Nurse Bob's Film Festival Reviews


A Room and a Half (Russia): Part biopic, part daydream, Khrzhanovsky’s imaginative film is based on the writings of Joseph Brodsky, a soviet exile who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, eventually becoming the American Poet Laureate. Presented as a series of non-linear flashbacks during a fictitious cruise to St. Petersburg, Brodsky recalls his early life during WWII, his years as an official dissident and, finally, his expatriation to New York City. When the movie works it is a joy to behold with Khrzhanovsky using everything from childlike animation to old newsreels to present a series of impressionistic vignettes underscored by Brodsky’s own words. Whether it’s a memory of his parents waltzing around the living-room, he in his military best and she in a silk kimono, or a cloud of musical instruments taking flight over the city’s rooftops; the real and the fanciful are given equal importance. The overall effect is sweetly nostalgic with an edge of deeper poignancy which calls to mind Davies’ The Long Day Closes. Unfortunately, when the movie doesn’t work it descends into long stretches of philosophical navel-gazing like so many pretentious home movies. It’s this lack of proper editing that turns an otherwise effective ending, wherein Joseph sits down for one last meal with his deceased parents, into a gauzy montage of television screens and blowing drapes. Still, the romanticized views of St. Petersburg huddled about the frozen Neva are pretty, and Brodsky’s poetry is sublime.

Adrift (Viet Nam): It’s been several days since Duyen and her husband Hai tied the knot yet the marriage remains unconsummated. He was too drunk on their wedding night and now he claims to be too tired from driving his cab all day to do much more than sleep. Could he be impotent? The fact that he’s a spoiled man-child with a doting mother who resents Duyen for “taking her baby” doesn’t help either. Feeling frustrated and confused Duyen tries to rekindle her friendship with Cam, an author who still carries a lesbian torch for her despite feeling betrayed by the recent marriage. Sensing her friend’s need for carnal attention, Cam arranges a series of dangerous liaisons between Duyen and the recklessly handsome Tho. Meanwhile, Hai is forming an oddly platonic friendship with Mien next door. A series of revelations ensue leading to tragedy for some and a new awareness for others. Adrift unfolds in a succession of gorgeously composed shots filled with rich colours and crisp sounds; a ship floats on a bay of sapphire blue, rain washes against an open window and a woman undresses behind a stained glass screen. In keeping with the film’s themes of yearning and repressed desire characters are seen moving in and out of softly edged shadows, or walking bewildered in dazzling sunlight. And the luscious cinematography is perfectly complimented by a soundtrack of soft instrumentals and funky vocals. With all this going for it, why did I leave the theatre underwhelmed? For one thing director Chuyen seemed to have trouble keeping all his narrative balls in the air at the same time; there were holes in the story which, despite being backfilled later, left the action feeling discontinuous and clunky. Furthermore the script seemed awkward at times with characters acting on motives that were rather murky and poorly developed. And lastly, although the highly visual ending could hold its own with the best of European art house it seemed vaguely contrived and just a little too tidy. An impressive first effort nonetheless; Bui Thac Chuyen is certainly an artist worth keeping an eye on.

The Antichrist
(Denmark): Lars von Trier takes the story of one woman’s pathological grief and tries to rewrite it as a horror movie in this completely ludicrous exercise in poor taste and laughable excesses. It starts with a highly stylized monochromatic opening sequence in which a nameless couple enjoy a slow-motion fuck in a steamy bathroom while their unsupervised toddler decides to take a slow-motion header out the window; pretty effective except the accompanying baroque aria makes the whole thing sound like a Chanel No. 5 commercial. Outraged at his wife’s diagnosis of “atypical grief” the husband, a therapist himself, decides to take her to their cabin in the country which they’ve nicknamed......wait for it.......EDEN! Of course things go from bad to worse with hysterical accusations being made and an oppressive sense of, ummm, something or other in the air prompting endless scenes of menacing trees and raucous acorns. Soon the forest around “Eden” begins to bear a close resemblance to the haunted woods in Raimi’s The Evil Dead with deeply symbolic crap happening daily; a baby bird falls out of a tree only to be attacked by ants and finally devoured by a hawk, and in one of the film’s more rib-tickling moments the man comes upon an eviscerated fox which looks him in they eye and growls “Chaos reigns!” It would appear that even Mother Nature has a bone to pick with our transgressive lovebirds. Anyway, the couple eventually descend into guilt-riddled madness accompanied by all sorts of gruesome bloodstained nonsense involving scissors, grindstones and a log to the groin. A lot of lip service is given to the mythical “three beggars”, namely Pain, Grief, and Despair (they even appear as statues on the doomed child’s dresser); the concept of “falling” is certainly stressed whether it be a fall from a window, a fall from grace, or falling out of love; and the old right brain/left brain dichotomy is stressed ad nauseam. Pretty standard Psych 101 fare. By serving up this steaming pile of psychotic gibberish and calling it art Von Trier once again demonstrates his intense dislike for anyone who isn’t Lars Von Trier. While some may consider it a wrenching emotional catharsis from the mind of a tortured artist I saw a pathetically gratuitous shockfest from a jaded poseur with a chronically inflated ego.

Applause (Denmark): Paprika Steen’s powerhouse portrayal of a woman coming apart at the seams makes this one of the most gut-wrenching movie experiences at the festival. Thea is a famous actress whose deeply lined face and burnt-out eyes give you the impression that her best years have come and gone. Always the self-absorbed diva however, she never misses an opportunity to unleash her quick temper and caustic tongue thinking her celebrity status will somehow grant her immunity from life’s nastier consequences. But approaching middle age she finds herself embittered and very much alone; her abusive alcoholic rages have not only resulted in a messy divorce but also cost her the custody of her two young sons. Although she has played many roles on stage she seems lost when the spotlight is off of her; she failed as a wife and mother, she’s incapable of any empathy, and she’s alienated every friend she’s ever had. Desperate to reconnect with her children and attain some sense of personal balance she finds herself wandering in circles until a disastrous one-night stand with a bar pick-up and cataclysmic blowout with her ex provide her with the first glimmerings of a wake-up call. Zandvliet makes great use of handheld camerawork to give his film a sense of heightened reality while the washed out colours and flat lighting strip away any notion of romanticism. He then balances the script’s intensity with occasional flashes of mordant humour and unexpected tenderness; Thea’s outing with her boys offers a brief glimpse of the warm being beneath the corrosive exterior. Furthermore, he expertly splices scenes of Thea’s latest stage performance (she’s playing “Martha” in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ) into the film’s narrative resulting in a profound sense of irony as Albee’s theatrical words give voice to her own inner turmoil. Harrowing, tragic, and wholly believable; put this on your must-see list.

Autumn (Turkey): After spending 10 years in jail for his role in an anti-government protest, thirty-something Yusuf returns to his isolated mountain village. Pale, withdrawn, and wracked by a debilitating lung condition he spends his days napping and engaging in trivial conversations with his well-meaning neighbours who look upon him with a mixture of pity and dubiety; even his mother is more preoccupied with her various aches and little miseries to take more than a cursory interest in his well-being. With his youthful zeal beaten out of him and his revolutionary friends happily settled into middle-class complacency, Yusuf’s prospects seem as bleak as the omnipresent rain clouds overhead; until a chance encounter with Eka, a Georgian prostitute, offers him the possibility of happiness. Dark portents abound in Alper’s gorgeously filmed debut. His film possesses a rapturous beauty in which each scene becomes a softly focused study in light and balance jarred only by Yusuf’s grainy video flashbacks which are mercifully kept to a minimum. Whether it’s a golden leaf brushing against a wooden shutter or an angry wave crashing into a concrete pier, there is a painterly quality to the story that is complimented by a haunting piano score. Alper shows us how each character carries their own prison within themselves; the newly-widowed mother is crippled by grief, Eka by economic necessity, and Yusuf by his memories. Indeed they are often seen viewing the storm-tossed outside world through barred windows. The film’s slow and deliberate unfolding is definitely not for the impatient however, and some of the more blatant symbolism seems self-conscious at times. Nevertheless I found myself completely captivated right up to the quietly tragic finale.

Broken Embraces (Spain): There’s really no point in trying to explain the plot of an Almodovar film as the pleasure lies more in the pageantry, not the resolution. Suffice to say it uses a series of flashbacks to tell the story of a love triangle between a director, a business tycoon, and the tycoon’s mistress who has dreams of becoming a movie star. Once again the Spanish master has created a whirling technicolour celebration that makes you fall in love with cinema all over again. From the richly embellished sets to the sharp savvy script there is very little here to disappoint. As usual, Almodovar populates his stage with beautiful men and women, sympathetically portrayed with all their faults and strengths intact as they try to make sense of their increasingly complicated lives. And of course the cinematography is brilliant; a huge still life overlooks a frozen relationship, a car drives through a lunar landscape of cratered dirt, and a couple makes passionate love while completely wrapped up in a sheet. In one particularly inspired scene the mistress delivers some distressing news to her benefactor using a combination of video footage and lip-synching. But the real delight in this latest offering is the many subtle nods Pedro gives to his previous works, culminating in an uproarious “remake” of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pure Almodovar, hence pure enjoyment.

Camino (Spain): Think of a Catholic tearjerker co-directed by Luis Buñuel and Walt Disney and you’ll begin to appreciate this brilliantly disturbing film about faith, love, and everyday saints. Camino is a young schoolgirl completely devoted to all things heavenly, an oddly likeable amalgam of Marcia Brady, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and the Virgin Mary. Her mother, Gloria, is deeply involved with “Opus Dei” an ultra devout Catholic cult which believes the path to sanctity lies in daily routines, and holiness is to be found in observing strict religious discipline including mortification of the flesh. José, her father, on the other hand takes a more practical view of spirituality’s role in the grand scheme of things, often to Gloria’s dismay. With a sister already cloistered by the church and a mother hellbent on raising a saint Camino’s future is pretty well set until the unexpected strikes; her first adolescent crush...and cancer. As the hollow platitudes begin to pour in from sanctimonious church members an ecstatic Gloria sees her daughter’s terminal disease as a fast track to sainthood. Only José sees the tragedy behind the forced jubilation but, like his namesake St. Joseph, he is consigned to the periphery of his own child’s life. As Camino’s life begins to ebb a curious mixture of quasi-miracles and cryptic visions take place, some based on slight misunderstandings, which lead up to a magnificently overdone finale like no other. With its wide-eyed protagonist and overbearing soundtrack Camino is stagey, syrupy, and unapologetically sentimental; and therein lies its ingeniously disguised sting. There is satire aplenty here, so beautifully subtle that one could almost miss it. Fesser doesn’t mock his characters, they are fully realized and complex, but instead casts a critical eye on the often self-delusional aspects of extreme piety. Gloria steadfastly refuses to give in to despair, insisting that every scrape and bump is a “gift” from on high, including her daughter’s impending demise. Yet she is also a master of cunning manipulation as she tries to control every aspect of her family’s life, including sabotaging her eldest daughter’s relationship. But her smiles are often forced and the tears she sheds painfully genuine. Camino overflows with metaphors and symbolic meaning, its heady dramatics balanced by some wicked humour with Camino’s sharp-tongued schoolmate, Begoña, almost stealing the show. By placing religious fanaticism and childhood fairy tales side by side (an amateur production of Cinderella figures prominently) Fesser presents us with a series of dots; how we connect them is up to us. My favourite festival film this year.

Can Go Through Skin (Netherlands): Shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend Marieka is brutally attacked in her Amsterdam apartment. Fearful and traumatized she retreats to a ramshackle cabin in the country where she isolates herself, both physically and emotionally, from friends and strangers alike; only connecting electronically in an anonymous internet chatroom. Rots uses Marieka’s cottage as both a physical and psychological space; its dusty cobwebs and hidden recesses reflecting her own damaged mind. She shuts herself up as if in a prison, not even letting sunlight enter through the greasy windows. But as she begins to slowly remodel the cabin’s interior she makes a surprising discovery behind a mouldering shelf; a loaded rifle wrapped in oilcloth. Feeling newly empowered she starts to entertain increasingly elaborate revenge fantasies, egged on by a particular chatroom participant who seems to give voice to Marieka’s repressed rage. She finally does find some degree of solace in the arms of her shy neighbour, a gentle and caring man, but some personal demons are not so easily dealt with. Most of Rots’ story is filmed using jerky handheld cameras, erratic editing and discontinuous timeframes as if we are seeing things from a wholly subjective point of view; a feeling reinforced by instances of jarring sound and overlapping dialogue. It works for a while but eventually this frantic music video aesthetic becomes tiresome; like an arty experiment which has gone on for far too long. Things are further bogged down towards the end by the inclusion of a dreary, angst-ridden ballad that smacks of overkill. After watching Marieka spin her wheels and run into walls for ninety minutes I just wanted to shout “Get over it already!” Surely this is not what the director intended...?

A Cargo to Africa (Canada): Take a curmudgeonly old man, a sweetly belligerent street kid and a rascally monkey; throw in some low-key conflict, a few dollops of pathos and some mawkish pseudo-spiritual nonsense and you have another one of those sugary knee-jerk “heart warmers” that always seem to win an Audience Favourite award wherever they play. After spending 20 years working in Africa, fifty-something Norbert is evacuated back to Canada by the U.N. after a civil war erupts. Fed up with our draconian system (apparently Canada is just a horrible place to be) he manages to scrape together enough cash to buy his way onto a freighter bound for Africa but first he must get rid of his pet monkey, Trotsky (haha...get it?). Enter Christopher, a streetwise urchin who happens to witness Norbert trying to abandon the little primate, along with a explanatory note, in a city park. Accusing the old grouch of animal cruelty the little brat dogs his every step thereby jeopardizing his chances of making it to the ship on time. Lukewarm performances, a paint-by-number script and lots of teary close-ups all culminate in a groan-inducing finale involving African drummers and a foxy grim reaper. No wonder the monkey kept trying to escape.

Castaway on the Moon (Korea): Angst and anomie in modern society are taken to the extreme in Lee Hey-Jun’s splendidly over-the-top story of a contemporary Robinson Crusoe. Having just broken up with his girlfriend and plagued by mounting debt, Mr. Kim decides to end it all by jumping off a bridge into the Han River which flows through the heart of Seoul. Things don’t go quite as planned when he finds himself washed up on a deserted island; deserted except for the fact it’s right smack in the middle of downtown. With his cellphone batteries used up in a series of frantic calls for help and a fear of drowning keeping him from swimming to shore, he gradually learns to eke out a living in this urban jungle by using the city’s detritus which constantly washes up on shore. Meanwhile, in a high-rise that overlooks the river, Miss Kim is living a life of quiet desperation. Suffering from extreme agoraphobia fueled in part by a disfiguring mark on her face, she has been holed up in her bedroom for three years; texting shopping lists to her bewildered parents even though they live in the same apartment and venturing out for a shower only after they’ve left for work. Her severely regimented life consists of daily aerobics, processed foods and living out a rich and rewarding life on the internet using a doppelganger of herself; at night she sleeps on a bed of bubble wrap. Her only contact with the outside world is what she can observe through the telescopic lens of her tripod-mounted camera, and even then she waits until the streets are deserted. “When no one else exists...” she rationalizes, “ can’t be lonely...”, hence her fascination with the cold and barren moon. When her lens eventually falls on Mr. Kim’s exploits a hesitant pen pal relationship ensues; she sends him messages in a bottle (her bafflingly complex preparations for venturing outside are a sight to behold) and he replies in pure chatroom fashion by writing huge two and three word sentences in the sand. Eventually a friendship of sorts develops, but can it ever grow into something else? Lee plays each character’s quirks against the other with results both warm and amusing. Not worrying about the lack of logic behind the story, he uses cinematic hyperbole to examine the depersonalizing effect of our plugged-in, faceless society while taking a few stabs at consumer culture along the way. Charming, eccentric and all too real.

Cedar Boys (Australia): Young Lebanese immigrant Tarek lives with his parents on the wrong side of Sydney. Despite his somewhat seedy friends he manages to eke out an honest living working at a auto body shop. However, with his dad having to pull extra shifts in his taxi and a brother in jail, it doesn’t take much to lure him to the dark side. Temptation eventually comes in the form of his friend Nabil who works as an apartment building custodian. Nabil is convinced one of the tenants has a whole lot of drugs hidden in his flat and convinces Tarek to help him steal the lot in order to make a quick profit on the streets. Things seem to be going well at first; the money is flowing in and Tarek even manages to snag a blonde-haired blue-eyed trophy girlfriend. But when the evil drug kingpin manages to track down his missing merchandise there is hell to pay. I suppose the studio spin doctors will describe this film as “pulse-pounding” and “relentless” and it is sure to have some appeal with its target demographic, namely white teenage boys with gangster rap dreams of bling-bling and bitches floating in their heads. But for the more discerning among us it’s just another nondescript amalgam of tired clichés and macho bullshit. Thankfully the director plays the race card with some restraint; you hardly even notice the Star of David around the wicked dealer’s neck and a discussion comparing Palestinians to Aborigines is quickly drowned out by a trippy dance tune. The performances are above par and the story is almost engaging but in the end you get the feeling that the screenwriter was just whacking off to Eminem.

Coopers’ Camera (Canada): Sonoda takes the standard “Dysfunctional Family Holiday” plot and tries to give it a new spin in this occasionally funny, so-so comedy supposedly spliced together using “found” VHS tapes from December 1985. They tell the story of one terrible Christmas in the Cooper home as chronicled by the youngest son using a second-hand video camera Mr. Cooper bought from his sex pervert neighbour. There’s the usual suspects inherent in all these films; the bickering parents, bratty kids, sullen teens, chain-smoking grandma, and assorted relatives from Hell including suave Uncle Tim who may have more than a brother-in-law relationship with Mrs. Cooper. As the alcohol consumption goes up, inhibitions go down and skeletons start flying through the air. There are some very funny moments in this movie that had me laughing out loud despite my better judgement; I guess I’m just a sucker for a well-placed visual and a loud fart. The film’s grainy texture and handheld perspectives are inconsistent but do give the impression of watching old school home videos and, as a little bonus, there are occasional glimpses of the neighbour’s homemade sex movies which the Coopers were not quite able to tape over. Unfortunately it all spirals down into a boozey free-for-all with the humour becoming increasingly forced and scenes of “funny drunks” wearing thin real fast. Sonoda throws in some nice 80s touches though, and Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley treats us to a full monty. Thanks Dave, but you really shouldn’t have...

Discorama (France): From the mid-sixties to the early seventies French audiences tuned into Discorama every week to hear their favourite contemporary singers perform as well as catch a glimpse of tomorrow’s stars. Hosted by the charismatic Denise Glaser, the television show enjoyed huge popularity until changing tastes and corporate bureaucracy finally axed it in 1974. I’ve been told that those people who can remember these Gallic pop stars will enjoy the nostalgia. For the rest of us it’s all Greek.

The Eclipse (Ireland): Ghosts of one sort or another abound in Conor McPherson’s odd little drama which attempts to make strange bedfellows out of romance and horror. Set in Ireland’s County Cork the story revolves around an annual writer’s convention that has attracted Nick, a loutish American novelist, and Lena, a demure British author specializing in paranormal phenomenon. The two of them are marginally acquainted with one another having shared a one-night stand months earlier which left each one with a very different impression; he wants to leave his wife to be with her while she would rather forget it ever happened. Into the mix is thrown Michael, a local teacher and amateur writer who volunteers as a chauffeur for the visiting authors. Recently widowed, Michael has been having some very strange experiences in the dead of night involving odd sounds and frightening apparitions of his not-quite-dead father-in-law. It would appear each character is haunted in their own way; by memories, by grief, by desire. Michael slowly finds a kindred spirit in Lena, telling her of his spectral visitations and even allowing her to read some of his stories. This is when things get problematic; McPherson doesn’t quite deliver a ghost story, nor does he develop a believable love story. So what is it? He throws out some genuine shocks along the way with bogeymen jumping out of floorboards or riding shotgun, but their inclusion makes no sense. There is some passionate kissing and jealous reproaches which also go nowhere and serve no purpose. And then there’s the muddled religious imagery complete with celestial chorus which seems superfluous and fails to make any narrative impact. McPherson does drop a few clues along the way however, including an enigmatic finale which leaves you questioning the veracity of the previous ninety minutes. But alas, it proves to be a case of too little too late. At least the scenery was lovely.

The Empire State Building Murders (France): Director William Karel tries to show us how clever he is by combining scenes from old noir classics and vintage newsreels in order to produce a mockumentary on the life and times of a fictional gangster. Along the way he drags out the mummified remains of some former screen idols and props them up long enough for a few painfully awkward cameos. It’s gimmicky, amateurish and vaguely insulting.

Eyes Wide Open (Israel): Haim Tabakman’s sharply observed version of Brokeback Menschen follows a gay love affair in Jerusalem’s orthodox Jewish community from its first hesitant embrace to its painfully realistic conclusion. Aaron is a kosher butcher who has lived a sheltered life with his wife and family, he’s never even been outside the city walls. But when he hires Ezri as an apprentice the handsome young man awakens a long buried need within him and it isn’t long before smokey stares give way to ardent lovemaking. Aaron desperately tries to keep his home life, his faith, and his lover separate but his wife soon begins to suspect something is wrong and rumors begin to fly within the close-knit neighbourhood. Apparently Ezri’s checkered past is well known to the local zealots who begin a self-righteous campaign of intimidation and coercion aimed at the two men, accusing Aaron of selling unclean meat and warning everyone that the very souls of their children are in peril. Trapped between his perceived duties to God and family and his nascent love for Ezri, Aaron is forced to make a most painful and irreversible decision. One can forgive Tabakman’s few lapses into melodramatic excess when you consider the setting of his film; this is not the wide open plains of Montana but a crowded warren of ultra-orthodox believers who make it their business to know everyone else’s business. It’s a place where absolute conformity is the rule and bigotry often hides behind Talmudic verse. Aaron’s plight is beautifully mirrored in a subplot involving a young woman forced to give up the man she loves in order to marry the man chosen by her father; both are casualties of unchallengeable laws which stress blind obedience while ignoring the individual. His wife is also a victim in her own right and her wonderfully muted portrayal provides a sympathetic counterpoint to Aaron’s personal anguish. The hushed melancholy of the movie’s final scene, filmed in twilit shades of grey and blue, beautifully illustrates the power of religious dogma to shackle the spirit even as it claims to liberate. Powerfully done.

Forbidden Door (Indonesia): Joko Anwar borrows from Cronenberg, Lynch, Hitchcock and Jung to produce this twisted mindfuck of a film. Gambir is an artist specializing in sculptures of pregnant women; sculptures with a decidedly macabre difference. Despite a rather opulent lifestyle he finds himself ill at ease; his beautiful wife, Talyda, is an emasculating harpy while his mother is an overbearing shrew. On top of that his best friends are laughing at him behind his back. Is it any wonder then that he finds himself impotent both sexually and socially? Although the pressure is on to produce a family we are told, via flashback, that Talyda terminated her first pregnancy since it occurred before they were married; a decision that has haunted the couple ever since. This is when the twists start happening; Gambir begins receiving S.O.S. notes written in a childish scrawl, discovers a mysterious door in the cellar, and joins the “Herosase” club which consists of individual rooms where members can browse extremely specialized channels, one of which features a child being brutally beaten by his parents. Could this child be the author of all those notes? Anwar piles our plates high with metaphors and allusions until you lose count. Voyeurism, paranoia, guilt, repression, transference, psychosis.....a whole shopping list of mental aberrations parade across the screen. Along the way we are aided, and sometimes hindered, by tantalizingly cryptic clues written on billboards, fortune cookies and magazine covers; or casually dropped in the middle of a banal conversation. Anwar finally ties it all up neatly in the end after he treats us to one of the bloodiest Christmas dinners on record. But before you have a chance to put your coat back on he pulls yet another trick out of his sleeve; and then waits until the final credits to play his final trump. Off-kilter camerawork keeps things appropriately muddled as does the film’s tone which jumps from film noir to 50’s kitsch to cool verité. Many of the scenes don’t quite pan out however due to some rather cheap theatrics, and one gets the impression that Anwar is being too clever for the film’s own good, à la Lars von Trier. I can’t say I’d recommend it to everyone, but it’s certainly going to keep me awake tonight...

Gigante (Uruguay): Biniez’s modest little film offers an endearing look at love and romance in the age of video surveillance. Gentle giant Jara, kind-hearted and terribly shy, works the graveyard shift at a large supermarket where he spends his nights halfheartedly monitoring the store’s many closed circuit security cameras and doing crossword puzzles. One evening he becomes smitten by a certain cleaning woman and begins zooming in on her; following her around electronically as she mops the floor each night and has the occasional run-in with her boss. Not content with admiring her through a B&W lens (he even falls asleep at home watching innocuous video loops of her) he begins following her after work; to the store, the gym, the internet cafe, the movie theatre, all the while trying to make himself into the man he thinks she might be interested in. After a few comic misadventures fate finally gives him the opportunity he’s been waiting for: a chance to actually talk to her. Despite the problematic premise there are no elements of the psychotic stalker in Jara’s character, nor is there any of the monomaniacal obsessiveness of 2006’s Red Road. Instead we are presented with a well-meaning, sweetly naive man who longs for a romantic connection but is not quite sure how to go about making that leap from televised image to real woman. His predicament subtly addresses the problems inherent in a world where the internet gives the illusion of physical intimacy; browsing photos and mpeg files is easy, actually meeting requires courage. But when Jara finally does meet the woman of his video dreams the camera discreetly pulls back; Biniez is not going to allow us to be privy to their first conversation, relegating us instead to the role of detached voyeurs once again. Beautiful in its simplicity.

The Girl (Sweden): On their way to do charity work in Africa for a few months a couple leave their nine-year old daughter in the care of her irresponsible aunt. Angry at being left behind, the girl (she’s never named) manipulates the older woman into going on an extended sailing trip with her latest beau thereby leaving her alone and unsupervised. At first reveling in her new found freedom, she keeps herself busy hanging out with friends, playing dress-up and updating her private bulletin board with the various arcane mementos she’s gathered from books and magazines; among them a comparative study of female breasts, a picture of her aunt’s boyfriend, and a childish drawing of her genitals she did while kneeling in front of a mirror. And all the while she manages to con the adults around her into believing the aunt is never far away. As the days without adult intervention wear on however, the girl finds herself becoming increasingly divorced from her once comfortably familiar routine and the story takes a small turn reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with a tidy front yard taking the place of a deserted island. Help eventually does arrive in the form of a guardian angel only briefly glimpsed at the beginning of the movie and provides what I consider to be the film’s most powerful segment. Many directors try to portray the inner world of a child with little success, but Edfeldt manages to nail it perfectly by relying more on delicate expressions than reams of dialogue. His camera lingers over the small cruelties and private giggles as his diminutive cast find themselves perched between childlike reality and the often mystifying world of adults. He imparts tremendous significance to the most mundane objects; a diving board becomes a rite of passage, a hayloft becomes a lesson in mortality, and a bucket of tadpoles illustrates a young girl’s first steps towards adolescence. Avoiding a sense of “preciousness” he keeps things firmly anchored in reality while at the same time employing a subtle magic that speaks to our own childhood memories. And Blanca Engström’s finely nuanced performance is pitch perfect.

The Happiest Girl in the World (Romania): Eighteen-year old Delia travels to Bucharest with her boorish father and long-suffering mother in order to claim the brand new car she won in a contest sponsored by a fruit juice company. As an added bonus she also gets to appear in one of the company’s promotional television ads. The trouble is, Delia wants to keep the car even though she doesn’t have a license but her father demands she sell it in order to help the family start a B&B in the country while her mother never misses an opportunity to berate her. And to top it all off the overbearing director of the commercial insists on doing take...after take...after take... Much of the humour in Radu Jude’s low-key charmer comes from his attention to the minute details; an angry stare here, a flippant remark there, and throughout it all Delia’s sulky woebegone expression made all the more hilarious by her weak attempts to smile for the cameras. There’s not a lot of action here, the film relies more on a strong script convincingly delivered by a talented cast. The parents’ long-winded attempts to sway Delia, generously laced with recriminations and guilt trips, are uncomfortably familiar in any language while the film’s poignant non-ending makes a final mockery of the title. Perhaps a bit slow for some tastes, but it left me smiling.

The Headless Woman (Argentina): Vero, blonde-haired and upper class, is driving home one afternoon when a momentary lapse in attention results in a jarring collision with an object in the road. Looking through her side mirror she sees a body lying motionless in the dust...has she just killed someone? Not bothering too investigate further she gets examined at a hospital, telling them she hit a dog, and then checks into a hotel rather than go home with her dented fender. She eventually confesses to her husband and close friend only to have them reinforce her earlier “official” story that it was just a dog. As if to convince herself of the truth, Vero retraces her steps but discovers her hospital records have vanished, all evidence of her hotel stay has been erased, and her car is completely repaired; “officially” nothing happened. Martel’s wonderfully understated drama uses one woman’s silence as a metaphor for a country where thousands of political dissidents have disappeared over the years without a trace and indigenous people are treated as if they were invisible. Vero is presented as an isolated figure wandering in a daze while friends and family swirl about her refusing to address her pained expressions and silent weeping. Characters are often filmed from the shoulders down, or silhouetted in a doorway rendering them both nameless and faceless. And all the while she is being surreptitiously stared at by close acquaintances and passers-by alike, as if guilt was written across her chest. Even nature seems to point an accusing finger as a torrential downpour inadvertently leads to a damning revelation. Martel makes excellent use of everyday objects, imparting tremendous significance to a mirrored reflection or a half-opened blind; glaring sunlight has rarely shone with such divine import. The final scene of a banquet filmed from behind a pane of warped glass brought the film’s many thematic elements to a satisfyingly bleak conclusion.

(Egypt): A vague pall of dissatisfaction permeates Ahmad Abdalla’s delicately nuanced, if overly long, ensemble piece exploring the mindset of contemporary Cairo. Shot in the historical district of Heliopolis, he manages to juggle four separate stories without dropping a single narrative ball. There’s the newly engaged yuppie couple whose youthful exuberance for each other has been smothered under countless deadlines and material pursuits; the young doctor trying desperately to obtain a travel visa only to have his every effort mired in red tape; the hotel clerk who fantasizes about how wonderful her life would be in Paris (even sending fake letters to her parents); and lastly, the social studies student trying to film the neighbourhood as part of his research who is hindered by reluctant interviewees and suspicious police officers. In addition there are a few minor characters who gently shade the main stories; the old woman who reminisces about how grand things used to be yet refuses to leave her apartment, and the lonely policeman patrolling a street where nothing ever happens. Abdalla uses his characters’ personal sense of disconnectedness to highlight what he sees as a more widespread phenomenon in Egyptian society. Heliopolis’ grand facades recall a more vibrant time when small businesses flourished, people were content and something exciting was always happening. Now the walls are crumbling, streets are choked with impatient motorists and small kiosks have given way to western-style supermarkets. To his credit he refuses to tie things up nicely in the end; the separate stories briefly brush past each other without touching while a sombre choral piece provides a subtle poignancy. A decent film that could have benefited greatly from a tighter script and sharper editing.

I Killed My Mother (Canada): To say 17-year old Hubert and his mother have an adversarial relationship would be a gross understatement; they’re ready to snap at each other like pit bulls over the slightest provocation. The fact that she’s a study in contradictions and he’s a spoiled brat doesn’t help matters either. But underneath all the tongue-lashings and body armour there is an abiding love. Alas, his mother keeps her maternal feelings closely guarded while Hubert can only express his thoughts as a series of secretly taped monologues. “I can’t love my mother...” he states at one point, “...but I can’t not love her either.” As the arguments become fiercer and Hubert’s grades begin to suffer his estranged parents decide to send him off to boarding school; a decision that leads to consequences no one had anticipated. Written, directed, and starring Xavier Dolan, who was only seventeen himself when he composed the screenplay, I Killed My Mother possesses a refreshing authenticity that would have been lost had it been helmed by a more experienced (and therefore older) person. The dialogue is crude, spontaneous and completely credible including mom’s monumental meltdown with the school principle; an angry tirade on the difficulties of single motherhood that will go down in cinematic history. Furthermore, Dolan makes wonderful use of background artwork to lend added depth to the action; as the camera lingers on a sentimental painting of a mother and child or a print of Munch’s “The Scream” one can’t help but admire the young director’s fledgling artistry. Despite one or two forgivable excesses this is a mature work rife with genuine emotion and frequent humour which rings true right up to the lovingly downplayed final frame.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Canada/UK): Love him or hate him, Terry Gilliam never leaves you feeling neutral. This time he focuses his fervent imagination on the story of Dr. Parnassus; immortal, one-time mystic and now the owner of a ramshackle sideshow, “The Imaginarium” which sticks out like an anachronistic sore thumb wherever it sets up shop. All who pass through its enchanted mirror (actually two sheets of metallic plastic and a cheap gilded frame) come face to face with their deepest desires; or worst either emerge transformed, or not at all. It seems the mysterious doctor is fond of wagering bets with the Devil; a few souls won here, a few lost there, and not even Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina, is above being used as collateral. But when it comes time to collect his winnings Satan finds the playing board has become a tad more complicated than he had anticipated with the arrival of a certain wild card... In the same vein as The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Gilliam explores the role of myth and dreams in shaping our subconscious. “The universe is sustained by stories...” states Parnassus at one point; but stories always contain a certain amount of ambivalence and the old caveat, “Be Careful What You Wish For”, rings true time and again. Despite some long-winded passages which tested my patience, the trips through the looking glass, when they came, combined some fantastic effects with the kaleidoscopic charm of an old pop-up book. It could have benefited from some editing to keep the pace going but the impressive cast gave some wonderful performances and the Vancouver sights were fun to watch. Not enough to keep you rapt for two hours, but if you’re a fan of Gilliam (as I am) you pretty much know what to expect.

Island of Dreams
(Japan): In Tetsuichiro’s sophomoric no-budget eco-thriller Japan’s disposable culture has created a large man-made island of garbage in Tokyo Bay. Nicknamed “Island of Dreams” it is home to the downtrodden and disillusioned who eke out a living picking over other people’s refuse. One such inhabitant decides to send a wake-up call to society by targeting a nearby chemical factory with homemade bombs. But with his little friend suffering from pollution-induced asthma and the local cops on his tail, Alan soon finds out that acts of terrorism, no matter how justified they may seem, seldom attain their desired effect. To be fair, this little indie flick does show some promise of greater things to come. The soft B&W cinematography is well done and highlights the decaying urban landscapes in which our protagonists exist. Furthermore Tetsuichiro exhibits the beginning of an artistic awareness with his use of light and shadow and some striking visuals, whether it be a mound of mouldering garbage set against a smoggy sky, or a dead flower floating down a polluted sewer. To his credit, he does manage to capture the look and feel of those B-movie noir policiers from the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately he has not yet learned the art of subtlety. His film is chockfull of forced symbolism and cheap ironies that hit you like a tire iron to the back of the head, and his character’s long-winded monologues come across as so many Greenpeace rants. It’ll be interesting to see what he’s able to accomplish once he finishes film school though, and maybe gets a raise in his allowance.

(Indonesia): After his mother dies, twelve-year old Jaya is sent to live with his gruff and slovenly father, Johar, who manages a “jermal” or large fishing platform permanently anchored out at sea. Refusing to admit his paternity, Johar throws Jaya in with the other half dozen boys who work and live aboard the giant raft and sullenly retreats to his cabin leaving his mute assistant to manage things. Miserably homesick, Jaya’s plight begins to take on Dickensian overtones as he struggles through each grueling workday while suffering endless indignities at the hands of the older boys. But when its discovered he can read and write he gains a certain degree of respect from his shipmates who line up to have him write down their hopes and dreams in the form of letters; while one tells his mother outrageously exaggerated tales of his adventures at sea, another addresses long yearning messages to the whales which he places in bottles and throws into the water. As Jaya overcomes the older bullies and gains a new self-confidence he confronts his deadbeat dad and demands to know why he abandoned the family twelve years earlier in order to hide out on a jermal. When the truth is finally revealed it is hardly earth-shattering, but it does lead to a new understanding between the two, and the beginnings of a genuine father-son relationship. The directors do make a few awkward attempts at symbolism involving stock whale footage, a cricket in a box and a book jacket depicting a child’s hand wrapped in an adult’s, but despite all that Jermal remains a straightforward coming-of-age story. What it lacks in complexity it makes up for in pure chemistry between the two leads (the young protagonist carries the film single-handedly) and a simple, well-delineated storyline. Furthermore, the expert cinematography plays wide ocean vistas against the raft’s confined spaces adding a richness that compliments the ongoing narrative beautifully. A sincere and undemanding little gem.

Kamui (Japan): As a rule, whenever a movie is based on a “multi-volume manga” I generally give up on trying to follow the plot after the first ten minutes and instead just relax and enjoy the pyrotechnics. While Kamui’s storyline may be less convoluted than the usual ninja fare it still takes a backseat to all the flying warriors and improbable sword fights. Suffice to say, Kamui was a poor outcast who grew into a mighty ninja warrior but because he broke their secret code of honour (or something) he finds himself once more an outcast hunted not only by his one-time comrades but by an evil warlord to boot. He eventually manages to find some serenity amongst the simple folk of an isolated fishing village despite one of the fishermen being married to his former archrival, a sassy little ninjette with a sleeve full of daggers. But his relentless enemies are never far behind him and his respite proves all too brief. Yoichi’s brightly coloured carnival of a film is filled with the usual theatrics we’ve come to expect from the genre along with a few surprises; an underwater fight is pretty cool, a clash between two swordsmen is faintly reminiscent of Python’s Holy Grail, and then there’s the swarthy pirates and flying sharks. It’s all buoyed up by a sly sense of humour and appropriately grandiose cinematography which leaves you cheering and waiting patiently for the inevitable sequel. If this is your cup of tea you won’t be disappointed.

Kill Daddy Goodnight (Austria): There is a whole lot of unaddressed rage bubbling just beneath the surface of Glawogger’s brilliantly disturbing film. Ratz Kramer is a thirty-something slacker who bears a deep-seated, if ill-defined, grudge against his bureaucrat father which prompts him to develop a video game in which players can murder endless replicas of their own dads. His sister is acting out her own anger issues by holing up with skinheads and their newly divorced mother is an alcoholic living in denial. But unbeknownst to anyone Mr. Kramer is also struggling with his own secrets. Meanwhile, in New York City, Ratz’s old flame Mimi is reluctantly helping her grandmother hide her grandfather in a secret basement suite; he’s a Nazi war criminal who’s been wanted for over thirty years. Ratz embodies a curious mixture of social apathy and moral contradiction; he despises what his father “stands for” yet has no qualms over making a pass at his sister or flying to America to help Mimi renovate her grandfather’s hidey-hole. He even manages to make some money by selling his game independently on the internet after a software company turns it down for being too controversial. “You can make a game about genocide complete with blood and guns...” he’s advised, “...but in America we love our dads.” Eventually Ratz forms a tentative friendship with the old Nazi who becomes a warped reflection of his own father; both men have strong convictions and are willing to follow through on them. But when an unexpected tragedy strikes the family he finally experiences his first pangs of conscience. Aided by dark cinematography and a fantastic score of funereal instrumentals, Glawogger weaves a tangled nightmare of a film. As each player struggles with their own moral compass he bombards us with endless scenes of twisting roads, blinding blizzards and distorted television violence, punctuating the action now and then with crude video game characters shown running beside cars or peering through airplane windows. An entire generation is seen covering up their true selves; whether it’s Ratz projecting his self-hatred onto his father or Mimi’s endless collection of wigs. Apparently there’s a nazi in everyone’s cellar and it’s making their lives smell like shit. Whether it’s father or Fatherland, Glawogger’s plea for discourse and understanding hits you like a blast of icy wind. Bleak, confrontational, and totally absorbing.

Lebanon (Israel): Set during the first few days of the Lebanon War, Maoz’s harrowing film begins with an endless field of bright sunflowers beneath a dazzling blue sky. But upon closer observation you realize that all the blooms are facing downward as if afraid; or in mourning. This opening scene, along with a small denouement at the end, will be the only time we experience fresh air and natural light as the rest of the movie takes place within the confines of an army tank manned by four scared and inexperienced soldiers. Completely unprepared for the realities of war, the combination of gunfire and frayed nerves begins to show as military protocol breaks down and the men slowly give in to despair. But when they find themselves cut off from their battalion and surrounded by enemy snipers panicky suspense gives way to all out horror. Maoz masterfully maintains an aura of icy tension with the camera never straying far from a frightened face or nervous remark. His depiction of the tank’s interior with it’s sweating walls and dimly lit dials turns a widescreen presentation into a stiflingly claustrophobic experience; you can almost smell the oily fumes and sweating bodies. The men’s only connections with the outside world are the conflicting orders they receive over a staticky radio and the occasional appearance of their commanding officer who drops through the tank’s hatch in a blaze of sunlight like a divine messenger. At one point they’re required to transport the corpse of a recently killed soldier, at another they play jailers to a captured Syrian fighter who is just as terrified as they are. But the film’s true genius is the way in which it depicts the brutality of war through a telescopic gunsight; eviscerated bodies, dead children, burning homes...all the horrors surrounding the men are viewed through a pair of crosshairs with the screams reduced to muffled sighs by the tank’s metal walls. At several key points throughout the film civilians and soldiers alike stare directly into the lens, their blank haggard faces speaking volumes. Lebanon goes far beyond mere partisanship to deliver a damning indictment on the madness of war and the many casualties it inflicts. An unflinching condemnation delivered by a highly disciplined director.

Letters to Father Jacob (Finland): When she has her life sentence unexpectedly reversed after twelve years, stocky dour-faced Leila accepts a mysterious job offer from a country priest. Blind and getting on in years, Fr. Jacob needs someone to answer the many letters he receives from supplicants requesting prayers and spiritual advice (exactly why thousands of people write to this obscure little man is never explained). Naturally the hardened ex-con plays devil’s advocate to the gentle minister’s unshakeable faith. Naturally his kindly ways melt her icy heart leading to a tearful catharsis. And naturally there is a final farewell as she leaves inspired and transformed. Despite the pretty scenery and touching piano score this is a maudlin, manipulative and completely predictable weeper that isn’t even worth the price of a stamp.

Letter to a Child (Slovenia): Vlado Skafa uses grainy old film footage and a series of candid interviews to illustrate how our joys, fears and priorities change over the years. Starting with a lively group of schoolchildren and working his way up to adults he asks a few leading questions then turns the mic over to his interviewees. In between interviews we are treated to a blank screen and the scritch scratch sound of pencil on paper as Skafa’s voiceover waxes philosophical on everything from flowers to rowboats. There are some nice touches here as we see the simple worldview of children become the complicated rhetoric of adults and Skafa keeps his intrusions to a minimum. Unfortunately this type of documentary is only as interesting as its subjects and I soon found myself becoming more interested in what was happening in the background. Indeed, the interviews themselves are full of uncomfortable silences as each person tries desperately to think of something profound to say. Skip it.

The Maid (Chile): Dour-faced and glum, Raquel has been the maid for Mundo Pilar and his wife for over 20 years; long enough to raise their children and become acquainted with everyone’s little secrets and idiosyncrasies. You could say she’s become a family fixture...of course when push comes to shove her place in the hierarchy of things is made quite clear. But when Mrs. Pilar decides to take on a second maid to help with the chores Raquel’s crueler streak finds ample opportunities to assert itself as she harasses each new recruit until they quit in frustration; until the Pilar’s hire Lucy. Raquel’s opposite in almost every way, Lucy’s ebullient nature and warm heart soon break through the older maid’s cold exterior to reveal an unexpected vulnerability... I suppose one could see The Maid as a subtle critique of class relations in Latin America, or the struggle within the lower classes themselves as Raquel takes a few snide swipes at the first maid’s Peruvian heritage. While I certainly can’t disagree with those observations, this is first and foremost a beautifully realized tale of one woman’s personal growth delivered with sly candour and more than few gentle smiles. The Brady Bunch was never like this.

The Moroccan Labyrinth (Spain/Morocco): A documentary on how Spain’s history of colonialism in northern Morocco directly impacted the outcome of the Spanish Civil War. Native Moroccans, once enemies of the state, were actively recruited to be the shock troops of Franco’s army. Once the war ended however they were labeled illegal immigrants and deported back to Africa without any compensation or pension. Veiga’s overly long film could have used some ruthless editing to spare us 90 minutes of endless talking heads that range from modern historians and toothless old veterans. There is far too much repetition in their rants and recollections to hold your interest for long. A miss.

Morphia (Russia): Dr. Zhivago meets Trainspotting in this frequently engaging biopic of a woefully inexperienced young doctor assigned to a village clinic in 1917 Russia. Mikhail is not prepared for the sheer volume of seriously ill patients thrust upon him and often finds himself sneaking away in the middle of an operation in order to consult one of his dog-eared textbooks. But when he reacts violently to a typhoid vaccine and is given a therapeutic shot of morphine he begins a disastrous slide into addiction. As his need for a fix increases a Jekyll and Hyde personality develops; he’s the epitome of calm self-assurance when he’s flying, a quivering wreck when he’s not. Not only does he begin stealing morphine from the dispensary to feed his habit but he winds up getting his lover, a clinic nurse, hooked as well. After his drug use precipitates a terrible tragedy he finally admits himself into a psychiatric hospital to get cleaned up; only to emerge into a society gone mad with revolutionary zeal... Balabanow’s clever use of sepia-tinged lighting and B&W intertitles, along with lively piano interludes give his work the feel of a silent movie; a quality which heightens the impact of its darkly ironic final scene. Furthermore he immerses the audience in many of the clinic’s gorier sights, a leg amputation is especially unpleasant, which not only impart a keen sense of immediacy to the film but also make us feel some of the pressure thrust upon Mikhail. Not a masterpiece but well made and superbly acted.

Mother (Korea): Mrs. Yoon is a soft-spoken herbalist barely managing to support herself and her mentally challenged adult son, Do-Joon. But when the boy is accused of murdering a local teenager her maternal instincts go into overdrive and she refuses to believe he could do such a thing even though his own memories of what happened that fateful night are sketchy at best. Getting nowhere with the attorney she hired to take his case, she decides to do some amateur sleuthing herself with the aid of Do-Joon’s unsavory friend Jin-Tae. As the plot becomes increasingly tangled some sordid secrets are laid bare and a thread of truth begins to take shape. Meanwhile, however, Do-Joon is beginning to recall a few memories of his own including a childhood incident Mrs. Yoon would rather keep buried. This is a fast-paced joyride of a film laced with deadpan humour and exhilarating camerawork that has you running down alleyways and hiding in closets. But just when you’re thoroughly hooked you suddenly realize director Joon-Ho has been setting you up as he steers his film into darker territory complete with a few surprise twists and a brilliantly executed finale. Sharp, crisp, and featuring an incredible performance by Kim Hye-Ja as the frantic mother. Bravo!!

My Year Without Sex (Australia): After suffering a near fatal aneurysm, Natalie is warned by her doctors to spend the next year avoiding any stress that may exacerbate another bleed. Their rather stringent list proscribes, among other things, heavy lifting, straining on the toilet...and sex. Exactly how this married mother of three manages to keep her life on track and follow doctor’s orders is the subject of this charming little film from down under. Watt divides the story into twelve chapters with appropriately risqué titles, one for every month, then proceeds to fill each one with a well-balanced mix of pathos and stoic humour. Using a reluctantly chaste marriage as a vehicle she explores issues of love and faith while offering a tongue-in-cheek critique of our sex-obsessed society; as soon as intercourse is off the conjugal menu it suddenly appears that every magazine cover and billboard sports a pair of boobs or a well-rounded butt. As her marriage begins to suffer and her self-image takes a nosedive Katie seeks solace in everything from yoga to religion only to discover that there is no quick and easy answer to life’s harsher questions. Watt draws subtle parallels between the promises of Christianity and the childhood mythos of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy then goes on to explore the many little lies people tell themselves (and their children) in order to make the apparent randomness of the universe less frightening; is there really a guiding force in our lives or can everything be attributed to mere chance and luck? By challenging our expectations and steering clear of formulaic plot devices she moves beyond a one-joke script and instead delivers a heartfelt story of unexpected depth.

Night and Fog (Hong Kong): Ann Hui’s powerful film about domestic violence begins with a swirling confusion of police officers, reporters and hysterical women; a man has just murdered his wife and twin girls before unsuccessfully trying to take his own life. As the camera slowly pans over a framed photo of the family we catch our first glimpse of the victims; Ling’s shadowed eyes contrasting with her young daughters’ innocent smiles, and Lee’s intense stare create an indelible impression that sets the tone for the story which follows. Told mainly in flashbacks as the investigating detectives interview friends and witnesses, Hui gradually fleshes out the characters in the photo letting the full impact of their tragedy hit us only at the film’s conclusion. Born to a family of poor mainlanders, Ling was only too happy to be swept off her feet by Lee, a charming carpenter from sophisticated Hong Kong. But as job prospects dried up and frustrations mounted she became the target of his frequent jealous rages and fits of insecurity especially after she began earning her own paycheque while he collected unemployment. Faced with a overburdened social services system that stressed family unity over personal safety and a welfare hierarchy that discriminated against non-residents, Ling found herself constantly shuffling between a women’s shelter and her home. Even her mother pleaded with her to stay with Lee citing spousal abuse as just another one of life’s realities. Ling eventually realized that she must divorce Lee if she was ever going to feel safe, but first she had to go home one last time to pick up the children... Hui makes no secret as to where her sympathies rightfully lie, yet she refuses to demonize anyone. She presents each person as a complex character study, fully human, and her top-notch cast pulls it off magnificently. Although she doesn’t shy away from the final carnage, her use of frozen tableaux, slow motion, and an overriding musical score of haunting piano riffs express more horror than any verité approach; never has a child’s silent scream reverberated so loudly; nor a simple crayon drawing exuded such sadness. Brilliantly done.

Ninja Assassin (USA): When a pair of Europol agents start investigating rumors of secret ninja clans they get more action than they bargained for. It seems these highly trained “families” have existed for thousands of years, supporting themselves by providing ruthless assassins to anyone able to pay their exorbitant price; and they’ll do keep their existence hidden. As the agents get closer to the truth they are targeted for extermination but help arrives at the last minute in the form of a renegade ninja master who proves to be the only thing standing between them and a very messy demise. Quite simply, Ninja Assassin is the best film of this genre I’ve ever witnessed. The action is non-stop, the cinematography breathtaking and the frenzied fight scenes have to be seen to be believed. Throw credibility out the window though, this is pure martial arts fantasy with spinning bodies and flying cutlery giving rise to a virtual smorgasbord of gruesomely imaginative deaths. A wonderfully realized thriller that grabs you from the beginning and never lets go until the houselights come up. And yes, there will be blood.

Nora’s Will (Mexico): While she was alive, Nora took great delight in maintaining a subtle control over everyone around her, especially her estranged husband José. Even after her death nothing has changed; she has a pot of coffee waiting for whoever discovers the body, and the fridge is full of tupperware covered in post-it notes giving detailed instructions on how to prepare the Passover meal (she made her exit just before the Jewish holiday). Despite being divorced for twenty years, José finds himself deeply despondent and more than a little bit angry over his loss, especially when he discovers she may have been leading a secret life while they were married. As friends and family begin to show up at the apartment he does everything he can to sabotage the solemn affair whether it’s offering the rabbi a slice of bacon & sausage pizza or filling the apartment with Catholic paraphernalia. Things take a more serious turn however as one Jewish cemetery after another refuses to accept her body due to the circumstances surrounding her death... Chenillo has fashioned a delightfully human story which, despite the sombre subject matter, has ample moments of astute humour. She compares the divisiveness of religious orthodoxy, which often places ceremony above humanity, with the uniting power of love (and cooking!) and makes no secret as to where the real strength lies. A small treasure.

North (Norway): Ever since a terrible accident ended his skiing career, Jomar has been lost in a haze of alcohol and antidepressants. Working the lift at an alpine resort he can barely drag his hulking body out of bed long enough to heat a can of soup let alone do his job. But when he finds out he has a four-year old son from a former girlfriend who lives way up north he decides he has to see the boy and perhaps make peace with her as well. As the resort’s office building burns to the ground (Jomar is rather clumsy with matches) he loads up his snowmobile with booze and cigarettes and heads out with only the faintest idea as to where he’s going. What follows is a very likable off-road movie filled with the usual assortment of quirky characters and dry humour; before he finally reaches his destination Jomar will break a young girl’s heart, barely avoid getting run over by a tank, and discover a brand new use for tampons. Langlo knows when to actively elicit a hearty laugh and when to simply pull back and let things progress under their own momentum. Most of the humour is situational, relying on deadpan expressions, camera angles, and perfect timing to pull it off; and North’s cast and crew prove they are more than equal to the task. Langlo also makes great use of all those vast nordic landscapes, often using the keen sense of isolation to underscore some of the story’s more absurd elements. Thank God he has the grace to realize that these types of movies tend to run out of steam quickly and, at a mere 78 minutes in length, he manages to keep the laughs coming easily and then quits before things start to spoil. Very well done!

Police, Adjective (Romania): Cristi is a diligent police detective who’s been keeping tabs on Victor, a highschool student, as part of an ongoing drug investigation. Even though he’s observed the young man and his two friends regularly smoking pot, he’s convinced they are simply casual users and not hardened dealers. When his commander wishes to round the kids up in a sting operation Cristi objects, stating that the resultant criminal record will ruin an innocent boy’s life over something that is fast becoming legal throughout Europe anyway. Thus begins a war of words, quite literally, as the impatient commander challenges Cristi’s ethical objections. Porumboiu’s scathing look at bureaucracy and the moral apathy it creates is both relentless and marvelously understated. Composed of long static shots it conveys the meticulous tedium of a police stakeout and then compares it to the half second it takes for a commanding desk jockey to decide upon an ill-advised course of action. Along the way we are treated to prolonged scenes of paper shufflers going in and out of doors, stamping endless piles of documents or staring transfixed before computer monitors while engaging in the most mundane arguments. Everyone around Cristi seems to be overly concerned with spelling and syntax yet no one pays much attention to deeper meanings; while his wife argues with him over the words to a silly love song, his commander attacks his “moral objections” by consulting a Romanian dictionary as if it were a sacred tome. And in one of the film’s more sardonic moments, Cristi’s partner pores over a stack of newspaper titles looking for one he hasn’t read yet eventually muttering, “Let’s see what ‘The Truth’ has to say...”. In short, Porumboiu offers up an angry look at the plight of a conscientious objector caught up in a world of unquestioned rules and regulations. He wants to be an instrument of action and change, a “verb”, but instead finds himself pressured to assume the role of a passive descriptor. Will Cristi, whose name is a variation of “Christ”, triumph in the end or become a simple betrayer? Police, Adjective is a bitter polemic delivered with such low-keyed finesse that you’ll hardly even notice Porumboiu has ripped Romanian administration a new butthole.

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (USA): As a rule I tend to avoid anything that causes Oprah Winfrey to do backflips; be it a book, a person, or in the case of Precious, a movie. With this in mind I entered the theatre with very few expectations and was therfore neither surprised nor disappointed. Sixteen, pathologically obese, and carrying her father’s second child, Claireece “Precious” Jones is an inner city Cinderella whose prince is never going to come. Brutalized by her mother and on the verge of dropping out of school she finds what comfort she can in a series of vivid daydreams. Fortunately her principal recognizes her potential and enrolls her in an alternative classroom run by a highly motivated woman who refuses to accept failure in her students. With the help of her new teacher and an incisive social worker can Precious rise above her personal circumstances and become the strong independent woman she dreams of? There is much to like in Lee Daniels’ film; from the occasional flashes of humour to the crisp camerawork that moves easily from images of crushing squalor to the kinetic energy of Precious’ fantasies. In one painfully effective scene she’s lying helplessly on her back while her father rapes her when the ceiling suddenly bursts open to reveal a brightly lit stage upon which a coiffed and immaculately dressed Precious laughs and mugs before a mob of adoring paparazzi. Unfortunately Daniels weighs it down with every ghetto cliché he can think of while the accompanying musical score goes from weakly ironic to glaringly ostentatious. With happy white stereotypes on the television and a distinct lack of positive male characters (a few brief scenes involving a male nurse just don’t cut it) the entire production comes across as stilted and deliberately biased. The only thing that keeps it from becoming a conventional “soap oprah” is the phenomenal performances from all involved. I generally avoid the Oscars like a plague, but I predict we will see Gabourey Sidibe receive a best actress nomination for her portrayal of Precious, and Mo’Nique is almost a shoo-in for supporting actress as the mother. Destined to be a powerful and eye-opening experience for anyone who doesn’t get out to movies much.

Shameless (Czech Republic): A sparkling low-key comedy about falling in and out of love that favours wry humour over bitter hysterics. Local TV weatherman Oskar rolls over in bed one day and suddenly discovers his wife, Zuzana, has a huge nose. Of course it’s always been big, he’s just never really noticed it before and until now it hasn’t been an issue. This revelation proves to be the final straw in their relationship however; along with the lack of sex and his ongoing affair with their air-headed Hungarian au pair. While Oskar finds alternate lodgings and a new job (his weather predictions prove to be as reliable as his fidelity), Zuzana starts a tentative affair with a rugged hunk who finds her honker too adorable for words. Hrebejk applies the lightest of touches as he explores one couple’s disintegration and the fallout, both emotional and social, left in its wake. As Zuzana sticks with her new beau, thanks to some very funny encouragement from her feisty in-laws, Oskar finds himself adrift in a sea of possibilities after he breaks up with the babysitter; first a fling with an worldly chanteuse several years his senior followed by a most curious exchange with a former student from his days as a highschool coach. There are too many options today, his curmudgeonly father tells him at one point, people are so afraid of being alone that they end up alone. The veracity of that statement is left open but the film does end on a sweetly hopeful note aided along the way by a soundtrack of delightfully sappy love songs. Romantic without being cloying, truthful without being overly critical; think of it as a chick flick with balls.

Tales From the Golden Age (Romania): Set during the heyday of Ceausescu’s reign, ironically referred to as the “Golden Age”, five directors offer up five different tales ostensibly based on “urban myths” popular at the time (like food shortages and an unbiased press). The film starts with a laugh-out-loud satire showing how far one town is willing to go in order to impress visiting party members, and ends with a softly nuanced tale of yearning and unrequited love as an unhappily married truck driver tries to connect with the beautiful owner of a country inn. Along the way there are bottle thieves, gaseous pigs and a lesson in creative photojournalism, communist-style. At almost 2½ hours it does tend to drag in parts but the underlying humanity at its core shines throughout. A pleasant little grab bag of a movie.

Trash Humpers (USA): Harmony Korine fashions a poisoned Valentine, attaches it to a heart-shaped box of assorted turds and whips it directly at his southern white trash roots. Presented as a barrage of unrelated clips, Trash Humpers has no real beginning and no end much like a continuous peepshow loop; only far more interesting. The “stars” of this cinematic roadkill are three actors dressed up as grandparents from Hell (think geriatric version of Jackass) who provide a perverted Greek chorus to eighty minutes of murder, mayhem and moonshine. When they’re not dragging dollies behind their dirt bikes or passing out in parking lots they can be seen getting their rocks off by rubbing against trash cans, fence posts and refrigerators. Along the way we see grandma teach a young boy the proper way to insert a razor blade into an apple, an obese hooker in a thong fondle grandpa’s crotch while crooning “Silent Night”, and a pair of Siamese twins joined at the head by a nylon stocking. And the entire freak show is presented like a poor quality video complete with skips, static and onscreen menus as if the production team accidentally found it floating in someone’s septic tank. But beneath the grotesque imagery there lurks a vein of angry nihilism as the notion of “southern culture” is ripped to shreds only to reemerge as a monstrous parody of itself. Vitriolic condemnation or gratuitous train wreck? Somehow I don’t think Korine gives a fuck.

We Live in Public (USA): Josh Harris was a young mogul in the early 90s who went from total obscurity to having a net worth of 80 million dollars before losing it all and fleeing the country to avoid his creditors. Long before Facebook came into being Harris foresaw a future where everyone would have their private lives broadcast on the internet for all to watch, turning Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” into a daily allowance. After a disastrous reality-based web show in which he placed a host of volunteers in a closed environment for a month so that subscribers could watch every aspect of their lives 24/7, he proceeded to turn the lens on himself and his girlfriend. Cameras were placed throughout the apartment (including one in the toilet bowl) so people could follow their every move, including the eventual demise of their relationship and his impending mental breakdown. Timoner’s incisive documentary paints a disturbing picture of a man obsessed with being loved and adored yet unable to relate in any meaningful way with another human being; he even sends his dying mom a “farewell” tape in lieu of actually visiting her. It’s this arctic relationship with his mother which proves pivotal in understanding his many demons. Abandoned in front of a television all day and left to fend for himself, Harris felt more connected to the TV characters he saw than his own family. He quickly found that on the internet he could not only reinvent himself, but rewrite his past as well with failed ventures becoming “experiments” and the woman who broke his heart becoming a “false girlfriend”. But when the director casts a baleful eye on the destructive potential of the internet itself as it exploits some of our fundamental desires, namely intimacy and recognition, we can’t help but feel a certain degree of complicity. In today’s fame-obsessed faux reality culture, We Live in Public is a bitter pill indeed.

Where Are You?
(Japan): With his mother dying in hospital and his deadbeat dad shacked up with a younger woman, fifteen-year old Ryo barely gets by on the money he makes working at a convenience store. But when he’s fired for stealing food and his mother dies leaving him with thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills he finds his already limited options quickly disappearing. As the authorities begin closing in on him he abandons the dilapidated shack he’d been calling home and sets out on a desperate trek to find his father. Masahiro certainly has a knack for conveying unhappiness as his camera follows a shuffling, slump-shouldered Ryo down interminable dusty sidewalks. He has the mic turned up full strength in order to catch every sniffle and heart-wrenching sob; never have footsteps across a gravel parking lot sounded so loud. And even though our wretched protagonist doesn’t exactly have a rain cloud above his head he seems to be dogged at every turn by a rather vociferous horde of unseen crows. Its this unrelenting suffering, along with some illogical plot devices (why would the hospital’s accounting department go after a minor?) that ultimately do the film in. We are bombarded with so much contrived pathos that we become immune to it. That’s a shame as Masahiro does show he’s capable of some finesse; an unobtrusive poster of a soccer team seems to mock Ryo’s dream of becoming a professional player for instance, and there is a poignancy to his occasional forays through a nearby forest where he finds a certain degree of solace in a beached sky-blue rowboat. Masahiro chooses to drown his characters in a sea of misery instead, when a few well-placed puddles would have been far more effective.

The White Ribbon (Austria): The story takes place in a small insular community somewhere in Austria, circa 1916. You immediately get the impression that the village of Eichwald is controlled by more than one iron fist; the baronial landowner makes it clear to everyone that he is in charge while the dour preacher keeps them in their proper place. Crushed between the oppressive forces of Authoritarianism and Religion, the children of Eichwald are kept in a constant state of fear and confusion; some are subjected to physical and sexual abuse, while others are simply humiliated. The pastor even forces his children to wear white ribbons to accentuate their sinfulness and need for purity; but violence begets violence, and children learn from their parents. After an incident of sabotage aimed at the local doctor, a few children go missing only to turn up horribly beaten and unable to name their assailants. An aura of suspicion descends upon the village and impassioned accusations, akin to a witch hunt, begin to fly but to no avail. As the tension in Eichwald becomes unbearable the first reports of impending WWI begin to appear. Shot in austere B&W Haneke uses an isolated community as an analogy for a world poised on the brink of war. From the harsh dictates of God and King to the suffering of the innocents, Eichwald is rife with tyrannies and rebellion. Even the white armbands, meant to instill goodness and discipline, become a rallying symbol of quite another sort. The baroness rightfully sums up the place as being full of “malice, envy, brutality and apathy” as she packs up her privileged children and flees to Italy. Usually the master of the twisted enigma, this is perhaps Haneke’s most accessible film to date yet he does not sacrifice substance for the sake of coherence. Cruel, ruthless and chilling to the bone.

Who’s Afraid of the Wolf (Czech Republic): Six-year old Terezka adores the story of Little Red Riding Hood and insists on having her parents read it to her every night even though if often results in bad dreams as the hairy protagonist chases her through endless forests. As if the these nightmares aren’t enough, her little schoolmate has also convinced her that extraterrestrials are rampant and they possess the ability to mimic anyone; even parents. So it comes as no surprise that when Terezka’s peaceful home life is thrown into disarray by the sudden appearance of her mother’s old boyfriend, an arrival which causes a suspicious amount of hostility and discomfort between her parents, the tiny moppet immediately suspects the worst; the aliens have landed and they’ve taken over her mother. In trying to filter much of the story through the eyes of a highly impressionable youngster Prochazkova relies heavily on fairy tale archetypes, often superimposing childish drawings over live action scenes while Terezka provides a narrative voiceover. Unfortunately the overall effect is one of cloying sweetness which is further hampered by an acute lack of any chemistry between the main characters; the little lead is especially bland as she spouts reams of annoying prattle obviously meant to sound like childish wisdom. Filled with precious dialogue, cardboard characters, and a wholly predictable Disney ending, this little fluffball will have you rooting for the wolf.

Will Not Stop There (Croatia): Martin, a private investigator working in Zagreb, is obsessed with locating an actress he spied in a Serbian-produced porn movie. To this end he travels to Belgrade where he meets up with the male lead, a well-hung gypsy named Duro whose wife believes he’s making a living by playing his other instrument, the cello. Following Duro’s instructions he eventually manages to locate the woman only to find her a drunken prostitute in thrall to an abusive pimp. After raising the necessary cash to buy her freedom, Martin brings her back to his home in Croatia and so begins a tender, hesitant love story. At first suspicious of Martin, Desa gradually warms up to her unlikely benefactor while a series of flashbacks slowly reveal the real motives behind his actions. When the truth is finally exposed, along with an unforeseen twist, some painful decisions have to be made as each partner is forced to reassess their relationship. There is a very Slavic thread of fatalistic resignation throughout Bresan’s impressive film which underscores both its romantic and tragic elements while the many instances of dark humour maintain a sense of balance. Duro’s ongoing wry commentary is especially effective, adding an extra touch of humanity which keeps things grounded. Of course there is a strong political subtext to the story as Martin’s army buddies look upon his Serbian lover with hatred and contempt despite their own highly questionable business dealings; but first and foremost this is a tale of contrition and forgiveness culminating in a wonderfully bittersweet ending. Definitely one of this year’s highlights.

Written By (Hong Kong): Ten years after her family was involved in a horrific car crash which killed her father and left her blind, twenty-two year old Melody is well on her way to becoming an established writer. Unfortunately, despite returning to school and earning several degrees, her mother is still weighted down with grief over her dead husband. As a way to help her mother move forward Melody decides to write a novel about the accident using input from both her mom and younger brother, Oscar. In this alternate version of events it is the father who becomes the sole survivor while the rest of the family perish. Blinded and desperately lonely he decides to write a novel in which his family comes back to him as loving ghosts. As each story within a story takes on a life of its own it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish which characters are real and which are fictional; who is writing, and who is being written about. Wai Ka-fai’s charming multi-layered fantasy is both a celebration of the written word and a loving testament to the enduring power of memory. The action moves fluidly from one storyline to the other, often intersecting with results both humorous and tragic. There are moments of pure magic amongst the tears though, as when the family apartment, furniture and all, is relocated to a cemetery while the husband sleeps obliviously on the couch, and a humble little cable car becomes a ferry to the next world. Wai eventually does tie up everything nicely in the end while implying that there may be an unspoken third author at work. I found myself enjoying this little gem despite some unnecessarily tangled plot devices and the occasional syrupy slip into Disney territory. But the fact that it sidestepped my own inherent cynicism is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give.

The Young Victoria (Canada/UK): Jean Vallée’s sumptuous period piece covers the year leading up to Victoria’s coronation at the tender age of nineteen. Born into a royal house where hidden agendas flowed like wine, the young princess was torn between the wishes of two powerful uncles, a fickle parliament, and a mother who wished to rule as regent until Victoria turned twenty-five. “Even a palace can be a prison...” she laments at one point; but the future monarch proved to be more clever than her distractors gave credit for and went from royal pawn to master player seemingly overnight. She eventually met her match in the dashing Prince Albert, a distant cousin from the house of Saxe-Coburg, and their marriage grew into a most loving and productive partnership. Historical politics aside, Young Victoria is a gorgeously filmed romance in the grand old tradition. Vallée fills the screen with opulent sets aglow in soft shades of crimson and gold while paying the most meticulous attention to costume, hairstyles and jewellery, yet he offsets the grandiose scenery with characters that are fully realized and all too human. Emily Blunt plays the title role with a convincing mixture of vulnerable naiveté and cold determination complimented at every turn by Rupert Friend’s intelligent portrayal of the passionate (and oh so cute) prince. From their hesitant first meetings to their wedding night embraces, Vallée sweeps you up in a romantic flurry of colourful pageantry and candlelit whispers that never disappoints right up to the final credits. A perfect antidote to some of this year’s darker fare.

ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction (USA): When a plague of zombies descend upon tranquil Port Gamble Washington, America’s multiple paranoias are suddenly made flesh (rotting flesh) as friends and neighbours become infected and begin knocking down doors in search of human prey. Into this wild mix are thrust a handful of people including a gay couple, a young Iranian-American woman, a right wing preacher and a left-leaning mayoral candidate. Blaming everyone from homosexuals to Moslem extremists the town’s more conservative elements initiate a campaign of vigilante justice targeting anyone who falls outside their narrow view of what is morally and socially acceptable; whether it involves torturing a confession out of the young woman or attempting to “cure” the gay couple with a peculiar form of aversion therapy. There are a few good frights here and some blood-soaked special effects that owe more to Monty Python than George Romero. Furthermore some parts are truly funny, I’m still chuckling over the “little girl” scene and the children’s drawings towards the end are priceless; but as a social satire it is just too ham-fisted to be very effective. Instead of subtle jabs we are treated to a series of thinly veiled sermons on tolerance and equality lifted right from a Civil Liberties handbook. Despite a few inspired moments I have to give this one a pass.