Vancouver International Film Festival 2016

Last update 11 October, 2016.

As usual, most of my reviews will sacrifice sober  judgement and circumspect analysis in favor of intemperate passion and my corrupt personal  taste. Otherwise consider my opinions to be completely arbitrary.

But don’t take my word for it. Go to for a full description and reviews of each film. Many descriptions have links to other reviews of the film.

New on the list

The Salesman (Dir. Asghar Farhadi, Iran /France, 126 min.)

Beautiful 2016 ()

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Dir. Juho Kuosmanen, Finland/Sweden, 92 min.)

Elle (Dir. Paul Verhoeven, France/Germany, 130 min. ) About 20 minutes into the screening, the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the building. Anticipating at least an hour’s wait before the resumption, we decided to go home. But not before vowing to pick up this pr0mising film later.


Read the full reviews in the next section.

Another Evil. What to do with a drunk exorcist.

The Bacchus Lady. An aged prostitute wonders what’s next.

The Handmaiden South Korean cinema at its best.

Lost in Munich. Words from an aging parrot blow the lid off the 1938 peace treaty.

The Love Witch. Bad acting and glorious colour in a send up of soft-core porn.

The Phantom Detective. South Korean shoot-em-up with a unique cast.

Tickling Giants. How to get up a dictator’s nose.

Two Trains Runnin’ The search for forgotten black musicians in 1960s Mississippi.

Previously reviewed

Alone (Dir. Park Hongmin, South Korea, 90 min.) This film is so confusing that if bors me to review it. Stay away. (Reviewed 2016.10.10)

Another Evil (Dir. Carson Mell, USA, 92 min.) An original spin on the traditional spook story. For a while it seems that the exorcist is more trouble than the ghosts. Or maybe he’s right. Recomended. (Reviewed 2016.10.09)

The Architect (Dir. Jonathan Parker, USA, 95 min.) Plans to build a waterfront home  spiral (literally) out of control when a middle class couple Drew and Colin (Parker Posey and Eric McCormack) hire manipulative  architect Miles Moss (James Frain) to helm the project. Lots of potential for a good story is lost here because it is difficult to summon much sympathy for any of the characters. Drew is annoying, Colin is detached, Miles is narcissistic. I am disappointed. (Reviewed 2016.09.21.)

The Bacchus Lady (Dir. E Jyong, South Korea, 110 min). This coming-of-old-age film manages to treat the subject of approaching death seriously without becoming solemn. In fact, it is sometimes downright funny. Youn Yuhjung plays So-young, an aging Seoul prostitute whose clients share her vintage, a fact that leads her to realize that the same emotionally distant way in which she has provided them with sex can also furnish them with ultimate release.  (Reviewed 2016.09.30)

BANG! The Bert Berns Story (Dir. Bob Sarles and Bert Berns, USA, 94 min.) The VIFF review sums up the story of  this film about “the most important 1960s songwriter that you’ve never heard of.” Lots of fun if you remember the ’60s. (Reviewed 2016.09.21.)

Beyond the Mountains and the Hills (Dir.Eran Kolinin, Israel, 90 min.) A film in which everything is clear except for the director’s purpose in making it. cf. Hermia and Helena below.(Reviewed 2016.10.06)

Bugs (Dir. Andreas Johnsen, Denmark, 76 min.) A couple of chefs tour the world looking for scrumptious insects to fry up. Or eat raw. Enough said. (Reviewed 2016.10.08)

Ghostland: The View of the Ju’Hoansi (Dir. Simon Stadler, Germany, 88 min) Members of a bushman village in Namibia get tired of hosting busloads of white tourists and decide to turn the tables by becoming tourists themselves, first in the Namibian capital Windhoek, and then in Germany. Perhaps the most telling insight comes when one of the group looks around at the mass of people in a German airport, each one on his or her own trajectory, and comments “I don’t think they know each other.” (Reviewed 2016.09.21.)

Glory (Dir. Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, Bulgaria/Greece, 98 min)  This film cannot decide if it is a comedy or a tragedy.Tsanko (Stefan Denolyubov), a scruffy linesman for the Bulgarian state railway, is doing his lonely job one day when he happens across a stash of cash scattered over the rail bed. He makes the mistake of reporting his find and falls into the hands of Julia Staikova (Margita Gosheva), PR director for the ministry of transportation, which is being hammered by corruption charges. Desperate for a feel-good story, Julia tries to set Tsanko up as a national hero. And here she runs into two problems. First, Tsanko sports, as well as an unkempt beard, an impenetrable speech impediment. Second, Julia’s fertility treatment program requires her to administer abdominal injections at inconvenient times during the work day. The first half of the film makes the most of the comic set up. Then the plot takes an unexpected nose-dive and we begin to wonder if Tsanko will survive. (Reviewed 2016.09.20.)

Goldstone (Dir. Ivan Sen, Australia, 110 min.) A western set in the Australian outback. Predictable, but well shot. Could well be a pilot for a series. ( Reviewed 2016.10.09)

Graduation (Dir. Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 127 min) Romeo Aldea (Adrien Titieni) should have a contented life. He’s a successful doctor with a bright teenage daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguşand) and an attractive mistress. But then there’s his miserable wife. And Eliza is out to sabotage her father’s plan to have her attend university in England. And someone keeps throwing stones through his windows. Events reach a head when Eliza is attacked on her way to school and winds up in an arm cast which disqualifies her from writing an important exam. Romeo has to break the rules to ensure she gets a fair shake. As events blossom, Romeo’s obsession intensifies. And takes us with it. (Reviewed 2016.10.01)

The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chanwook , South Korea, 145 min.) Double crosses, triple crosses, suspense, entwined with erotic fantasy. Director Park is at the top of his form in this thriller. Highly recommended. (Reviewed 2016.10.09)

Hermia and Helena (Dir. Mattias Pineiro, Argentinia/USA, 87 min) A film in which nothing is clear except for the director’s purpose in making it. cf. Beyond the Mountains and the Hills above. (Reviewed 2016.10.06)

History’s Future (Dir.  Fiona Tan, UK/Netherlands, 96 min.) This film tries to explain the concept of time and memory. Frankly, I am sick of would-be artists hiding their inability to understand such phenomena behind muddy writing. (Reviewed 2016.10.11)

In a Valley of Violence (Dir. Ti West, USA, 103 min.) Well, the ghosts of Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper still haunt the Hollywood  sand lots. This time the hero who cleans up the  town is peace-loving Ethan Hawk. Standard  shoot-em-up. (Reviewed 2016.10.10)

Infinite Flight of Days (Dir. Catalina Mesa, Columbia, 78 min.) A gentle and colourful visit to Columbia’s  Jericó,  a centre for religious tourism. What makes this doc memorable is director Mesa’s focus: the oldest female inhabitants. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the “birthday-cake palette” — as Cinema Axis‘ reviewer puts it — of the town. But Mesa lets the ladies speak for themselves and the result is a moving, but often hilarious, take on life. Don’t miss the giant collection of rosaries in the first lady’s bedroom. (Reviewed 2016.09.17.)

Kedi (Dir. Ceyda Torun, Turkey/USA/Germany, 79 min.) Director Torun takes us on a cat’s eye tour of Istanbul in this entertaining documentary. Citizens of the city see themselves as caregivers for the thousands of stray cats that beg or steal food from merchants and animal lovers. No cats were harmed in the production of this film. Unless you rate getting overweight counts as harm. (Reviewed 2016.09.22.)

Keepers of the Magic (Dir. Vic Sarin, Canada, 87 min.) A colorful tribute to the men (and they are all men) behind the cameras of the films you remember. This doc lets cinematographers tell their own stories — of fights with directors and actors, of dismal failures, of accidents that turned into strokes of genius. If you like films, you will love this. (Reviewed 2016.10.1)

KONELINE: Our land beautiful (Dir. Nettie Wild, Canada, 96 min.). Since this is a film about northern British Columbia, we are treated to a brief encounter between members of the Tahltan first nation and the executive of a mining company. But for the most part, director Nettie Wild lets the inhabitants speak for themselves without judgment. The real protagonist here is the landscape of BC. And Wild’s camera captures it. (Reviewed 2016.09.17.)

Lantouri (Dir. Reza Dormishian, Iran, 115 min). A small-time gangster  develops a crush on a journalist who is  out to end Koranic “eye-for-an-eye” justice that lets victims of crime decide whether perpetrators should be punished or forgiven. A topic for an undergrad seminar, right? Right. The film dithers for the first 45 minutes; the real drama begins when there’s 45 minutes to go. Disappointingly free of the complexity that Iranian films usually grapple with. Gets gruesome.  Go and see this only if you have strong nerves. (Reviewed 2016.10.05)

Lavender (Dir. Ed Gass-Donelly, Canada, 92 min.) This standard ghost story reeks of government grants. What Canadian bureaucrats think is cutting edge, five years after the Americans and 10 years after the rest of the world. (Reviewed 2016.10.07)

Little Sister (Dir. Zack Clark, USA, 91 min.) A former goth-girl now taking instruction to become a nun, returns to her home town to mend relations with her mother (a great performance by Ally Sheedy) and her brother, disfigured as a soldier in the gulf war. The film avoids falling into sentimentality, but I was left wondering what led her to choose a religion in the first place. (Reviewed 2016.10.09)

 Living with Giants (Dir. Sebastien Rist and Aude Leroux-Lévesque, Canada, 79 min.) No, no, no. More to come  when I get my passions under control. OK, I’m better now. My uneasiness stemmed from an underlying suspicion that I was being fooled.  And I  was. This film is not a documentary.  It is a drama, posing as a documentary.  There’s a cast  list in the credits. And  it is a hackneyed drama: expect nothing more than the sad old clichés about Inuit life in the north: alcoholism and suicide. How about a film about the thousands of native people who do well? (Reviewed 2016.09.17.)

Lost in Munich (Dir. Petr Zelenka, Czech Republic, 105 min.) Don’t miss this hilarious take on European history.  Background. On 29 September, 1938, the governments  of Britain, France and Italy met in Munich and agreed to surrender a chunk  of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. On the 70th anniversary of this betrayal (2008), an intrepid Czech reporter uncovers the existence of, and kidnaps, a parrot — yes, you read that right, a parrot — that overheard and can repeat private comments made by the 1938 French prime minister Edouard Daladier praising Hitler and excoriating Czechs as weaklings. The nation of France is offended. Czechs are out for blood. There’s a contract out on the parrot.  From here on, things get complicated. Very complicated. Stay awake. (Reviewed 2016.09.30)

The Love Witch (Dir. Anna Biller, USA, 120 min.) Director Anna Biller hits all the right notes in this techni-colorful send up of  ’60s soft-core porn. The sets, costumes and make-up are as realistic as birthday cake and the acting is deliberately atrocious. See it if you dare. (Reviewed 2016.10.10)

Magnus (Dir. Benjamin Ree, Norway, 76 min.) Director Ree skilfully evokes the tension of international chess without explaining strategy — or even the rules of the game. The subject here is not chess, but the personality of Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian teen who took on the best of the world’s chess masters, and won.  We follow Magnus through his clumsy childhood, his awkward adolesence to his fumbling adulthood. In spite of all his  social defects, Magnus feeds ?? our support/love ?. If you like chess, you have seen this film. If you don’t know chess, check it out. (Reviewed 2016.10.10)

Maliglutit (Searchers) (Dir. Zacharius Kunuk, Canada, 94 min.) Inuit director Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) brings us another adventure in Canada’s arctic. When Kuanana returns from the hunt to find his wife and daughter missing and the rest of his family murdered, he sets out over the snow to straighten things out. Kunuk’s pacing is much more relaxed than that of John Ford, whose The Searchers was an inspiration for this film. A must-see for anyone interested in the lives of America’s indigenous people. Not a white face appears in the film. (Reviewed 2016.10.05)

The Model (Dir. Mads Matthiesen, Denmark, 105 min.) Leaving her home in Denmark to start a career as a model  in  Paris,  sixteen-year-old Emma learns too much about the fashion culture. Standard predictable fare. Lots of drinking, sex and nudity. Why did her parents let her go in the first place? And — kids — don’t take pills offered by a stranger.(Reviewed 2016.10.11)

Neruda (Dir. Pablo Larrain, Chile/Argentina/Spain/France, 108 min.) I cannot do better than the VIFF description of this winner. Though the film will work better for you if you have read some of Pablo Neruda’s work. Recommended. (Reviewed 2016.10.03)

Operation Avalanche (Dir. Matt Johnson, Canada/USA, 94 min.) This ingenious “documentary” follows the efforts of a set of CIA  special  agents (actually 2015 film students at York University in Toronto) to create a phony NASA moon landing in 1969. Well acted and produced. Though unconvincing. (Reviewed 2016.10.10)

The Ornithologist (Dir. Joäo Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal, 118 min.) Who would have thought that bird watching was hazardous? Our hero Fernando is out in a river in a remote part of Portugal (is this the first time the words “remote” and “Portugal” have appeared in the same sentence?) when he his canoe is capsized by rapids.  A pair of female Chinese pilgrims rescue him, feed him, tie him up and then plan to castrate him. Fernando escapes and runs into a deaf and dumb shepherd-boy called Jesus with whom he has sex and then kills. Then the film gets really weird. In the last scene, Fernando changes his name to Anthony and  in the company of Jesus’ identical twin (now disguised as a bird) strides into the Italian city of Padua and is greeted as Saint Anthony of Padua. I’m not making this up, but some religious nut () did. (Reviewed 2016.10.08)

The Phantom Detective (Dir.Jo Sunghee, South Korea,  125 min.) Winner of this year’s award for the most ammunition expended in a single film. If crazy Kim in the north had seen this film when it came out, he would have attacked immediately, believing that his enemy was out of bullets. But this film is worth seeing anyway: it has the thriller  requirements — a flawed hero, an apparently invincible  big bad guy and — something new — an adorable six-year-old with the ability to smooth talk her way out of any certain death situation dreamt up by the apparently inexhaustable supply of bad guys. Recommended. (Reviewed 2016.10.03)

Power to Change — The Energy Rebellion (Dir. Carl-A. Fechner, Germany, 94 min). Director Fechner puts a positive spin  on the struggle to save the planet by focusing on environmental projects, both private and public, that actually worked. As well as those that did not. Among the successes  —  a mobile machine that turns vegetable waste into fuel pellets and a charity that provides energy-saving gadgets. Fechner’s message is that lots of small clean projects can drown the bad effects of a few large dirty ones. I was unconvinced. (Reviewed 2016.09.20.)

Prison Dogs (Dir. Perri Pelz and Geeta Gandbhir, USA 72 min.) Feel-good movie   of the fest. (Reviewed 2016.10.10)

A Quiet Passion (Dir. Terence Davies, UK/Belgium, 125 min.) Only the British could work up a full two-hour biopic about an American woman to whom nothing happened. That  woman would be Emily Dickinson, by the way. There’s a lot of strolling in the Dickinson gardens. And there is ample opportunity for Emily (Cynthia Nixon) to demonstrate that Dickinson was no fading violet. I suspect that this movie, combined with some additional material (so long as it exists) will make it to the small screen on PBS. (Reviewed 2016.10.05)

Reset (Dir. Thierry Demaizierre, Alban Teurlai, France, 110 min.) Ch0reographer Benjamin Millepied prepares his initial production  as new director of the Paris Opera Ballet. Sweat, strain and stumble with the dancers as Millepied  drives them to their limits. Oddly, the final credits inform us that Millepied resigned from the company in 2016, three months after the production. A bit more investigation reveals that he has since moved to Los Angeles. I’ll let you work that out. (Reviewed  2016.10.01)

RiverBlue (Dir. David McIlvride and Roger Williams, Canada, 95 min.) The first half hour of this documentary evinces groans from the audience with its depiction of the slow but complete deaths of rivers — in China, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh — choked with industrial waste. Directors place the blame squarely on the fashion industry, which demands cheap denim for blue jeans and cheap leather for shoes and belts. Religion assists though by assuring Bangladeshi workers that toiling in toxic water is their lot and by promising ignorant Indians that dunking in the poisonous, feces-and-corpse-ridden soup of the Ganges will get them into heaven. Be prepared to come out flush with  righteous disgust. (Reviewed 2016.09.22.)

River of Fables (Dir. Bhaskar Hazarika, India, 118 min.) This film weaves  together four  Indian folk tales about girls and their  parents. The classics of European fairy tales are all here: the evil step-mother, the abandonment of the new-born, the mysterious vegetable that becomes a child  and the search for an appropriate suitor for a daughter(a python in this case). Like European fables, these stories are brutal and bloody. Not for the squeamish. (Reviewed 2016.10.10)

Seasons (Dir. Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, France, 95 min.) Billed as a history of life in the forests that blanketed Europe for the last 10,000 years, this film is nothing more than a nature documentary. There’s no investigation of exotic creatures — lions and elephants, for example — that lived there. No science at all. In fact, the directors edit the film at their disposal to (occasionally) inject some Disney-like anthropomorphisms that made me cringe. Good nature photography though. Your kids will love it. (Reviewed 2016.10.03)

Sins of the Flesh (Dir. Khaled El Hagar, Egypt, 124 min.)  If the  title didn’t warn you, the situation 15 minutes in will. It’s the beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt, and Ali, serving 25 years for murder, escapes and seeks refuge at the farm run by his cousin. You know things are going to get out of control when it turns out that Ali and his cousin’s wife, Fatma, are not exactly strangers. To make things more complex, the rich owner of the farm also has an interest in Fatma. Melodrama notwithstanding, the film  is well directed and photographed. There’s hardly a dull minute in the two hours of movie. (If you want, you can interpret the film as  an allegory on the state of Egypt, with Fatma representing Egypt, Ali representing the rebellion, and so on.) (Reviewed 2016.09.17.)

Sufferings of Ninko (Dir. Niwatsukino Norhiro, Japan, 70 min.) What’s the worst thing that a celibate monk could discover about himself? An ingenious mix of live action and animation brings Ninko’s dilemma to life. (Reviewed 2016.10.04)

Suntan (Dir. Argyris Papadimitropoulos, Greece, 104 min). Kostis (Makis Papadimitriou), a dumpy middle-aged introvert, is the only doctor on a small Greek island. In the winter, he treats the island’s 800 inhabitants. But in summer, his practice expands to include the hundreds of young sybarites who flood the island’s beaches. Predictably, Kostis falls for one of them; but for Anna (Elli Tringou) sex with Kostis is nothing more than a notch on her thong. If she ever wore a thong. Kostis’ obsession can only end badly. A predictable plot that seems to be constructed largely as an excuse to display a record number of hectares of human skin of all genders. (Reviewed 2016.10.01)

Tickling Giants (Dir. Sara Taksler, USA/ Egypt, 111 min. ) This documentary is worth a viewing. The Arab Spring of 2012 gives surgeon Bassam Youssef a chance to be what he always wanted — a satirical comic in the manner of John Stewart. Bassam’s show, featuring cutting humour, was broadcast for three years until the government of Abdel el-Sisi shut it down. Most revealing about the state of Egypt are the comments, not by government shills, but by common citizens, that satire and criticism are subversive. Guess those people will always be with us. (Reviewed 2016.10.08)

Tower (Dir. Keith Maitland, USA, 82 min.) Director Maitland rotoscopes us back to August 1966, when sniper Charles Whitman spent two hours in the clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin shooting down people on the campus below. A must-see if, like me, you remember the strange day that saw the first mass gun deaths in the United States. (Reviewed 2016.10.05)

Twilight over Burma (Dir. Sabine Dirflinger, Austria/Thailand, 99 min.)  In the 1950s, a young Austrian girl marries a handsome, idealistic Burmese prince and goes to live with him in Burma. While she slowly learns the customs  of her adopted country, her husband struggles to set up a democratic government.  Then a military coup threatens the young family’s freedom and lives. Pretty scenery but predictable plot with weak acting. (Reviewed 2016.10.01)

Two Trains Runnin’ (Dir. Sam Pollard, USA, 82 min.) This imaginative  doc has two teams of courageous country blues buffs heading into the racist hell hole of 1960s Mississippi to track down forgotten heroes of black American music. On the way, they run into bigotry, violence and spirited music. An inventive potion of politics and poetry. Highly recommended if you like the blues or the triumph of friendship over fear, music  over malevolence. (Reviewed 2016.09.17.)

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt (Dir: Ada Ushpiz, Israel/Canada, 125 min) If you don’t know who Hannah Arendt was, this long, dense analysis of her work is not the film for you. But if the phrase “the banality of evil” makes you think of Adolf Eichman, you will find  a feast of ideas as Arendt’s friends and critics discuss her views on the holocaust, zionism and moral responsibility. You might want to take notes. (Reviewed 2016.10.01)

The Yard (Dir. Måns Månsson, Sweden/Germany, 79 min.) I agree that this film depicts industrial alienation. It sure as hell alienated me. I thought we had been through all this two generations ago. Read the precis in the program guide and prepare to be depressed. (Reviewed 2016.09.22.)

Yellowing (Dir.  Chan tze-woon, Hong Kong, 133 min.) This 133 minute doc about the 2014 “Umbrella” protests against the Beijing-dominated government of Hong Kong could do with some editing. And Chan could have supplied a couple of minutes of historical context to put the audience into the picture. But Chan’s on-the spot camera captures the passions of the youthful demonstrators, especially  when it contrasts them with the bland faces of the police. (Reviewed 2016.09.17.)



History’s Future

The Ornithologist

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Two films worth seeing

Oh, yeah. The new Star Wars is just about out. But before leaping on board the starship Fantastic Nonsense and drowning in its swimming pool of soda pop, check out two docudramas also showing at your local film-plex.

The first is Trumbo. Here Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad) portrays the award-winning screen writer Dalton Trumbo, who put his career on the line by refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Cranston’s Trumbo comes across as brash, articulate and brave. Watch for his takedown of the bumptious John Wayne. Helen Mirren plays the witless LA Times gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. The film is a splendid dip into the ocean of realism.

Spotlight recounts the struggle of the Boston Globe to tear down the Roman Catholic church’s  cover-up of child abuse by priests. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams plunge in to lead the team of investigators, battling the waves of resistance from the church. But for my money, the outstanding character is Liev Schreiber’s understated role as editor-in-chief Marty Baron.

Sorry about the continuing swimming metaphors.

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Resisting evil: Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog, I described the famous Milgram experiment that revealed the tendency of humans to obey authority, even when that obedience led to inflicting intense pain on others. The reactions to this apparently dour news ranged from hopeful denial (“It’s not true.”) to morbid acceptance (“Well, that’s human nature.”) None of the comments — at least none that I have seen — spotted the bright side.

There’s a bright side?

Yes, and here it is. If you are aware of this unfortunate human tendency, you can choose to disobey it.  This is immediately obvious if you imagine yourself a volunteer in a Milgram-like experiment, one in which the student is really being shocked. Now think. Knowing what you know now, would you obey the scientist and continue to increase the shocks?

I assume the answer is “no.”

Or imagine yourself as a prison guard, part of an army occupying a country whose customs and language are foreign and frightening to you. Would you you mistreat the prisoners? Would you be willing to torture them? Lots of soldiers under the Nazi regime seemed to have no problem. More recently, American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison  in Iraq happily abused prisoners.

But knowledge of the Milgram experiment gives you a choice. Admittedly this is possibly a hard choice if you are threatened when you refuse to play along, but at least you realize that you have the freedom to disobey. You do not have to follow your compulsion to obey.

So by revealing our tendency to obey authority, Milgram did us a favour — he  gave us choice.



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Resisting evil: Part 1

Early in the morning of June 1, 1962, in the Israeli town of Ramla, prison officials executed Adolf Eichmann. It had been just over two years since Israeli agents had kidnapped the war criminal and smuggled him from Argentina to Israel, where he had stood trial for his part in sending thousands of Jews to their deaths during the Nazi regime in Germany. And one of the striking characteristics of that trial was Eichmann’s defence. Far from desperately trying to distance himself from his part in the mass slaughter, Eichmann presented himself as a powerless bureaucrat who was merely a cog in a greater machine. It was his placidity that led author and social critic Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”.

While Eichmann was awaiting execution, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram was designing an experiment that cut right to the heart of Eichmann’s actions. You may have heard of Milgram’s studies of obedience, but in case you haven’t or in case you have the details wrong, here is how it went.

A male staff member posing as chief investigator informs the subject, along with another subject (who is in fact a collaborator), that the purpose of the test is to estimate the effectiveness of punishment on learning. The investigator then explains that one of the pair of subjects will be assigned the role of of teacher, the other the role  of student. The student is to learn a list of word associations; the teacher will administer an electrical shock to punish the student if s/he fails to recall the correct association. By an (apparently) random process, the real subject is then assigned the teacher role and the collaborator the student role. The “student” is then sealed in a separate room, strapped in a chair wearing an arm band that would carry the electric shock. The teacher can hear, but not see the “student”.  Meanwhile the teacher learns the controls that will determine the strength of the shock.

To begin with, the student does well, but as the test becomes harder, s/he gets more items wrong. The investigator insists that the teacher increase the shock, the more the student gives the wrong answers. Soon, the student begins to complain. The teacher hesitates, but the investigator insists he increase the shocks. Then the complaints turn to screams. Still the investigator demands an increase in the strength of the shock. The teacher reluctantly  obeys. Increases in shock are eventually met by silence. Has the student fainted from pain? The investigator states that the rules of the experiment state that the shocks be administered until the maximum level is reached. The teacher is now in a quandary. Should he obey or resist?

Before he launched the experiment, Milgram described the experiment to his students and fellow faculty members and asked them to estimate the percentage of “teachers” who would continue the shocks to the maximum voltage. The students and professors guessed that fewer than five percent would allow this level of punishment.

They were wrong. Most of the teachers (26 out of 40 in the original experiment) obeyed and went all the way. Many of the others tolerated the screams before resisting. You can read the results in detail by following this link — Milgram experiment  — or googling the phrase.

(It might be needless to say — but I will say it anyway — that the “student” never actually got shocked. He just put on a good act.)

That’s rather a long introduction (570 words) to my main point. What should be our reaction to the Milgram experiment?

You can read some of the reactions of more modern university students (who in 2000 were shown a film of the experiment) here. So far as I can see, the students reported the following emotions.

  • Embarrassment. The first few shocks were greeted with nervous laughter, laughter that tended to fade as the shocks got worse.
  • Denial. Some students averred that they would never have gone to the same lengths as the teachers. Others claimed that things have changed and that the experiment would get quite different results if done today. For example, “anc1626”  says, “People these days do not obey higher authorities as well as they used to and there would have been plenty of complaints about the experiment. I think its weird that they even decided to come up with that type of experiment and test people.”
  • Hope. Others merely hoped that they would never have administered extreme shocks.

None of the students seemed to have fallen into the trap of simply assigning the results to an ineluctable tendency of human beings to act in an evil way. Though I have heard such sentiments from religious people who cling to the belief that we are all evil at heart.

Another reaction, quite common among academics, was that the experiment itself was unethical: when informed about the real purpose of the experiment, many “teachers” had deep feelings of guilt and helplessness. This criticism, although it has merit, can be viewed as an avoidance.

But seeing the film Experimenter at the Vancouver International Film Festival recently led me to a quite different, and more optimistic, reaction. More tomorrow.


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VIFF 2015 Reviews

8 October 2015

With these last   I am    done. 50 films reviewed below.

Best So Far

45 Years Taut drama featuring two of the best actors around.

The Daughter Based on the Ibsen play, The Wild Duck.

Experimenter. Exam nightmares come true.

Golden Kingdom A surprise sleeper from Burma.

Marshland A police procedural in which the landscape plays a part.

Meru.  A vertigo inducing film about mountain climbing.

My Friend Victoria Race relations in France. Or not.

A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did Sons of the Holocaust face their fathers’ sins.

Nina Forever What to do when your ex-girlfriend just won’t stay dead.

No Land’s Song Learn why Iranian women are not allowed to sing in public.

New Reviews (and reviews to come)

The Club (Chile) You think the Islamic State is evil? Visit a  sanctuary for the  worse. and get a load of these Jesus-squeezing catholic child abusers. The  only honest one kills  himself.

Green Room  (USA) A bloody  good bloody drama starring (of all  people) Patrick  Stewart as a   backwoods honcho   who imprisons a  gypsy   rock band in his bar. Two of the cast of tens survive.

James White (USA)   A  no-good son reforms to take care of his dying mother. Great acting and direction from first-time film-makers.

London Road (UK) This adaptation of a National Theatre blockbuster fails to engage.

Already reviewed

100 Yen Love (Take Masaharu, Japan). Ichiko is a fat. slovenly 32-year-old who spends her days gobbling junk food and playing video games with her nephew while her sister and mother struggle to keep the family business — a bento takeout joint — going.  Until . . . . Well, that’s really the problem. For some undisclosed reason,  Ichiko suddenly becomes an adult, gets a job, gets her own place to live. And takes up boxing. There is nothing remotely realistic about the plot here.

45 Years (Andrew Haigh; UK) You can’t go  wrong with an intense drama fleshed out by two of Britain’s best actors. And director Haigh never misses a beat. Retired  teacher Kate (Charlotte Rampling) gets a shock when her husband of 45 years Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter from Switzerland  informing him that Katya’s body has been found, frozen in a glacier for more than 50 years. Katya? The name means nothing to Kate. But it means too much to Geoff. Rampling is brilliant as a woman who begins to suspect she has  been second-best for 45 years. Highly recommended.

Accused (Paula van der Oest; Netherlands) Canadians  of a certain vintage will remember the case of Susan Nelles, a nurse  falsely accused of using digoxin to murder newborns in a Toronto neonatal ward.This is the Dutch version. And the Dutch, like Canadians, confuse the brutality of the crime  with the question of who did it.

Alice in Earnestland (South Korea) To quote Monty Python, this film is “just plain silly”. And I  don’t mean that as a compliment.

All Eyes and Ears (Vanessa Hope; USA/China) US – China relations   in the last decade as seen through  the eyes (figuratively speaking) of both dissident blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and Lily, the 11-year-old Chinese-born adopted child of the American ambassador. A nice juxtaposition of points of view. Check this out if you would like to learn about Jon Huntsman, an intelligent Republican senator who has a chance to be a presidential candidate.

The Anarchists (France) A political romance with echoes  of the Red Army Faction or the Stern Gang. It’s 1899 in Paris and a young cop is sent to infiltrate a group of anarchists. And of course he falls for one of the girls. So, what to do when the group plans assassinations?

The Assassin (China) “Is you is or is you aint my enemy?” It is hard — no, impossible — to sort out who’s on which side and why in this colourful but dilatory medieval Chinese drama.

Breathe Umphefiumla (South Africa) I am not sure what to make of this film, in which  black South Africans step way  out of their own culture to present  an African version of Puccini’s La Boheme, complete with the famous soaring arias. If you know the opera, the film is both satisfying  and disappointing. But what would Africans say if we dipped into their culture and reproduced their melodies for our own enjoyment.    Oh, wait.

The Chinese Mayor (China)  Mayor Geng Yanbo of Datong is ruthless in his desire to recreate Datong’s splendid history and turn his town into an international historical tourist destination.  Geng has no tolerance for incompetence: contractors who fail to deliver on time are brusquely fired. But he runs into problems with residents of the city quarters he wants demolished.

The Competition (Spain/Andorra, Angel Borrego Cubero). I’ve been to the tiny principality of Andorra, high in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It was quaint, beautiful and friendly. It has one city, also called Andorra, famous only for its Romanesque murals. So why does the government of Andorra suddenly announce an architectural  competition to design a multi-million gallery to house its treasures, a competition that draws entries from the likes of Frank Gehry, Zeha Hadid and Jean Nouvel? See the entries, bet on the winners. You’ll be surprised.

The Daughter    (Simon Stone; Australia) The sins of the previous generation come to rest heavily on the youngest. Based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Highly  recommended.

Dheepan (France) Posing  as family, Tamil officer, a widow and an orphan girl manage to make their way  as  refugees from Sri Lanka to France. Where things  are worse than in Sri Lanka. Good plot up until the last five minutes, when Clint Eastwood seems to have taken   the helm. The first five minutes in the refugee camp, however, are illuminating.

The Dinner (; Italy) Two brothers, one a ruthless lawyer, the other a compassionate pediatric surgeon, discover that their teenage  children may have committed a brutal crime. This popular film delivers the emotional goods (with one bang to start and another to finish). But the drama might have played out better in the hands of Henry James or Joseph Conrad.

Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia). Heart of Darkness doubled. A shaman leads two separate European missions, 40 years apart, down the Amazon in search of a magical healing plant. Ostensibly an indictment of western religious and commercial interference in native culture. What happens to the Christian mission 40 years after the priest dies is particularly unnerving. Ends with a 2001: A Space Odyssey colour show that stands for hippy enlightenment. In black and white except for the light show. Original and worth a view, so long as you don’t take it seriously.

Erbarme dich: Matthhaus Passion Stories (Ramond Cheling; Netherlands). If you are a Bach enthusiast you will love this retelling of the Christian story of the death of St. Matthew by such luminaries as Peter Sellers and Pieter Jan Leusink. This is not an analysis of Bach’s work, but an interpretation by Christian believers. Well worth a viewing even by atheists such as I.

Experimenter (USA) This docudrama is about Stanley Milgram. Vaguely familiar name? Read on. Suppose you volunteer to be a subject in a Yale University experiment designed to assess the effect if punishment on learning. Another subject is chosen at random to be the learner and is secluded in another room where he or she is given a memorization task. You as teacher test the learner using a set of questions. If the learner gets the answer wrong, you inflict an electric shock. The more answers the learner gets wrong, the greater the shock. After a while, the learner’s grunts of pain turn into screams. But the scientist in charge insists you keep increasing the shocks. Would you stop? This is the famous experiment undertaken by Milgram, the psychologist who discovered that the majority of “teachers” obeyed orders and continued increasing the “punishment”. Milgram’s point is that most of the human race, like Nazis, will obey orders. Milgram’s research in other areas led to the “letter on the street” phenomenon and the “six degrees of separation” phenomenon. Intriguing fellow.

The Falling (Carol Morley; UK) It’s too easy to poke fun at this story of mass fainting hysteria at an English girls’ school  in the late 1960s. But what else can you do? There is little chance to identify with the main character and the hysterical act-outs are comical rather than dramatic. I’m with the stern headmistress all the way — “You girls! Cut it out!”

Frank and the Wondercat (Tony Massil, Pablo Alvarez-Mesa; Canada) The adventures of a cat called Fudgie-Wudgie. And his owner Frank., who dresses him up. The cat is interesting. Less so the owner, on whom the film dwells. Five minutes on YouTube’s cat movies can get you more fun than this flick.

From Scotland with Love (Virginia Heath, UK). I found the best part of this film happened when the whiney, awful music died and the credits rolled. This flick is nothing more than a monotonous montage of film clips of Scottish newsreels from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Boring, boring, boring.There is no theme, no structure, nothing. And I grew up partly in Scotland in those decades. The clips and the songs went on and  on until I wanted to scream. This is trash. Everyone else loved it.

Golden Kingdom (Brian Perkins; USA/Burma) Praise of the resourcefulness and bravery of children. When their abbot is called away, four novice monks ranging in age from about six to 14 are left to fend for themselves in war-torn Burma. I highly recommend this film.

Hilda (Andres Clariond Rangel, Mexico). Part comedy, part tragedy. Rich by marriage, middle-aged Susanna tries to relive her   college days by adopting the personality of her young maid, Hilda. Things get really out of hand when her husband tries to arrange a dinner party for some wealthy American investors. Get in touch with your inner cynic here.

Hockney   (UK) A biography of one of the most intriguing artists of the Twentieth Century. If you know Hockney, you will love it. If you don’t you may grow to love his work.

Hurricane (France). Great photography follows the life — and the storm has a personality — of a hurricane from its   birth in Senegal to its landfall in Puerto Rica, Cuba and the mainland.

In Transit (Albert Maysies, USA). This is a work of genius. How could you ever get  on a train running from Seattle to Chicago and manage to interview the dullest passengers in America. The  people we meet are so dense they could bend light. Competes  with From Scotland with Love  as the most annoying film so far. I am in a minority in dissing this film, so maybe you will like it.

Love Among the Ruins (Massimo Ali Mohammad, Italy/USA) The 2012 earthquake in northern Italy shook loose a crack  in the wall of Ferrarra’s art museum revealing several canisters of film from 1922.  The first part of this documentary describes the origins of the film and its  restoration. Then we see the film itself in all its silent glory. A worthy tribute to the masters of silent black and white film. The special effects featuring the Zeppelin are impressive considering the film is nearly 100 years old.

Love is all You Need (Kim Longnotto; UK) No, it isn’t. You also need an editor.   One who would  pare down to 30 minutes this ramble through sexuality as presented in British film. I get the story. I lived it. Sex in Britain before the 1960s was such a dirty, creepy secret that it makes me shudder to recall it. Now we have  gay sex, inter-racial sex and even gay inter-racial sex. Good. But I already knew that. Preceded by a 19-minute montage from Austria called The Exquisite Corpus, that attempts to present pornography in its proper setting. What was  titillating in 1950,  for example, is laughable now — topless men in jock-straps and and women in thongs. But the film maker cannot leave well enough   alone: we are assaulted by a  barrage of cinematic pyrotechnics  that leave the viewer with a headache rather than illumination.

Marshland (Spain) Ostensibly  this is a police procedural investigating the disappearance of two young sisters in the Las Marismas marshes of southern Spain. But it is set in September 1980, just five years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, and the police investigators have to set their politics aside to discover the perp. The mystery  is intriguing, but the high-altitude shots of   the marshes that director Alberto Roderguez includes are spectacular.  Highly recommended.

Meru  (USA) If heights make you queasy, avoid this account of two attempts (made by the same three climbers) to reach the top of the “Shark’s Fin” or Meru, a smooth granite peak rising above most of the Himalayas. Having nearly died on the first attempt, the three get  together to try again. This despite the fact that in the interim one of the climbers suffered brain damage in a skiing accident, and the other two were nearly swept away in separate avalanches. You leave the theatre with the certain conclusion that these guys are nuts. But they make a nail-biting  film.

Monty Python: the Meaning of Live  (Roger Graef, James Rogan; UK). Thirty-something years after  their last show, the  surviving  members reunite for a live performance in London. Python fans will love it (the parrot, the Pope, the cheese shop and the rest are here, at least in  part). Non-fans will not smile. Well, you’ve got to look on the bright side of life.

My Friend Victoria  (Jean-Paul Civeyrac; France) The double meaning in this film makes it well-worth seeing. Based on a short story by Doris Lessing, it probes the life of Victoria, a French-born woman of African ancestry who gives birth to a daughter by Thomas, a white Frenchman who is the scion of a left-wing but rich Parisian family. Far from being racist, the rich family rejoices in their newly-found grand daughter and showers her with gifts and affection, much to Victoria’s discomfort. By inviting us to tease out the reason for Victoria’s alienation, director Civeyrac offers an analysis of racial conflicts in modern Europe. Or does he? There is little overt racism in the film. Victoria’s best friend (also black, and the narrator of the film) bounds through college, lands a perfect job as a reader for a publisher and moves easily through the mixed race society of Paris. Watch the film carefully and you might discover more reasons for Victoria’s pain than the colour of her skin.

My Internship in Canada  (Philippe Faladeau; Canada) Only if you are Canadian will you get the jokes about an obscure rural Quebec MP who, owing to a political quirk, winds  up with the balance  of power.

My Life with a King (Carlo Encisco Catu; Philippines) The “king” here is Francisco Gunto, the elected king of Kapampangan poetry. The post is so important to the Pampangan people of the Philippines that it comes with a crown and a chauffeur. The latter job falls to city boy Jaypee, who is assigned to transport the irascible, hard-drinking Francisco, via motor scooter, to competitive poetry readings. They are invariably late.

A Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did (UK) This is the most emotionally searing films I have seen so far at the festival. Director David Evans introduces us to the sons of two Nazi high officials who oversaw the murders of thousands of Jews during the second world war. The trouble is the two sons don’t agree. Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, is quite open about his father’s guilt. Horst von Wächter, son of Otto von Wächter, stubbornly denies that his father was responsible.

No Land’s Song ( Avat Najafi , Iran/Germany/France)  Fed up with the ridiculous ban on women singers in Iran, singer Sara Najafi (sister of the director Avat Najafi) plots a complex route to present a concert of women vocalists. Despite implacable hostility from the religious powers, she succeeds. If you enjoy music or even if you are merely ticked off by religion, this film is for you. Watch the imam writhe as he makes up fairy tales about women in order to justify the ban.

One Million Dubliners (Aoife Kelleher; Ireland)  An emotional trip around Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, which has been receiving the remains of Ireland’s  citizens — rich and poor, famous and forgotten — since 1832. But far from a jingoistic rant, this is an   examination of death, and life. The last few  minutes are an unwelcome surprise.

Original Copy (Florian Heinzen-Ziob, Georg Heinzen; Germany) The pointy end of a Bollywood production is its actual screening in a theatre. Here we follow the efforts of the sign painter at the Albert Talkies Cinema in Mumbai to prepare a giant mural featuring all the stars. An appreciation of artist Sheikh Rehrman and his talented assistants.

Paco de Lucia: A Journey  (Francisco Sanchez Varela; Spain) Even if you know little about flamenco, you will be  pleasantly impressed by the musical talents of Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucia and his colleagues. There is little foot stamping and a lot of intricate string plucking.

Racing Extinction(USA) A good kick in the pants for those of us who, like me,  have ignored the destruction that humankind has wrought on sealife.

Rams (Iceland). Two brothers, both sheep farmers, battle old hatreds as an  epidemic of deadly scrapie savages their herds. Very good, very popular film, but I was unable to rave.

Remember (Canada) High production values and the efforts of Christopher Plummer and Atom Egoyan ensure this will come out commercially soon. An intriguing plot keeps the action going, but in retrospect it makes little sense.

Royal Tailor (Lee Wonsuk; South Korea). Who knew high fashion could be so dangerous? In this original period piece set  in medieval Korea, young free-lance tailor Kongjin (Ko Soo) comes to the rescue when the new king orders court tailor Dolsuk (Han Seokgyu) to supply a complex ceremonial robe overnight. Kongjin’s success leads both to an ambivalent friendship with Dolsuk and, unhappily, to an entanglement with court intrigues involving the new king’s legal wife and the young girl he wants to marry. No sword-play; lots of needle-play.

A Syrian Love Story (UK, Sean McAllister) The hidden actor  in this documentary          is the director Sean McAllister who combed the streets of Damascus in search of a family torn apart by war. It was McAllister’s luck rather than talent that he stumbled into the family of Arer, a Palestinian, bringing up four children while his wife Raghda was imprisoned by Assad regime. War or no war, Arer and Raghda are so far apart emotionally and intellectually that this marriage seems doomed. Many film fest people disliked McAllister’s manipulation of the couple, but I rather liked the central conflict. So I am recommending it.

A Tale of Three Cities  (Mabel Cheung; Hong Kong/China). Get your tickets early; this film will be a big hit in the Chinese community of Vancouver. Like Dr. Zhivago, this is a romance in war time. Young widow Chen and her lover Fang meet during the Japanese occupation of China. Over the next decade they are repeatedly torn apart and reunited first by the Japanese then by savage fighting between Chang Kai-shek’s army and the communists. You know they will survive because the story is based on the lives of the parents of martial arts star Jacky Chan.

Very Semi-serious (US) Every week the cartoon editor of the New Yorker magazine selects for publication just 14 or 15 out of hundreds of submissions. If you like witty one- panel cartoons, see this.

Ville-Marie  (Guy Edoin; Canada) This film starts with an emphatic bang that might lead to expect a mystery thriller. Instead, what follows is a taught drama featuring an internationally famous actress, her gay son, a paramedic and an emergency room nurse.

We Did it on a Song (David André, France). A docu-drama-musical featuring five high school students in Boulogne-sur-mer facing the final examinations that will determine whether they will be able to fulfill their dreams. And, yes, they occasionally break into song.

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Testing, testing . . . .

In his book Bad Science, columnist and psychiatrist Ben Goldacre presents the following simple problem. (I have modified it a bit, but the basic idea is the same.)

I have a deck of 100 index cards. On one side of each card is a letter; on the other is a number between 1 and 10 (inclusive). That information you can take as true. I then deal out four cards as follows.

cardsNow I ask you to test the following hypothesis as well as you can by turning over just two cards.

Hypothesis: Every card in the deck that has a vowel on the letter side has an even number on the number side.

Question: Which two cards do you flip?

I leave you to mull that over before you go on.

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William Tanner and the Peterloo Massacre

Peterloo Massacre.png

On the Sixteenth of August, 1819, a crowd of some 80,000 gathered on St. Peter’s field in Manchester. Their main purpose — besides enjoying the uncommonly good weather — was to demand reform of the rigid parliamentary rules that disenfranchised most citizens of northern England. The crowd, which included not only workers in Manchester’s textile industry but also a large contingent of middle class citizens, was about to hear famed orator Henry Hunt’s address, when a regiment of sabre-wielding drunken cavalry charged onto the field, cutting down people at random. By the time the crowd has dispersed at least 15 people lay dead. Many more were wounded, some of whom may have died later.

The British victory at Waterloo, which had put an end to Napoleon’s career, having occurred just four years before, the St. Peter’s square incident soon became known as The Battle of Peterloo or  the Peterloo Massacre. While there were no immediate changes to parliamentary rules, Peterloo did motivate the creation of a progressive newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, now known simply as The Guardian.

It was not known until recently that one of the dead, a constable who wandered the field after the cavalry had dispersed, was in fact killed by a 12-year-old youth, Jack Riordan, who escaped detection by adopting the name William Tanner.

Riordan/Tanner subsequently lived a life crowded with incidents both erotic and intellectual. We know this because his journals, written in 1905 , were recently discovered  in Vancouver. In them, Tanner relates his scientific triumphs (his discovery, long before Mendel, Darwin or Einstein, of Mendelian genetics, Darwinian evolution and Einsteinian relativity). But most of his energies were sapped by his insatiable libido and he spent most of his life on the run, fleeing from furious betrayed husbands or pistol-waving deceived lovers. As Tanner himself puts in: “You don’t stop to discuss sexual ethics with an armed lover after she’s discovered you’ve been bouncing her maid on the side. I suppose there’s a lesson in that, somewhere.”

One of those lovers — she with the pistols, in fact — was Lord Byron’s mathematically talented daughter, Lady Ada Byron (later Countess Lovelace), now known for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytic Engine, the world’s first programmable computer. Tanner’s account of the Analytic Engine differs from the accepted story: it was Tanner, not Babbage who came up with the design of the Analytic Engine.

The first part of Tanner’s diaries, The Lost Journals of William Tanner, will be published electronically on March 1, 2015.

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