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RVIFF Inaugural Edition Capsule Review Round-Up

September 20th, 2022 | Robin

 

A Ken and Robin Consume Media Special Feature

Audience surveys are in, and both attendees of the first annual Robin and Valerie International Film Festival have pronounced it a rousing success.

We decided to give up on the Toronto International Film Festival after last year’s outing. We became ferociously devoted fest goers in the trackless depths of the VHS era. Over the decades it ineluctably grew more expensive, inconvenient and onerous to attend, as it became more focused on premieres and less on presenting the year’s very best films. Even a few years ago replacing its mix of titles with a self-curated all-streaming slate would have been unthinkable. Now with the growth of specialty platforms, contemporary world cinema from art house experiments to provocative cult flicks, has never been more available. The trick lies in knowing what to pick, which requires both research and years of festival going for context.

In the end, out of 45 titles, there was only one I actively disliked. That compares to 8 at a typical TIFF, two whole days of dross to find a handful of gems. With RVIFF we don’t get the bragging rights that come with seeing something before everyone else. But that’s not what we were ever in it for. For seeing great films, this epic binge will remain the way to go.

A side benefit of this is that I’m telling you about movies you can find yourself, right away, as opposed to vaguely recalling a title three to eighteen months from now when it finally comes your way.

Films reviewed below appear either on subscription platforms or available for regular priced rental here in Canada. My sources are Apple rental, Crave, Criterion, Google rental, Kanopy, MUBI, Netflix, Prime, and, to add annoying confusion just like a real festival would, TVO. Availability in your territory will undoubtedly vary. Start your search for title availability and platform at JustWatch.com, which covers most regions. (But does not list Kanopy titles, so you’ll have to search there if you’re using that library-based service.)

Repeating my M.O. from many years of TIFF capsule reviews, I have listed this round-up in very rough order of preference. By the time I think about these later they may have shuffled around in my estimation.

The Pinnacle

The Legend of Tomiris (Kazakhstan, Akan Satayev, 2019, 5) After a treacherous rival tribe murders her father, a Massagetae chieftain, the clever and brave Tomiris trains as a warrior and rises to power in time to defend the steppes from Cyrus the Great. Massive historical epic with thrilling fight choreography, impressive production values and one of the best blood-spattered proposal scenes in cinema.

Drive My Car (Japan, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021, 5) A theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) marked by a tragic event finds a kindred spirit in the taciturn young woman hired to drive him around during a production in Hiroshima. Long, strange journey into the mysteries of what we chose to hide and what we must eventually reveal.

Petite Maman (France, Céline Sciamma, 2021, 5) While at her late grandmother’s house for the last time, an eight year old finds a time slip allowing her to make a new playmate—her mother, at the same age. Still, poised, deeply felt drama finds the magic in elusive everyday moments, even before the magical realism kicks in.

Recommended

Crimes of the Future (Canada, David Cronenberg, 2022, 4) In a kinky near future where pain is a rarity, performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice push the boundaries of their work, which features the elaborate removal of the novel organs he grows with his Accelerated Evolution Syndrome. Cronenberg shows his imitators how it’s really done, splicing the throughline of 8½ into body horror and finding the destruction in the creative process.

Official Competition (Spain, Mariano Cohn & Gastón Duprat, 2021) Eccentric director (Penelope Crus) presides over a clash of egos when she rehearses her next film with a pretentious theater actor (Oscar Martinez) and a temperamental movie star (Antonio Banderas.) Monumental wide shots in an empty modernist building counterpoint a hilarious satire of actorly insecurities.

Parallel Mothers (Spain, Pedro Almodovar, 2021) Photographer (Penelope Cruz) learns that the baby she took home from the hospital wasn’t hers, but refrains from telling the teen mom (Milena Smit) who is the likely biological mother. Repeatedly sets up and betrays genre expectations, in this case, melodramatic ones, in an unexpected and satisfying manner that takes an Almodovar-level master to pull off.

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (Japan, Joe Odagiri, 2019) In Meiji Japan, an elderly boatman facing the end of his trade due to bridge construction rescues an injured girl from the river. Visually stunning fable of relationship to nature and community with a ghost story on the periphery.

The Worst Person in the World (Norway, Joachim Trier, 2021) Directionless woman in her late twenties (Renate Reinsve) struggles to find fulfilling love, and herself. Observant and moving character-driven dramedy with perfectly calibrated performances from Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie as her overly analytical cartoonist boyfriend.

Coppers (Canada, Alan Zweig, 2019, 4) Retired Ontario police officers recount their often hair-raising experiences as coppers and the struggles with PTSD, alcoholism and other members of the force that resulted from them. Zweig, master of the interview documentary, lets his subjects explore the gnarly paradox of policing—that the job inherently turns people who do it into people who shouldn’t.

Fagara (Hong Kong, Heiward Mak, 2019, 4) When her father suddenly dies, an unfulfilled woman (Sammi Cheng) meets the half-sisters she didn’t know about and decides to keep his hotpot restaurant open. Luminous family drama centers on restrained, effective movie star performances from Cheng and, in a supporting role, Andy Lau.

Bergman Island (France, Mia Hansen-Løve, 2021, 4) Undertaking a residency on Ingmar Bergman’s retreat at Faroe, a filmmaker (Vicky Krieps) struggles with a script as her more celebrated, prolific husband (Tim Roth) breezes through his; she describes to him its rekindled affair at a wedding on Faroe, casting it with Mia Wasikowksa and Anders Danielsen Lie. Serenely beautiful puzzle film about the parallel mysteries of love and the creative process.

Nomad: in the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (UK, Werner Herzog, 2019, 4) Herzog conducts another of his documentary journeys of wonder and reverence, encountering ley lines, songlines, and the totemic powers of a life-saving rucksack, in tribute to his friend Bruce Chatwin, whose novel he adapted into his 1987 film Cobra Verde. In vowing to ensure that the protagonist is not himself but Chatwin, who was like a brother to him, Herzog reveals more of himself than perhaps any other of his many works.

Benedetta (France/Belgium/Netherlands, Paul Verhoeven, 2021, 4) Young nun (Virginie Efira) in 17th century Italy supplements her passion for a rustic novice (Daphne Patakia) with gory visions of a sword-wielding Jesus, fueling a rise to power in her convent. Verhoven gives his zest for the lurid full reign as sensuality and mortification intertwine and the clash of competing fanaticisms unleashes chaos.

Holy Emy (Greece, Araceli Lemos, 2021, 4) As she manifests miraculous healing abilities, a young woman (Abigael Loma) in Ahens’ Filipino community faces a choice between her devout sister and the ex-employer  who exploited her mother’s similar powers. Magic realist drama heightened by a strong sense for imagery.

The Spy Gone North (South Korea, Yoon Jong-bin, 2018) Spy adopts a new persona as a brash businessman to infiltrate the North Korean inner circle, only to learn that his right-wing bosses have been paying Kim Jong Il to interfere in the South’s elections. Political spy thriller docudrama engagingly fictionalizes a series of implausible true events.

The Other Side of Hope (Finland, Aki Kaurismaki, 2019) Syrian refugee claimant bonds with the staff of a floundering restaurant run by a taciturn former shirt salesman. Stoic deadpan camaraderie results when an urgent real crisis enters Kaurismaki’s distinctive world of down-at-the-heels retro cool.

Zero Fucks Given (France, Julie Lecoustre & Emmanuel Marre, 2019) Despite her desires to lose herself in distractions, a young flight attendant for a budget airline is forced to seek promotion. Realist character study at first appears to be a working person’s film for the service industry era, then goes deeper.

Twilight’s Kiss (Hong Kong, Ray Yeung, 2019, 4) Closeted retirement-age cab driver (Tai-Bo) strikes up a relationship with a contemporary (Ben Yuen) who is likewise not out to his family but yearns for a closer connection. Restrained character drama honors and regrets the stoic resignation of its characters.

Gagarine (France, Fanny Liatard & Jérémy Trouilh, 2020, 4) Soulful high school student stays behind in his housing project, which like him is named after Yuri Gargarin, after it is slated for demolition. Mix of lyricism and social realism laced with elegiac imagery of a vanished space age.

Plaza Catedral (Panama, Abner Benaim, 2021, 4) Grief-stricken, closed-off architect (Ilse Salas) takes in a street kid (Fernando Xavier De Casta) suffering from a gunshot wound. Benaim shows an eye for composition and control of the cinematic palette in this taut character drama.

Midnight (South Korea, Oh-Seung Kwon, 2021, 4) After witnessing a serial killer (Wi Ha-joon) with his latest victim, a deaf customer service rep (Ki-joo Jin) flees for her life. Unity-of-time thriller keeps the inventive suspense beats coming fast.

Night Raiders (Canada, Danis Goulet, 2021, 4) In a grim near future, a Cree woman reluctantly unites with a resistance cell of fellow tribe members to rescue her daughter from a totalitarian military academy. Allegory of the residential schools system framed as a dystopian thriller designs its futuristic elements to look like drably naturalistic found locations.

Hive (Kosovo, Blerta Basholli, 2021) Determined woman (Yllka Gashi) assembles fellow presumed widows of Kosovo War ethnic cleansing to form a company to make pepper preserves, defying village prejudices against women driving or working. Incisively told social drama features committed, immediate performances.

Sheep Without a Shepherd (China, Sam Quah, 2019, 4) Movie-mad, hard-pressed supplier of Internet hardware plots to cover up his daughter’s killing of her abuser as he attacked her mother—but his mother, a corner-cutting police chief (Joan Chen), is determined to find out what happened. Presented in hyper-accentuated style that might be expressed in the equation ((John Woo + Tony Scott) × Bollywood), this upends the wrong man thriller into a premise where the protagonists did do it and we’re rooting for them to get away with it.

Double Lover (France, Francois Ozon, 2017, 4) After moving in with her former psychotherapist (Jérémie Renier), a young woman (Marine Vacth) discovers that he has a secret twin, also a psychotherapist. Coolly controlled erotic thriller is Hitchcock homage with a Cronenberg homage growing parasitically inside it.

Red Rocket (US, Sean Baker, 2021, 4) Fast-talking hasbeen adult performer (Simon Rex) returns to his small Texas hometown to wheedle his way back into the life of his ex-wife / ex-co-star (Bree Elrod) and set his sights on a not-so-innocent 18-year old (Susanna Son.) Satirical character drama where the suspense lies in the exact manner of the lead character’s foreordained flame-out.

Hey There! (Turkey, Reha Erdem, 2021, 4) With Istanbul under COVID quarantine, a scammer turns to computer videoconferencing to blackmail minor offenders in the guise of a law enforcement official. Lockdown webcam musical comedy finds hope for the future in warm, embracing cynicism.

Eyimofe (This is My Desire) (Nigeria, Arie Esiri & Chuko Esiri, 2020, 4) A Lagos mechanic and hairdresser a degree of separation from one another struggle to raise money needed to emigrate. Energetic slice of life drama of life in a touch city where every interaction by necessity devolves into a transaction.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Romania, Radu Jude, 2021, 4) Middle school teacher faces parent and administration backlash when a sex video she made with her husband appears online. Three-sectioned satire updates Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mystery of the Organism to COVID-era Romania.

My Name Is Gulpilil (Australia, Molly Reynolds, 2021, 4) In the late stages of lung cancer, actor David Gulpilil, who represented the Australian indigenous experience on-screen from the age of 14 to 64, looks back on his career, personal struggles, and connection to his culture. Sticks to the POV of its frank, straightforward subject, skipping the sincere but unilluminating tributes from colleagues that fill out the standard arts profile documentary.

The Trouble with You (France, Pierre Salvadori, 2018, 4) Guilt-ridden police chief (Adèle Haenel) tries to help an embittered ex-con (Pio Marmaï) her husband and predecessor framed for a jewel robbery. Haenel shows how star power works by investing this irreverent cop comedy with a performance of simmering emotion.

The Paper Tigers (US, Quoc Bao Tran, 2020) Insurance man struggling to keep up as a divorced dad (Alain Uy) reluctantly reunites with former fellow martial arts students (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Ron Yuan) to investigate the death of their sifu. Mix of grounded, observational comedy and martial arts flick kept aloft by the winning leads.

A Family (Japan, Michihito Fujii, 2020) After the death of his junkie father, a stubbornly focused young man finds a substitute in the person of an old-school gang boss. Instead of briefly handwaving to it and then continuing on with the usual genre tropes, this handsomely mounted yakuza drama takes as its main subject matter the recent death spiral of the yakuza in the wake of comprehensive anti-crime statutes.

El Planeta (Spain, Amalia Ulman, 2021) After her father dies, a young woman (Amalia Ulman) and her mother (Alejandra Ulman) struggle to get by in the glum city of Gijon. Droll, low-key character piece in sparking black and white.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth (France, Clément Cogitore, 2015) Mysterious disappearances plague French soldiers stationed at a remote Afghan outpost, to the increasing discomfiture of their hard-headed Captain (Jérémie Renier.) Naturalistically shot, weird war tale featuring a threatening force of elusive ambiguity.

Zombie for Sale (South Korea, Lee Min-jae, 2020, 4) Family of scammers and losers who own a decrepit gas station try to cash in when they capture a cabbage-loving zombie with a rejuvenating bite. Lovably dysfunctional underdogs unite in this fun zomcom.

Strawberry Mansion (US, Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney, 2021, 4) Suggestible taxman (Kentucker Audley) arrives at elderly artist’s house to assess overdue taxes on her backlog of dreams, only to find that they are stored on tape, not the now-required airstick method. Quirky romantic dreamquest with adorable handcrafted creatures and effects.

Peace by Chocolate (Canada, Jonathan Keijser, 2021, 4) Syrian refugee relocated to the snowy small town of Antigonish Nova Scotia is torn between his desire to attend medical school and his father’s wish to rebuild the chocolate business that was destroyed back home. Thoughtfully crafted script does a good job of maintaining conflict the context of a light and affirming docudrama.

Heavy Trip (Finland, Juuso Laatio & Jukka Vidgren, 2018, 4) After twelve years of practice and the completion of one original song, a metal band that practices in the guitarist’s parents’ basement sets its sights on the Northern Damnation music festival in Norway. Good-natured broad comedy with SCA Vikings and a wolverine punch-up, powered by the screams of a thousand reindeer on their way to reindeer hell.

Snowflake (Germany, Adolfo J. Kolmerer, 2017, 4) In a dystopian near future Berlin, bantering killers (Reza Brojerdi, Erkan Acar) discover that their actions are dictated by a screenplay written by a dentist. Meta cult hitman movie about vengeance and narrative inevitability.

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (South Korea, Lee Won-tae, 2019) When a brutal gang lord (Ma Dong-seok) survives the random attack of a serial killer, a maverick cop (Mu-Yeol Kim) persuades him to join the hunt to track him down. Investigative crime drama makes the most of a juicy premise, in which cat and mouse becomes cat and cat and other cat.

Good

Baby Assassins (Japan, Yugo Sakamoto, 2021, 3.5) Two teen girl killers, one outgoing, the other withdrawn, have trouble meshing when the oddly bureaucratic enterprise they work for requires them to live together and get part-time jobs. Offbeat cult comedy bookended by fun fight sequences.

Good Manners (Brazil, Marco Dutra & Juliana Rojas, 2017, 3.5) Woman in precarious circumstances (Isabél Zuaa) takes a job as nanny-to-be for a pregnant, unanchored rich woman (Marjorie Estiano) who develops somnambulism and a thirst for blood when the moon is full. Compelling and chameleonic, if structurally unbalanced, werewolf film essays radical shifts of style and premise that variously references Lewton, Landis, Disney and maybe a hint of Fassbinder.

Okay

Scarborough (Canada, Shasha Nakhai & Rich Williamson, 2021) Families attending a parenting and literacy drop-in center in a low-income neighborhood experience travails and triumphs. With so many issues stuffed into one movie, this is the Love Actually of social realist movies, and not without the heavy-handedness the genre has always indulged.

Not Recommended

Alone with Her Dreams (Italy, Paolo Licata, 2019, 1) In early 60s Sicily a preteen girl chafes at the authority of her tyrannical grandmother after her parents emigrate to France, leaving her temporarily behind. Syrupy, then harshly manipulative, coming of age drama.


 

If you enjoy this RVIFF series and don’t yet do so, consider supporting the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Or check out my book on action films and their roleplaying applications, Blowing Up the Movies. Or the roleplaying game inspired by the Hong Kong films I first encountered at TIFF, Feng Shui 2.

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