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Must-see movies 

Navigate the best of the fest with reviews you can use. We explore grimy drug films, salty dramas, heartwrenching documentaries and lots more.

click to enlarge The Angel’s Share proves the whiskey river won’t run dry.
  • The Angel’s Share proves the whiskey river won’t run dry.


The Angel's Share
Opening Gala, Thursday, Sept 13, 6:30pm at Oxford, 7pm at Park Lane 8 and 7
The AFF kicks off this year with the spirited whiskey-tasting feature The Angel's Share. Palme d'Or winning director Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) aptly directs this quiet, sinewy study of a thug and a father with one last chance at redemption. Struggling to avoid jail after nearly beating a man to death, young bruiser Robbie (Paul Brannigan) finds solace with the burly handler and delinquent coworkers that make up his court-ordered community service. When a visit to a whiskey distillery opens Robbie's eyes, and nose, to a bigger world, he begins planning a daring heist of the world's finest liquor. A Jury Prize winner at Cannes, The Angel's Share is a modest, though strong effort from a well-aged auteur who knows how to distill the violent, bitter world of the destitute with moments of sweet humanism. It's as earthy and complex as the finest single malt. (JB)

Liberal Arts
Saturday, Sept 15, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm
How I Met Your Mother veteran Josh Radnor directs and stars in his second feature, a lean and quirky Garden State-variety indie romance about Jesse, a 35-year-old university admissions guy in New York who goes back to his alma mater in Ohio for a former professor's retirement party and meets a romantic prospect, a 19-year-old undergrad named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). The quirk occasionally threatens to capsize the proceedings, exemplified by the chronic appearance of Zac Efron's Nat---the most annoying fairy wisdom device ever---but the meditations on age and sex and books carry the day. (Still, I couldn't help thinking that if this was a French movie, it would have gone entirely differently.) (CK)

Saturday, Sept 15, Park Lane 3, 11:59pm
Tentacled sea monsters from beyond the stars start sucking the blood from residents of a remote Irish fishing village in the frightfully fun creature feature, Grabbers. After capturing one of the beasts, a couple of Garda officers (Ruth Bradley and Richard Coyle) discover the aquatic aliens are deathly allergic to alcohol. Thus a survival plan is hatched; lock the entire town in the pub all night and get royally pissed. Spiritually, Grabbers is almost akin to last year's excellent Attack the Block, also about aliens invading unlikely neighbourhoods. And while the monster movie formula is familiar, you'll be surprised at how fresh and funny everything is once your entire cast is blind drunk. Some lacklustre CGI and superfluous scenes threaten to drag the whole affair down, but it's hard to stay mad at any B-movie that commits so strongly to its silly premise. (JB)

Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 4, 9:30pm
The first recipient of Telefilm and Film Nova Scotia's First Feature Project, Michael Ray Fox shot his 86-minute first feature Roaming for approximately $150,000 in 15 days. Given those restrictions, that it works at all is a serious achievement, though the unfinished print I saw didn't do it any favours. What connected anyway is the kitchen-sink melodrama and earnest storytelling. Will (Rhys Bevan-John), a Dartmouth dude with Asperger's, struggles to find work while kindling a romance with a girl he knew from high school, Olivia (Christina Cuffari), while his friend and roomie, Trey (the reliably dynamic Cory Bowles, popped collar and all), tries to define his relationship with Shannon (Sarah D. McCarthy). There's a sneering villain, a Tribeca (RIP) club scene and a tearful parting at the Via Rail station, all locked into a wintry and comfortingly familiar Halifax cityscape. (CK)

Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 7, 9:25pm
This psychological thriller plays with our expectations of horror, revealing that it resides in our own identities, or the ones we feign. The Hughes, a family mourning the death of their young daughter, return to their mini-mansion in the woods for a vacation---father (Joshua Close, who also penned the screenplay), mother (Selma Blair) and their eight-year-old son (Quinn Lord). They're already spooked and fragile when they experience a series of strange happenings, culminating in their neighbours inviting themselves over and never really leaving, wanting more than the Hughes' company. Jeremy Power Regimbal pays homage to horror movies past and all things strange. Your stomach will churn at how quickly things sour, and how feasible it seems. At times, Replicas enters spoof-thriller territory, but mostly, it shows how frightening events are buried in the human psyche. (MS)

Teddy Bear
Monday, Sept 17, Park Lane 7, 9:25pm
Dennis (Kim Kold) is a competitive bodybuilder whose life has been smothered by a controlling mother (Elsebeth Steentoft) he still lives with, despite the fact he's pushing 40. Inspired by his uncle's example, he goes looking for a wife in Thailand. The indie hyper-realism is somewhat undercut by the fact that Dennis and his domineering mother look nothing alike, but the character stuff is authentic and affecting. Kold's imposing physical topography draped in tribal ink hides a meek and low-key persona, creating a great tension between the achievement of his sculpted body and his inability to control his life and speak truth to those around him. In all, slight but touching. (CK)

Gravity and Grace
Tuesday, Sept 18, Park Lane 7, 9:25pm
From NSCAD film professor Solomon Nagler comes this unconventional spectacle of isolated characters adrift amongst the imposing geometry of industrial architecture. Gravity and Grace loosely follows a stowaway as he's shuttled from Halifax's colossal grain elevators to the psychedelic dilapidation of CFB Derbert's abandoned cold war bunker. Along the way, he's helped by a stoic lesbian couple suffering from multiple miscarriages and encounters an elderly man who likes to sing in the nude while doing yoga. Ultimately this isn't the most versatile picture, as it utilizes the gorgeous photography by Jeff Wheaton in the same silent, slowly extended scene played over and over. It's a bit like cinematic candy; tasty but a tad empty in large doses. Still, the inhuman way this picturesque scenery overshadows the small people who find themselves trapped within its depths remains a powerful sight. Even if you hate it, you're not likely to forget it. (JB)

Wednesday, Sept 19, Park Lane 3, 9:35pm
We meet Francine (Melissa Leo) as she's getting out of jail---and, in pointedly un-Hollywood fashion, we don't know what her sentence was or how long she was imprisoned, and these details remain ambiguous as the movie progresses. Instead, we know her through observation, as if we're following Francine around with a video camera (which has its uncomfortable moments, to be sure). She surrounds herself with animals both at home and at work, forming bonds in which she's not questioned. Yet, when people around her want to get close to her, she shuts down when asked about her past. Francine isn't dialogue-heavy, which some viewers might find frustrating---but, as an actor, Melissa Leo speaks loudly with her body language and expressions. Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky co-write and directed Francine as their feature film debut (both have short film and documentary experience)---they tell an interesting story in an offbeat way. (MS)

A Royal Affair
Closing Gala, Thursday, Sept 20, Park Lane 8, 6:30pm
A sumptuous period drama of a sort we see too infrequently these days. At the close of the 18th century, eccentric King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Foelsgaard) of Denmark takes a young, British bride, Caroline (Alicia Vikander), to be his queen. She's rapidly frustrated with his childish and unpredictable antics, but takes a shine to the king's new German physician, Johann (Mads Mikkelsen), who harbours political ideas more in tune with the Enlightenment than with the orthodoxy of the court. Lovers of corsets and palace intrigue will find plenty to enjoy here, and while it's over-plotted by about 20 minutes, the script cares enough to make the historic struggle between theocratic conservatism and "radical" new ideas a key plot point---American election-year relevancy for sure. In the end its sharpest point is how a lust for power serves no one. (CK)


A Pretty Funny Story
Shorts 1, Friday, Sept 14, Park Lane 3, 7:15pm
Don't mock your neighbours, even if they're doing a silly dance. That's the wacky premise in this black comedy from Evan Morgan. Like a lost Kids in the Hall sketch, this revenge-fuelled short shows how the terror of being held hostage is nothing next to being unpopular at work. (JB)

Halloween 1977
Atlantic Shorts 2, Saturday, Sept 15, Park Lane 4, 4:05pm
Super 8mm footage from an abandoned asylum is spliced with shots of peeling, rotting urban decay in this stabbing short film by director Greg Jackson. With no dialogue and no characters, but plenty of haunting music, this is pure mood. A tableau clawing through the screen and into your mind. (JB)

Atlantic Shorts 3, Saturday, Sept 15, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm
It should be just another day at the office for a professional torturer, but that's before a career counsellor ends up strapped to his drilling chair. Angus Swantee directs this Film Five production from AFCOOP, which takes workplace drudgery and mashes it up with blood-splattering gore and some slapstick comedy. (JB)

When You're Gone
Atlantic Shorts 3, Saturday, Sept 15, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm
The internal horror of mental illness is personified in this surreal and scary NSCAD short. When his partner leaves him alone for work, a shocked young man fights to keep his pills and sanity from a sinister adversary. Some excellent art direction, and a creepy tone from director Christian MacDonald. (JB)

Brunswick St.
Atlantic Shorts 2, Saturday, Sept 15, Park Lane 4, 4:05pm
Documentarian Halley Roback presents this eyes-open look at a little known part of Brunswick Street's history. In the 1970s, some fresh-faced young Haligonians looking to create a better world came together to buy a house and build a home. Through interviews and archival footage, Roback paints a portrait of Halifax-that-was. (JB)

Atlantic Shorts 3, Saturday, Sept 15, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm
In this creepy vignette, a young aspiring actress arrives at a ramshackle house for an audition. We know when we see the garbage bags on the windows that this isn't going to go well. Allison Moira Kelly nails her character's fear, implicating us in her predicament with her direct delivery. (JF)

Atlantic Shorts 3, Saturday, Sept 15, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm
Playwright (Halo), screenwriter (The Corridor) and actor (Roaming), Josh MacDonald's super-stylish Bridge Award short offers a brilliant mutation of Hinterland Who's Who, where three plaid-clad hillbillies get what's coming to them from a pissed-off native of our Canadian wetlands. (CK)

The Chase
Atlantic Shorts 4, Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 8, 7:30pm
Directors Mary Alice Corton and Joe Zanetti tie together a meet-cute love story with the anxiety of walking alone through Halifax in this breezy short. Come for cinematographer Jeff Wheaton's gorgeous nighttime photography, but stay for the race through the deserted Scotia Square food court. (JB)

Atlantic Shorts 5, Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm
Widower Lawrence is trying to buy comfort, but his call girl has problems of her own. Director Vicki Donkin inhales her short's seedy motel setting, wringing out its damp walls for everything they're worth. Irene is about everything we're infected with, and the poisons we'll ingest to block it out. (JB)

Atlantic Shorts 4, Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 8, 7pm
Anchored by Jenessa Grant's lead, Dreemer paints a picture of drug-addled, squalid domestic misery, from which our heroine escapes into an idealized fantasy of blood and justice. From former Coast AFF-issue cover-star Laura Dawe (Light Is The Day), more than one image from this grungy short will haunt you into the night.  (CK)

When You Sleep
Atlantic Shorts 5, Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 8, 9:20pm
Director Ashley McKenzie goes from strength to strength, having impressed with her previous, award-winning effort, Rhonda's Party, now serving up a grungy little relationship piece (and NSI Drama Prize-winner) where a rat plays a key, symbolic role. Twelve minutes is too little time for this filmmaking talent. We look forward to the inevitable, forthcoming feature. (CK)

Hard Light
Atlantic Shorts 6, Monday, Sept 17, Park Lane, 7:05pm
Based around Newfoundland writer Michael Crummey's poetry collection by the same name, Hard Light alternates between author interviews and narrated excerpts from his work. The visuals accompanying Crummey's tales, which feel meant to be read aloud, zero in on well-chosen details: a pair of hands submerged in a basin; a saw hanging on a wall; a fork and a slice of cake; a reflection in a cracked mirror. Crummey is shot in some interesting locations, like an abandoned school bus, and speaks candidly about his family history, process of becoming a writer and "midlife crisis in reverse." And with the exception of an awkward moment where the interviewer inserts himself into the narrative, the interviews have a natural, easy flow to them, links between fiction and life bobbing gently to the surface over the course of the film. (JF)

Big Mouth
Atlantic Shorts Gala, Tuesday, Sept 18, Park Lane 8, 7pm
From acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Dorfman comes yet another winner in this NFB animated short about a little girl with a big mouth. Hand drawn puppets dance across the screen, while a narrator rhymes the story of young Trudy, who learns not everyone likes it when you only tell the truth. (JB)

Room Service
Atlantic Shorts Gala, Tuesday, Sept 18, Park Lane 8, 7pm
Ubiquitous local thespian Glen Matthews (also to be seen as a hillbilly in Game) steps behind the camera for this deft "gotcha" comedy. Trust us when we say it'll take until the film's final 10 seconds to really play its hand, and you'll love it when it does. (CK)

Better People
Atlantic Shorts Gala, Tuesday, Sept 18, Park Lane 8, 7pm
The Republic of Doyle's Mark O'Brien wrote, directed and starred in this short about attraction, and having the balls to do something about it. O'Brien and real-life fiancée Georgina Reilly do the one step forward, one step back dance of new love. Spare dialogue allows what's unsaid to speak just as loudly as what is. (JF)

Pitch Black Heist
Shorts 5, Thursday, Sept 20, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm
Liam Cunningham and Michael Fassbender star as two safe crackers given the unusual job of breaking into an office with a light-sensitive alarm system in this smart, clean caper of a film. Featuring an out-of-sight twist, as well as some acting so sharp you can almost see it in the dark. (JB)

A Story for the Modlins
Shorts 6, Thursday, Sept 20, Park Lane 7, 9:25pm
Elmer Modlin was an actor, an extra in Rosemary's Baby, who moved with his family to Spain and shut out the world. Years later, filmmaker Sergio Oksman stumbles upon the Modlin's photo albums in the trash and makes this stark, haunting documentary about a strange family full of broken dreams. (JB)


An Uncommon King
Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 4, 12:05pm
It's not easy, being chosen from birth to be the next great leader of a Buddhist lineage. Especially if you'd rather spend your days as just another kid. Director Johanna Lunn highlights that struggle, as well as the other important events that have shaped the life of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. The head of the Shambhala school of Tibetan Buddhism (founded by his father), Sakyong has been adapting to his role since his formative years in San Francisco. An Uncommon King follows that struggle, as well as the religious teacher's subsequent growth and acceptance of his role, through footage shot over 17 years in 12 different countries. While also showing Sakyong's 2006 wedding in Halifax, which featured a traditional Buddhist lhasang ceremony held at Citadel Hill. Eschewing flash, Lunn creates a workmanlike, almost perfunctory documentary. But that stripped down, simple aesthetic is befitting when depicting such a personable religious icon. (JB)

Call Me Kuchu
Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 4, 2:05pm
Call Me Kuchu documents the experience of LGBT activists in Uganda, under the lead of David Kato. The timing is crucial: the Ugandan government is trying to pass legislation that would institute death by hanging as punishment for being gay ---disturbing to the Ugandan LGBT and international communities alike. From the personal anxieties of the activists whose lives are at risk, to disturbing interview clips with a Ugandan newspaper editor on a rampage to out the LGBT community and put their lives at risk, the footage runs the gamut. It's a compelling and disturbing topic---skilled editing keeps the pace engaging, highlighting the right moments. Most remarkable is, despite the threatened lives these activists are force into, they still live---and this balance is necessary to show the true richness of the subjects' lives. Any flaws in the documentary are overshadowed by the power of these activists' stories. (MS)

Jobriath A.D.
Music & Image, Wednesday, Sept 19, Park Lane 7, 9:25pm
Jobriath A.D. is a documentary by Kieran Turner, and tells the story of Jobriath Salinger, born Bruce Campbell, AKA Bryce Campbell, AKA Cole Berlin. For years, Jobriath was one of those names that was only known amongst record store clerks, collectors and gay kids who had heard that there was once a gay man who was even more glam than David Bowie and T. Rex's Marc Bolan combined. The film tells the story of a young man who is soon discovered by Jerry Brandt, a self-titled "huckster" who does everything in his power to build hype around the "first fairy of rock and roll." The film is a cautionary tale of how hype can mutate into hyperbole, and how one man fell victim to a perfect storm of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A must for both rock and roll and queer history buffs. (ST)

Stories We Tell
Wednesday, Sept 19, Park Lane 4, 7:10pm
We begin with Margaret Atwood, Bon Iver, home movies from the 1970s and we're totally in: Sarah Polley's very personal documentary about her mother, her family and a secret kept between them. "You know all about it, you know it's a delusion," narrates the man who raised her. "It's all done with mirrors, mate, they used to tell me...the mirrors in which you can see yourself clearly. The mirrors through which you can see what you really look like." What we see is an intimate portrait of an older generation of Canadian theatre vets, the children who live with their legacy, and love's astonishing, multifaceted breadth. And then we get to examine the truth of all that's gone before in the reveal of how the story is told. Fascinating and unforgettable, this is confirmation (along with this summer's Take This Waltz) that Polley is one of the country's best cinematic storytellers. (CK)

Last Chance
Sunday, Sept 16, Park Lane 3, 12pm
In an apartment in Beirut, a mother confesses to the fact that she once entertained the idea of poisoning her own child. "I won't dare tell you what we thought of doing," she says. Her child's name is Jennifer. Jennifer is transgendered. Jennifer's is one of the stories told in Last Chance, a documentary by Halifax filmmaker Paul-Émile d'Entremont. The NFB production follows the lives of five people who have fled their home countries out of fear of persecution for being queer or trans. Last Chance is not only a peek into the lives of gay and transgendered refugees, but also the system that allows some---but not all---to stay. "I wanted to make an activist film," says the director. "When I found these people I was inspired by them." There is Zaki, an Egyptian who was imprisoned at 17 for being gay. Carlos fled Colombia to start a new life in Montreal. Trudi tells a story of how she was "correctively" raped at gunpoint in Jamaica. And Alvaro, walked from Nicaragua to the US Border in Mexico at the age of 12. d'Entremont worked on Last Chance for six years, including three years of shooting around the globe. The characters do their best to integrate themselves into Canadian society, doing everything they can to stay. d'Entremont even follows some of them as they leave their country of origin, interviewing them and their families as they prepare to leave everything behind. "As difficult as it was to live in that kind of persecution and threat of violence and intimidation, it's not that easy to give up everything," he says. "And to start again." (ST)


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