Nurse Bob's Film Festival Reviews


A Late Quartet
(USA) (6): After 25 successful years together, the aging members of a famous string quartet are facing their biggest challenge; the moral backbone of the group, cellist Peter Mitchell, is retiring for medical reasons. In the void left by his pending departure the remaining three members find themselves at odds with one another as egos clash, jealousies are laid bare, and forgotten passions resurface. Phillip Seymour Hoffman provides the emotional fireworks and Christopher Walken keeps things grounded while the rest of the cast struggle to keep up. However, despite all its sound and fury, Quartet winds up being little more than a tepid soap opera hinging on a flimsy musical metaphor. But the score was nice.

All in Good Time
(UK) (7): Like an inferior Bollywood remake of Roy Boulting’s The Family Way, Nigel Cole’s dramedy focuses on the travails of newlywed couple Atul and Veena as they desperately try to consummate their marriage amidst meddling in-laws, nosey neighbours, and assorted gossips. While Atul is browbeaten by his loud and domineering father, Veena is blindsided by her overly protective mother after she confides in her that her new husband is not quite “up” to the task. A series of confrontations and revelations eventually lead to a happier place as Atul’s father comes to terms with a ghost from his past, the mothers learn to mind their own business, and the young couple finally find a voice of their own. Although most of the humour is derived from exaggerating cultural foibles, it is still broad enough to keep an audience of WASPS chuckling throughout. The predictable storyline and pat ending however are pure fluff, but it’s pleasant fluff wrapped up in a big colourful sari.

Amour (France) (9): George and Anne are an elderly couple who have enjoyed a long and successful life. Sharing a mutual love for the arts, their sumptuous Parisian apartment is overflowing with paintings, literature, and music. It all ends one day when Anne suffers a series of strokes leaving her partially paralyzed and unable to look after herself. With a bit of outside help George willingly assumes the role of nursemaid, but as his wife continues to deteriorate into a confused and angry shadow of her former self the demands she places on him will test the true limits of love. Michael Haneke forgoes his usual chilled detachment in this brutal yet compassionate look at a golden couple suddenly faced with life’s crueler reality. Refusing to spare his audience, he allows the camera to record Anne’s slow and awful descent from a fiercely intelligent woman of means to a babbling old lady lying in a puddle of urine while her bewildered husband tries in vain to make the world right again. Beyond the mere physical humiliations however lies an even deeper spiritual despair reflected in Anne’s desperate attempts to assert some control over her grim destiny. This is perhaps Haneke’s most powerful and accessible work to date; a perfect mix of harsh realism tempered by moments of quiet devotion. His delicate visual metaphors add depth without contrivance: a series of oil paintings depict isolated couples dwarfed by immense twilit landscapes while an errant pigeon proves to be a winged herald. Finally, the beautifully enigmatic ending, foreshadowed by the film’s opening scene, is appropriately sombre yet hints at a greater truth which lies just beyond that final door... Pure cinematic art.

The Angel’s Share (Scotland) (6): A good-natured crowd pleaser concerning four misfits on the wrong side of the law who decide to pull off the heist of the century; namely siphoning off a few bottles of the world’s most expensive whiskey right from under the noses of the distillery owner. Seeing as the entire cask was auctioned off for over two million dollars, they hope to sell their bottles to a private collector for a pretty penny. But, of course, all does not go as planned and their dreams of rolling in cash may wind up being put on hold, permanently. Some fine performances and the usual drunken earthy humour you would expect. It’s just too bad that those thick Scottish brogues make the dialogue all but unintelligible.

Any Day Now
(USA) (4): It’s West Hollywood, 1979, and female impersonator Rudy (Alan Cumming) is barely eking out a living doing drag shows at a local dive. Everything changes however when he meets Paul, a closeted lawyer with the DA’s office who falls madly in love with him after one blow job. Things become even more interesting when the new couple then try to adopt Marco, a 14-year old child with Down’s Syndrome whose negligent crackhead mother has just been sent to prison on drug charges. Unfortunately, despite being loving parents who have proved their worth, Rudy and Paul quickly find themselves having to contend with rampant homophobia both in their private lives and from the court system. As the powers that be try to wrest Marco away from them forever they turn to one maverick attorney, himself a minority, to appeal their case. But will love be enough to reunite this happy family? Let’s see now...a wisecracking drag queen with a heart of gold, a jive-talking black attorney, a mentally handicapped kid with a winning smile (he likes doughnuts!! Awww!!), and the usual assortment of boorish hetero assholes; is there any clichéd stereotype this movie doesn’t exploit? Add to that some tired old sermonizing and courtroom histrionics and you’re left with one of those heartwarming gay films that straight audiences love to lap up. Mawkish, manipulative, and as phoney as Cumming’s New York accent.

(USA) (2): Trevor is one of those most unfortunate of creatures: a comedian who just isn’t funny. Despite a beatific portrait of Steve Martin above his bed and the endless rehearsals in front of the bathroom mirror he’s not even good enough for a decent heckling while performing at the local comedy dive. And just for a bit of variety, he’s also a pyromaniac specializing in combustible spray cans and molotov cocktails. Trevor’s life takes a pointless turn for the mundane one day when he buys a magical apple from some dweeb dressed up in a cheap ass devil costume and from there everything just gets stoopider. Joel Potrykus’ no-budget yawn fest about one disillusioned young man’s quest for that elusive fifteen minutes features uniformly horrendous acting, a thrown together script, and a handful of silly visuals (gorilla suit?) which fail to add any depth to an already shallow storyline. But I stayed right until the haha quirky ending so I guess the joke was ultimately on me.

Aquí y allá
(Mexico) (7): Having returned from a stint as a migrant worker in the U.S., Pedro is eager to reconnect with his wife Teresa and the two young daughters he hasn’t seen in years. But with job prospects drying up and creditors demanding payment it would appear that his plans of forming a dance band and settling down once and for all may have to be postponed yet again. With amazingly naturalistic performances, deceptively simply dialogue, and a spare directorial style using long static shots to keep his protagonist forever at arm’s length, Antonio Esparza’s meditative look at dreams deferred in contemporary Mexico is definitely not for the impatient. Although a few militant rants can be heard blaring over loudspeakers at key points in the film, this is not an overtly political film. Esparza instead relies on facial expressions, casual gestures and the occasional accusing stare to tell his story; a technique used to great effect with Pedro’s two daughters. Older Lorena is already displaying a weary cynicism beyond her years; her classroom lament of “I just don’t understand...” hinting at something far deeper than unfinished homework assignments. Bright-eyed Heidi on the other hand is all ponytails and giggles, determined to see the good in everything despite Lorena’s occasional reality checks. There is a subdued artistry to Esparza’s work which demands our full attention as even the most mundane scenes are heavy with meaning; a lone man prays at the doorway of an empty church, the back of a truck transporting Pedro to a job prospect comes to resemble a jail cell, a young child repeatedly tries to get his small kite airborne, and two sisters comfort each other in an empty room. The glacial pace and lack of momentum (both deliberate) are sure to cause more than a few beelines to the exit doors, but I felt my patience was justified by this very humane and piercingly honest film.

A Royal Affair
(Denmark) (8): It’s 1766 and British Princess Caroline Mathilde is involved in a loveless marriage to King Christian VII, the mentally unhinged monarch of Denmark. While the Age of Enlightenment is dawning across Europe, Denmark is still clinging to the last remnants of the Dark Ages thanks to the combined efforts of a corrupt nobility and their church lackeys. Everything changes however when Christian hires a private physician, the progressive thinker Dr. Struensee, himself an ardent supporter of social reform. Gaining the confidence of the disturbed king (and ready access to the queen’s bedchamber) Struensee becomes highly instrumental in bringing Denmark’s outdated political system into the 18th century much to the delight of the common folk. But in so doing he also creates a cadre of powerful enemies as the ruling gentry see their powers diminished, military commanders see their budgets slashed, and the dowager queen sees her own son’s claim to the throne slipping away. As Struensee and the Royal Couple continue to push for greater change the opposition decides to strike back any way they can... Nikolaj Arcel’s opulent costume drama is a genuine treat for the eye with its sweeping scenes of candlelit soirees, gilded extravagances, and shadowy court intrigues. His cast of veteran actors breathe life into an intelligent and literary script while his deft direction holds us firmly in our seats. An intense yet low-key historical epic with romance and tragedy to spare.

As Luck Would Have It (Spain) (7): Chronically unemployed and on the verge of losing his home, former adman Roberto is at his wit’s end when a freak accident at the local museum leaves him literally pinned to the floor with the back of his head impaled on an iron rod. But as his plight becomes an international cause célèbre he sees a golden opportunity to cash in on his new found fame. Hiring an advertising company he quickly signs a deal to sell his story to a national tabloid TV show (with a few photo ops for a liquor company to boot). Unfortunately, from a “human interest” standpoint his story will only be worth something if he dies tragically, preferably with cameras rolling. Alex de la Iglesia’s caustic satire on fame whores, corporate pimps, and our sick preoccupation with other people’s misery goes from droll comedy to absurd farce in record time. Unfortunately the film’s crazier elements don’t always gel and the sudden shift into serious drama before the final credits is somewhat jarring. Still, Salma Hayak is wonderful as the stoic wife determined to resist an increasingly aggressive press, and the fact that Roberto’s mishap takes place on the stage of a recently excavated Roman amphitheater is irony defined.

A Werewolf Boy (Korea) (7): When elderly Kim Sumi returns to Korea in order to settle her late mother’s estate, a visit to her former home brings back a flood of memories. When she was a teenager her family befriended a feral boy they found skulking in the barn, eventually taming him into something approaching human. But the boy, Cheolsu, was harboring a very dark secret...and Kim Sumi was beginning to have a few feelings of her own. A manipulative melodrama which plays like a manga written for starry-eyed schoolgirls but its delicate humour and unabashed sentimentality won me over just the same. File this one under “guilty pleasure”.

Barbara (Germany) (7): It’s 1980 and Barbara, a female doctor working at a prestigious East Berlin hospital, suddenly finds herself assigned to a backwoods country clinic thanks to some unpatriotic behaviour. But her dream of joining her wealthy boyfriend in the West has not died, in fact he’s been supplying her with the means and money to make her escape. But as the day for her clandestine departure slowly approaches she finds her life becoming more complicated for not only is she being dogged by a stubborn Stasi agent, she’s also becoming quite attached to a most unfortunate young patient who has lived through more horrors than Barbara can imagine. Further complicating matters is the growing attraction she feels for the clinic’s head physician, a gentle bear of a man who seems to feel the same way towards her. Christian Petzold’s quietly unsentimental tale of one woman’s struggle with conflicting desires is beautifully told. With delicately shaded performances complimented by drab utilitarian sets, Barbara is not an overtly political statement but rather an examination of the true cost of freedom in all its manifestations. Well done.

Beyond the Hills (Romania) (9): Voichita has left the secular life behind in order to become a nun at an isolated monastery where the nearest town is miles away and electricity is a forgotten luxury. Ruled by the stern yet pious resident priest and Mother Superior, affectionately referred to as Papa and Mama, her life is a simple routine of hard work and prayerful devotion. But the real world makes a dramatic reappearance in the form of Alina, a former schoolmate and best friend now working in Germany. From the outset it is clear that the two women shared more than a simple friendship---an arrangement which Alina is desperately trying to rekindle and Voichita is struggling to repress despite the former’s insistence that she leave the cloister and join her abroad. At first tempted to give in to her friend’s pleas, Voichita becomes concerned as Alina’s behaviour becomes increasingly obsessive: she begins criticizing Voichita’s vocation, threatens the other nuns, and wreaks general havoc until a monumental meltdown temporarily lands her in hospital and starts the priest thinking that perhaps her underlying problem is less psychological and more demonic... Cristian Mungiu’s incendiary look at superstition and religious hysteria maintains a surprisingly even hand throughout. Although woefully misguided in their subsequent attempts to rid Alina of the evil they feel is possessing her, the priest and nuns have her best intentions at heart. Besides, the overcrowded and understaffed hospital released her with only a few prescriptions and no follow-up medical care other than one doctor’s advice to “read the scriptures”. In one way or another both women are hobbled by religious dogma; while Voichita struggles with guilt (and desire), Alina’s refusal to submit to an invisible God and his earthly representative, goaded perhaps by mental illness, puts her on a direct collision course with the authoritarian priest. Using slow deliberate takes against a background of blowing snow and howling dogs, Mungiu ratchets up the tension, gathering his few narrative threads for one shattering climax before throwing everyone back into the harsh light of reality. But, as a wickedly deadpan final coda reveals, the real world is not much to crow about either. Another masterpiece.

Breakfast with Curtis
(USA) (7): Brimming with good natured laughs and a keen sense of how precious human bonds can be, Laura Colella’s delightful little suburban gem was one of this year’s unexpected pleasures. With his pair of Waldo glasses and repertoire of terse monosyllabic responses, the perpetually neurotic and painfully withdrawn fourteen-year old Curtis has been sheltered from an early age by his overly protective parents. In direct contrast to his family’s staid existence Curtis’ neighbours, aging hippy couple Syd and Pirate, oversee a household of free-spirited Bohemians where love, grass, and beat generation esoterica are the rule. But when Syd innocently asks Curtis to help him with an online video blog in order to boost his internet book business he inadvertently throws the lad a lifeline, for as he records Syd’s colourful rambling monologues Curtis’ shell begins to show its first cracks. Filmed in Colella’s own home situated on an idyllic suburban street bursting with flower gardens and songbirds, Breakfast with Curtis is a happy celebration of life’s beautiful absurdities, the enduring nature of love and friendship, and the thousand tiny joys which make living worthwhile. Even though by opening his eyes to the world Curtis does learn a few curious things about his parents, there is no shattering reveal, no teary confessions, just one long lazy summer in which a shy young man takes his first halting steps towards adulthood. My only minor criticism is Colella’s cast of amateur actors gleaned from her actual friends and neighbours. When they are in synch their naturalistic performances are both charming and convincing, but when they occasionally lose momentum their lines come across as more scripted than spontaneous. Jonah Parker shines throughout as the taciturn Curtis, while a drunken “Ladies Only Luncheon” was my personal highlight.

By The Fire (Chile) (5): Daniel and Alejandra have given up their modest life in the city and moved into the country. While Daniel works at odd jobs in order to keep their son in college, Alejandra does what she can despite her life-threatening illness. And that’s about it. Alejandro Almendras’ character study keeps the camera at arm’s length while showing us the day-to-day minutiae of one couple as they enter the final stretch of a loving, if unremarkable relationship. But, like an art project gone awry he wastes a great deal of time on the inconsequential and forgets that an audience needs more than a prolonged cuddle in order to remain interested. There are a few sublime moments as when the couple take a sled into the mountains in search of non-existent snow, or one brief flash of anger which hints at unspoken regrets. But unless interminable scenes of drinking coffee and feeding the cat appeal to you I’d give this one a miss.

Camel Caravan (China) (8): It’s the 1930’s and much of China’s isolated north is still dependant on camel caravans to transport goods between villages. Called cameleers, these hardy men regularly brave sandstorms, treacherous terrain, and armed bandits, in order to deliver the merchandise entrusted to them while at the same time adhering to their own strict moral code. One such cameleer, Master Ge, has a few problems on his hands; not only is his headstrong daughter, Hong’er, reluctant to enter into the lucrative marriage he’s arranged for her with a distant businessman, but his youngest apprentice, Erga, seems to have a knack for getting into trouble. It all comes to a head when Ge agrees to transport a valuable shipment into China’s war-torn interior accompanied by Hong’er whom he plans on delivering to her future husband along the way. Pursued by government-backed mercenaries intent on robbing him, Ge entrusts Hong’er’s safety to Erga while he and his remaining men prepare for a final showdown. But there is one more complication Ge had not counted on, for while he was busy laying down plans he failed to notice both daughter and apprentice were slowly falling in love... Gao Feng’s splendid Noodle Western takes a generic premise and turns it into something pretty darn wonderful. Naturally, as with all period films shot in the Gobi region, the scenery takes centre stage with magnificent sand dunes bathed in dusty sunlight and wide open scrubland alive with the sound of hoofbeats, camel bells, and beautifully discordant native music. There is also a wry commentary on the relative merits of modernization as guns and bullets duke it out with bows and arrows. But it is the natural grace of its lead actors that lifts this little gem above the ordinary. Even with some pretty awful subtitling, their tone and facial expressions provide an open book of longing, sorrow, and steadfast courage. The underlying love story is delicately handled while the robust action sequences keep you alternately holding your breath and cheering for the good guys.

Children of Sarajevo (Bosnia-Herzegovina) (7): Ever since they were orphaned in the war twenty-something Rahima has been taking care of her younger brother Nedim by working grueling shifts in a restaurant kitchen. But when Nedim begins to slide into a life of delinquency, including a violent run-in with the son of a powerful politician, Rahima must make some drastic decisions or else risk losing him forever. Director Aida Begic’s moody drama features intense performances all around coupled with a dark vision of a land ruled by crime and corruption. Excellent use of cramped spaces and sharp close-ups coupled with the omnipresent sound of holiday fireworks going off like artillery shells. An uplifting ending is tempered by an ironic orchestral score.

Come as You Are (Belgium) (9): Philip has the same dream as any other young male his age...namely getting laid. But being a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic completely dependent on his parents is an obstacle he has little hope of overcoming. His luck changes one day however when he hears about a Spanish brothel specializing in handicapped patrons. Gathering together his two best friends; Jozef who is legally blind, and Lars who is partially paralyzed due to a malignant tumor, Philip formulates a plan to bypass their overly protective parents and pay a much anticipated visit to El Cielo. Hiring a specially equipped van driven by a big burly female care aide the three men head off to Spain, stopping to sample a few French vineyards along the way... In the utterly charming road movie which follows, Geoffrey Enthoven mines a rather outré premise, inspired by one man’s actual memoirs, for all the comedy gold he can get without ever losing sight of the fact that each one of his characters, including the care aide, is a complex human being with a personality and unique history all their own. Beneath all the wisecracks and pratfalls (this is one funny movie) there is an underlying compassion tempered by just enough poignancy to keep the final bittersweet ending somewhat believable. Wonderfully done!

The Comedy (USA) (8): Rick Alverson describes his ironically titled movie as an exploration of what’s left in “the wake of the utopian American Dream.” I’d go even further than that, for like Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers Alverson has bent the American Dream over and ripped it a gaping new asshole. A series of loose vignettes introduce us to Swanson, an obnoxious thirty-five year old fuck-up from a wealthy family who, along with his cadre of equally privileged losers spends his time getting wasted on hipster drinks while making pathetic attempts to express his shallow feelings and forge meaningful bonds with other human beings. Although the tone of the film is deliberately provocative, Alverson nevertheless presents us with some sobering imagery; a prank visit to a church highlights an underlying spiritual torpor, an ill-fated date aboard Swanson’s sailboat becomes a chilling study in emotional detachment, and a slide show of old family snapshots serves to highlight just how far our protagonists have fallen. Alverson may not exhibit the nihilistic rage of Korine, but in The Comedy he leaves contemporary despair behind and flings his characters headfirst into a bottomless pit of apathy. The fact that I was surrounded by a theatre full of young popcorn-munchers laughing their fool heads off made me want to weep.

The Disappeared (Canada) (9): With just half a dozen actors, a couple of rowboats, and the wide open sea, director Shandi Mitchell manages to produce an emotionally charged and beautifully framed tale of survival. After their fishing boat sinks hundreds of miles from land, six men find themselves alone with only a few tins of food and enough water to last a couple of days. Dividing their time between rowing, singing bawdy sea chanties, and getting on each others’ nerves, the men do their best to stay alive and sane until help can arrive. But as the days wear on and the supplies dwindle, their initial macho posturing slowly gives way to anger and a creeping despair, especially after tragedy befalls one of their members... With a natural soundtrack of creaking planks and slapping waves, Mitchell makes excellent use of her watery canvas as changing ocean conditions reflect the mood of her protagonists; calm and sunny one day, grey and wind-tossed the next, while the camera swoops down from above or clings to a heaving bow. Her talented cast dive into a credible script free of false dramatics, relying instead on a knowing look or offhand remark to propel the narrative forward and keep the tension high. However, it’s the film’s final scene which elevates it from very good to exceptional; a quasi-dreamlike sequence which feels like the beginning of a modern myth. Bravo!

Dom: A Russian Family (Russia) (10): At a large rural estate nestled in the barren steppes, the Shamanov clan is gathering to celebrate their ancient patriarch’s birthday. Among the guests is eldest son Victor, an ex-con whose underworld business dealings have kept the family solvent but who is now on the lam from the mafia thanks to some unfortunate misunderstandings. Amidst much backslapping and good-natured ribbing everyone settles in for a day of feasting; but as the vodka flows and familial grudges turn into alcohol-fueled confrontations no one notices the armed gangsters gathering just outside the front gates... Given the scenario of an isolated farmhouse filled with drunken boors while wolves and assassins prowl the perimeter, it is impossible not to make the obvious connection to Putin’s “new” Russia. But Dom works equally well as a straight-up gangster thriller culminating in one of the most deliriously cinematic shootouts I’ve seen in years. Rife with black humour and sharp satirical barbs (a rumination of the role of outhouses in determining a society’s level of civilization is priceless), Oleg Pogodin’s violent parable is a treat for both mind and eye.

Dreams for Sale (Japan) (7): With their popular eatery burnt to the ground and their savings dwindling, Kanya and his wife Satoko resort to a string of menial restaurant jobs to make ends meet. But a drunken one-night stand between Kanya and the mistress of a recently deceased business partner opens the couple’s eyes to one of Japan’s great untapped resources: a seemingly endless supply of lonely women only too willing to provide financial “loans” to any man with a hard luck story who takes a romantic interest in them. In fact, after her initial jealous rage passes Satoko is actively encouraging her husband to bilk as many lonesome hearts as possible in order to raise the necessary capital for a new restaurant. But karma is a real bitch and as the money continues to roll in Kanya begins feeling the first pangs of guilt. Satoko, on the other hand, begins to feel something quite different... Alternating between dark comedy and sad drama, Dreams for Sale explores the psychological motives behind both perpetrator and those being preyed upon with a delicate, though understandably biased, hand. A violent catharsis towards the end leads to an appropriately downplayed ending.

Ernest et Célestine (France) (8): An ill-tempered bear and stubborn little mouse go against societal conventions and form a friendship in this beautifully animated tale based on a series of children’s books. From the charming watercolour artwork to the hilarious comedic incidentals this one is a true winner. The voices are perfect too with Lambert Wilson breathing life into the gravelly growly Ernest while Pauline Brunner plays the squeakily defiant Célestine with tiny perfection. Of course there’s a lesson or two about tolerance and celebrating our differences, but directors Benjamin Renner et al make it a soft sermon. A real Saturday matinee treat!

Everybody in Our Family (Romania) (8): Brilliantly droll comedy filmed with manic energy and a caustic wit. When a beleaguered Marius shows up at his ex-wife’s doorstep in order to take his five-year-old daughter for a trip to the seaside nothing goes as planned. First his wife’s new beau refuses to let him leave until she comes home from the beauty parlour leading to an unfortunate altercation involving a slamming door. Then his wife finally makes an appearance and decides that Sofia can’t go due to Marius’s rude behaviour and the fact that the little girl has a cold. But when grandma gets involved in the fray and the police are called things escalate from bad to worse and beyond... A talented cast pull off yet another absurdist Romanian comedy involving dysfunctional families behaving badly. Along with an increasingly bizarre script, director Radu Jude employs some very clever background editing as religious icons are slowly replaced by ludicrous cartoon images. Needless to say, little Sofia ultimately emerges as the only “adult” in the house.

Grabbers (Ireland) (9): When the residents of Erin Island are besieged by a pair of many-tentacled vampire squid it’s up to the perpetually intoxicated constable and his strait-laced sidekick to defend the island and destroy the outer space creatures before their cache of eggs can grow to maturity. But the slimy beasts prove almost impossible to kill...until a local biologist discovers their one fatal weakness; a weakness near and dear to every true Irishman’s heart. With subtle nods to the likes of Jaws, Gremlins, and Alien, Jon Wright’s rip-roaring monster movie is a winning mix of jolts and side-splitting humour aided by some glorious cinematography and creepy CGI effects. One of the best popcorn movies you’re likely to see this year!

Helpless (Korea) (6): A young man is driving his fiancée to meet his father when he stops for coffee at a gas station. Upon returning to the car he finds the passenger door open and the girl gone without a trace save for one discarded hairpin. With the police seemingly uninterested in taking his kidnapping story seriously he starts to make a few inquiries of his own with the help of his cousin, a former police detective. Neither man is prepared for the horrifying truth their investigation reveals. Starts out as a gripping mystery with dark psychological overtones but quickly loses momentum thanks to some sloppy editing, overly theatrical performances and a few too many leaps of faith. The ending is silly too.

The Holy Quaternity (Czech Republic) (8): Ondra and Vitek are two forty-something electrical engineers who have not only known each other for years but also lead virtually identical lives: they work for the same company, live in adjoining homes, have equally sexy wives, two teenaged children apiece (Ondra’s boys are dating Vitek’s girls), and, as it turns out, both their love lives are dead in the water. One more thing they confess to sharing; both are turned on by the thought of making out with the other’s wife. When their company sends them on an all expenses paid junket to the Caribbean in order to repair a damaged power grid they see a golden opportunity to introduce their wives to the idea of a foursome. With hastily drawn up ground rules (written by the men of course) the two couples set about enjoying some good naked fun in the tropical sun. Meanwhile, back at home, their kids are doing a little experimenting of their own although, oddly enough, their tame one-on-one trysts more closely resemble those of a pair of middle-aged couples. And amidst all the hanky-panky Grandma and Grandpa are busy erecting a fence between the two homes so that they can look like every other property on the block... Jan Hrebejk’s one-fingered salute to societal constraints, religious guilt, and the male ego is one of those rare breeds; a very funny adult comedy with brains to spare. As the parents’ little secret becomes general knowledge the mixed bag of reactions it generates leads to some keen observations on the state of bedroom politics; even the grandparents have a few kinky skeletons in their dusty old closet. A gorgeous cast of talented actors, sun drenched beaches, and generous helpings of sexy flesh satisfy the eye while a waggish yet piercingly intelligent script and some clever visuals (a church bathed in sunlight thanks to a hole in its roof, a most unusual nativity set) provide enough fodder for a dozen conversations. Leave it to the Czechs!

Home For the Weekend (Germany) (7): With her husband Guenther preparing for an eagerly anticipated retirement and her two adult sons, Jakob and Marko, home for a visit, Gitte makes a shattering announcement; after thirty years she has decided to stop taking her psychiatric medication. Although she appears quite calm and rational her statement has a profound effect on all those gathered, for after three decades of dealing with a crazy woman her family is unable to see her in anything but the sick role. In fact they need her to maintain that role as it has kept them from having to face some harsh realities in their own lives as they tiptoed around each other so as not to upset mommy. Caught off guard by these revelations and tired of everyone waiting for her to crack anew, Gitte finally decides to take matters into her own hands. Although it dragged in parts, Hans-Christian Schmid’s compelling drama explores what happens when a family’s tenuous equilibrium is knocked for a loop and then forced to reconfigure. The question of whether or not Gitte’s proclamation is genuine or just another manifestation of her illness is made moot by a wonderfully ambiguous ending. Well played.

The Hunt (Denmark) (9): Objective truth falls prey to mob mentality when a male kindergarten teacher is falsely accused of sexual abuse by one overly imaginative 5-year old girl. Although Lucas steadfastly proclaims his innocence he finds himself caught up in a botched investigation which not only presumes him guilty until proven guilty but also encourages the child to embellish her own story even after she tries to tell the truth. Things quickly escalate as a form of mass parental hysteria takes over in which every child in the class is seen as a potential victim and Lucas, his passionate denials ignored, becomes a despised pariah. An emotionally volatile drama featuring a taut, believable script and amazing performances all around. Be sure to stay for the last frame as a seemingly upbeat ending is checked by a sad reminder that the stigma of “child molester” is not so easily shaken off.

Hunter’s Bride (Switzerland) (7): Jens Neubert brings Carl Maria von Weber’s epic 19th century guns ‘n’ sorcery opera, Der Freischütz, to the big screen in glorious widescreen technicolour and crashing dolby stereo. It’s Dresden circa 1813 and Agathe, the local nobleman’s lovely daughter, is ready to be wed. According to an ancient custom the one suitor able to win a shooting competition will not only get the girl, but the esteemed title of Chief Forester to boot. Enter Max, a disgraced huntsman deeply in love with Agathe but suffering from a bad case of nerves which has robbed him of his former marksmanship abilities. Afraid he will lose the contest, and therefore the woman of his dreams, a desperate Max is convinced by his friend Kaspar that only a deal with the devil will ensure his victory. Now armed with a magical silver bullet forged in the very fires of Hell, Max awaits the contest with equal parts anticipation and dread. But all is not what it appears to be, for Kaspar has also made a deal with the devil...a deal that can only end in death! From battlefield explosions to hushed bedroom whispers, and from boisterous peasant mobs to dark demonic rituals, Neubert’s cinematic adaptation, like its source, is anything but subtle. Whether engaged in heated dialogue or belting out one of Weber’s glorious arias, the seasoned cast is always pitch perfect right down to the Greek chorus of townsfolk and government infantry. Although the transition from stage to screen is not always smooth and some of the camerawork feels a little clunky with characters either getting lost in the crowd or shoving their nostrils right up against the lens, there is still a definite operatic flair to Neubert’s visuals; a traveling troupe of actors wend their way past a sea of dead soldiers, silk-clad maidens wander through an opulent mansion, and a demon is summoned amidst a swirl of CGI bugaboos and flashing lasers. Clocking in at just over two hours however, this one is strictly for opera fans only.

I, Anna (UK) (8): Charlotte Rampling is magnificent in Barnaby Soutcombe’s (her son!) striking noir policier. She plays Anna Matheson, a lonely divorcée who becomes involved in a murder investigation after the man she met at a singles’ function is found bludgeoned to death in his apartment. As the detective assigned to the case (Gabriel Byrne, handsome as ever) begins to piece the clues together, a hesitant relationship develops between the two... Southcombe’s masterful use of slow, off-kilter shots bathed in sombre shades of blue and grey creates a heady atmosphere laden with repressed longings and unvoiced regrets. Against backdrops of distant cityscapes and softly lit interiors his characters move as if in a dream, a mood perfectly complimented by a muted techno score and minimalist script which toys with our perception of time. A chic psychological thriller, stylishly directed and flawlessly performed.

In Another Country (Korea) (8): While holed up in a seaside hotel with her chain-smoking mother, a young girl whiles away the time writing stories about a foreign woman’s adventures in Korea. What follows are three very charming shorts starring the indomitable French actress Isabelle Huppert as three different woman living slightly different variations of the same story. Supported by a small Korean cast playing three sets of similar characters, director Hong Sangsoo’s wonderfully lighthearted look at his country’s little idiosyncrasies filtered through European eyes is a delight from start to finish!

Key of Life (Japan) (8): When an obviously well-to-do businessman takes a tumble at the local public bathhouse, Sakurai, a depressed and out-of-work actor, decides to switch locker keys with the unconscious man and assume his identity just for a day. But when the injured party wakes up in hospital with complete amnesia (and Sakurai’s clothes and I.D.), the desperate young man decides to make the arrangement more permanent. The trouble is, Sakurai has chosen to switch places with Kondo, a notorious contract killer who has just offed a high-ranking business tycoon and is now being sought out by a yakuza boss for one more highly lucrative assignment. In the meantime Kondo, believing himself to be Sakurai, is beginning to get his memory back... This is one very funny comedy of mistaken identities, disappearing corpses and confused girlfriends; well written, perfectly timed, and featuring a fine ensemble cast who dive into their roles with gusto.

La Demora (Uruguay) (8): Maria is a single mother barely making enough money to support her three children and increasingly senile father. As caring for her dad becomes more of a financial burden, not to mention a time constraint she can ill afford, she is forced to commit a hitherto unthinkable act of desperation. Powerful performances from the two lead actors coupled with a spare and credible script make this one of the more hard-hitting films I’ve seen this year. Avoiding any unwarranted sentimentality, director Rodrigo Plá fashions a gritty yet finely nuanced drama which neither condones nor demonizes his protagonist while at the same time casts a critical eye on the unforgiving societal forces which drive her.

Laurence Anyways (Canada) (6): Xavier Dolan wowed audiences with I Killed My Mother and Les Amours Imaginaires, but with Laurence Anyways Quebec’s fresh-faced wunderkind becomes a pretentious artiste who seems to have fallen in love with the sound of his own success. This overblown and overly long study in artistic gimmickry follows ten years in the life of Laurence and his BFF (and sometime lover) Federique, “Fred” for short. The film begins in 1989 when Laurence announces his intention to become a woman, and ends on the eve of the New Millennium as she reflects on ten years’ worth of triumphs and heartbreaks. To be fair there are moments of genuine depth and striking beauty amidst all the gender-fucking and arty excesses, but Dolan tries to pull too many cinematic tricks out of his hat resulting in a jarringly edited film that plays like a string of 80’s music videos. The soundtrack, however, was magnificent.

Long Live the Family (Czech Republic) (6): When a junior executive is implicated in a banking scandal he’s given a terrible choice; cooperate with the police or risk being murdered by certain parties who would rather he keep his mouth shut. Instead he decides to go on the lam with his unsuspecting family in tow (they think it’s a simple holiday road trip). As their journey into the Czech countryside progresses however, the increasingly guilt-ridden man becomes all too aware of everything he’s given up for the sake of a few padded paycheques. Some strong performances and comical interludes fail to make up for the horrible subtitles and heavy moralistic overtone.

Love in the Medina (Morocco) (4): With a bloated script of flowery nonsense and slow motion sex scenes consisting of fully clothed dry-humping, Abdelhai Laraki’s sorry excuse for an “erotic Arab movie” feels more like bargain basement Bollywood only without the welcome distraction of a few song & dance numbers. Certainly this story of a respected imam’s son carrying on an adulterous affair with the wife of an impotent army officer is transgressive by middle-eastern standards, especially when you throw in some wry observations on pious hypocrisy and governmental corruption, but for Western audiences it’s just another tame evening at the local cineplex. Laraki does try to mimic the gastronomical eroticism of, say, 9 ½ Weeks or Like Water For Chocolate; a woman fans herself with aromatic herbs, a couple sort of have sex amidst strewn veggies, and the son masturbates with his mom’s best olive oil; but severed cow heads and heaps of steaming goat guts prove to be the ultimate mood killer.

Love is All You Need (Denmark) (2): Patrick and Astrid are getting married at his father’s opulent Italian villa, but on the eve of the festivities things proceed to go from bad to worse. Even though Astrid’s parents are still married, her boorish father shows up with his very young girlfriend in tow much to the dismay of Ida, her mother who is still recovering from a brush with breast cancer. Meanwhile Patrick’s father Philip, a truculent widower still bitter over his wife’s death, is in need of a few lessons in tact even though he is strangely (and predictably) drawn to Ida. Lastly, the soon-to-be newlyweds are having a few issues of their own. With its cloying soundtrack, interminable sunsets, and smothering atmosphere of forced romance nothing in this saccharine slopfest rings true; and the fact that director Susanne Bier stoops to playing the cancer card (a surefire way to get those hankies out) is shameful. But the gorgeous CGI-enhanced Italian vistas and moonlit palm trees will ultimately convince most pedestrian audiences that they’ve just sat through something wonderful. Gag.

The Minister (France) (8): Bertrand Saint-Jean is one of those rare ducks, a politician with something approaching a conscience. Surrounded by self-serving jackals and lackeys he always tries to do what he feels is right, but when he finds himself at odds with the party majority over plans to privatize the French railway system he suddenly finds the political landscape around him becoming more confused and treacherous than even he had suspected. Pierre Schöller’s dark political satire starts off with a dream sequence involving, appropriately enough, a virgin sacrifice and then proceeds to inundate its audience with enough Machiavellian twists and boardroom backstabbing to fill a dozen tabloids. Cold, sardonic, and with a plot as complicated as its protagonist’s soul.

Mystery (China) (7): On a rainy stretch of highway a group of buddies accidentally run over and kill a young woman standing in the road. Meanwhile, across town, a woman is befriended by one of the mother’s in her child’s daycare class; a friendship which carries vaguely sinister overtones. But what is the connection between these two storylines...and what does it have to do with the woman’s husband? Despite some sloppy editing and an occasionally blaring soundtrack director Lou Ye manages to juggle themes of betrayal, retribution, and the cost of moral compromise to produce a nicely polished puzzle of a film which keeps you involved to the very end. The performances are spot on, although a few superfluous sex scenes seem more envelope-pushing than integral, and the lack of any Hollywood twists is refreshing.

Neighbouring Sounds (Brazil) (10): Director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s gorgeously framed dreamscape begins with a private security firm being hired to patrol a middle-class Recife neighbourhood after a few episodes of vandalism. From this simple starting point Filho goes on to explore the mindset of the street’s various residents where everyone seems to live within gated communities, gated homes, and gated families. Mundane domestic scenes are paired with a suspenseful score and jarring sound effects to give the film an oddly disjointed monster movie feel as we see faint ghosts of Brazil’s colonial past continue to haunt its emerging consumer culture; a mysterious black child hides in a tree outside a posh apartment complex, two grown women fight over who has the biggest television set, and a young girl’s nightmare involves faceless hordes jumping a security fence in order to steal her family. Filmed with slow surreal takes and just the slightest hint of contemporary paranoia, Neighbouring Sounds plays like a Latin hybrid of Gus van Sant and Michael Haneke. Brilliant!

No (Chile) (7): In 1988, amidst growing international pressure for social and political reforms in his country, controversial Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was coerced into having a national referendum where citizens were asked to vote either “Yes” to keep him in power, or “No” to end his regime. Pablo Larrain’s gripping verité-style docudrama follows the the efforts of two hitherto neutral admen working for the same agency as they each launch a series of television commercials aimed at swaying voters; René working for the “No” campaign, his boss Lucho working for the “Yes” side. Looking as if it were actually recorded using old VHS equipment, and drawing upon a wealth of archival footage, No examines the role of mass media in not only creating popular opinion but in creating the truth itself whenever necessary. While Lucho tries to portray Pinochet as a benevolent grandfather who has saved the country from Marxism, René is churning out what one critic describes as “Coca-Cola commercials” full of rainbows and happy beautiful people. But beneath the jingles and pointed mud-slinging the reality of life under a dictatorship remains clearly visible as René’s fellow filmmakers are the target of police and military harassment. An interesting slice of contemporary history with a sly little coda to remind us that although they fought on opposite sides, René and Lucho are first and foremost in the business of selling stuff.

Off-White Lies (Israel) (6): When 13-year old Libby travels to Israel in order to live with her dad, a part-time inventor and full-time dreamer, things don’t turn out as expected. For one thing her father has been lying about his financial situation (he’s broke), for another he’s been lying about his living arrangements (he’s homeless). Desperate for food and a roof over their heads, the two decide to pose as despondent refugees from the war-torn north in order to insinuate themselves into the home of a wealthy Tel Aviv family. Complications ensue... A mostly unremarkable comedy-slash-coming of age drama with a few political barbs in its tail. A satirical take on infomercials is priceless.

Reality (Italy) (6): At the insistence of his star-struck children mild-mannered Luciano, a Neapolitan fishmonger, applies to be a contestant on a popular reality show. With his family and neighbours cheering him on Luciano eagerly waits to hear from the studio; but as the days wear on without a word and his family’s enthusiasm wanes, a despondent Luciano becomes convinced that the show’s producers are secretly spying on him in order to determine his worthiness. To prove to these invisible observers that he is indeed suitable television material Luciano goes to increasingly bizarre lengths; he gives his family’s possessions to the poor, sells his fish shop, and approaches every stranger as if they are keeping tabs on him...even a stray cricket is not above suspicion. As his behaviour escalates, much to the dismay of his suffering family, Luciano finally gets the exposure he’s been waiting for; but it is not what anyone expected. Matteo Garrone’s exploration of our obsession with celebrity in a world where anyone can be famous just because they’re famous starts out as a loud and flamboyant satire but slowly moves into darker psychological territory as its comedic elements give way to...reality; the final scene was truly chilling. Unfortunately it suffers from an acute lack of editing with some scenes rambling on far too long and shrill arguments becoming increasingly repetitive. Great premise though.

Rose (Poland) (7): After WWII Poland annexed a section of German Prussia, home to the ethnically distinct Masurian people. Having sided with the Nazis during the war the Masurians now found themselves despised pariahs by both their new Polish overlords and the Russian forces sent to “liberate” Poland. Constantly brutalized by both sides some Masurians chose to relocate to Germany while others swore allegiance to the new Communist government in Warsaw. Wojtek Smarzowski’s unflinching story of one woman who chose to remain behind is both a sombre history lesson and a study in courage against overwhelming odds. Despite being repeatedly beaten and raped by Poles and Russians alike, Rose refuses to leave her farm even though the fields are mined and her future looks grim. When Tadeus, a former soldier with the Polish underground and himself a hunted man, shows up on her doorstep a cautious partnership slowly evolves into something approaching love. But Rose’s health has suffered from months of mistreatment and the authorities which have labeled both her and Tadeus as enemies of the state are becoming more ruthless in their tactics. Although the underlying politics is somewhat murky (a post film chat with a Polish woman who grew up during the war proved invaluable) Rose remains a brutally honest film whose few moments of quiet tenderness only serve to highlight the underlying horror.

Rust and Bone (France) (8): Ali is a down-on-his-luck boxer eking out a living for himself and his young son through petty crime and odd jobs. Stephanie works as an animal trainer at the local aquarium. The two cross paths one night when Stephanie is an innocent victim of a barroom brawl at the club where Ali is working as a bouncer. At first the two seem destined for little more than one brief encounter, but when Stephanie suffers a devastating accident at work she decides to give Ali one more call... Tales of damaged people coming together to heal each other are something of a Hollywood cliché, but in the capable hands of director Jacques Audiard and his powerhouse cast a simple tale becomes something quite profound.

Stories We Tell (Canada) (3): Narrated by her father (I think), Sarah Polley’s self-indulgent pseudo-documentary sets out to dish some dirt on her late mother, a somewhat scattered Bohemian who precipitated a family scandal which still has tongues wagging years later. Using fake home movies and a stable of talking heads, Polley tries to address the often subjective nature of truth, memory, and identity, and how they impact objective reality. Or something like that. All I saw was a long tedious airing of someone else’s dirty laundry. Too . . . much . . . information.

Tabu (Portugal) (5): Miguel Gomes’ frightfully avant-garde B&W melodrama begins, appropriately enough, at the end as an elderly Aurora, perpetually penniless and full of despair, nears the end of her life. Despite the stoic ministrations of her African maid and reclusive neighbour, Aurora seems to be in a constant state of mourning...until a cryptic deathbed wish leads to a series of revelations. Cut to the past where we see a young and vibrant Aurora leading a privileged life on her father’s estate in Africa where she eventually marries a decent upper class gentleman. But her idyllic life is turned upside down with the arrival of Ventura, a dashing rogue who captures her heart and fires her passions. Even though she is expecting her first child, Aurora and Ventura break every commandment they can think of until the weight of all that cumulative guilt finally catches up to them. With its gorgeous cinematography, rich voiceovers, and novel use of sounds and silences (including some nicely lip-synced 60’s pop tunes) Tabu is certainly lovely to look at. Of course there are the usual colonialist allusions and Catholic angst one would expect, and for an interesting twist Eros himself gets a saurian makeover. Unfortunately I found the story itself rather pedestrian and certainly not deserving of all that visual and auditory gimmickry. Very pretty to behold, but dull as bricks to sit through.

Teddy Bear (Denmark) (7): Unable to find a love connection in his own backyard, professional bodybuilder Dennis follows his uncle’s advice and heads for Thailand where “...the girls are easier to meet.” After a few sad encounters with prostitutes Dennis finally hooks up with Toi, a widow who runs the small gym she inherited from her husband. But trouble is waiting for the two lovebirds back in Denmark where Dennis’ controlling shrew of a mother continues to exert a tight psychological grip on her gentle giant of a son. To his credit director Mads Matthiessen’s sweet little romance does not try to present us with a nordic version of Pretty Woman, nor does he gloss over the harsh reality of Thailand’s sex tourism industry; scenes of drooling pigs, their arms draped around young locals, are all too apparent. He chooses instead to move beyond the usual crop of “harsh reality” polemics and deliver a wholly captivating tale of one lonely man’s search for a heart to call his own. In the role of Dennis, the massive Kim Kold is a study in romantic yearning and quiet stoicism. Well done!

Thursday to Sunday (Chile) (5): While on a road trip with her family, adolescent Lucía watches silently as her parent’s already shaky relationship comes apart at the seams. To her credit director Dominga Sotomayor eschews shrill dramatics, relying instead on small clues like the pained stares and heavy silences emanating from the front seat. But in pursuing the little subtleties she winds up drowning the film in a sea of pointless banter and everyday minutiae. Perhaps this was intentional, but the lack of any narrative momentum led to more yawns than revelations.

Twilight Portrait (Russia) (7): Marina is a gainfully employed child welfare worker married to a doting and successful businessman. Her life is shattered one evening when a trio of policeman stop her for a trumped up charge, drive her to a secluded section of highway, and proceed to gang rape her. Keeping the ordeal to herself Marina makes her way back home and tries to carry on as before, but the horrifying incident has not only left her embittered, it has also opened her eyes to the ugliness around her; the abused children she’ll never be able to help, the obnoxious boors which populate her city, and the spineless husband who suddenly appears weak and indecisive. A sea change overcomes her as she forsakes her husband and friends, outs her secret lover, and begins a self-destructive affair with one of the officers who violated her. At first glance Angelina Nikonova’s confrontational film comes across as just another vitriolic rant against Mother Russia as she wallows in cruelty and corruption. Furthermore, Marina’s attraction to the brutal cop who ravaged her, taunting him with “I love you” even as he smacks her, proves to be somewhat troublesome. But for those with the fortitude to sit through the film’s disturbing first half a most amazing thing happens; Nikonova uses an outwardly abhorrent storyline to propel us into a realm of unforeseen psychological depth as both victim and abuser derail our expectations and bypass the roles we’ve assigned them. A quietly enigmatic ending (not so enigmatic when you think on it) is beautifully played.

Two Little Boys (New Zealand) (5): Dim-witted Nige is having a bad night. Not only has he accidentally run over and killed a Norwegian tourist, but when he enlists the aid of his estranged pal Deano to help dispose of the evidence he quickly discovers his former BFF is a certifiable nut job who has never really gotten over the breakup of their friendship. In this dark and occasionally hilarious Kiwi comedy, equal parts macabre road movie and psychotic bromance, Nige and Deano spend the next few days scouring New Zealand’s picturesque coastline searching for a place to dispose of the hapless victim’s dismembered body (Deano had to do some butchering in order to get all the pieces to fit into one backpack) with Nige’s unsuspecting Maori friend along for the ride. Some comedic grossness, lots of heavily accented swearing, and performances that can only be described as “over-the-top” make for a fun night at the movies; but leave your brain at home, you won’t be needing it.

When the Night (Italy) (8): The relationship between mothers and sons is a potential minefield rarely explored with such naked honesty as in Cristina Comencini’s beautifully realized opus. Marina, a young mother on holiday with a 2-year old toddler in tow, finds herself the sole guest at an isolated pensione in the Italian alps run by Manfred, the surly and taciturn landlord. All does not go as planned however for the child’s incessant crying begins to get on both adults’ nerves until a tragic fall lands the boy in hospital and starts Manfred thinking that perhaps his injuries were not accidental at all. But Manfred is harboring his own personal demons related to the mother who abandoned him when he was just a child. Are his suspicions therefore based on fact, or has his judgement been clouded by years of filial resentment? Blending glorious widescreen landscapes and painfully intimate psychological spaces, Comencini produces a film rich in metaphor where images of the “good mother” figure prominently whether it be a stature of the Virgin or a maternalistic painting on a clinic wall, and a mountain hike becomes a healing pilgrimage into the very heart of Motherhood. Unfortunately she drops the ball towards the end when a brief reunion, while wholly necessary to the film’s central theme, strays needlessly into erotic territory. Nevertheless, When the Night is a striking feature which rings true throughout.

(Spain) (5): An animated feature following the adventures of Emilio, an elderly gentleman suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s who is consigned to a nursing home by his weary son and daughter-in-law. Hooking up with his roommate Miguel, a crusty old conman who regularly scams the other residents for pocket money, he gradually settles into the mundane routine of meds, meals, and bedtime. But as Emilio’s symptoms worsen and he seems destined to move up to the dreaded second floor, home to the facility’s worst cases, Miguel’s attempt at being a guardian angel backfires with tragic results. Ignacio Ferreras’ troublesome feature doesn’t quite know where it wants to go resulting in a mishmash of harsh realism as we see a parade of old people exhibiting their various aches and dementias, and patronizing fancy as those same people live out their delusions in cloying fantasy sequences; one old woman believes she is a passenger on the Orient Express, another blasts imaginary E.T.’s with a water pistol. To be fair, Ferreras does manage to steer clear of sweetly sunlit Spielberg territory and the character of Miguel shows some degree of growth (old dog, new tricks) but the primitive animation and monotonous script fail to make an emotional connection.