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 viff.org 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.
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.)