Nurse Bob's Film Festival Reviews


(China) (8): In the summer of 1976 a massive earthquake hit Tangshan leveling the city and killing 240,000 people. Feng Xiaogang’s ambitious epic concentrates not so much on the immediate disaster, though the scenes of shaking and devastation are powerful enough, but rather on the story of one family torn apart by the quake after the husband is killed by falling debris. With her son Fang Da and daughter Fang Deng pinned under a concrete slab Yuanni is forced to choose which child to rescue, for by saving one the other will be crushed. Covering the next 30 years in the lives of Yuanni and her son (unbeknownst to either one the daughter survives and is adopted) a more apt title for the film would have been Aftermath. Haunted by the memory of what she did Yuanni nevertheless manages to get her life back on track even after Fang Da grows up and starts a family of his own. Meanwhile, Fang Deng has never forgotten the choice her mother made all those years ago, a factor which has kept her from searching for either Yuanni or her brother. Fate, however, has other plans for the three of them... Make no mistake, this is an unabashed tearjerker replete with soaring strings, melodramatic performances, and an outrageous “coincidence” near the end; but Xiaogang does it so well you lose yourself in the story despite knowing you’re being manipulated by a master. The special effects are surprisingly effective and the cast is more than capable of saturating the big screen with enough heartache and pathos to keep you reaching for the kleenex. Even Vancouver has a guest cameo where the lone Caucasian actor is so horribly bad that his five simple lines threaten to bring the movie’s momentum to a dead stop. A well-crafted genre film that kept me interested right up to the final credits. The only thing missing was Sensurround™.

(Canada) (7): In order to appreciate this deliriously loopy supernatural monster movie one has to forgive its many lapses in logic and accept it for what it is; a loving ode to those old spooky comic books we used to pore over as children. Twenty-something Sarah and her pals are on their way to a concert in a nearby city. Having just gotten her pilot’s license she is eager to show off her newly acquired aviation skills despite the sweaty misgivings of her oddly reticent new boyfriend. Once their small plane is airborne however things begin to go terribly wrong; equipment malfunctions, an unexpected thunderstorm swallows the aircraft, and one of her friends swears he caught a glimpse of a very big something lurking in the roiling clouds. As her hapless passengers are picked off one by one Sarah begins to have uncomfortable thoughts of her mother, also a pilot, who died in a mysterious plane crash years before; a crash which Sarah’s current boyfriend seems to know more about than he should. Making excellent use of claustrophobic spaces director Kaare Andrews employs a variety of techniques to keep the tension high; from a frantic editing style and crashing musical score to a palette of dark inky colours highlighted by strobe-like lightning flashes. The dialogue is appropriately over-the-top as is the monster itself looking like a tentacled nightmare straight from the mind of H. P. Lovecraft. Finally, a series of clever tongue-in-cheek twists towards the end gave rise to a lot of good-natured giggles and eye-rolling. A thrilling little confection that’s sure to provide a welcome break from this year’s darker fare.

Another Year (UK) (9): If you are a fan of Mike Leigh, as I am, then you’re in for a treat as this deceptively simple urban story once again showcases his ability to wring rich and complex performances out of the most ordinary host of characters. Tom and Gerri (haha!) are a lovingly sedate middle class couple living in a comfortable London borough. Having led an exciting life, she’s a counsellor he’s a geologist, they now spend most of their off-hours gardening and entertaining family and friends, amongst them Mary, the flighty secretary who works in the same office as Gerri, and Joe, their thirty-year-old son who seems to be taking his time finding a girlfriend. Filled with kitchen sink drama and everyday humour that never strays far from a breakfast table or garden bench, Another Year uses the four seasons as a guide to trace the ever-shifting dynamics between this small core of characters. Although Gerri and Tom’s relationship is the anchor around which everyone else orbits and against which all are compared, the true heart of the film is Mary. Desperately lonely and constantly bewildered to find her youthful days behind her, Mary is a study in missed opportunities and self-sabotage. If we are the sum total of all our decisions then for some the final tally falls painfully short of what was once hoped for; a fact that Leigh uses to bookend this amazing film. Never judging his characters, yet never excusing them either, he offers up a small slice of life with all its harsh truths and gentle smiles intact. Not to be missed.

A Somewhat Gentle Man (Norway) (8): After serving twelve years in prison for murdering his wife’s lover, Ulrik is determined to make a clean start by getting a job at a local auto shop and reaching out to his estranged son. Unfortunately his criminal companions make him an offer he finds very difficult to refuse when they insist he kill the man who testified against him twelve years earlier. On top of that his slovenly landlady has singlehandedly decided to be his mistress, his former wife tells him to leave their son alone (after giving him an awkward mercy-shag), and the secretary at the auto shop is having romantic notions of her own after he straightens out her abusive ex-husband. After much struggling with his conscience Ulrik eventually makes a series of final decisions, but fate has a way of throwing a wrench into even the most well-laid plans. Fans of Kaurismäki will take great delight in Gentle Man’s poker-faced humour whether it’s Stellan Skarsgård’s sheepish expressions or his disastrous couplings with the desperate landlady. It all builds up to a suitably tense confrontation before everything settles back down for one more comedic close-up. A rough-edged pleasure with a sunny disposition.

Biutiful (Spain) (10): When a smalltime hustler discovers he only has a few months to live his life takes on an added sense of urgency. Uxbal is a good man at heart who loves his two children and tries to do right by his mentally ill ex-wife. Although he is deeply involved in human smuggling he goes to great lengths to ensure the people he deals with, mostly mainland Chinese and north Africans, are treated as fairly as possible. But as his health fails and death becomes more imminent he tries to make peace with the world including the souls of the newly departed whose pitiful sobbing and grimacing faces he can sometimes sense. This visually gorgeous film is enhanced by an almost subliminal soundtrack of blowing winds and pulsing beats. From a gentle forest blanketed in snow to a hellishly throbbing discotheque, from a grimy sweatshop to a quiet churchyard, Inarritu weaves multiple character’s into a gritty ultra-contemporary meditation on death and life replete with images of both life-affirming solidity and fragile mortality. Delicate, muscular and surreal in turn, Biutiful is sure to be one of this year’s cinematic gems.

Cell 211 (Spain) (6): When Juan, a prison guard trainee, is trapped in the middle of a full-scale riot orchestrated by the penitentiary’s worst convicts he manages to avoid becoming another hostage by posing as a fellow inmate and ingratiating himself with the mastermind behind the uprising, the decidedly unbalanced lifer Malamadre. With his pregnant wife pounding at the prison gates, a government unwilling to negotiate in good faith and a couple of surly Columbians questioning his veracity Juan must rely upon his own resourcefulness if he is to survive. To his credit director Daniel Monzón manages to throw a few curve balls our way, shedding some light on the crooked politics behind hostage negotiations while avoiding a pat Hollywood ending (his ending is absurd enough as it is). He also manages to elicit some star performances from his main leads although the gravelly voiced uni-browed Malamadre would look more at home in a prison manga. But, as I feared, it ends up being little more than a testosterone-soaked orgy of macho posturing and male bonding as the maltreated noble savages square off against the unsympathetic powers-that-be. Can an American remake be far behind?

Chassis (Philippines) (3): In this dreary little B&W flick Adolfo Alix Jr. spends so much time setting us up that he kind of forgets to make a point. In what I suppose is a typical Filipino truck yard, drivers’ families live underneath their husbands’ rigs while the men sit around waiting for work. In the meantime the women partake in idle gossip, bitch fights, and the occasional foray into prostitution. There is government housing available but it’s too far away and tends to separate families. Nora is one such trucker wife who, along with her somnolent husband and single child, maintains a household composed of oil-stained pavement and hammocks hung from a flatbed. The camera follows Nora incessantly as she walks around in a perpetual daze, but when tragedy suddenly strikes her family she goes from boring to berserk in 60 seconds flat. There is some interesting verité-style camerawork, passable performances, and a grating soundtrack of 24-hour truck stop noises that lend a certain authenticity to his work, but Alix’s use of awkward symbolism is wasted on a story which doesn’t warrant it. Apparently an opening montage of smiling toys and ferris wheels is needed for contrast so we know that people living under trucks are poor, the same montage closes the film only this time it’s used for sad irony; and when Nora fashions a pair of angel wings out of scrap cardboard for her ridiculously precious daughter you pretty well know the kid is toast. Finally, the film’s “savage, explicit” finale involving a vengeful blowjob is just plain dumb. Thankfully I wasn’t planning on doing anything else with those 75 minutes of my life.

City of Life (UAE) (3): Ali Mostafa’s attempt to create a hip contemporary drama with downtown Dubai proving it’s just as savvy as Los Angeles certainly starts out on the right foot before it trips and falls head over ass down the stairs. As the opening credits roll we see a city of contrasts where camels gaze vacantly at speeding maseratis and mosques stand just a stone’s throw away from neon strip malls and Western discos. From out of this urban sprawl of sand and skyscrapers emerges a handful of disparate stories; the Indian cabbie with Bollywood dreams, a couple of Eastern European flight attendants with conflicting dreams of their own, the irresponsible rich guy and his virtuous poor friend, and the soft-spoken advertising executive who apparently forgets to take his psych medication halfway through the film. Eventually everyone meets head-on (literally) and from the fallout emerges new opportunities and a richer appreciation of life. Or so we’re supposed to believe. Mostafa exploits every tired Hollywood cliché he can find and produces a generic urban soap opera that could have played out in any city on Earth. From a hopelessly inane romance to an overly choreographed death scene nothing here is even remotely believable. The soundtrack of funky urban beats seems tacked on, the overwrought script practically begs the audience to feel something (other than bemusement), and a couple of annoying montages are thrown in as if to use up some footage that should have been left on the cutting room floor. The nighttime shots of Dubai’s skyline are magical however. So why sit through this turkey when a postcard would suffice?

Cold Fish (Japan) (9): When Mr. Shamoto, the meek and mousy proprietor of a small tropical fish store, is befriended by the overly exuberant Mr. Murata, a wildly successful businessman also dealing in exotic fish, the stage is set for this year’s most outrageous and bloody mindfuck of a film. Shamoto’s opposite in almost every way, Murata’s explosive bonhomie quickly insinuates him into the timid shopkeeper’s family and before long he’s banging Mrs. Shamoto, brainwashing the couple’s daughter, and introducing the little man to the fine art of graft, murder and dismemberment. As the gruesome body count grows (this film is definitely not for the squeamish) a sea change overcomes Mr. Shamoto resulting in a fiendishly grotesque finale that had the audience squirming. Not just for the gore-hounds however as director Sono Shion combines a wonderfully twisted psychosexual subtext with some unholy religious symbolism. Think of Goodfellas written by Sigmund Freud and directed by Jack the Ripper. Woot! Woot!

Don’t Be Afraid, Bi! (Vietnam) (7): Six-year-old Bi wants to know the name of every plant and leaf he brings home but the adults around him never seem to have a satisfactory answer. Thankfully he doesn’t ask them why dad frequents a massage parlour, grandpa lies wasting away upstairs, and Aunt Thuy is obsessed with a young man half her age. Seen through his delightfully naïve eyes adults just don’t make any sense at all. Exploring the inner workings of a nuclear Vietnamese family Phan Dang Di’s charming drama addresses issues of love, social roles and sexuality with a candour rarely seen in films from his country. Using a host of natural symbols, from apples and flowers to the ubiquitous chunks of ice which always seem at hand to cool a passionate brow, ease a painful stomach or satisfy a sexual urge, Di ties together a handful of narrative strands linking three different generations all living under the same roof. It’s not as fleshed out as it could have been and some of the key characters seem disconnected to the central narrative but for a directorial debut it holds the promise of better things to come. The final scene in which the real world intrudes rather dramatically into Bi’s childish universe was perfect!

Down Terrace (UK) (9): Think of a Mike Leigh working class comedy/drama featuring a cast of sociopaths. Or a particularly nasty episode of The Sopranos served up with tea and biscuits. Mercilessly brutal and darkly hilarious at the same time this little dysfunctional family reunion flick is a real winner no matter how you look at it. After Karl is released from jail he moves back in with his ma and da, a couple of low-level suburban gangsters working for the London mob. As he and his parents try to figure out which one of their acquaintances ratted him out to the cops the body count slowly begins to grow, a trend that proves a wee bit troubling to their criminal overlords in the city. Whether it’s Karl’s fiery temper tantrums, his dad’s aging hippy philosophizing, or his mom’s kitchen sink banality, the caustic one-liners and murderously deadpan humour come fast and furious right up to the macabre ending; a white trash tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. Excellently written, flawlessly performed.

The Duel
(USA) (9): Ivan Andreitch Laevsky, a petty government clerk assigned to a backwater village on the Black Sea, realizes that he no longer loves Nadia, the married woman he’s been living with for the past three years. With his former affections now turning to disdain he makes ready to abandon her but first he must borrow enough money for a one-way ticket out. Nadia, in the meantime, aware of Ivan’s glacial attitude towards her vainly tries to maintain an air of genteel sophistication despite their dwindling funds and her own string of scandalous indiscretions. The couple’s growing estrangement eventually attracts the attention of their high society acquaintances (a veritable cross-section of 19th century bourgeois Russia) leading to a final confrontation with a particularly outraged professor sickened by Ivan’s apparent lack of any redeeming virtues. Although the eponymous duel in this magnificent adaptation of Chekhov’s short story does not occur until the end, it is clear from the outset that each character is struggling with their own inner conflicts. The oft-times ambiguous natures of morality, truth and honour reverberate throughout while the director’s gentle touch keeps things afloat with flawless performances and a sly wit. Using his glorious seaside locales to their fullest potential, Koshashvili imparts great meaning to the most innocuous of scenes whether it be a casually tossed hat, a sliced melon lying abandoned on a plate, or a dripping womb-like cave. Even a ponderous discussion on the subject of “moral law” is rendered somewhat farcical by a child’s accusing stare. Sure to be one of this year’s better films.

Echoes of the Rainbow (Hong Kong) (8): It’s Hong Kong 1969 and on a crowded dead end street the Law family ekes out a living selling handmade shoes. While the gruff and argumentative patriarch spends his days hunkered over an ancient sewing machine, Mrs. Law tries to sell his footwear as fast as he can produce it. Meanwhile older son Desmond is a lauded athlete at the local Catholic academy while boisterous and willful eight-year-old “Big Ears” divides his time between antagonizing his parents, flunking school, and adding to his growing collection of stolen trinkets. Alex Law’s semi-autobiographical film is a delightful mixture of gauzy childhood memories and household drama laced with a biting wit yet firmly grounded by a few sad twists of fate. His characters are meticulously drawn with all their faults and strengths lovingly intact whether it’s dad’s fierce determination to protect his family, mom’s amusingly inappropriate maxims (“if you lie your teeth will fall out”) or Desmond’s easygoing love for his bratty kid brother. Being rooted in a long tradition of Chinese melodrama there is no shortage of sunlit smiles or teary close-ups, but Law manages to balance the film’s more poignant elements with a genuine sense of fun and some beautifully theatrical passages; a slow-motion fall of yellow roses underscores an immense tragedy, a sweet moon cake bursts with joy, and a porcelain figurine tossed into the sea heralds the end of a small boy’s childhood. Shielded by an inflated sense of his own importance and with most of life’s harsher realities safely blurred through the warped glass of his pretend astronaut helmet, “Big Ears” represents that magical time in all our lives when days were endless and growing up could wait until next year. A real charmer!

The Fourth Portrait (Taiwan) (9): After his father dies, ten-year-old Xiang is left pretty much alone in the world. Befriended by a couple of well-meaning louts he is eventually reunited with his estranged mother who has since remarried. But this is not to be the happiest of reunions for mom is working as an escort in an adult nightclub and her new husband takes an instant, sometimes violent, dislike to the wide-eyed youngster. And then there’s the mystery of what happened to his older brother who disappeared when Xiang was little more than a toddler... Once again Chung Mong-hong proves he is a cinematic poet with this gorgeously realized pint-sized journey towards self-discovery. Framed between four childish drawings indicating love, loss and belonging (the fourth portrait, pivotal to the story, is left intentionally unseen) he saturates the screen with sumptuous colours framed within bold geometric shapes which have become his signature. There is a sublime balance and delicate sense of lyricism to his images that add a painterly quality to a script that is nonetheless kept simple and grounded; a burst of children’s laughter brightens a cloud of butterflies, a shared tangerine speaks of alienation, and a few simple steps along a sunlit road carry the promise of personal liberation. Mesmerizing.

Hahaha (South Korea) (6): Two buddies meet up for cocktails and wind up swapping stories regarding the romantic adventures they encountered while vacationing at the seaside resort of Tongyung. Munkyung, whose larger size belies the fact he’s essentially a mama’s boy, tells of his tentative love affair with a local tour guide which led to problems with her army-trained boyfriend. Unhappily married anti-depressant-popping Jungshik recounts how he finally came to a decision between staying with his wife or leaving with his mistress just by observing his poet friend’s rocky relationship with a local girl. As the stories progress we gradually realize that not only were both men in Tongyung at the same time but some of the characters they mention actually overlap. Hong Sangsoo sprinkles his low-key film with liberal amounts of dry humour, human frailty, and just a touch of male bravado. His circular narrative plays with perceptions and assumptions as both men tell their tales while remaining completely oblivious to the truth. Unfortunately, even though the characters in Hahaha are on their own emotional journeys, in realtime everyone seems to be spinning their wheels in first gear.

Heartbeats (Canada) (8): Moving beyond the youthful exuberance of last year’s hit, I Killed My Mother, Quebec’s cinematic wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s latest opus definitely has a more mature, stylized look; not to worry though for his mischievous wit has never been sharper. When Francis and his BFF Marie simultaneously lay eyes on the classically handsome Nicolas during a dinner party they immediately fall head over heels in lust. But when he displays an equal interest in both of them their mutual attraction for him turns into all-out war. As Marie and Francis proceed to make total fools of themselves vying for his attentions an ugly game of oneupmanship develops involving backstabbing, romantic sabotage and, finally, an all-out brawl in the middle of a forest. However, when Nicolas finally sets the record straight (pun intended) it’s double servings of humble pie all around followed by the inevitable walks of shame. Moving effortlessly between scenes of emotional honesty and outright farce, Dolan employs an impressive variety of techniques to tell this tale of obsessive infatuation. Several slo-mo sequences of lovemaking and public preening are appropriately theatrical while a host of documentary-style talking heads give hilarious anecdotes concerning their own brushes with l’amour fou. Lastly, an eclectic soundtrack of classical strings, European pop tunes and pounding club mixes keeps things fresh and off-kilter. Dolan’s amazing talent for combining delicate subtlety with gross exaggeration, often at the same time, has produced an intelligent and richly layered treat. The wait was well worth it.

How I Ended This Summer (Russia) (7): An uneasy relationship exists between two vastly different men forced to work side-by-side at a remote Arctic weather station. Despite his gruff and surly demeanor Gulybin has been doing this for years, he’s conscientious to a fault and therefore has no patience for the young and immature slacker Danilov who prefers to swing from radar antennas when he’s not shutting out the world with a pair of very loud headphones. Their only link to the outside world is an old wireless set which they use to relay data and exchange personal messages. When Danilov receives an urgent memo regarding Gulybin’s family, fear, and perhaps a bit of resentment for his rough treatment, prevents him from passing on the information to the older man. Until now Danilov’s only experience with conflict has been in the form of war-themed video games but this grave omission begins to weigh heavily on his mind. As the days pass his ethical dilemma grows into a full-blown moral crisis for which he is completely unprepared; and when Gulybin finally discovers his subterfuge a deadly showdown ensues. Using panoramic arctic landscapes and the natural elements of wind and water Popogrebsky presents us with a tale of one man lost, literally and figuratively, in a wilderness of his own making. With the wireless serving as the voice of his guilty conscience Danilov wanders through a frozen wasteland marked with images of both order and chaos, forgiveness and retribution; but when the final confrontation comes it is not what he expected. A good solid story hampered by some superfluous window dressing (and one glaring technical inaccuracy involving fish and radiation). Best seen as a simple thriller.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Romania) (7): With only two weeks left of his prison sentence eighteen-year-old Silviu is thrown a distressing curve ball. The irresponsible mother who walked out on him and his little brother Marius years before is back in town and she plans on taking Marius back to Italy with her when she leaves. With their father confined to a hospital (you get the distinct impression he’s been there forever) Silviu was left to raise the younger boy all by himself but he can still remember his own childhood of being dragged all over Europe and repeatedly abandoned by this negligent woman. Angry and desperate, Silviu is determined that his baby brother will not suffer the same fate as he did although a few faded bruises on Marius’ face suggest that the abuse may have already started. With his pleas for a day pass repeatedly denied he is forced into taking more drastic measures to ensure his voice is heard. Florin Serban delivers a straight-up narrative without any pretensions or deeper symbolism. Avoiding the usual theatrical exaggerations of the prison film genre, Whistle relies more on its high-calibre performances and a gripping storyline to keep the audience interested. A bit slow getting started, it abruptly shifts into high gear and stays there until the oddly affecting, marvelously underplayed ending. I must admit I was caught off guard.

The Illusionist (France) (7): Based on an original screenplay by the late Jacques Tati this whimsical animated feature makes old school animation techniques look brand new again. Desperate for work, a middle-aged French magician finds himself doing card tricks for an audience of appreciative drunks at a remote Scottish inn. Mesmerized by his sleight of hand, and dying to break free of her stifling village existence, the innkeeper’s young housemaid convinces the old illusionist to pack up his magical props along with his rabid bunny familiar and run away with her to the bright lights of Edinburgh. Settling into a boarding house populated by show biz eccentrics including a suicidal clown, a schizoid ventriloquist and a gaggle of cloned acrobats, the magician soon finds himself having to play fairy godfather to the maid’s increasingly Cinderella-like demands; even taking on a few extra jobs in order to keep her supplied with heels and dresses. But all fairytales have to end sometime and as the maid experiences her first stirrings of womanhood the old man quietly slips away to begin the next chapter of his life. With it’s meticulously detailed retro feel and palette of soft watercolours The Illusionist produces a dreamy sense of nostalgia for those of us old enough to remember when animation was more art than science. What little dialogue exists is limited to grunts and terse sentences delivered in a handful of languages while the humour is purely physical à la Tati (who also pops in for a surprise cameo). The characters are bigger than life and drawn with an exaggerated hand reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi’s gritty urban cartoons but with more class and less crass; a rowdy rock’n’roll band that transforms into a pack of mincing queens once the curtain falls was especially hysterical. A good old-fashioned family film that doesn’t rely on toy franchises or 3D glasses to keep you in your seat.

Incendies (Canada) (8): After her death Nawal Marwan’s fraternal twins, Simon and Jeanne, come together for the reading of her Will. There is the expected 50/50 split of earthly possessions and bank accounts but then things take a strange turn. Nawal leaves express instructions that her body is to be buried in shame; nude, without a casket, and facing downwards, nor is she to have a gravestone marking the site until “an old promise is kept”. In addition, according to their mother’s further wishes Simon and Jeanne are to deliver two letters; one to their father whom they believed dead, and one to a brother they never knew they had. With only a few documents and a grainy photograph as clues Jeanne heads to the Middle East country (Lebanon, deliberately unnamed) where her mother lived before immigrating to Montreal. Simon, meanwhile, stubbornly refuses to take part in what he believes to be a wild goose chase---or is he more afraid than he’s willing to admit? As Jeanne, and later a reluctant Simon, get closer to a truth more horrible than they can imagine a series of flashbacks involving their mother fills in the narrative blanks setting the audience up for a most distressing final revelation. I must admit to being initially incensed by the film’s ending for it came across as sensationalistic and needlessly exaggerated, but after several deep breaths and a long talk with my friend Nurit I came to appreciate it for the darkly operatic metaphor it was clearly meant to be. Making maximum use of the harsh lighting and stark spaces of his desert locations Denis Villeneuve tackles issues of identity, fanaticism and hatred as we see a country literally feeding on itself in order to sustain its perpetual hunger for war. As tightly edited and relentlessly paced as it is, Incendies’ overall tone struck me as a bit inconsistent however, going from sibling squabbles to warfare atrocities to a surreal poolside encounter that was probably more effective in the initial stage production. Furthermore a soundtrack of anglo ballads seemed out of place when the impassioned strains of a Middle Eastern orchestra would have complemented the story’s decidedly theatrical core far more effectively. Minor criticisms aside, the film does conclude with a softly devastating coda in which letters are read and old wounds are laid bare to the sun, if not exactly healed.

The Infidel (UK) (2): Although Mahmud is a loving husband and father to his two children his adherence to Moslem strictures is somewhat lacking; his prayer rug is not as worn as it should be and he is no stranger to the taste of alcohol. But when he finds out he is actually adopted and his birth parents were Jewish (?!) he finds himself in a real quandary. What is he going to tell his faithful wife and batty veiled sister? What about his little daughter who runs around the house with a plastic sword proclaiming jihad on everyone and everything? And what about his son who is madly in love with the daughter of a Moslem extremist? Keeping his Hasidic roots to himself Mahmud tries to lead two lives thanks to some timely “Jewish lessons” from his one-time enemy Lenny Goldberg, but dividing his time between anti-Israel demonstrations and drunken Bar Mitzvahs can only lead to trouble, and boy does it! Rarely has a movie began with such promise only to fall flat on its ass halfway through. The opening one-liners and sight gags are absolutely side-splitting as is the outrageous premise itself but we soon discover that beneath these shallow stabs at satire beats a sycophantic heart of pure political correctness. After embarrassing himself, his cast, and the audience for 90 minutes with clichéd stereotypes and hackneyed “ethnic” humour, director Josh Appignanesi finally ends the misery by bearing down and squeezing out one of the most insultingly vapid “how-inspiring-gee-can’t-we-all-just-get-along” sitcom endings I’ve seen in a long time. At least it will piss off Jews and Moslems equally, and isn’t equality what it’s all about?

In The Shadows (Germany) (5): Fresh out of prison and career criminal Trojan is already planning his next big score. This time it’s going to be an armored car robbery which will net him and his partners a cool million. But his troubles are just beginning for an underworld kingpin wants to rub him out and a crooked cop is hot on his trail. Extremely generic crime drama which substitutes long car drives and door knocks for genuine suspense. No twists, no turns, no interest.

Kawasaki’s Rose (Czech Republic) (9): Shortly before he’s due to receive a national award in recognition of his anti-government activities during the dark days of communist occupation, noted professor Pavel Josek agrees to let a film crew document his day-to-day life for an upcoming television program. One of the technicians working on the documentary is Ludek, Pavel’s son-in-law, who harbours a great deal of enmity towards the old man whose celebrity he feels is unwarranted. Ludek’s misgivings prove to be justified however when he happens upon solid proof that Pavel was not quite the virtuous hero history has made him out to be. Armed with this damning evidence the film crew decides to broaden the scope of their project, interviewing old acquaintances that Pavel would just as soon forget about. With Mrs. Josek attempting to do damage control and Ludek hungry for blood, the program’s director finds himself in a precarious position; does he destroy the reputation of a national symbol or become part of the myth-making himself? Truth, perception, and that slipperiest of slopes, moral compromise, all figure prominently in Jan Hrebejk’s engrossing drama. Using some clever camerawork involving reflected images and screens within screens he draws us into the duplicitous nature of both the media and our own selective memories. As Pavel’s story is told from differing perspectives we see that, rather than negating each other, the separate accounts begin to form a cohesive picture of a man living with guilt and a woman unwilling to let go of an illusion. Sometimes people do bad things for the best of reasons and Hrebejk refrains from throwing any stones at his characters, indeed he brings a wry sense of humour to his film which offsets its bitter lesson; in one particularly ironic segment Pavel’s biggest detractor lamely tries to justify his own marital indiscretions by quoting Buddhist scripture to his incredulous wife. Lastly, a beautifully downplayed (and very funny) scene stressing the importance of forgiveness and making amends brings the story full circle and ties it off perfectly.

King’s Road (Iceland) (5): When German-born Rupert accompanies his Icelandic friend Junior to his hometown with the promise of an “ocean view villa” he’s somewhat shocked to find himself in the middle of a mud-bound trailer park filled with white trash eccentrics. Among the colourful locals are Junior’s dad, a miserly embezzler who couldn’t care less about anyone; his grandmother who dotes on a stuffed seal in which she keeps a fortune in foreign currency; two brother who fanatically maintain a lonely crosswalk on a stretch of road which may see three cars on a busy day; and the park’s despotic taxi driver-cum-manager who divides his time between ripping off customers and creating increasingly oppressive rules & regulations. But, as one unkempt yokel sagely observes, “nothing is so bad it can’t get worse...”, and before the movie ends it does. Lampooning everything from Iceland’s political woes to its cultural eccentricities and precarious position on the world financial stage, director Óskarsdóttir delivers up a frozen “fuck you” and lovingly garnishes it with blood and vomit. But, although things start on the right foot with typically droll nordic humour it all becomes increasingly outrageous until the whole production threatens to careen out of control. Perhaps this was intentional but I found the descent disconcerting while the humour towards the end became more haphazard then planned. Too angry to be a comedy, too silly to be satirical.

L.A. Zombie (USA) (2): Porn diva Bruce LaBruce’s follow-up to the hugely awful Otto or Up With Dead People once again uses horny gay zombies to explore the plight of the homeless, marginalized, and mentally ill. Starting off like a travelogue for Malibu Beach things quickly take a macabre turn as a big-tusked naked dead guy emerges from the surf and proceeds to hitchhike his way to Los Angeles. Along the way he demonstrates his uncanny talent for reviving the recently deceased by fucking their wounds with his oddly shaped dick (it has a Dairy Queen tip) and giving them soya sauce facials with his jet black semen. Hunky adult star François Sagat, in and out of tattered clothes, wobbly dental prosthetics and urban graffiti body paint, plays the lead role while a cast of L. A. gym bunnies take turns being the victim. The production values are better than Otto by a few bucks although the “special effects” are just as cheesy and the lack of real sex disappointing. Is our toothsome protagonist just another cute corpse? One of the invisible street people we pass each day? A string of psychotic delusions in search of a prescription? LaBruce is definitely trying to say something here but, thankfully, with a running time of only 63 minutes we don’t have to listen for very long.

Lucky (USA) (7): Even though the odds of winning a big lottery jackpot are tens of millions to one it doesn’t stop Americans from spending close to sixty-four billion dollars on tickets every year. Filled with interesting facts and figures, Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary introduces us to six people who beat the odds with very different consequences. At one extreme there’s the grizzled piece of white trash who blew sixteen million dollars in a wild spending orgy (his family even tried to hire a professional hitman to knock him off before he spent every last cent) and now lives in the back of a gas station. At the other end we meet a Vietnamese couple, former refugees, who used their twenty-two million dollar win to build an entire cul-de-sac of homes for themselves and their children, a small mansion in Vietnam for their relatives, and several small businesses for everyone so they can all earn a better living. For comparison Blitz interviews a lottery junkie who has never won big in 30 years of playing despite spending hundreds of dollars a week on tickets and practicing her own peculiar form of urban voodoo (she sees signs and omens everywhere). Not surprisingly we discover that the dream of winning a huge cheque has its own nightmare aspects as jealous friends turn on you, strangers accost you for handouts and all the small things that once shaped your identity, like a job and mortgage payments, become superfluous. As one interviewee observes, “Winning a lottery is like pouring Miracle-Gro on your character defects.” The success stories are enviable, the nutcases are infuriating, and some of the anecdotes are eye-popping. And yes, I’ve got my 649 ticket right here...

Made in Dagenham (UK) (7): It’s the UK’s own version of Norma Rae as chronically underpaid female workers at a Ford motor plant in England defy both upper management and their own male-dominated union in order to go on strike for equal pay. Sending shockwaves from Detroit to the British Parliament these 187 women, led by unassuming machinist Rita O’Grady, changed the course of history and paved the way for full sexual equality in the workplace. Definitely one of those crowd-pleasing “feel good” movies filled with stereotypical characters (empowered housewives versus male chauvinist assholes), a few historical liberties and a grand old Hollywood ending. Yet, despite these obvious faults, it’s animated performances and sense of fun won me over just the same. I should be ashamed.

Merry-Go-Round (Hong Kong) (5): There is a sad thread of longing and remorse which runs through this sincere, if terribly flawed, ensemble piece. Weaving a handful of storylines across several generations Mak and Cheng introduce us to a cantankerous caretaker of a “coffin house” who harbours a heartful of regrets, an elderly herbalist returning to HK after a long stint in America who yearns for a connection to the past while her great-nephew dreams of a new life fueled in part by a guilty conscience, and an impetuous young stalker with a few secrets of her own. As their separate journeys brush up against each other some wishes will be granted and a few restless ghosts will be laid to rest. Beneath all the schmaltzy excess and syrupy platitudes beats the heart of a truly great film; the performances are bang on, some of the dialogue (including a few impromptu history lessons) rings true, and the rich cinematography promises an epic drama which sadly fails to materialize. But after two hours of slo-mo heartache and annoyingly wistful soft rock ballads I just got tired of forgiving the directors.

Me, Too (Spain) (9): Despite having Down’s Syndrome, thirty-four-year-old Daniel Sanz graduated from university with a degree in Special Education. Now holding down a government desk job working with the disabled the bright and articulate young man becomes romantically interested in Laura, the flighty co-worker who sits across from him. Although she does not have Down’s Syndrome herself, Laura is nevertheless saddled with some deep emotional trauma resulting in immoderate alcohol binges and a streak of promiscuity. At first the two get along playfully, much to the consternation of friends and family, but when Daniel’s true feelings become apparent Laura is thrown into a tailspin while he is left disheartened and more than a little angry. When the fallout eventually settles, and Laura finally confronts her own demons, they’re both able to take a few tentative steps towards a more adult relationship. Determined to avoid obvious clichés and patronizing stereotypes directors Pastor and Naharro present us with a piercingly honest and wholly believable story. Although the central issue is treated with all the dignity it deserves there is a sly self-deprecating humour at work here which keeps things from sliding into an unwarranted pathos. Reactions to Daniel and Laura’s relationship are shown from all possible angles, some expected some surprisingly not, while a parallel story involving two young adults with Down’s offers yet another point of view. With intelligent and expressive performances all around and an eloquent script that panders to neither its characters nor its audience, Me, Too is a love story so disarmingly ordinary it’s normal.

Monsters (UK) (8): A few years after a NASA satellite containing extraterrestrial biological samples crashes into the sea off of Central America, northern Mexico is literally crawling with enormous tentacled lifeforms. In an effort to limit the spread of these monsters several hundred square miles are cordoned off with giant walls and fences while military jets make regular airstrikes dropping bombs and poison gas. Into this no man's land of devastated cities and rusting wrecks ventures a man and woman; he’s a photojournalist, she’s the boss’ daughter entrusted to his care. Accompanied by a small contingent of hired guides they make a desperate trek across this hostile landscape in order to reach the safety of America. This was truly one of the year’s more pleasant surprises for me. I expected a good old fashioned popcorn movie along the lines of Cloverfield but what I got instead was an intelligently written, artistically presented drama of surprising depth. Gareth Edwards avoids all the cheap horror conventions we’ve come to expect, there are no gratuitous jolts or scientific doublespeak and the gore factor is kept to a highly effective minimum; sometimes a brief flash of white bone or series of bloody handprints along the side of a ruined yacht speak volumes. The camerawork shifts effortlessly between richly detailed panoramas and an intimate verité while a soundtrack of sustained bass chords keeps you on the edge of your seat. Lastly, the special effects are amazing including the creatures themselves which resemble gargantuan glimmering octopi with the vocal chords of a T. Rex. Some sombre political satire is a bit overdone in parts (although the film’s underlying sting remains intact) but the film’s final scene, in which an unexpected comparison is made between a pair of monsters and their human counterparts, was pure movie magic.

Mundane History (Thailand) (8): Every now and then I encounter a film that defies all attempts to wrap my head around it resulting in multiple critique revisions and a few sleepless nights. Case in point, this little metaphysical puzzle box from Thailand. Male nurse Pun is hired by a wealthy businessman to care for his teenaged son Ake who has been left a paraplegic ever since his accident; a tragedy which no one wants to talk about. Moody and truculent, Ake resists Pun’s attempts to establish a working friendship preferring monosyllabic rebukes to actual communication. In fact his anger seems to infect the entire Khun household which is filmed as an unhappy warren of enclosed spaces and metal bars. Despite being patiently doted on by the family servants and his own father, who seems saddled with an inordinate amount of guilt, Ake refuses to let anyone breach the wall he’s built around himself, much like the turtle which languishes alone in the aquarium by his bed. But under Pun’s tender ministrations the young man begins to slowly come around; until a gentle reprimand from his former nanny provides the lightning bolt he needs for a most crucial insight. And then things get interesting. With a throbbing synthesized score and a canvas that stretches from interstellar space to a woman’s womb, director Suwichakompong moves beyond mere narrative and enters the realm of spiritual discourse. Using fantastical images of death and rebirth; recrimination and forgiveness; captivity and liberation; chaos and harmony; he puts a cosmic spin on the “cycles of life” concept and catapults the audience into a space they were not expecting. Pretentious arty claptrap or brilliantly engaging enigma, there are certainly valid arguments for both interpretations. All I know is that I loved this film. I just wish to hell I knew why.

October (Peru) (7): A miserly and friendless loan shark, Clemente spends his days hustling clients and his nights paying for sex. All that changes one day though when he comes home to discover a baby girl cooing in his apartment, the apparent result of an unprotected romp at the local brothel. With the child’s elusive mother nowhere to be found, the police reluctant to take the babe off his hands, and a distinct lack of any mothering skills on his part, Clemente eventually hires one of his clients, Sofia, to be a full-time nanny. Far more humane than her boss, but no less lonely, Sofia sets up house on the living-room couch and begins fantasizing about having a more intimate relationship with Clemente; a dream he doesn’t seem to share. With a bone dry sense of humour and some interesting camerawork using tight interior shots, a few tricks of perspective and smoky religious pageantry, the Vegas brothers have turned out a disarmingly quirky little charmer about love, responsibility and growing up. The two leads play off one another with deadly accuracy while an interrelated story involving an old con artist trying to bring his comatose girlfriend home from the hospital provides a striking, and equally funny, contrast. There are moments of pure whimsy as when Clemente is dogged by a counterfeit bill which follows him around like a guilty conscience, and deadpan farce bordering on the surreal; a surprise birthday party gives rise to one of the funniest scenes at this year’s film fest. And it all comes to a suitably abrupt ending dripping with Catholic voodoo which hints at a happy ending after all. Great fun!

Of Gods and Men (France) (7): In the 1990’s an order of Cistercian monks living in an Algerian monastery find themselves in a very precarious position when civil war breaks out between government forces and Islamic fundamentalists. Viewed with suspicion bordering on contempt by both sides despite their non-partisan stance, the brothers must make the most important decision in their lives; flee to safer ground or stay put and continue their mission of caring for the local villagers despite the very real possibility of being killed. As spiritual conviction comes up against the desire for self-preservation each man undergoes a personal crisis of faith; while one rails against a strangely silent God, others lose themselves in prayer and daily work. Eventually deciding to stay, the monks prepare themselves to face whatever fate may await them. Using panoramic images of dusky mountain ranges juxtaposed with humble monastic cells Xavier Beauvois highlights the temporal aspects of the monks’ lives while recurrent scenes of religious observances and a serene score of a cappella chants (plus a particularly poignant use of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake) underscores the mystical. Avoiding overt political posturing, Beauvois instead concentrates on the men themselves as they attempt to keep the evils of the outside world at bay through faith alone. Neither saints nor heros, their spiritual journey, based on a true story, is presented humbly and without undue religious embellishment. Although I felt a troubling lack of empathy for the characters, due perhaps to my own secular misgivings, a final coda in which a letter written by the Monastery’s leader, Brother Christian, is read aloud was nevertheless both a powerful testimony and an unwavering challenge.

Of Love and Other Demons (Costa Rica) (10): Based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hilda Hidalgo’s ravishing period piece set in 18th century Latin America uses one young woman’s sexual awakening to underscore the constant battle between religious fanaticism and secular reason. Sierva Maria de Todos Los Angeles, beautiful young daughter of the local Marquis, is bitten by a possibly rabid dog one day while strolling through the marketplace. As the wound festers she becomes feverish and incoherent, symptoms which convince the town’s autocratic bishop that a demon has entered her in the guise of an illness. He immediately orders the reluctant Marquis to deliver her to a nearby convent so the sisters may heal her soul even at the expense of her body. The young priest assigned to overlook her care, a rational and learned man, has doubts however, especially when he sees the deplorable conditions of her captivity. As he tends to her wounds a hesitant attraction develops between them that quickly turns into an erotic obsession; an obsession which, in this time of the Inquisition, carries the possibility of dangerous consequences. Filled with sensuous dream sequences and rich spiritual metaphors, Of Love is a gorgeous piece of cinematic poetry. As Sierva Maria, Eliza Triana is the very embodiment of a pagan goddess, or an Eve sans apple, with her long red tresses and affinity for colourful creatures which crawl and flutter to perch obediently on her outstretched hand. Balanced between the superstitious faith (and hostile resentment) of her nun captors and the clearheaded pragmatism of a fellow inmate she finds some solace in the arms of her priestly lover; a man partially blinded, literally and figuratively, by his search for truth. Guttering candles, languid pools of water (or merciless rain), reams of blowing white drapes and a timely solar eclipse all add to the film’s magic while a delicate score of baroque chamber music ties it together beautifully. Already one of my personal favourites.

Pinoy Sunday (Taiwan) (5): Dado and Manuel are two Filipino migrants trying to support their families back home by doing menial labour in Taiwan. Always looking for a chance to better their lives, Manuel chases anything in a skirt while Dado finds some solace in the company of a fellow worker, the two men are overjoyed when they happen upon an abandoned red leather sofa. Determined to bring this small token of luxury back to their dormitory they face miles of unfriendly freeways and even less friendly natives. A picaresque road movie featuring a few cute moments, some Laurel & Hardy pratfalls and a wee bit of navel-gazing, Filipino style. Unfortunately director Ho Wing Ding doesn’t attain the deep sociopolitical metaphor he was aiming for and the couch remains just a couch.

Poetry (South Korea) (8): According to the instructor of her poetry writing class people rarely see the true nature of reality around them; an idea which carries a special import for the elderly Yang Mija for not only is her ability to perceive the world slowly being eroded by dementia but her grandson Wook has been implicated in a young girl’s suicide, a crime so horrible she can barely bring herself to discuss it with him. In Lee Changdong’s powerfully understated film poetry is both a vehicle for liberation and confrontation, a joyous celebration of the everyday and a dire challenge to seek the truth. As Mija struggles to express her thoughts in prose she undergoes a profound change of perspective in which the mundane suddenly transforms into the extraordinary; a bouquet of flowers becomes a testament to pain, an apricot describes immortality, and a simple badminton game ends with all the finality of Judgement Day. With her grandson facing an uncertain future and her own future in doubt it’s only fitting that Mija’s final poetry assignment, read aloud as the film closes, begins as a piercing elegy for Wook’s young victim yet ends as a simple farewell. Some may be put off by the film’s slow deliberate pace but Changdong’s lyrical cinematography, like his protagonist’s journey towards the light, cannot be rushed.

The Princess of Montpensier (France) (7): Set during France’s horrific religious wars of the 16th century, Tavernier’s epic costume drama centres on the lovely yet emotionally fickle Marie de Montpensier, the “richest heiress in France”. Forced into a hasty marriage of convenience with the hot-tempered young Phillipe by her overbearing father, Marie still carries a flaming torch for the brash and moody Henri, scion of a lesser house which has recently fallen out of favour with the royal court. Prone to fits of jealous rage, Phillipe is all too aware of the smouldering looks his bride casts in Henri’s direction as he tries to keep the two of them apart. Meanwhile Francois de Chabannes, the celebrated soldier turned pacifist assigned to tutor Marie, begins to have dangerous feelings of his own for the bright-eyed young woman. Over the course of the film’s 139-minute running time faith will be broken, love will be gained and lost, and one person will pay dearly for their desires. Although the storyline sometimes threatens to become a Harlequin chick flick Tavernier’s assured direction coupled with the film’s sumptuous widescreen cinematography manages to smooth over its few soppier elements. Elaborate wardrobes abound while richly appointed sets practically glow in honey-coloured candlelight. Battle scenes are filmed in excruciating close-up, clandestine trysts are bathed in soft shadows, and a few strategically placed tapestries add a subtle irony. But even as the film excels in lush imagery and an ethereal score (the choral music is sublime) the lack of any real chemistry between the actors creates a lukewarm passion that fails to ignite. Not so much a bodice ripper as a bodice wrinkler, Tavernier still manages to produce an engaging, if occasionally overdone, historical romance.

Protector (Czech Republic) (8): Marek Najbrt’s highly polished movie set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia is a seamless blend of several Hollywood genres including film noir, classic comedy and wartime melodrama. Gripping, occasionally funny, and ultimately tragic it follows Prague radio journalist Emil and his desperate attempts to protect both himself and his Jewish movie star wife, Hanka, from the German forces. Screen siren, femme fatale and stubbornly tenacious, Hanka doesn’t take well to her enforced captivity and thwarts Emil’s plans to hide her any way she can, even taking some enormous risks snubbing her nose at German authority with her would-be lover, the owner of a local cinema. Najbrt goes to great lengths to show the moral compromises and outright collaboration that the Occupation triggered amongst the upper strata of Czech society as people scrambled to stay in the Reich’s good graces. From Hanka’s signature blonde wig to Emil’s parroting of Nazi propaganda all is artifice and appearance; but duplicity, no matter how well-meaning, always comes with a price. Before the hauntingly intense final scene unfolds souls will be bought and sold, conscientious objectors will be silenced, and a final farewell will reverberate across the screen. Powerful.

The Red Chapel (Denmark) (4): Danish comedy trio “Red Chapel” set out to punk North Korea but end up with a little shit on their own hands in the process. Traveling to Pyongyang for a supposed “cross-cultural” exchange they purposely present their authorized government previewers with an absolutely terrible show in order to see how they’ll react. As expected, their act is forced to undergo some idealogical censorship and several politically-motivated revisions including the addition of a colourfully jingoistic finale before it finally makes it to the public stage. Accompanied by Mrs. Pak, their official guide and translator whose English Is “designed for interrogations and not small talk”, they are led down the garden path of communist propaganda as they tour a model school filled with happy children and visit a secular shrine devoted to the glorification of Kim Jung-Il and his late father; the latter pilgrimage moving Mrs. Pak to shed dutifully patriotic tears and spout carefully memorized socialist mantras. According to director and group leader, Max Brugger, there exists in North Korea a “perverted and demonic cult of togetherness” which masks a “core of pure evil”. Certainly the constant surveillance and overt condemnations of American Imperialism coupled with an almost manic desire to appear happy lend some credence to this but Brugger’s non-stop polemic against his Communist hosts begins to sound like a personal vendetta. Indeed Jacob, a Danish-Korean troupe members who is also living with cerebral palsy, begins to find the subterfuge and outright lying too much to bear leading to a teary rebuke and subtle showdown at an open-air Victory Celebration. In the end however what does this jerky handheld piece of guerilla filmmaking really accomplish? We have a few uncomfortable laughs most of which are staged by an increasingly narcissistic Brugger using a host of unsuspecting subjects, we listen to his ongoing editorializing, and we learn nothing new. It’s enough to make Michael Moore green with envy. Besides, while it would be ludicrous to compare the freedoms enjoyed in the West with the brainwashed uniformity of North Korea, I can’t help but feel a disquieting déjà vu whenever I see those glassy-eyed Tea Party “patriots” rallying round their own flag.

Reverse (Poland) (8): It’s Warsaw 1952 and at the Novia Publishing Company Sabina, a bookish and painfully thin clerk in the “Poetry” section, is beginning to lose hope that she’ll ever find a man. Determined to see her married off before they’re both in their graves her doting mother and feisty grandmother are constantly scheming to set her up, even arranging a disastrous blind date with a drunken boor. But when the ruggedly handsome Bronislaw suddenly walks into her life Sabina is convinced she’s met Mr. Right at last. Unfortunately, people are not always what they seem and when Bronislaw finally shows his true colours all three women must join forces to rescue Sabina-----and dispose of the evidence afterwards. Aside from a few flash-forwards this hugely entertaining noirish comedy/drama is presented in glorious B&W. The leading ladies are superb as they dive headfirst into a script laced with intelligence and wit while the film’s score makes brilliant use of scratchy arias and jarring musical cues. Sinister suspense, hidden agendas and devilishly black humour, Reverse has it all. Hitchcock would have cheered!

Sandcastle (Singapore) (7): Eighteen-year-old En wants to know more about his father Boon, a man who died when En was still a child and is now memorialized by a neglected grave in nearby Malaysia. Unfortunately his family is less than helpful in providing any information regarding Boon; mom refuses to talk about him, grandma’s memories are clouded by Alzheimer’s and grandpa dies prematurely. Relying on a grainy home movie, some letters written in a form of Chinese he can’t read, and a boxful of old photo negatives En slowly begins to piece together the story of his father and discovers a secret or two about his tight-lipped mother in the process. The editing could have been smoother in places and the film’s attempts to compare En’s personal revelations to Singapore’s somewhat troubling past fail to make an impression on Western audiences not versed in contemporary southeast Asian history, but this is still an impressive feature-length debut from Boon Junfeng whose softly focused camera and spare score of tinkling piano keys frames a story as delicate as a love poem. Not bad at all.

Sawako Decides (Japan) (4): Mousy little doormat Sawako seems content to be “less than middling”. Regularly dumped by boyfriends, treated like shit by her employers, and ignored by everyone else, she takes solace in an oft-quoted platitude, “It Can’t Be Helped”. But when her estranged father becomes terminally ill she finds herself having to take control of his financially strapped freshwater clam business despite having no corporate savvy or formal training. Armed only with a vagina she sets out to turn dad’s business around, gain a new sense of self-respect, and forge a more adult relationship with her divorced milquetoast of a fiancee and his bratty daughter. I have very little patience with movies about stupid people who are stupid for no reason and then have their stupidity treated like a virtue. This is a poorly edited slapdash mess of a film obviously aimed at especially dull fourteen-year old girls who still confuse insufferable whining with female empowerment. Bleah!

The Sleeping Beauty (France) (6): Poor Princess Anastasia; despite her fierce willfulness the little tyke’s fate is sealed at birth thanks to an old witch’s curse, tempered in part by a trio of well-meaning fairies, which dooms her to wander through a bizarre dreamland for one hundred years after she is pricked by a spindle at the age of six. On her travels she will overcome a pimpled ogre, be adopted by an adoring mother figure, experience true love, and make peace with her angry gypsy doppelgänger before finally waking up to reality. It’s here in the film’s bleakly realistic final coda that Catherine Breillat, that dowager queen of female (dis)empowerment, sheds an entirely different light on the preceding 80 minutes of sugar and spice and turns an otherwise unremarkable tale of domestic abuse inside out. Drawing on her usual assortment of fairytale archetypes and sexual metaphors (there’s no shortage of wooden pillars in Anastasia’s world) Breillat uses childhood bedtime stories and the wishful thinking they engender to explore the psychological mindset of a young woman trapped, somewhat willingly, in a violent relationship. Like her or not (I tend towards “not”) Breillat’s obsession with the sexual minefield between men and women has certainly produced some novel cinema and Sleeping Beauty is no exception. I just wish she’d turn the damn page already.

Snap (Ireland) (10): When we first meet Sandra O’Shea, the single mother of a teenage son, she’s welcoming a television film crew into her home. From her dour expression and openly hostile attitude however we get the impression that she is far from pleased with their presence. A terrible thing took place a few years earlier, something which she and her boy Stephen were involved with, and this is to be her big chance to give their side of the story. But as the cameras follow Sandra around her tiny flat another story slowly unfolds in tandem, one which adds a tragic depth to her sour stares and angry outbursts. Using everything from raw outtakes and surveillance videos to grainy home movies and old photographs, director Carmel Winters fashions a painfully intimate look at how dark family secrets and the emotional toll they exact can echo from one generation to another. Memories, she shows us, can be manipulated and selectively edited to produce an entirely different version of reality, much like the insatiably prying eyes of the media. Sandra is both monstrous and pitiful, desperate to be loved yet unable to respond to affection when it is offered. Her son, raised in an atmosphere of emotional contradictions, can only go through the motions of caring for another person. Sandra has her reasons of course, and Winters slowly reveals just enough clues to allow us to draw our own tentative conclusions, but in keeping with the film’s central paradox she encourages us to become intimately involved while keeping us at arm’s length. Amazing.

Stolen Dreams (Brazil) (5): Welcome to another episode of As the Favela Turns! Let’s join Jesscia, Sabrina And Daiana as they fight with their baby daddies, shoplift, turn tricks, and figure out who their real fathers are. Will Jessica finally marry the convict of her dreams? Will Sabrina let her gangster boyfriend pay for the abortion or will the allure of being a single mother prostitute living on the streets prove too much to resist? And what of Daiana? Will she continue to perform “favours” for her uncle in exchange for pocket money even though she’s had him arrested? For those answers and more stay tuned for Stolen Dreams 2: Everybody’s Knocked Up! And now a word from our sponsor... Get the idea?

Tales From Kars (Turkey) (8): A shy young boy experiences his first crush on the way to school. A young woman strives to make peace with her deceased mother. A headstrong girl is determined to go to Ankara with her pet chicken. A grandmother’s death opens old family wounds. A man’s glorious memories of his grandfather undergo some serious revisions at a family reunion. Five talented directors present us with five slices of rural life in this charming collection of short stories which run the gamut from quiet grief to comic farce. Wonderful!

Tamara Drewe (UK) (5): Returning to her family estate in the wonderfully bucolic (and terminally boring) Dorset village of Ewedown, former spoiled brat turned prize-winning journalist Tamara Drewe wastes no time upsetting the natural balance of things. For starters her old flame, now the town’s resident hunk, would like a second chance due in part to the fact that his family once claimed the land Tamara now calls her own. Then the married owner of a local inn begins to take a keen interest in her much to his long-suffering wife’s chagrin. Finally there’s the famous rock star who decides to park his patent leather boots under her box frame. A host of wannabe authors residing at the inn provide a bit of comic relief while a pair of meddlesome fifteen-year-old girls inject some much needed energy; in fact their presence is the only reason I gave the film a 5/10 instead of the 4/10 it deserved. Beneath the literary banter and Masterpiece Theatre locales this is essentially a very stupid movie which lacks any appreciable depth or sophisticated wit. Even taken as a spoof of Thomas Hardy’s novel (a definite reach) its feeble performances and insipid script will cause all but the most easily entertained to squirm impatiently in their seats. File this one under Chick Flick. Chick as in “chicken shit”.

The Tenants (Brazil) (10): The opening shot of a solitary tree bravely growing in the middle of a squalid favela may cause some to think this will be a story of redemption and happy endings, but director Sergio Bianchi has something altogether different in mind in this brilliant two-hander. Valter is a decent family man trying to better his life by taking night courses after work. Although he and his wife Lara are living just a stone’s throw away from the notorious slum they’re doing their best to keep their children on the straight and narrow until one day the favela ends up coming to them. When a gang of criminal rowdies move in next door things begin to deteriorate quickly with all-night parties and dubious visitors becoming the norm; even the elderly owner of the house is powerless to do anything about it and the police refuse to intervene. As tensions rise and angry words become physical threats a horrendous act of violence leads to a savage catharsis, and a troubling observation. “The war already begins within us...” states a poem read aloud in one of Valter’s night courses and Bianchi puts those words to brilliant use. Despite their insistence on separating themselves from the brutality next door, Valter and Lara are surrounded by images of violence both overt and subliminal; children sing rhymes about bullets and tombs, telenovelas glamourize domestic abuse, and a tabloid news show revels in the sordid details of a young girl’s murder. Even railing against her new neighbours doesn’t stop Lara from having sexual fantasies about their well-muscled bodies, nor does Valter’s professed pacifism stop him from wishing he could punch their teeth out. But Bianchi saves his ace for the film’s final scenes, an intensely operatic finale dripping with blood-soaked irony and sardonic smiles. Intelligently written and beautifully filmed.

Transfer (Germany) (6): In the not-too-distant future decrepit rich white people pay the Menzana Corporation to have their minds downloaded into the healthy young bodies of poor brown “hosts”. For twenty hours each day they can enjoy their newfound youth and vigour while allowing their hosts to reclaim their bodies for four hours each night. Married for over fifty years Hermann and Anna Goldbeck are still very much in love, but Anna’s terminal cancer has left them with only two more months to be together. Enter Apolain and Sarah, two African refugees from Ethiopia and Mali respectively, who agree to host the Goldbecks in order to support their families back home. Of course there is a glut of race-related humour as an elderly Jewish couple is replaced by a young and attractive black couple but, allusions to psychic colonialism aside, the film works best as a parallel love story. By day Anna and Hermann fawn over each other and make plans for their new future while at night Apolain and Sarah are making waves (and a baby) of their own. Or is it the Goldbleck’s baby? Eventually this four-way love rectangle proves to be more troublesome than anyone had imagined especially when the hosts start demanding their lives back and the old couple discover a few sinister secrets about Menzana’s business practices. Ultimately an unconvincing little parable about the evils of being caucasian in a world of off-white victims. I’m surprised a Canadian director didn’t think of it first.

The Tree (Australia) (5): Dawn and her husband Peter live happily with their four children in the Australian Outback a million miles from nowhere. Unfortunately their idyllic lifestyle comes to a sudden end one day when Peter suffers a fatal heart attack on his way home from work. Thrown into a deep depression following the funeral, Dawn slowly begins to take an interest in life again especially after she starts dating the owner of a local hardware store. Her eight-year-old daughter Simone however is not so quick on the rebound. Still mourning the loss of her father, and resentful of her mother’s new beau, Simone becomes convinced her dad’s spirit now inhabits the gigantic fig tree growing next to the house; even going so far as holding long animated discussions with him while sitting amongst its huge branches. Soon the tree is festooned with family memoribilia, much like a shrine, and a string of very odd occurrences has Dawn wondering whether or not there is some truth to Simone’s claims. But when the tree’s enormous root system begins to wreak havoc, Dawn is forced to make a life-changing decision. Unresolved grief and the anger that accompanies it figure prominently in this simple psychological fable. Using a family tree (get it?) as a metaphor is certainly intriguing but director Julie Bertuccelli waters it down with so much extraneous fluff and dramatic non-sequiturs that it loses much of it’s impact. The whole production has a dark Steven Spielberg feel to it, including a few arboreal nods to Poltergeist, while Morgana Davies proves to be one of the most annoying child actors since Drew Barrymore did her first line of coke. Silly, tiresome, and emotionally tepid.

The Ugly Duckling
(Russia) (7): Seen from the perspective of a common everyman (make that everyworm) Hans Christian Anderson’s gentle fairytale takes a decidedly political turn in this satirical attack on blind nationalism and communist dogma. The animation is impeccable, the soundtrack of Tchaikovsky appropriately grandiose, and the little sting at the end perfectly timed. Some of the song & dance routines could have been trimmed by a few minutes here and there, but it’s a small flaw easily overlooked.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand) (3): Uncle Boonmee, getting on in years and in poor health, sits down for dinner with his sister-in-law and son. Suddenly the ghost of his deceased wife appears at the table and strikes up a conversation with him; then his long-lost elder son, now a hirsute monkey-man with glowing red eyes thanks to some ethereal hanky-panky, shows up prompting sis to lay out another place setting… Thus begins Weerasethakul’s glacially paced and maddeningly cryptic magical mystical tour involving reincarnation (both past and future) as well as a few pointed criticisms aimed straight at the heart of Thai identity which for some reason bowled them over at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I’m the first one to admit that my knowledge of Eastern mysticism and its associated arcana is sorely lacking, but Uncle Boonmee did not exactly have me rushing home to google “Buddhist Stuff”. Suffice to say our protagonist is all too aware of the spirits and fantastical creatures hovering outside his front gate; indeed in his past lives he’s actually been one of them, as well as a disfigured princess with a sushi fetish. There is a Dantean trek through a midnight forest, a few spins on the wheel of life, an allusion to parallel realities, and a somewhat clever aside concerning militant “future men” who have the power to make people disappear even though they look suspiciously like the modern Thai army. At one point Boonmee even laments over his own killing of “so many communists”. With its terribly long takes, comatose performances, and glut of obscure karmic metaphors Uncle Boonmee is sure to spark heated debates, or a dismissive shrug, amongst moviegoers of all persuasions. Watching Western critics fall over themselves trying to assign deeper meanings to what is essentially a study in self-indulgent pseudo-spiritual prattle leads me to believe that Apichatpong Weerasethakul may very well be the most brilliant scam artist working in film today. It’s all deeply symbolic of course, frightfully avant-garde and (dare I piss on the altar?) frankly boring.

When We Leave (Germany) (8): On a busy street a woman walks hand-in-hand with a small child when a young man comes up behind her. Turning around to face him she begins to smile in recognition just as he levels a gun at her head. So begins Feo Aladag’s engrossing drama which pits familial obligation against an individual’s right to self-determination. Told in flashback, the story centres on twenty-five year old Umay who, despite being born into a Moslem household, was raised in a wholly secular Germany. Now living in Turkey with a violent and abusive husband the headstrong Umay gathers up her small son Cem one day and moves back to her parents’ house in Berlin. Determined that neither she nor her son will ever return to the life they led in Istanbul Umay is indignant when her family seem more concerned with losing face in the community than the bruises on her body. Viewing her marriage certificate as a statement of ownership her father insists she return to her husband; after all, he reasons, “the hand that strikes is also the hand that soothes...” At odds with her parents and siblings, especially her oldest brother who is particularly furious after she flees to the safety of a women’s shelter, Umay sets out on her own. But when she begins an affair with a German boyfriend it proves to be the proverbial last straw... With meticulously drawn characters that never descend to stereotypes Aladag addresses the issues surrounding so-called “honour killings” from every possible angle. Although completely justified in desiring a better life, Umay is unable to truly appreciate the effect her actions are having on her orthodox parents. Her German girlfriend on the other hand can’t believe she’s not taking a more forceful stance against her older brother’s aggressive threats. And despite having her own dreams crushed when she got married years before, her mother can only shake her head sadly when her daughter pleads for understanding. Lastly, a Turkish businesswoman provides the only voice of reason while Umay’s younger brother Acar, perhaps the most pivotal character in the story, is torn between love for his sister and the nebulous concept of “family honour” being beaten into him by his father and brother. There are no easy answers here, and a bleakly ironic ending is as senseless as the cultural misogyny that precipitated it.

The White Meadows (Iran) (8): Water and salt, the basic components of tears, seem to form the bulk of the physical universe in Mohammmad Rasoulof’s stunningly visual string of parables; it’s as if the entire world were in mourning. Rahmat is a grizzled, soft-spoken man who rows his small boat across an endless sea visiting isolated island villages in a lifelong quest to gather people’s tears. Listening to their outpourings of heartache and grief as he collects the salty trickles from their eyes, some say he brings absolution while others insist he turns the tears into pearls of joy. But zealously guarding his crystal flask as if it were worth more than gold Rahmat refuses to divulge the true reason behind his sorrowful harvest. With its sweeping cinematography and poetic images it is clear that Rasoulof found much of his inspiration in Persian folktales with just a sprinkling of Islam, although there are definite allusions to classical mythology as well; Charon rowing across the river Styx comes immediately to mind while a dwarf’s descent down a well to deliver whispered supplications to the Fairy living there is yet another example of an heroic quest to the Underworld---and a wry comment on the inanity of superstition. There is a subtle political undertone at play throughout his work which is probably one of the reasons he came under fire in his native Iran. A young girl’s unwilling “marriage” to the sea (a sacrifice by drowning more than likely) while her relatives extol her virginity speaks directly to the status of women as does a beautiful maid’s sudden inexplicable death, her only crimes consisting of arousing the village men and making their wives jealous. In one particularly telling scene an outspoken artist is blinded for his insistence on painting the sea a blood red. “See whatever colour you like...” cautions Rahmat, “...just say it’s blue.” It is the film’s deliberately ambivalent ending however that proved to be the most intriguing for me. In what appears to be an allegory for Paradise, complete with locked gate and bountiful fruit trees, Rasoulof ties all the elements of his film together and shows us the ultimate purpose of Rahmat’s teary collection. But does it denote a prayerful reverence or a carefully downplayed censure aimed at a god long past caring? White Meadows presents us with a timeless space and a few enigmatic whispers then leaves us to draw our own conclusions. And that is the very essence of art.

Winter Vacation (China) (5): It’s Spring Break in Mongolia and in what is probably the most boring village in China kids are getting ready to do the same things their western counterparts are doing-----a whole lot of nothing. Composed of extremely long static shots filled with vacantly staring slackers, snotty kids, and lethargic adults all delivering their lines in a lifeless monotone, it is clear that director Li Hongqi has seen a couple of Kaurismäki movies, and perhaps some Roy Andersson as well. But whereas these men are masters of the absurd understatement Li’s opus seems to be mere mimicry with very little flair. His cast of amateurs spend most of their onscreen time looking self-conscious while a puzzling score of random chords and dissonant moans becomes increasingly annoying. To be fair, Winter Vacation contains some very funny lines that had me laughing out loud and a classroom zinger at the very end was priceless. Li exhibits a budding talent for framing a shot in order to take full advantage of light and space, and the sly addition of distant fireworks to the soundtrack balances the inanimate performances of his characters. There was a great film here somewhere but unfortunately the finished product is more dead than deadpan.

Win/Win (Netherlands) (8): Socially awkward and obsessive-compulsive to a fault, 24-year old Ivan has one thing going for him; his knack for making million-dollar stock market decisions just by staring at a bank of computer screens. Doted on by his boss at a prestigious Amsterdam brokerage firm Ivan enjoys living in a corporate ivory tower where everything is sanitized and mathematically precise, even his company-owned apartment is appointed in shades of white. But the realities of life at street level have a habit of intruding into his perfect world and the discrepancies therein prove to be too much for him. Excellent performances and a snappy script that moves from comedic farce to dark tragedy and, finally, quiet salvation. A real pleasure.