long time-- hits the screen and boring, overwrought, time-filling dialogue takes over the film. Pair this with a far too heavy-handed message about enjoying life and living it to its fullest and the flaws far outweigh the gimmick.

..AH

Man on Wire

It is a testament to a truly amazing story when a still image can instill fear, awe and suspense in the hearts of onlookers. Man on Wire's portrayal of Phillipe Petit's quest to tightrope walk the gap between the World Trade Center towers drops jaws and inspires gasps of suspense, even when the footage is just of a picture of the feat.

Director James Marsh skillfully sets the stage for a film that, although still a documentary, features all the tell-tale aspects of a scripted, sleuthy quest. From the grainy, black and white reenactment scenes, to the charismatic and endearing real-life players in this scenario, all intertwined with an overarching plot spotted with tiny, interjecting ones, Man on Wire finds the balance between telling a true tale and creating a gripping, cinematic adventure.

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