Amsterdam is the big film this week if only for the well-known stars who show up in it. Meanwhile Toronto is already getting Triangle of Sadness ahead of other cties and while it's still playing at Vancouver's Film Festival. As are several more picks I recommend from VIFF. Read on …


Amsterdam: 3 stars

Triangle of Sadness: 3 ½

EO: 4

Alcarras: 3 ½

Until Branches Bend: 2 ½

Klondike: 4

AMSTERDAM: You might wonder a few times where this movie is going—many places it seems—but you'll never get bored. The writing and directing by David O. Russell are both terrific, witty clever and with strong narrative drive. And it's got stars aplenty, Christian Bale, John David Washington and Margot Robbie in the lead and Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Chris Rock Taylor Swift and many others in support. Along with them there are multiple story lines: love, friendship, war, racism, priviledged elites, even birdwatching. It takes the film quite a while to settle on a main one which it early on had signalled like this: “A lot of this actually happened.”

Courtesy of 20th Century Films

Bale, Washington and Robbie meet in a World War I hospital tent, spend time as friends in Amsterdam and back in New York get drawn into a murder plot. Taylor Swift's character suspects her dad was murdered. They investigate and are implicated when she's killed, right before them on the street. As they try to stay ahead of the police they stumble on a political conspiracy. That's where the story gets extra complex, and is probably inspired by a war hero, known as “the fighting Quaker” who wrote and testified in Congress that “war is a racket”. That was in 1934. Most of the film is set in 1933. Eventually it settles on that storyline as the main one, with De Niro playing a respected general asked to speak at a veterans' “reunion gala.” Good acting, top-notch design, contemporary relevance, even with the meandering story line, add up to a qualified plus. (In theaters) 3 out of 5

TRIANGLE OF SADNESS: Ruben Östlund is at it again, skewering bourgeois pretensions as he did in Force Majeure and The Square. He doesn't disappoint, the film is funny, but he does get carried away into excess. Put up with the extended vomiting scenes that follow a high-class dinner (some find them the film's highlight) and you can enjoy the rest. The setting is a luxury cruise where most the passengers are rich, eat a lot, act snooty to the people who serve them. They're convinced they deserve their status (including the Russian oligarch and an arms manufacturer who complains about United Nations regulations that hinder his business). The skipper (Woody Harrelson) spends his time drinking in his cabin and has to be coaxed out to host his captain's dinner. The film is almost all in English.

Courtesy of VIFF

We mostly focus on a young couple, Carl and Yaya, who won the trip as a reward in their career as photo models. There's a very long pre-trip sequence with them that is part of the excess. The film makes its points early, and repeats them at length. There's an explosion, the ship sinks and the main characters land on an island, and the points are made again about class and priviledge. This time one woman from the crew, probably Philippina, is the only one with survival skills. Point made. Earlier there was a verbal sparring match between the Captain and the Russian, both citing Communist and socialist quotations. That may be the theme Östlund is advancing, though in a cheeky tone. (Now in two theaters in Toronto, one more screening at VIFF, Saturday night, and going wider next week) 3 ½ out of 5

EO: I loved this movie though it is only about a donkey and his picaresque travels and there's only one actor who's name I recognize, Isabelle Huppert, in a brief role. The rest are all Polish, as is the director, Jerzy Skolimowski, who made it at age 84. What's great is that you become very attached to the donkey as he travels from one incident to another, many completely unexpected. The sheer novelty is thrilling.

At the start he's in a circus and caressed by a woman perormer ((Sandra Drzymalska), memories he'll recall over and over. Animal rights activists free him, he ends up on a farm with an abusive owner but is moved again in a foreclosure and travels from one scene to another, sometimes by escaping. He meets a countess (Huppert), watches an amateur soccer match and bar fight that follows it. Everywhere he goes he sees both the worst and occasionally the best in people. With very little human dialogue but great animal sounds we get a tour of all humanity through the eyes of an innocent. (One more play at VIFF, Saturday night) 4 out of 5

ALCARRAS: Here's a warm and moving celebration of rural life, attachment to the land, growing on it and feeling the strength it gives you. And the fear when that is threatened. In this case it's a peach orchard in the Catalonia region of Spain. Generations of the same family has worked it but because of a paperwork mistep they're told they have to leave by the end of the summer. They're struggling to get the fruit picked and at the same time find a way around the legal problem.

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A rich family gave them the land in gratitude for help during the Spanish civil war but the grandfather didn't get it in writing. People didn't do that back then, he claims. The current members of that rich family don't recognize the deal and want them out. They want to tear out the trees and install solar panels. Electricity pays better than the very low fruit prices currently. Carla Simón wrote and directed this plea for a natural way of life based on her own story. She lived in that region as a child, in a town of the same name. The film is most effective in depicting that life and the emotions around it and won the Goden Bear, for best film, at the Berlin Film Festival this year. (Screens at VIFF tonight and Sunday) 3 ½ out of 5

UNTIL BRANCHES BEND: I wish I could be as positive about this one, it being also about peach growers but the story, which is definitely strong, is not told very well. It's episodic and not smooth-flowing, and veers off into off-topic issues at times. Why is there a pregancy for instance? And an abortion angle? The tale is about an environmental threat to an industry and the trouble a young woman has reporting it.

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Grace Glowicki is convincing and naural as a fruit grader at a packing house in BC's Okanagan Valley. She has to pull out any damaged fruit that goes by on a conveyor. She spots a bug on one, has never seen it beore, traps it in a jar and takes it to her boss . But he (Lochlyn Munro) isn't all that interested except to ask if anybody else has seen it. There was a forced shut down some years before and he's not about to chance that again. Later, at a public meeting he lies about it, says he did investigate and was told a picture was faked with photo editing. It could have been a tense thriller about whistleblowing and the disapproval it can bring on but comes off too mild. An improbable plot point and ending doesn't help either. Sophie Jarvis, who made it, gets close with this one, and VIFF goes further, naming it the best BC film at the festival this year. (VIFF this evening) 2 ½ out of 5

KLONDIKE: Despite that title this film is about Ukraine and a very realistic depiction of what we've all been reading out from there. That's so even though the story pre-dates today's news. It's set in 2014 as the seperatist movement was spreading in the Donbass region. It was also the year an airliner was shot down, an incident that is referenced several times. It's of particular interest to the Russian-speaking seperatists though who did it isn't said and left for us to ponder.

Coutesy of VIFF

The story is set on a remote farm where separatist soldiers come by now and then to intimidate the farmer and his pregnant wife. His brother-in-law visits too and accuses him of being a seperatist. Who is who is unknown and constantly whips up suspicions. The farmhouse has a big hole in an outside wall, the result of a bombing accident. It will be repaired the farmer is told. His car is also taken and will be returned, but that doesn't happen either. But this message is said: “When the Russians come we will all live like nobles.” The film sems a very good representation of the conflicting attitudes there, years before Russia invaded and started to annex that part of the country. The farmer considers killing all his animals and moving on. The film has no optimism at all and ends on a shockingly grim note. (One more VIFF screening, tonight.) 3 ½ out of 5