Vancouver International Film Festival charms, bewilders, and cajoles

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      The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector (U.K./U.S.)
      The trauma of an unhappy childhood sometimes provides enough fuel to build an empire and eventually destroy it. That’s evident in this intensely psychodramatic doc, which features testimony from Phil’s first trial, interviews with the nutty recluse over the years, and analysis of all his major productions, from “Be My Baby” to “All Things Must Pass”. Highly recommended.
      Granville 7, October 2 (12:20 p.m.), 13 (9:15 p.m.), and 15 (1:15 p.m.)
          > Ken Eisner

      The Anchorage (Sweden/U.S.)
      If you’re into slow-moving stories about strong, stoic Scandinavian women living on isolated Swedish islands that look exactly like isolated Gulf Islands, this is the movie for you. If not, the rhythmic minimalism will probably strike you as too much (by which, of course, I mean too little).
      Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 5 (6:30 p.m.) and 9 (1:30 p.m.)
        > Mark Harris

      Ashes of American Flags: Wilco Live

      Ashes of American Flags: Wilco Live (U.S.)
      One of the best concert films ever, this beautifully shot doc offers a few tunes each from different venues on last year’s cross–U.S. tour, interrupted by unusually salient observations from Jeff Tweedy and the gang, deepening the viewer’s knowledge of the group and its profound place in American culture. Oh, and they kick ass, too.
      Vancity Theatre, October 1 (9:30 p.m.); Granville 7, October 7 (9:15 p.m.) and 13 (4:20 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (U.S./Japan)
      To dig this doc, you’ve got to be completely infatuated with Japanese culture and insect life. Not just one or the other, but both. Quite simply, a 50-percent emotional investment will not suffice.
      Granville 7, October 3 (6:30 p.m.); Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 4 (4 p.m.) and 10 (10:45 a.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      Chaturanga (India)
      Philosophers and students of Hinduism will get the most out of this long, complicated journey in and out of spirituality. Set in turn-of-the-last-century Bengal, the film follows Sachish (Subrata Dutta) from a more secular-socialist role of helping the down-and-out to-following a disillusioning tragedy-the holds of a mystic’s retreat. Acting is iffy; the religious search is too removed from the here and now.
      Granville 7, October 8 (3:30 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 15 (6:30 p.m.)
        > Janet Smith

      Cooking History (Czech/Austria/Slovakia)
      If an army travels on its stomach, a lot of cultural information is spread in regular-issue mess kits. Likewise, generals and politicians have their own gustatory ambitions, as examined in this playfully ambitious look at the role of movable kitchens in wars hot and cold. The multilingual film deftly suggests that military food is where forces for and against life meet for tea. Eat before, laugh during, and think after-all with a pinch of salt.
      Granville 7, October 8 (2:50 p.m.) and 14 (9:45 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 9 (4:30 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Discorama, by Glaser

      Discorama, by Glaser (France)
      What an invaluable time capsule! Serge Gainsbourg, Juliette Gréco, and—most riveting of all—Jacques Brel at the height of their communicative powers, in glorious black-and-white before a uniquely appreciative TV audience. Host Denise Glaser ruled the French airwaves in the 1960s. I just wish this too-short feature told us a bit more about Glaser herself.
      Vancity Theatre, October 1 (7:30 p.m.); Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 4 (10:45 a.m.); Granville 7, October 11 (3:20 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Eatrip (Japan)
      The “trip” part of the title is purely Elysian, as this companionable little doc never leaves Japan. The subjects, including a singer, a dancer, and an aged monk, offer pleasant insights into gardening, cooking, and eating. The overall mood of bonhomie is the best thing here, and only one person admits that there might be one better pleasure in life.
      Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 2 (6:45 p.m.) and 3 (1:30 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 13 (4 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Eclipse (Ireland)
      Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds) might or might not be seeing ghosts, but there’s no doubt that he’s experiencing grief in the wake of his wife’s death. Things only start to improve-in the middle of a Cork-based writer’s festival where he works as a volunteer-after this highly sympathetic widower gets caught up in the erotic threads that an arrogant American author (Aidan Quinn) is attempting to weave around a successful supernatural novelist (Iben Hjele). Quiet but emotionally satisfying.
      Granville 7, October 9 (9:15 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 11 (9 p.m.) and 15 (4 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

      Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Canada)
      Drawing on the great pianist’s well-documented career (and a few needless re-creations), this handsomely crafted film gets closer than we’ve been to the human being beneath the eccentricities. What’s striking is not so much the strangeness of this brilliant hypochondriac but how loved he was, and is.
      Granville 7, October 4 (7 p.m.), 5 (10:30 a.m.), and 13 (11:20 a.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      The Happiest Girl in the World (Romania/Netherlands)
      It must be admitted that first-time director Radu Jude does understand the mechanics of adolescent pique and the rhythms of TV-commercial shooting, However, this tale of an 18-year-old country girl who wins an expensive car in a contest is more than a little underwhelming.
      Granville 7, October 3 (12 p.m.) and 6 (6:20 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 8 (4 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      The Hunt for Moby Dick (U.K.)
      Okay, so director Adam Low should have at least mentioned Mocha Dick (the real-life model for Herman Melville’s great white whale), and the argument against sticking harpoons in giant marine mammals should have been delivered in a louder key. But this is a pretty good exploration of the places and events surrounding the creation of the most intriguing nonhuman character in the history of American fiction.
      Granville 7, October 3 (6 p.m.), 4 (3:20 p.m.), and 11 (4:20 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      I Killed My Mother (Canada)
      To say that this isn’t a perfect film is irrelevant. There’s so much passion, pain, and poetry burning through writer-director-star Xavier Dolan’s debut feature-the guy made it when he was only 19 from a script he’d written two years earlier-one is willing to forgive it almost anything. Has anybody ever been this good at that age (especially when dealing with material that one usually only shares with one’s psychiatrist)? This film got a lot of buzz at Cannes. It earned every last single word of praise it received.
      Granville 7, October 11 (6:45 p.m.) and 15 (1 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      Irene (France)
      Alain Cavalier’s career trajectory follows a parabola exactly opposite to that of just about every other reasonably successful filmmaker’s. The man started off making “real movies” with the stalwarts of the new wave back in the 1950s; now he confines his private moments and intimate thoughts to a digital diary. This latest entry concerns the director’s memories of his wife, who died in a car crash some 37 years ago. Some find Cavalier’s almost monastic simplicity touchingly honest; others find it narcissistic (count me in the latter category).
      Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 3 (4 p.m.); Granville 7, October 8 (6:20 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      It’s Not Anime (Various)
      But maybe it should be. Out of a dozen extremely commercial cartoons and semi-animated shorts, only a few-like those about a crazed German butcher, creatures who emerge from a candle, and a moth during a blackout-escape the obvious long enough to exercise anything like the imagination and beauty possible in animated forms.
      Granville 7, October 4 (8:30 p.m.), 6 (2 p.m.), and 13 (12:20 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      The Jazz Baroness (U.K.)
      The subject of “Nica’s Dream” and many other key jazz compositions of the 1950s was a stray Rothschild whose great-niece pieced together the almost forgotten tale of a rich Brit who ran off to America and nurtured bebop’s greatest talents-in particular, that of nutty genius Thelonious Monk, the (apparently chaste) love of her life.
      Granville 7, October 1 (6 p.m.) and 14 (3:45 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 6 (10:45 a.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Let Each One Go Where He May (U.S.)
      Minimal content plus maximum style has been a staple of art-house fiction for decades, but not of documentaries. Nevertheless, American experimentalist Ben Russell attempts to capture the ambience of the Saramaccan culture of Suriname with the aid of 13 10-minute sequence shots. In terms of cinematography, the results are nothing short of jaw-dropping, when it comes to deepening the audience’s understanding of a unique society. However, this approach vacillates between the bewildering and the underwhelming.
      Vancity Theatre, October 12 (9 p.m.) and 15 (4:15 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      Little Trips (Various)
      This batch of dark-hued shorts begins well with U.S. indies about an acute (and cute) hypochondriac and two deranged brothers squabbling over a dead cat. And it ends with time travel in the wrong hands and the upside of germophobia. There’s also a one-take wonder from Holland in the middle. But the rest, with road trips, war platitudes, and (what else?) vampires, are just calling cards from young directors hoping for big Hollywood paydays.
      Granville 7, October 6 (9 p.m.) and 7 (2:50 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      The Man Who Bottled Clouds (Brazil)
      The cumulus catcher in question was Humberto Teixeira, a provincial savant who fathered Brazil’s baií£o, which once rivalled samba as the national pastime, with irresistible rhythms that eventually found their way into bossa nova. This terrific story is narrated by his daughter, who rediscovers his significance alongside Maria Bethí¢nia and other articulate heirs to his musical genius.
      Granville 7, October 4 (11:40 a.m.) and 15 (9:15 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 9 (6:45 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Mid-August Lunch (Italy)
      In this charming trifle, director Gianni Di Gregorio—an Italian Jerry Orbach type—plays a version of himself, a put-upon, middle-aged pleasure seeker who is suddenly saddled not only with his aged monster of a mother but a number of other ancient ladies as well. Not much more than lunch happens, but all the nonactors rise to the occasion beautifully in a low-key celebration of life’s small victories.
      Granville 7, October 7 (11:40 a.m.) and 10 (6:20 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Nora's Will

      Nora's Will (Mexico)
      Here’s a lovingly made family study that looks at a little-known subculture: middle-class Jews of Mexico City. Something less than hell breaks loose when an long-divorced old-timer’s depressed ex-wife commits suicide, leaving the extended family a mountain of problems, regrets, and food for Passover dinner. The fight for her immortal soul, and who gets to prepare the gefilte fish, is by turns poignant and funny.
      Granville 7, October 1 (11:20 a.m.), 12 (4:20 p.m.), and 14 (6:45 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      North (Norway)
      Sure to be a festival favourite, this delightfully low-key comedy follows a brokenhearted ski bum on his Jim Jarmusch–like adventures through the Norwegian hinterland as he connects with oddball strangers and attempts to get back to where he once belonged. But why is that tampon on top of his head? And why are there so many VIFF movies with men in girl’s closets?
      Ridge Theatre, October 6 (4 p.m.); Granville 7, October 8 (9:15 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Only When I Dance (Brazil/U.K.)
      Both classical dancers profiled here-unexpected flowers from the slums of Rio-offer inspiring stories. But the boy, Irlan Santos da Silva, is a flat-out dance phenomenon we can expect to see much more of soon, making this smoothly crafted, globetrotting doc a treat for balletomanes and everyone else.
      Vancity Theatre, October 2 (7:30 p.m.); Granville 7, October 7 (12:20 p.m.); Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 14 (10:45 a.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Petition (China)
      The incredibly stubborn individuals who keep pressing their doomed suits in the face of unflagging bureaucratic hostility probably wouldn’t have been put off by the angel defending Kafka’s Gates of Justice. For 12 years, Zhao Liang pointed his camera at these quixotic jousters as they travelled from their Beijing slum to the offices and squares where officialdom relentlessly rebuffed them. Of particular interest to Vancouverites is the role played by the Beijing Olympics in this doomed struggle. To avoid bad international press, the state police incarcerated most of these “dissidents” in prisons and mental hospitals. If this daunting doc doesn’t undermine your faith in authority, nothing will.
      Granville 7, October 2 (2:45 p.m.), 9 (12:20 p.m.), and 12 (9:15 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      Pinprick (Hungary)
      This odd, English-language contraption was made by an American in a Budapest pretending to be London. It centres on an attractive mom (Aussie Rachael Blake) engaged in a Freudian tug of war with her nubile daughter (Brit Laura Greenwood) over the strange man (Hungarian Ervin Nagy) hiding in the kid’s closet. Seriously. It’s atmospheric as hell and beautifully shot, but the dialogue stinks and the “gotcha” ending wipes away any suggestion of depth.
      Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 3 (10:45 a.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 5 (9:30 p.m.); Granville 7, October 15 (8:30 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Porgy and Me: In The World of Porgy and Bess

      Porgy and Me: In The World of Porgy and Bess (Germany)
      The colorfully fluid filmmaking here is almost as good as the performers who have banded together for an endless tour of George Gershwin’s deathless opera. And that’s saying something, considering how much you come to care about the individuals who have committed to this work, with their struggles reflecting Porgy’s complicated relationship with black and white America. Vancity Theatre, October 4 (11 a.m.) and 11 (7 p.m.); Granville 7, October 12 (2:50 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      The Red Rooster (Canada)
      Vancouverite Terry Miles’s follow-up to When Life Was Good is aesthetically more proficient but even emptier in content. The nods to Five Easy Pieces show a fealty to the Norman Mailer School of Artist as Troubled He-Man. Aside from centring on a writer with nothing to say, the film offers players that are far too young to justify the jaded ennui of its stock characters. Perhaps that’s why cigarettes do most of the acting.
      Granville 7, October 9 (9:15 p.m.) and 10 (4 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (Netherlands)
      In recent years, Peter Greenaway has turned his back on traditional 35mm filmmaking, preferring both to explore the possibilities of new narrative technology and to revisit the classics of his painterly past. Essentially, Rembrandt’s J’accuse is an offshoot of the director’s earlier feature Nightwatching, a film that argued that Rembrandt’s most famous painting actually harboured the solution to a murder that no one else was willing to admit had even occurred. Here, Greenaway not only reiterates that position but makes a strong case for our collective need to prioritize image over words in movies, a personal conviction that seems to grow stronger with every passing year.
      Granville 7, October 6 (6:45 p.m.), 8 (1:50 p.m.), and 11 (10:30 a.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      The Search (China/Tibet)
      This fictional film crew’s search through the Tibetan hinterlands for actors to star in a movie version of a classical opera demands patience. But it slowly and quietly reveals its true depth: different characters’ search for lost love stands in metaphorically for Tibet’s disappearing culture. It helps that the bleak, remote mountainscapes are stunning, and the singing voices equally unearthly. Fittingly, a central, heartbreaking tale, told by a man in the front seat over the course of the long bumpy journey, is a reminder that even the simplest storytelling can be the most riveting.
      Granville 7, October 5 (2:50 p.m.) and 6 (9:15 p.m.)
        > Janet Smith

      Sweet Crude (U.S.)
      Welcome to hell on earth. Big oil has turned the once-thriving Niger Delta region into one of the most polluted places on Earth: the fish are gone due to oil spills; life expectancy is 40; formerly white-sand beaches are covered in toxic sludge; and even the zinc roofs are corroding due to the apocalyptic gas flares. The twist here is that when the poverty-stricken residents start to complain, corporate America and its political backers cry terrorism and broker a deal with the country’s corrupt military government. Seattle documentary director Sandy Cioffi has a compelling style, interspersing personal stories of villagers with sharp graphic time lines-though her role in the issue, as she becomes increasingly involved, is a little uncomfortable. Still, this qualifies as urgent viewing.
      Granville 7, October 8 (9 p.m.) and 13 (12:40 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 9 (11 a.m.)
        > Janet Smith

      Sweetgrass (U.S.)
      If you’re interested in nothing but Marlboro Man Country and sheep, Sweetgrass is the perfect movie for you. If your taste range is a little wider than this, however, Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s slow-moving documentary about ovine Montana might well prove to be somewhat less than an unalloyed delight.
      Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 2 (10:45 a.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 13 (6:30 p.m.) and 15 (1:30 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      This Way Of Life (New Zealand)
      Canadian director-cinematographer Tom Burstyn’s documentary gets close to idolizing the way New Zealand cowboy Peter Karena and his wife, Colleen, raise their six kids in the wilds of the remote Ruahine Mountains. But not quite. Karena is a loving father determined to live off the land, and in this beautifully lensed film, he teaches his small children to be fearless-how to skin an animal or ride a horse bareback and get up and brush themselves off when they get thrown. And yet the film’s real complexity lies in the sacrifices: at one point, the family subsists in tents; at another, his quietly suffering wife, with a new baby, is forced into making a shed a home. Burstyn could have pushed deeper into Karena’s history: he’s a European adopted by Maori, and there are hints of his own abusive, spiteful father. Still, this movie will leave you weighing the pros and cons of “this way of life” for days.
      Granville 7, October 3 (8:30 p.m.), 5 (12:40 p.m.), and 10 (11:20 a.m.)
        > Janet Smith

      Tibet in Song shifts from cultural study into compelling political statement.

      Tibet In Song (Tibet/U.S.)
      What starts out as a gentle musicological journey through Tibet takes a surprising turn into a damning indictment of China’s vicious war on one culture. You may recognize writer-director Ngawan Choepel’s name: when the music expert and Fulbright scholar was imprisoned for six years for trying to make this documentary, his release became a huge cause for the Beastie Boys and others. As if that doesn’t make the film compelling enough, there is all his remarkable footage, from the Chinese song-and-dance propaganda machines that regularly invade villages to the ethereal folk songs that still pervade every aspect of life, from milking to roofing, in the remote, bleakly picturesque reaches of Tibet. We forget this here in the West: how important is culture to life and identity-to existence? Just ask the three women jailed and tortured with cattle prods for refusing to sing the Chinese national anthem.
      Granville 7, October 3 (4:30 p.m.), 11 (6:30 p.m.), and 12 (1:50 p.m.)
        > Janet Smith

      Today Is Better Than Two Tomorrows (Laos/Ireland)
      A rare, intimate look at life in Laos, where boys’ only chance to escape the rice paddies and get an education is to separate from their families and enter the rigours of monkhood from age 11 to 20. The documentary captures the overwhelming beauty of temple-studded Luang Prabang, where monks in orange robes parade at dawn for alms. But it’s also washed in melancholy, sensitive to the fears and homesickness of its two quietly enduring young subjects, cousins Bo and Leh. Deeply affecting, with unforgettable imagery.
      Granville 7, October 6 (3:20 p.m.), 12 (6:30 p.m.), and 15 (3:30 p.m.)
        > Janet Smith

      Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (U.S.)
      Next time you scoff at that scavenger in the alley, appreciate that he might be Trimpin, a German-born artist whose elaborate found-material constructions make beautiful music. The film intersperses the Seattle resident’s background and other ventures with his preparations for an impending collaboration with the sometimes baffled Kronos Quartet.
      Vancity Theatre, October 5 (11 a.m.), 9 (9:30 p.m.), and 10 (1:15 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Unmade Beds (U.K.)
      Young ex-pats in bohemian London literally bump into each other in this polymorphously (and narratively) perverse effort from Argentinean director Alexis Dos Santos. The film’s loopy tone is nice and vague, but the central subplot about a Spanish boy looking for his long-lost father is dull and unconvincing.
      Ridge Theatre, October 5 (4 p.m.); Granville 7, October 6 (9:15 p.m.) and 8 (1:30 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Villa Amalia (France)
      In recent years, French cinema has successfully turned quite a few quirky journeys of self-discovery into memorable motion pictures. This Benoí®t Jacquot adaptation of a Pascal Quignard novel is one of the best of the bunch, not least because star Isabelle Huppert makes the tangent taken by her character-a sexually betrayed concert pianist determined to rebuild her life from the ground up-seem so weirdly credible.
      Granville 7, October 8 (4 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 13 (9:15 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris

      Wah Do Dem (U.S.)
      Sean Bones, who now has a reggae-tinged album related to this indie gem, plays a nebbishy New Yorker whose girlfriend (the briefly seen Norah Jones) dumps him just before a planned cruise to Jamaica. He goes anyway, and a series of challenging, scary, and very trippy events befall him on the island. This flick is a model of what you can do with a lot of heart, great ideas, and hardly any money. The music helps, of course.
      Granville 7, October 2 (2:50 p.m.), 7 (9 p.m.), and 10 (12:20 p.m.)
        > Ken Eisner

      Way Of Nature (Sweden)
      As the sun rises over a remote barn in northern Sweden, a cow bellows and a farmers delivers her twin calves. And so begins Nina Hedenius’s documentary, a quiet, vérité assemblage of work on the farm over four seasons. The movie demands patience-there is no voice-over and there are long scenes of the exhausted farmer napping with his loyal dogs or methodically making cheese the old-fashioned way. But if you can ease into its slow rhythms, it is a gorgeously shot reminder of how life was even one generation ago, and how far removed from it we have become.
      Granville 7, October 1 (6 p.m.) and 5 (3:45 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 12 (3:45 p.m.)
        > Janet Smith

      Written By (Hong Kong)
      Certain novelists have long played with the notion of characters hijacking their own stories, just as some scenarists have occasionally written themselves into scripts that are set in slightly parallel universes. In Written By, both of these are deployed-but not playfully. The film begins with a tragic car crash and continues with two characters-one alive on Earth, the other breathing only on the printed page-who try to redraft reality without indulging in a “happy ending” (the pain is the same; it’s just redistributed). Surprisingly poignant, Written By also boasts some impressive special effects (even if it takes a while to get started).
      Ridge Theatre, October 3 (7 p.m.); Granville 7, October 6 (11 a.m.) and 12 (2:30 p.m.)
          > Mark Harris