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Film Fest Reviews 

From the Himalayas to Australia, the films at this year’s AFF take us across the planet and back to Atlantic Canada with multiple shorts programs.

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FEATURE FILMS

Higher Ground - Friday, September 16, Park Lane 7, 7:05pm

Naturalism and a radiant intelligence have been the distinguishing features of Vera Farmiga's acting performances, and it's a quality she brings to her directorial debut. Farmiga takes command in front of and behind the camera, playing a religious convert whose creeping doubt in her faith increasingly disconnects her from her husband (Joshua Leonard) and her tight Christian community. The film refuses to caricature the devout, portraying the church members as fundamentally good and multi- dimensional people, while simultaneously showing why the protagonist chafes against their traditional strictures. Unforced and stuffed with moments of real, powerful humanity, Farmiga's film quietly and stealthily breaks your heart. (MS)


Red Dog - Saturday, September 17, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm

A dog traverses Western Australia and touches the lives of its disparate inhabitants. It's based on the heartwarming true tale of the dog that's been everywhere, mate! The film is sweet, affirming and pleasant to sit through. However, a thought can stick in one's craw: When local legends are compacted into movies, they get spread thin. The real Red Dog is memorialized in a statue in a small Aussie town, symbolizing the importance of connection despite great distances. The movie Red Dog earns a blasé shrug. Red Dog's story is gentle and amiable, but didn't prove itself necessary to be told in a film. (HT)


Snow - Monday, September 19, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm

Parvati (Kalista Zackhariyas) is a Sri Lankan woman who moves to Canada to stay with distant relatives after her entire family is killed by the Asian Tsunami of 2004. In a new, alien environment the trauma of the disaster haunts her still. Shot on a shoestring in late-fall Halifax, Snow relies on a docudrama handheld camera style and non- professional actors to elucidate a Canadian immigrant experience. That's refreshing, as depicted in a Halifax-shot film, and director Rohan Fernando ---whose documentary The Chocolate Farmer is also screening at the AFF this year---infuses the drama with a soulful melancholy that resonates beyond the running time. (CK)


Take Shelter - Monday, September 19, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm

Writer-director Jeff Nichols binds environmental, pharmaceutical and apocalyptic dread in a perfect union. Take Shelter is about an Ohio family where the husband, Curtis (Oscar-nominated Michael Shannon) begins to see visions that could portend Biblical end-of-times or perhaps the onset of a mental illness that runs in his family. Shannon and 2011's star-going-nova Jessica Chastain as his wife Samantha both give award-worthy performances. This is the kind of movie we wish M. Night Shyamalan still made. (CK)


Black Butterflies - Monday, September 19, Oxford, 9:30pm

Nelson Mandela read her poem, "The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)," during his first address to South African parliament as president in 1994. Her words were so rich and her life so fraught that her legacy in South Africa is comparable to that of Sylvia Plath's in North America. Poet Ingrid Jonker wrote the film's titular line "For the sun that I now cover forever with black butterflies." Her life---an unceasing stream of irrational, excessive melodramas with those around her---makes a tedious film. Her writing, vivid and moving and quoted throughout the film, should be her first impression on you. (HT)


The Future - Wednesday, September 21, Oxford, 9:35pm

Miranda July's 2005 debut Me and You and Everyone We Know felt like a revelation, a game-changer---a dazzlingly understated love story shot through with dirty humour you barely even noticed was low-rent because it was treated as with much delicacy and respect as the rest. But it's taken five years for July to follow up and the delay may be part of the reason The Future is so bleak and hopeless. July, who wrote and directed, stars as Sophie, having a mid-30s crisis at the same time as her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater). The first half is dour and depressing, as Sophie embarks on a mostly joyless affair, but then Jason stops time---seriously---and it turns into something else entirely, something as magical and wondrous as any of Me and You's key scenes; even when it lacks their optimism and hope, it's uncomfortably riveting and funny. Miranda July is a divisive force and a rare, vital talent. (TT)


Bellflower - Friday, September 23. Park Lane, 9:30pm

Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are buddies living in nowhere California, obsessed with The Road Warrior and prepping for the apocalypse by making a flame-thrower that they intend on attaching to a nasty-ass muscle car. Unfortunately, they drink too much and get involved with women, complicating their plans. Glodell also directs---his first feature---which has a great saturated look, like every frame is filtered through Instagram. But even as the visual ideas are dynamite and there's some interesting stuff about reality versus delusion, the story and characters are both contrived and deadly dull. (The car is cool, mind you.) (CK)

DOCUMENTARIES

The Highest Pass - Saturday, September 17, Park Lane 3, 4pm

Set in the sprawling mountains of the Himalayas, The Highest Pass documents a group of new age Hollywood types travelling by motorcycle to the highest drivable highway in the world in an attempt to find meaning in their hectic lives. The story of enlightenment has the crew facing avalanche-ridden roads and suicidal truck drivers as they race towards one of the most uninhabited corners of the planet, all while being lead by a reckless young yogi named Anand Mehrotra, bucking a prophecy that he would die while attempting the journey. It's a heartwarming narrative about overcoming even the highest odds by finding strength in the spiritual world. (MR)


Senna - Sunday, September 18, Park Lane 7, 7:05pm

A look at the unearthly talent of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver who sustained one of the great motor sport rivalries with Alain Prost in the 1980s. Assembled using period footage and media interviews (voices are often heard but no talking heads) Senna himself winds up narrating much of the film. The dirty politics of the sport, rampant egos and ferocity of competition is laid out. Spectacular myth-making---even if you aren't a fan---the drama is palpable, especially as history records it ends in a clearly avoidable tragedy. (CK)


The Chocolate Farmer - Sunday, September 18, Park Lane 3, 7:15pm

The Chocolate Farmer is a documentary by the NFB about the growing capitalist trade in Belize from the viewpoint of a 50-something farmer and his 15 children. Grassroots cacao grower Eladio Pop is unable to cope with his children's fascination for western civilization and their refusal to follow in their Mayan ancestors' footsteps. With beautiful cinematography and nearly poetic interview segments, The Chocolate Farmer is the presentation of a country collapsing on its traditional values as it becomes a dominant force in the world's agricultural production. (MR)


The Interrupters - Tuesday, September 20, Park Lane 7, 9:25pm

The Interrupters tells the story of inner city gang violence in Chicago over a one-year period in which the death toll rose to rival the number of US troops killed during the Iraq war. At its centre is an anti-violence organization known as Cease Fire made up of ex-cons and gang leaders who put their violent paths behind them to work with at-risk children. Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) mines candid interviews for unbridled emotions, highlighting a gang war that has been ignored for far too long. (MR)


Crazy Wisdom - Monday, September 19, 9:20pm

Johanna Demetrakas's documentary on the life of Chogyam Trungpa rinpoche goes back to the Buddhist spiritual leader's escape from Tibet, establishment in the west and eventual connection with the ideals of the American counter-culture, ending here in Halifax with his death in 1987. Looking into the community and its philosophies is enlightening, and credit the filmmakers who touch upon the guru's human appetites ---alcohol and sex. But by having acolytes repeatedly and universally praise him doesn't give an outsider a sense of objective storytelling. What it does is show how he was loved by many, and the film becomes a hagiography. (CK)


Wiebo's War - Monday, September 19, Park Lane 4, 9:30pm

The media and oil industries have dismissed Wiebo Ludwig as an eco-terrorist and cult leader. But documentarian David York shows the convicted pipeline bomber as a complicated man pushed beyond his limits by environmental abuse. The film chronicles Ludwig's church and his family on their self-sustaining Albertan farm, before contrasting that simple life with the tragedies they've all suffered from nearby toxic sour gas wells. Wiebo's War makes no apologies for Ludwig's fundamentalist beliefs and illegal actions, but in showing shocking footage of deformed livestock, miscarried children and utterly indifferent authorities, the film does make a surprisingly strong case for environmental vigilantism. (JB)


Jig - Friday, September 23, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm

Wigs, sequins, rouge make-up, bold colours and, of course, lightning-speed footwork rule the day at the 40th World Irish Dancing Competition. Thinking Toddlers and Tiaras and Step-dancing Shoes? Think again. In fact, Jig is above all, portraits of determined dignity; children glowing with resolution; parents helpfully miming "Shoulders back, chin up!' from the sidelines; coaches pursuing their dreams through the achievements of their young students. It's cruel that someone has to eventually win the big competition. Judging on comportment alone, every subject of this film has earned a championship. (HT)


The Swell Season - Friday, September 23, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm

Musician/actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova were the stars of 2006's Once, the story of an unlikely couple joined by music in Ireland that earned them Oscars for original song. In a heartwarming case of life imitating art, they became an actual couple during the promotion of the movie, despite his being close to twice her age. This doc shows what happened later; attention, relentless touring, huge crowds. In stark black and white, it's a great accompaniment to the original film and essential for fans of the music, as well as a startlingly intimate look at the costs of unexpected fame. (CK)

ATLANTIC SHORT FILMS

Deep End - Atlantic Shorts 3, Saturday, September 17, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm. Repeat: Tuesday, September 20, Park Lane 3, 9:35pm

A 13-year-old life guard in training must come to terms with the rumor of his older brother's homosexuality. Deep End is set in a small town community pool using shadowy cinematography and a barren landscape to show the alienation he faces deciding whether or not to support his brother. (MR)


Clipper Gold - Atlantic Shorts 4, Sunday, September 18, Park Lane 8, 7pm. Repeat: Wednesday, Sept. 21, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm

The bizarre Terry Riley inspired film Clipper Gold concerns a romantically frustrated couple in Newfoundland's interior, using a sparse setting and avant-garde breaks in narrative to create a tension-filled short that would make even David Lynch a little scared. (MR)


The Dance - Atlantic Shorts 4, Sunday, September 18, Park Lane 8, 7pm. Repeat: Wednesday, September 21, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm

Pardis Parker plays the nervous cubicle worker in his own short, doing his best with his wardrobe to manufacture a moment between himself and the sweet Evany Rosen so he can ask her to The Dance. That it's a silent film is the exact right choice for this material. (CK)


The Slumber Party - Atlantic Shorts 3, Saturday, September 17, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm. Repeat: Tuesday, September 20, Park Lane 3, 9:35pm

Joe Zanetti and Mary Alice Corton offer a zany take on the bittersweet experience of watching one's child grow up in this PEI-filmed comedy. A nervous father drops off a rebellious, pre-pubescent girl for a slumber party, afraid of the trouble she might get into. Things end up worse than he could have imagined as the girl and her BFFs get in touch with their emerging inner Lohans. It's about guns, girls and zucchinis, and family, too. (MS)


Mr. Happy - Atlantic Shorts 4, Sunday, September 18, Park Lane 8, 7pm. Repeat: Wednesday, September 21, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm

The backlash starts here: An unbearably smug vegan gets a surprise from a barista in a coffee shop when he makes a lot of demands. Luckas Cardona's delicious comedy is bound to raise a cheer from unrepentant omnivore audiences. (CK)


Sandwich Crazy - Atlantic Shorts 4, Sunday, September 18, Park Lane 8, 7pm. Repeat: Wednesday, September 21, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm

Michael Doucette's horror-comedy packs a lot of fun into six minutes and change. Struggling sandwich shop operator Gary makes a Faustian bargain that leaves him able to make food so good that customers become addicted, drooling zombies. It works as an allegory about consumerism and the trials of running a small business, but it's equally enjoyable as a surface-level freak show. (MS)


The Fiddler's Reel - Atlantic Shorts 5, Sunday, September 18, Park Lane 8, 9pm. Repeat: Friday, September 23, Park Lane 3, 9:30pm

Come for the forbidden love in Depression-era Cape Breton, stay for the fiddles and dancing. Director Marc Almon follows his previous Gaelic language film, The Wake of Calum MacLeod, with this NSI-funded short. The loss of traditional music to a more uniform radio culture plays a theme, but the real star of this maudlin Footloose is the Gaelic language itself. (JB)


Astronoobs - Frame X Frame, Monday, September 19, Park Lane 3, 7:15pm

Picnicface strike again, as Andrew Bush, Evany Rosen and Brian MacQuarrie do the voices in Zane Knisley's goofy, bloody, animated reimagining of Lunar Jim. (Warning: features giant space-monster nudity.) (CK)


The Lost Town of Switez - Frame X Frame, Monday, September 19, Park Lane 3, 7:15pm

Rest easy fans of Romantic Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz; someone has finally adapted his epic, Switez. Co-produced through the NFB and PFI, this haunting 20-minute short tells of a spooked traveller's fall into a pond bringing him back to the final days of the besieged lost city of Switez. Filmmaker Kamil Polak combines digital and classical animation to evoke Polish oil paintings and capture the gothic scenery of the poem. (JB)


Katrina's New Beau - CBC Atlantic Shorts Gala, Tuesday, September 20, Oxford, 7pm. Repeat: Friday, September 23, Park Lane 3, 7:15pm

It's always hard when your sister, or daughter, decides to introduce her new boyfriend at a holiday dinner. Even worse when the new guy is a zombie. Director Michael Ray Fox's comedy has a delightful retro exploitation-flick look and check out singer Christina Martin in a key role as The Reporter. (CK)


Oliver Bump's Birthday - CBC Atlantic Shorts Gala, Tuesday, September 20, Oxford, 7pm. Repeat: Friday, September 23, Park Lane 3, 7:15pm

Charming visuals and a delightful score highlight this CFC-funded dark comedy by director Jordan Canning and writer Simon McNabb. But special recognition should go to child actor Jason Spevack, whose wide-eyed seriousness helps the film deal with weighty issues of mortality while never letting go of its childlike whimsy. (JB)


River in the Woods - CBC Atlantic Shorts Gala, Tuesday, September 20, Oxford, 7pm. Repeat: Friday, September 23, Park Lane 3, 7:15pm

NSCAD grad, director Christian Sparkes delivers a gorgeous-looking fairy tale, part Terrence Malick with a dash of Guillermo Del Toro, about a group of lost children who befriend a strange and hideous creature. Though he seems friendly at first, it doesn't end well for anyone. (CK)

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