Vancouver International Film Festival features are dark, funny, and absurd

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      Autumn (Turkey)
      There’s a lot more than just beautiful images at work in this tale of a traumatized Turkish political prisoner who briefly hooks up with a Georgian prostitute who can’t quite believe that anyone would go to jail in defence of “socialism”. The sad fact is, the world they live in—like the world we live in—is one where every ideology has failed, and where even the capacity to dream has started to wither. There might be better films in this festival, but none has such an acute feel for the pulse of the present.
      Granville 7, October 10 (12 p.m.) and 13 (6:40 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 14 (9:15 p.m.)
      > Mark Harris

      Beeswax (U.S.)
      The latest from Funny Ha-Ha’s Andrew Bujalski is being heralded as his breakthrough, but the story and acting are weaker than ever. The humdrum peregrinations of two annoying sisters (real-life siblings Tilly and Maggie Hatcher) would be dull even with some filmmaking oomph behind them. But the film tries to make a virtue of narrative flatness, insisting that the most interesting things happen off-screen—probably outside the theatre, in fact.
      Granville 7, October 14 (9:15 p.m.) and 15 (11:40 a.m.)
      > Ken Eisner

      Can Go Through Skin (Netherlands)
      The title says it all: Esther Rots’s naked portrait of a woman who deals with a brutal assault by fleeing to the isolation of a dilapidated farmhouse gets into your system. Never mind skin: it digs right inside the skull of Marieke (the unglamorously realistic Rifka Lodeizen) and the way she sees things in every shadow. It’s a trip into darkness that you’re not quite sure you’ll pull out of—discombobulating, disturbing, but mesmerizing.
      Granville 7, October 10 (8:30 p.m.), 12 (12:15 p.m.), and 14 (2:10 p.m.)
      > Janet Smith

      Everyone Else (Germany)
      Maren Ade’s first film, The Forest for the Trees, centring on a likable young female loner, was an enticingly fresh VIFF favourite. This talky follow-up is more ambitious, as it travels to Sardinia with a German couple we might all feel better not to know. He’s an architect; she’s a publicist. They don’t like each other much and I don’t care.
      Granville 7, October 9 (2:10 p.m.) and 11 (6:10 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 12 (9:15 p.m.)
      > Ken Eisner

      Eyes Wide Open (Israel)
      When a married Jerusalem butcher has an “unclean” attraction to his handsome new assistant, his ultra-orthodox community panics. Unfortunately, the darkly shot film shows a lot more interest in illuminating this stunted social dynamic than it does in the characters as people. For a film about unchecked passions, it’s almost fatally inert.
      Granville 7, October 12 (9 p.m.) and 13 (12 p.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 14 (4 p.m.)
      > Ken Eisner

      For A Son (France/Belgium)
      A sense of doom permeates this moody little mystery that poses more questions than it answers. French art-house icon Miou-Miou wears the pain of a mother convincingly, playing a woman whose son was abducted more than a decade ago. You can understand why she wants to believe so badly that a traumatized teen who turns up is really her lost boy. At points, even you want it to be him—despite early evidence to the contrary. But most intriguing is the stranger’s own motivations. A disquieting psychological puzzle as compelling as Tell No One.
      Granville 7, October 12 (6 p.m.), 14 (2:45 p.m.), and 16 (12:15 p.m.)
      > Janet Smith

      For the Love of the Movies (U.S.)
      Well, here’s a film that’s not going to garner much negative press. Because it’s perfect? No, because it’s a valentine to the history of film criticism in North America, a valentine with an elegiac edge, since that history might well be coming to an end. So did I like it? Hell, I adored it.
      Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 10 (6:45 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 11 (3:45 p.m.)
      > Mark Harris

      The Horse Boy (U.S.)
      How far will some parents go to help their child? How about Outer Mongolia? Rupert Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, travel there with their autistic son, Rowan, in the hopes of blending horse-riding and shamanistic rituals to help with the baffling disorder. When you see their lives in Texas—the four-hour-long tantrums, the incontinence—you wonder how they can get through each day, let alone travel halfway across the world. But by the end of this documentary, you have a new understanding of autism (shamans see it as a window into a different way of perception) and you start to believe the family has found some kind of healing power—magical or self-made.
      Granville 7, October 13 (11:40 a.m.) and 14 (6 p.m.)
      > Janet Smith

      John Rabe (Germany/China/France)
      To be sure, there are arguments aplenty to be made against Florian Gallenberger’s sumptuous biopic, but there’s no denying that this is great entertainment with enormous emotional payoff. Ulrich Tukur glows in the title role of an initially clueless Nazi engineer who winds up establishing a survival zone on the site of Japan’s most notorious crime. The irony of his situation is epitomized when his Chinese workers must shelter under a giant Nazi flag to avoid Japanese bombs. Flaws and all, this is a tremendous argument in favour of the better sort of “popcorn cinema”.
      Granville 7, October 14 (6:45 p.m.) and 15 (3:30 p.m.)
      > Mark Harris

      Letters To The President From Petr Lom (Canada/Iran)
      Ladies and gentlemen: meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—a guy as hated in the West as he is revered in Iran. Petr Lom’s illuminating documentary comes at a time when we’re sorely in need of analysis. Talking to Iranians from all walks of life, Lom demystifies the popularity of a president who has huge propaganda machines answering citizens’ letters about their lack of money and food. The film is more scattershot than artful, but the sum total reveals a people living in fear in a country where there’s a growing rift between the rural poor (“He’s one of us”) and the educated city residents (“We’re not fooled”).
      Granville 7, October 10 (8:45 p.m.) and 12 (11:20 a.m.); Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 15 (10:45 a.m.)
      > Janet Smith

      The Market: A Tale of Trade (Turkey/U.K./Germany/Kazakhstan)
      Everything is up for negotiation in this quiet, sometimes funny parable directed by a Brit working in Turkey. Tayaní§ Ayaydin, in almost every scene, is terrific as an aging hustler who wants to improve his family’s lot with one last smuggling deal. The film veers between dark absurdity and an inescapably downbeat view of human nature.
      Granville 7, October 9 (11:40 a.m.); Ridge Theatre, October 14 (7 p.m.)
      > Ken Eisner

      My Dog Tulip (U.S.)
      Christopher Plummer dons his plummiest English accent to read beautifully animated highlights of J. R. Ackerley’s 1950s memoir about life with his beloved, if deeply neurotic, German shepherd. By the way, the writer’s dog was actually called Queenie, but his publishers felt that might be offensive to some—just as some readers were freaked by the obsessive detailing of her sexual and defecatory practices. Reportedly the first traditional 2-D cartoon to be constructed digitally, it’s a simple delight, but not for kiddies.
      Granville 7, October 11 (4 p.m.) and 12 (6:40 p.m.)
      > Ken Eisner

      Nomad's Land (Switzerland)
      Here’s the ultimate VIFF fix: a journey through countless far-off lands most of us wouldn’t have the balls to visit. First-time filmmaker Gaí«l Métroz sets out to retrace the route of Nicolas Bouvier, the Swiss whose book The Way of the World chronicled his 1950s voyage from Geneva to Ceylon. Métroz finds some areas depressingly transformed (there’s no music allowed in the bars of Tabriz anymore), and detours into the far reaches of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The narration is a tad literary. The real fun is in the unexpected turns our traveller takes; think opium addicts, village weddings, robberies, street violence, camels, and yurts—this ain’t no five-star travel. If you hoard dog-eared Lonely Planets, backpack your way to this one.
      Ridge Theatre, October 10 (1 p.m.); Granville 7, October 12 (12 p.m.) and 13 (6:20 p.m.)
      > Janet Smith

      Police, Adjective (Romania)
      When was the last time you saw a police procedural where the denouement depended upon the dictionary definition of words? The answer is obviously never, which is why Corneliu Porumboiu’s drama about a drug bust in backwater Romania is unique.
      Granville 7, October 11 (9:15 p.m.) and 14 (12 p.m.)
      > Mark Harris

      Punching the Clown (U.S.)
      Here’s what you can do with no budget, a lot of talent, and just the right amount of narrative ambition. Singer Henry Phillips, playing himself, realized that more people would notice his catchy folk tunes if he made the lyrics offensively funny. The film, written by him with clever director Gregori Viens, details his absurd and mostly accidental rise to minor fame. Bring friends.
      Granville 7, October 12 (8:45 p.m.), 14 (2 p.m.), and 15 (9:45 p.m.)
      > Ken Eisner

      Redland (U.S.)
      Depression-era hillbilly poverty has never looked more beautiful than in this impressionistic family study ruined by bad acting, faux-poetic narration with a Beverly Hillbillies twang, and absurdly repetitive editing. Cutting to sunnier, sexier times while people starve to death is effective once or twice. But 20 times?
      Granville 7, October 15 (6:40 p.m.) and 16 (12 p.m.)
      > Ken Eisner

      65_RedRoses (Canada)
      Waiting for a transplant is not something most of us will have to face in our lifetime. But watching 23-year-old Eva struggle for every breath brings the idea of the organ list into vivid, nerve-racking form. The film’s subject, a Vancouverite who has cystic fibrosis and just 32 percent of her lung capacity, is lively and quirky enough to hold the film together—even with gimmicky forays into the on-line world where she connects with other patients. Those electronic musings have nothing on the momentous wait for a risky lung transplant that, as we’re reminded here, demands tragedy for others.
      Vancity Theatre, October 9 (1:45 p.m.); Granville 7, October 10 (6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.) and 13 (11 a.m.)
      > Janet Smith

      Splinters (Poland)
      It takes things a while to get moving in this elliptically told and mordantly funny look at young people navigating the turbulent waters of Poland’s class system. But there’s a surprisingly satisfying finish once the seemingly separate tales, and the wildly divergent characters, start hooking up. This is a pleasure, and not a guilty one.
      Granville 7, October 10 (2:10 p.m.) and 11 (6:20 p.m.)
      > Ken Eisner

      Who Do You Love (U.S.)
      No Chuck Berry but some pretty good Bo Diddley and a lot of Willie Dixon, courtesy Chi McBride, show up in this alternate to Cadillac Records, with stud muffin Alessandro Nivola woefully miscast as potty-mouthed record maven Leonard Chess. The music scenes are nice enough, except for the stuff with Muddy Waters, who is totally off. The family-drama angle is phony and forced. Didn’t love it.
      Granville 7, October 10 (10 p.m.) and 12 (2:10 p.m.)
      > Ken Eisner