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 Vancouver International Film Festival

At the 20th annual Vancouver International Film Festival, some 135,000 film buffs are expected to attend almost 250 screenings of 320 films from more than 50 countries at eight Vancouver cinemas.

That's far too many for one person to see -- even if you skip work every single day from Sept. 27 to Oct. 12 and see movies from morning till night.

You've doubtless been inundated with hype for some of the festival's galas and prominent films. Here are some suggestions about hidden gems you might not want to miss, for reasons our critics share in these mini-reviews.

Century Hotel
Have you ever wondered about your hotel rooms? You know, the people who have been there before? The intimate moments? The drunken fights? Century Hotel takes us on the journey of one hotel room, No. 720, and the people who pass through its doors over the course of a century. Director David Weaver brings us into the room to share seven stories that evolve within the four walls. From newlyweds to war heroes, a murderer to a musician, moments from various decades run the gamut of human emotion.

Combining over 20 cast members and seven different plots that run the course of a century is a feat and Weaver has managed to do it well. Although the ending led to a few groans at a recent press screening, the twists to each of the stories will keep you interested. Be sure to look for Chantal Kreviazuk -- Century Hotel marks the acting debuts of both her and husband Raine Maida. - Brenda McIntyre
Interview with director David Weaver

Sunday, September 30, 9:30pm at Vancouver Centre 1
Tuesday October 2, 2:00pm at Vancouver Centre 1

Documentary filmmaker Peter Lynch (best known for 1996's Project Grizzly) directs his lens toward self-professed cyborg Steve Mann.

While working as a professor at University of Toronto, Mann has invented various wearable computers, including a small "eye-tap" camera that fits into eyeglasses, records everything in its path and sends a direct feed to Mann's website. While Mann's technology is certainly fascinating, and Lynch has given Cyberman a haunting, hypnotic feel, the film poses more questions than it answers. Still, 20 or 30 years from now, when people remember when there was still something called privacy, Lynch's film may provide clues as to where it went. - Dimetre Alexiou
Interview with director Peter Lynch

Friday, September 28, 3:00pm at Cinémathèque
Sunday, September 30, 7:00pm at the Hollywood
Tuesday, October 02, 12:30pm at the Visa Screening Room/Vogue

Desi is an 11-year-old girl who could be the international poster child for latchkey kids. Each day after school in Amsterdam, she tries to track down her deadbeat father by telephone to see whether he's going to feed her and care for her and put her to bed that night, or whether she should go to Plan B: getting in touch with a grandparent or a friend to scrounge dinner and a place to sleep.

What is absolutely fascinating about this Dutch documentary, which won an audience award at a Dutch documentary festival, is that Desi approaches her hand-to-mouth rootless existence with complete nonchalance.

Her mother succumbed to post-natal depression and committed suicide when Desi was barely a year old, and at that point something inside her father broke, and Desi has been a distant emotional satellite for him ever since. But Desi takes strength from the fact that there are "enough people who love me," and she ricochets around town every night looking for the one who is prepared to take her in.

Maria Ramos's camera takes up an unobtrusive presence in Desi's routine, which includes playing with her schoolmates, eating with aged relatives, throwing her own 12th birthday party, and attending a parent-teacher session at school (this last bit being a fascinating illustration of how different the Dutch education system is from North America's).

The film is probably intended as a testament to the resilience of children, but odds are that remarkable kids like Desi don't come along every day. - John T.D. Keyes

Friday, October 5, 2:30pm at Vancouver Centre 2
Tuesday, October 9, 7:30pm at Vancouver Centre 2

Down and Out with the Dolls
This campy comedy about an all-girl punk rock band in Portland, Ore., will delight anyone who eagerly awaits the latest John Waters flick and automatically goes regardless of its theme.

Down and Out with the Dolls traffics gleefully in all the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll clichés, following the antics of Kali (Nicole Barrett), Lavender (Melody Moore) and Reggie (Kinnie Starr), a trio called the Paper Dolls that takes on a new lead singer, Fauna (Zoe Poledouris), who has just been fired from her last band and kicked out by her boyfriend. The grrrrrrls move into a ramshackle house, instantly dubbed the Doll House, and start working on their music, but it doesn't take very long for Fauna to show her true character, which is immature, conniving, unscrupulous and back-stabbing.

The whole sordid story is told in flashback from the point-of-view of Lavender, who is the most levelheaded (or least hysterical) of the Dolls. The movie opens with what seems to have been a murder at the Doll House and then spools back to the group's genesis. By the time we arrive back at the beginning, there are several possible victims, and an even larger number of suspects.

Down and Out with the Dolls, produced by a small Australian indie company, is a wild yet affectionate satire of the grunge scene. The acting is uniformly self-conscious and occasionally atrocious, primarily because these really are musicians, not trained actors (and this includes a bizarre cameo by Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister as Joe, a drifter who takes up residence in a closet in the Doll House).

Still, this movie has 10 times the energy of the average flick aimed at its target market -- "alternative youth in the 15 to 30 demographic" -- and ought to be a fest favourite. - John T.D. Keyes

Saturday, September 29, Midnight at the Visa Screening Room/Vogue
Thursday, October 4, 7:00pm at the Visa Screening Room/Vogue

Director Digivijay Singh brings us the story of 12-year-old Maya. Growing up in a rural Indian village, she spends her days with her cousin Sanjay. The two make a mischievous pair and often pull pranks on the local merchants or steal off and explore the forests together. When Maya hits puberty and makes her ascent from childhood to womanhood, her family arranges for a prayer ceremony, a ritual to mark this transition. As the ritual takes place behind closed doors, we realize the sheer brutality of it. The only one willing to help Maya as it takes place is Sanjay, but his efforts are useless.

The ritual in Singh's story is still practiced in some small Indian villages. That, in itself, is disturbing, but Singh's delivery of this piece -- a beautifully shot film that contrasts childhood innocence with the terror of an ancient ceremony -- is haunting. - Brenda McIntyre

Friday, September 28, 7:00pm at the Hollywood
Thursday, October 4, 2:00pm at Vancouver Centre 1

Mile Zero
This is an exceptionally mature feature-film directing debut for Andrew Currie -- and undoubtedly a future award-winning performance by Michael Riley, who plays a father brokenhearted by the collapse of his marriage and the ensuing separation from his eight-year-old son (Conor Widdows).

Derek Ridley (Riley) still hasn't accepted the fact that his marriage is over, that her house is no longer their house, and especially that there is a new father figure in his son's life. His entreaties to his wife (Sabrina Grdevich) fall on truly deaf ears (we see flashbacks of their life together, but nothing that explains why she has so hardened against him), and he is reduced to spying on her and her new boyfriend and his son. Derek, who seems to be a whiz with gadgets, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown when one of his spying tricks convinces him that the new boyfriend may be a sexual predator, and that Will is in danger.

Derek's response to this horrible (and horrifying) suspicion is electrifying, and director Currie plays out the storyline like a master angler. Each new step Derek takes is wrong but completely understandable -- there are ways in which this film echoes the dreadful plausibility we saw in A Simple Plan or The Dead Pool more recently - and in the beginning at least Will goes along for the ride.

Mile Zero is a heartbreaking look at a man in free fall, and Riley's delivery of the movie's central anguish is note-perfect. - John T.D. Keyes

Saturday, September 29, 7:00pm at the Visa Screening Room/Vogue
Monday, October 8, 1:30pm at the Ridge Theatre

Mulholland Drive
No one will ever be able to figure director David Lynch out. The craziest thing about the remarkably normal film The Straight Story was that it came from the same twisted mind as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway.

Mulholland Drive proves that The Straight Story was indeed an aberration, itself being a maddening headtrip involving an inspiring actress, an amnesiac, the Italian mafia, Hollywood and a mysterious blue key. Like most Lynch films, it's a lot to absorb in a single viewing, but fanatics will enjoy the nods to his TV shows Twin Peaks and On the Air. - Dimetre Alexiou

Saturday, October 6, 7:00pm at the Visa Screening Room/Vogue
Sunday, October 7, 4:30pm at Vancouver Centre 1

Obachan's Garden
The buzz on this Canadian film by Linda Ohama got so loud during the weeks leading up to VIFF that its initially scheduled screenings were sellouts before the fest even began, and extra screenings had to be added.

The buzz was bang on. Ohama has taken what on the surface starts off like a conventional documentary about a Japanese "picture bride" -- a young woman in the Japan in the '20s who sends off her picture to Canada and then follows when a marriage proposal is forthcoming -- and turns it into a modern-day mystery.

The subject in question is Asayo Murakami, now 103 years old and living in an Alberta nursing home. Snippets of an interview there with Asayo are woven through the film, which is narrated mostly by her adult granddaughter, recalling Asayo's early life in Hiroshima Prefecture. Ohama has founds the most wondrous and telling archival footage of life in barely post-feudal Japan to illustrate these years. This alone is worth seeing, but there's more.

In 1924, Asayo arrived in Steveston, B.C., in those days almost entirely a Japanese-Canadian fishing village. She took one look at the man who had agreed to marry her. "As soon as I saw his face, I knew he was not my type." She broke off their arrangement, repaid her financial debt to him, and proceeded to make a new life for herself. But this isn't the meat of the movie, either.

Asayo had secrets that she had left behind in Japan, and these are not revealed and resolved for another 75 years, and when they are, Ohama's camera is there.

This is the sort of film that film festivals are for. - John T.D. Keyes

Saturday, October 6, 10:00am at Cinémathèque
Tuesday, October 9, 7:00pm at the Hollywood
Friday, October 12, Noon at the Visa Screening Room/Vogue

Ram Dass Fierce Grace
"I feel like an advance guard that calls back to the baby boomers, and now I call back about aging."

So says Baba Ram Dass -- a.k.a. former Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert -- whose book Be Here Now was for a while in the '70s the best-selling book in English after the Bible and Dr. Spock's advice to new parents.

But Ram Dass says these words haltingly, because the "fierce grace" of this documentary's title is the stroke that has slowed his bodily functions and relegated him to a wheelchair and the care of devoted attendants.

Ram Dass calls what happened to him "being stroked," a response that bespeaks an ability to turn sow's ears into silk purses. Certainly, the young Richard Alpert was a brilliant child of great privilege, and director Mickey Lemle's historical footage goes into all of that, notably Alpert's epiphany after experimentation with massive amounts of LSD and his transforming trip to India, where, apparently, he turned the Maharaj ji on to chemical hallucinogens.

Lemle doesn't try to sell any of this, take sides in any way. Early on there are flattering recollections of the man's life from friends and colleagues - pre-India he was Alpert, post-India he is Baba Ram Dass -- but these testimonials fall away as Lemle concentrates on how the man is living now.

And how does the man who popularized "Be Here Now" cope with his life now? Lemle provides an unblinkered answer that ends up being a warm and genuine hug. Which is probably as it should be. - John T.D. Keyes

Thursday, October 4, 7:00pm at the Hollywood
Saturday, October 6, 1:30pm at the Hollywood

Secret Love
This Swiss film would be fascinating for its simple story alone -- a young nun becomes emotionally involved with a vagabond pickpocket -- but it is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the nun and pickpocket are deaf.

The dialogue of other characters is in German, and the film is subtitled in English and French, and this includes the sign language between the nun, Antonia (Emmanuelle Laborit), and the pickpocket, Mikas (Lars Otterstedt).

The two meet because Antonia commutes daily from her convent to the city, where she works in the kitchen of a men's hostel; Mikas is plying his trade among the crowds at the train station, although for the longest time he allows her to believe that he is simply an unemployed circus performer. Mikas ends up staying at the hostel, which gives the two more opportunities to meet and talk, and in doing so they recognize that they have more than a passing acquaintanceship.

This is a lovely little film. Laborit and Otterstedt, both deaf actors, share something special on-screen -- their own little world, if you will, one so intimate that those who aren't hearing impaired might well envy what they have. In short order, their use of International Sign Language becomes a commonplace, and the film is arguably more serene because of it. -John T.D. Keyes

Monday, October 8, 1:30pm at the Hollywood
Wednesday, October 10, 7:00pm at the Ridge Theatre

Store Wars
This documentary, produced for PBS and already a festival winner (Golden Gate Award, San Francisco), presents a blow-by-blow examination of the effort by Wal-Mart to establish a store on the outskirts of Ashland, Va.,and the campaign by a group of determined townsfolk to stop the retail giant in its tracks.

The filmmakers' sympathies seem to lie with Wal-Mart's opponents, but Store Wars is no simplistic screed against big-box retailing. The company opens a new store in America every two business days, and these stores wouldn't exist (and thrive) if nobody wanted them. That said, "sprawl-buster" Al Norman, a consultant brought in by the No side, says that there are 390 empty Wal-Mart stores across the U.S. -- stores that were built, opened, drove away local business, and then were closed by the company for being underproducers.

This is the dilemma facing the mayor, the city council, and its planning and zoning committees, who must listen to arguments for and against Wal-Mart and come to a decision that won't automatically get them booted out of office come the next civic election. There is some humour, of a very macabre sort, in the film. At one point, the mayor notes that city council itself would make the basis of a darned fine TV sitcom; were that true, the Wal-Mart episode would run during one of the Nielsen sweeps periods, because the decision in this case has been portrayed by both sides as one of life's great turning points.

Director Micha Peled roams around this genteel Virgian town, playing fly on the wall in strategy meetings, council hearings, ice cream parlours and backyards. Throughout, there is simmering tension and fear. One of the planning committee members sadly refers to a "lynch mob" mentality among the Wal-Mart opponents. In a microcosmic way, the issue has split the town just like the railroad that runs down the centre of Main Street -- - and not unlike the Civil War 140 years ago.

Store Wars is likely to confirm pre-existing prejudices for or against the company that Sam Walton built. Those sitting on the fence may now decide that it is time to take a stand. -John T.D. Keyes

Tuesday, October 2, 7:00pm at Tinseltown
Saturday, October 6, 10:00am at Tinseltown

The Sleepy Time Gal
TIt is to sigh. Jacqueline Bisset once held such promise to a generation of filmmakers and filmgoers, but she, perhaps like fellow British actor Terence Stamp, may simply be one of those great talents destined to fall through the cracks in popular culture.

The Sleepy Time Gal is yet another waste of Bisset's evident talent, although the dialogue she is given to recite is such portentous drivel that no actor could have carried it off. Those aspiring to write for film are advised to see this movie for a first-class example of how not to write dialogue.

The press notes call her a "radiant Jacqueline Bisset," but perhaps the publicist confused radiant with radioactive. Bisset plays a long-divorced mother of two grown sons who discovers that she has terminal stomach cancer. During her aggressive treatments and then speedy decline, she tries to track down a third child -- the one she gave up as an infant.

As cinematic luck would have it, the daughter, played by Martha Plimpton, is a hotshot New York mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer, is looking for her long lost birth mother.

Why see this movie? Bisset gives it her all (she always was a natural, and there's nothing like a dying character to grant dramatic license), but maybe just to watch Plimpton work. She is somehow able to transcend the crappy dialogue handed her by writer-director Christopher Munch and make the woman she's playing seem like someone you might actually meet on planet Earth -- and want to get to know better. - John T.D. Keyes

Sunday, September 30, 7:00pm at the Vancouver Centre 1
Thursday, October 4, 3:00pm at the Visa Screening Room/Vogue

Mention "Westray" to any Canadian with even the smallest sense of current events, and it will bring to mind death and disaster. The death, precisely, of 26 miners, and a disaster from which Nova Scotia has yet to fully recover -- and from which small Pictou County, Nova Scotia, may never.

This riveting 80-minute documentary from the National Film Board does an excellent job of showing the buildup to the underground explosion and how it was far from unavoidable. You meet the widows, families and friends of the victims, who are still in shock nine years later. You're reminded that these were people, and not just nameless stats in some newspaper.

The doc also uses footage from the later (and toothless) inquiry into the disaster. Some of the people who testified at the inquiry update their thoughts in Westray. Not only is the subject an excellent one, but the style of the doc is top-notch as well. The music swells and pounds at appropriate times. Two narrators (one male, one female) tell the story, sometimes seeming to argue with each other to great effect.

A nice touch, too, is that at the end you learn where the widows and orphans are now, and how their lives are going. In some cases, this one event ruined their lives forever. - Ken Carriere

Wednesday, October 3, 7:00pm at Tinseltown
Friday, October 5, 3:15pm Cinémathèque

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