PICKS AND PANS FROM THE VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2018





Becoming Astrid
(Sweden): Biopic of celebrated author Astrid Lindgren who, in a career spanning ninety-five years, became one of the world’s most beloved writers of children’s books especially the Pippi Longstockings series which exemplified female empowerment before the term was even coined. As an aging Astrid opens fan mail from schoolchildren, her mind drifts back to her teen years growing up in a rural farming community. Always wilful and headstrong, Astrid rebelled against the stifling rules imposed by parents upon daughters until an unwanted pregnancy at the age of sixteen (quite a scandal in 1923) turned her life completely inside out. Director Pernille Fischer Christensen avoids hysterical clichés—Astrid’s churchgoing parents are upset but don’t turn into ogres; the baby’s father doesn’t skip town; Astrid stands tall—but despite a fine cast which includes Danish treasure Trine Dyrholm and newcomer Alba August in the lead role, the story only spans four years and never touches on Astrid’s writing career at all except for a taped message sent by a classroom of adoring fans. Interesting enough but not very engaging.

Birds of Passage (Colombia): A dynastic crime drama to rival Scarface or The Godfather, Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s sad tale of lives undone is unique in that it is told from the perspective of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu people. Two families, united by blood but rent asunder by the highly competitive drug trade that has made them both rich, abide by an uneasy truce until the balance is irrevocably destroyed by one man’s gross misstep… Violently realistic yet coloured by spiritual metaphors both native and colonial Catholic with totems and spirit dreams vying with whitewashed tombs and biblical plagues as an entire people slowly lose their cultural identity and collective soul.

Burning (Korea): After a chance encounter on a busy street reunites them, fledgling author Jongsu and his childhood friend Haemi have a lukewarm one-night stand. But when Haemi returns from a trip to Africa with new boyfriend Ben in tow a smouldering jealousy takes hold, for the handsome, wealthy Ben is everything the plain, dumpy Jongsu only wishes he could be. However, a freaky confession and bizarre turn of events soon have Jongsu convinced that something sinister is lurking behind Ben’s affable smile… Social commentary on Korea’s nouveau riche takes a backseat in Chang-dong Lee’s slow-burning psychodrama which borrows a few cues from Hitchcock as it casually applies the thumbscrews right up until that final incendiary climax. But the director adds a few twists of his own to this tale of a writer determined to solve a mystery when he can’t even keep his own characters and storylines straight. Look for a couple of wry cameos from Donald Trump and Schrödinger’s cat.

Chris the Swiss (Switzerland): When she was just a child Anja Kofmel’s favourite grown-up cousin, Chris, was found murdered in Croatia where he had been working as a journalist covering the Yugoslavian war—his body curiously clad in a mercenary uniform. Years later, with her cousin’s diaries in hand, Anja retraces his steps in order to understand exactly what happened. With an actor reading from his journals and talking heads offering some background, Kofmel’s amazing documentary uses gut-wrenching B&W animated sequences to try and fill in the blanks with the machineries of war morphing into hordes of flesh-eating insects and ill-defined enemies resolving and dissolving into jagged black shards. A troubling story of an idealist caught up in a dirty war fraught with madmen and zealots.

Climax (France): Aspiring dancers hopeful to nab a part in a big international stage production meet at a remote auditorium for an all-night rehearsal. But what was supposed to be a fun jam session spirals out of control after someone spikes the sangria… As inhibitions peel away beautifully choreographed club moves turn into something dark and tribal, libidos run wild, and the group’s initial bonhomie descends into paranoia and anarchy. And then things get really bad. A nihilistic set piece in which even the cameras lose their shit as they swoop and hover (often upside-down) over writhing bodies or else stagger down tilting hallways awash in hellish shades of red chased by the distant echoes of screams and drum beats. Breathtaking and horrifying, shocking and grimly mocking, but what does it all mean? It’s damnation reimagined as a carnival madhouse. It’s a medieval danse macabre updated for a wired generation. It’s a study of the human animal once the veneers have been burned away. It’s Gaspar Noe at his most mesmerizing assuring us that existence is meaningless.

Colette (UK): Middling Hollywood-style biopic rich in period detail but content to embellish surface details alone. In fin-de-siècle Paris country waif Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette makes a name for her husband by writing a series of racy novels under his name (female authors considered publishing poison at the time). But as their private life begins to reflect that of her liberated heroine—they both share a lover, she explores her bi side—Sidonie, now calling herself Colette, begins to chafe at the constraints placed upon her especially after her husband commits the ultimate betrayal. As the titular protagonist Keira Knightley huffs, puffs, and pouts in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance while Dominic West as her rakish husband plays the male chauvinist foil. Wonderfully detailed but ultimately the type of pedestrian “film with a message” that wins Audience Favourite awards from people who don’t get out to the movies much.

Cold War (Poland): Pawel Pawlikowski reduces East-West tensions following WWII to a rambling tale of l’amour fou and the results are less than staggering. Following the hot and cold love affair between lovestruck pianist Viktor and cavalier chanteuse Zula from their first meeting in 1949 to a final goodbye in 1964, we see their obsessive, often destructive, relationship reflected in Poland’s own struggle with national identity and the dictates of Moscow. But there is no passion, no onscreen empathy, and instead we are left with two clueless people repeatedly sabotaging their lives for no reason we can readily identify with. Perhaps those who actually lived through that era of deprivation and propaganda might see a different movie? Sumptuously filmed however in rich shades of black and white with a glorious score that ranges from rousing folk chorales to backstreet jazz.

Dogman (Italy): David and Goliath go clubbing in Matteo Garrone’s pitch black urban bedtime story. Resolutely spineless dog groomer Marcello (a cadaverous Marcello Fonte) supplements his income by dealing drugs, a sideline which attracts the attentions of resident bad guy Simone, a coke-snorting psychopathic pit bull. Perhaps drawn to Simone’s violently alpha-male disposition, Marcello ingratiates himself into the thug’s life leading to a bloody spiral of betrayal and retribution that begins in a heavenly nightclub and ends in a concrete circle of Hell. But only the dogs have souls.

The Favourite (Ireland/UK): It’s the 18th century and England is waging a ruinous war with France on the continent while facing the threat of civil unrest from within by a gentry tired of rising taxes. Meanwhile, in the court of mad Queen Anne (a deliciously unhinged Olivia Colman) two women vie to be their monarch’s favourite attendant—Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) who practically rules the land in Anne’s name already, and upstart Abigail (Emma Stone), formerly of a noble family now reduced to being a scullery maid but with aspirations to rival those of any empress. And both women will stop at nothing, absolutely nothing, to win the Queen’s favour. Yorgos Lanthimos has gutted the historical epic genre and rebuilt it from the ground up in what has to be one of this year’s most outlandish and daring cinematic treats. All the trappings are still there—the wigged and powdered dandies, ridiculously rococo sets, a pervasive air of decadence and decay—but he pushes the envelope to dizzying, near slapstick lengths with scandalous dialogue peppered by clever obscenities and an escalating bitch fight that sees lords and ladies alike snapping at one another’s meticulously stockinged heels. And it’s all filmed in his tightly controlled yet grandiose style using long sweeping shots and lighting which makes those drop dead interiors sparkle with sunlight or else turn to burnished gold with the light of a thousand nighttime candles. Palace intrigue is played for a laugh, sexual politics is turned on its ear, and poor Britannia walks away with two black eyes and a vase full of vomit.

Fugue (Poland): A woman emerges from a Warsaw subway tunnel dazed and filthy with no memory of who she used to be. Eventually reunited with a family she can’t remember—including a husband and toddler—“Alicja” exhibits an unwarranted animosity to everyone around her while her husband responds with an emotional ambivalence of his own. But to whom is Alicja’s anger directed, and what lies behind her terrifying nightmares? Agnieszka Smoczynska draws upon horror tropes and dysfunctional dynamics to produce a low-keyed psychological puzzle box firmly rooted in the now yet giving in to the occasional cryptic flourish. Images of stars—on bedspreads, murals, and upholstery—combine with wide angle views of a restless sea to tell a tale of grief and resolution which ultimately brings home the fact that one doesn’t have to die in order to find themselves in purgatory.

The Guilty (Denmark): Temporarily demoted to 911 operator, street cop Asgerd Holm is preparing for the usual night of dispatching ambulances and paddy-wagons to minor mishaps. His shift takes a deadly turn however when he begins receiving cryptic phone calls from a panicked woman who’s been kidnapped by her abusive ex-husband. Overstepping professional boundaries Asgerd tries to coordinate the resultant search and rescue himself, a decision which will cause him to face a few demons of his own—both professional and personal. In the same vein as Steven Knight’s Locke (2013), Gustav Möller confines his film to a finite space, in this case a small office, with only his protagonist physically present while the background drama unfolds via Asgerd’s headset and computer screen. Star Jakob Cedergren puts forth a powerful presence as a man torn in too many directions while a superb cast ratchet up the suspense using only their telephone voices. Amazing.

The Happy Prince (UK): There’s no doubt that Rupert Everett had his heart in the right place when he decided to write, direct, and star in this biopic tracing the final years of Oscar Wilde. But even his good intentions cannot overcome some sloppy editing and jarring temporal shifts that are more dizzying that dazzling. After spending two years in prison for his homosexuality, years that saw him fall from London society to begging for drinking money in the gutters of Paris, Wilde looks back on his life while contemplating his impending mortality. Everett puts in a passionate performance as the playwright who valued beauty and love above all else only to be denied both in the end, but despite the occasional bon mot and angry flourish his Wilde comes across as something static and broken with little to suggest the terrible wit behind those haunted eyes. Colin Firth and Edwin Thomas play his remaining two friends with suitable gravitas while Emily Watson makes the most from her few walk-ons as his estranged wife and Colin Morgan runs hot and cold as the tempestuous lover who precipitated Wilde’s downfall when news of their dalliance reached the wrong ears. A lesson on a shameful chapter in English history—according to an end title some 75,000 gay men faced similar fates—which ultimately suffers from too many time jumps as Wilde’s memories offer up nice scenery but precious little insight.

The Heiresses (Paraguay): The title of Marcelo Martinessi’s quiet drama is misleading, for elderly lovers Chela and Chiquita have fallen on hard times making it necessary to sell off most of their prized possessions. Things go from bad to worse when Chiquita is sent to prison on fraud charges leaving the overly timid Chela alone with no one but the maid for company. Opportunity comes knocking however in the form of a group of rich old ladies in need of a chauffeur and Chela is soon running an impromptu taxi service—which is how she meets Angy. Younger, vivacious, and dripping with sensuality, Angy is everything Chela is not and the carnal temptation she presents is almost too much. But, as the older woman soon realizes, what we desire and what we actually need are not always the same thing… Perfectly downplayed performances and camerawork bordering on verité give Martinessi’s film a sense of grounded reality while some clever musical cues and shuttered light give insight to Chela’s whirling emotions. Unfortunately this is a beautiful short film that has been needlessly padded to feature length and the resultant glacial pacing is too often an endurance test. Still, it’s refreshing to see a movie with a strong, sixty-ish woman proving that you’re never too old to come of age.

Holiday (Denmark): Naive and not too bright, Sascha meets up with her much older boyfriend Michael, a sadistic drug dealer living a life of savage luxury on the coast of Turkey. Numbed by narcotics and Michael’s penchant for abusive sex, Sascha is taken aback when she meets Dutch ex-pat Tomas, a soft-spoken globetrotter who seems to embody all the goodness Micheal lacks. A triangle of affection develops (mostly in Sascha’s mind) that sees her torn between the darkness and the light—but it’s the psychological chasm in between which brings about her final sea change… Rarely has a director presented such repulsive people with such depth and cunning—from soulless Michael and his family of decadent boors to Sascha’s addled doormat of a trophy chick—and first-timer Isabella Eklöf pulls it off with consummate skill. An uncompromisingly brutal story of a witless naif turned bottle blonde valkyrie wherein even the swimming pool contains a leering crocodile and a child’s t-shirt encourages you to “Be Nothing”.

In My Room (Germany): Television cameraman Armin is not having a good time of it: he’s close to losing his job; his grandmother is dying; and he’s on the outs with his estranged parents. It’s only fitting then that he wakes up one morning after a self-pity bender to discover everyone has disappeared. Ulrich Köhler’s bland exercise in “What If…” doesn’t explain where the entire human race went (his protagonist doesn’t even question it) nor does it explain how someone goes from bumbling urbanite to being able to plough a field, build a miniature hydroelectric dam, and become an expert seamstress seemingly overnight. And by the time a mysterious car pulls up in Armin’s driveway the audience couldn’t care less either. Avoid this turkey even if it is the last movie on Earth.

Jonathan (USA): New York preppie Jonathan starts every day in the exact same manner. He’s up at seven, goes for a run, showers, then watches a most peculiar video recording in which an even more peculiar narrator informs him about everything he did the previous day. To say more would be to lessen the enjoyment of this remarkable little indie feature in which first-time filmmaker Bill Oliver takes a tired old sci-fi trope and turns it into something unexpectedly moving. A psychological bender with a tender heart that addresses issues of family ties, sibling rivalry, and the various ways in which we define ourselves.

Keep An Eye Out (France): Perry Mason meets Monty Python in Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist comedy. A murder suspect’s all-night interrogation takes a turn for the bizarre when the detective handling the case begins to ask too many strange questions causing the suspect’s memories to take a nosedive into the surreal. As in his underground classic Rubber (2010) Dupieux has fun turning tables and pushing envelopes while reminding us that it’s only a film—only this time he doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as lift it above our heads. And the ridiculous banter, delivered with impossibly straight faces, calls to mind the best of contemporary Romanian comedy.

Last Summer (UK): It’s summertime circa 1970s and pre-teen Davy is all set for another fun holiday in the Welsh countryside with his older brother and two other friends when they witness an unspeakable crime. Now at the mercy of a well-meaning adult world they cannot understand, the four boys find their lives forever changed—a prospect Davy is not willing to accept without a fight. Despite the beautiful scenery and stellar performances from its diminutive foursome, director Jon Jones steps into a few too many “Boy vs World” potholes with Noa Thomas’ Davy gaping in befuddlement while grown-up stereotypes either smile pontifically or screw things up even further, usually in a very loud voice. And the use of animal familiars—the dreamlike owl and yappy dog no one wants—served little purpose. Making a film from a child’s point of view is not an easy task and this unsubtle mix of hysteria and nostalgia missed almost every mark. Lastly, the decision to end it all with a hokey mix of blood and treacle was the final nail.

Leto (Russia): It’s sex and drugs and rock & roll in Kirill Serebrennikov’s raucous phantasmagorical biopic centred on Viktor Tsoy who managed to buck soviet censors to become one of that country’s underground New Wave sensations à la Blondie, Bowie, and Lou Reed. Focused more on the legend rather than the man, Serebrennikov’s grungy B&W vision of a 1980s Leningrad teeming with clean-cut groupies, chain-smoking artistes, and uptight town councils is enhanced by a kick-ass soundtrack and unexpected flights of fancy in which the everyday is transformed into a series of surreal music videos complete with edgy animation and babushkas singing back-up. And just to add a touch of mock gravitas one of Tsoy’s cronies repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in order to inform us that “..this never happened…” Features ultimate renditions of The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and David Bowie’s “All The Young Dudes”. Rock on comrade!

Liquid Truth (Brazil): A troubled eight-year old boy accuses his swimming instructor of an inappropriate act and the fallout threatens to ruin the man’s life. Director Carolina Jabor wisely avoids casting the boy into the spotlight (his accusation is only mentioned secondhand) but instead concentrates on the reactions of his estranged parents: dad is more concerned with people questioning his son’s sexuality while mom takes to the internet as both judge and jury, her self-righteousness increasing with every “Like” she receives on WhatsApp. As gossip morphs into certainty before the police investigation even begins, the instructor (who is not quite the innocent lamb) sees friends pulling away, including his once supportive boss, and harsh looks turning into physical violence. Comparing favourably to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, Jabor goes one step further to show how social media caters to the mob mentality and “guilty until proven guilty” has become the new online mantra in this age of instant outrage and viral justice.

Mega Time Squad (New Zealand): A petty crook stumbles upon the secret of time travel and uses it to create a criminal gang of identical self-copies who all share the dream of getting rich by confusing the hell out of bank tellers and crime bosses alike. But temporal tampering comes with a supernatural price tag not to mention the complications which arise when one’s doppelgängers turn out to be total dicks. The laughs are mostly of the juvenile variety with ridiculous performances and an upstairs-downstairs chase sequence that looks as if it was plagiarized from an old Scooby Doo cartoon. A great deal of fun if you’re ten-years old.

Mirai (Japan): Jealous of his new baby sister, four-year old Kun begins acting out, making life near impossible for mom and dad. But he gets a lesson or two in love and family ties when he stumbles upon a magical oak tree with the power to transport him back and forth in time. A wonderful piece of anime which brings one little boy’s fantastical daydreams to vivid life whether it be a bonding moment with his long deceased great-grandfather or a menacing bullet train to Hell.

Mug (Poland): With his ridiculous mullet and library of acid rock, easygoing metalhead Jacek is a bit of a black sheep with his family and a pariah in the nearby village where he works on a construction team tasked with building a giant statue of Jesus to rival that of Rio de Janeiro. But a horrific industrial accident and subsequent face transplant (Poland’s first) transforms his rakish good looks into a drooling monster prompting friends, family, and neighbours to rethink their commitment to Christian charity. Malgorzata Szumowska’s sociopolitical satire certainly has its ducks lined up from the self-serving clergy to the televised cult of celebrity, but her reach is too broad and her arrows too dull to inflict much damage.

No One Will Ever Know (Mexico): Living the life of a peasant in Mexico’s hinterland yet harbouring big city dreams, Lucia augments her humdrum life with radio telenovelas and vivid Wild West fantasies wherein a handsome outlaw sweeps her off her feet and out the door. Sadly, her husband Rigo’s ability to dream has been whittled away by the realities of being poor and uneducated making Lucia even more determined to follow her own—a resolve which will exact a terrible price. First time director Jesús Torres Torres needs a better editor for his next project—this movie could have ended twice before it actually did—but its sense of longing and discontent is expertly handled without stooping to cheap stereotypes (no, Rigo neither drinks nor abuses his wife). Torres also manages to deliver a glancing blow to Mexico’s class system where even a person’s hairstyle marks them as inferior while a subtle sexism sees Lucia’s son sharing her reveries while the daughter is content to simply clear the table. But it’s the fantasy sequences which won me over, shot in B&W and tinged by Sergio Leone and John Ford.

One Cut of the Dead (Japan): What does a hack director do when the set of his B-movie zombie flick is invaded by real legions of the living dead? Why, keep filming of course! Both a loving ode to filmmaking and a hilarious send-up of those who make it happen, Ueda Shinichiro’s gonzo comedy—a film within a film…within another film—is one of this year’s most unexpected pleasures and his cast of screaming starlets, clueless pop stars, and faded hacks prove to be the perfect foils for his skewed sense of humour. Starts off with one continuous 37-minute tracking shot filled with cheesy blood-soaked exploitation before losing steam in the middle, but be sure to stay for the final half when the director plays his ace in the form of a drawn out punchline that will have you howling. Great fun!

Patrimony (Czech Republic): While going through his belongings, Tereza comes across a puzzling clue which suggests her recently deceased father had been leading a secret life. Despite her own personal problems she coaxes her curiously reluctant mother to join her on a car ride through the Czech countryside armed with a list of dad’s old flames and a desire to uncover the truth… Jirí Vejdelek’s lightweight yet warmhearted road movie works on so many levels—as a healing journey between mother and daughter; as a family mystery; and as a lesson in how the past is never quite what it seems depending on the angle with which you view it. An uplifting comedy that manages to throw in a few tears with the belly laughs only slightly marred by a resolution so convoluted it borders on the absurd. Or was that the intention all along? Nice aerial tracking shots of hills and vales too.

Petra (Spain): The old axioms do not hold true in Jaime Rosales’ remarkably mean-spirited family drama, for truth holds no beauty and revenge is best supped while still lukewarm. Thirty-three year old artist Petra is searching for answers to a childhood mystery, a journey which leads to a dead end in the home of celebrated sculptor Jaume where she insinuates herself as an eager apprentice. Cozying up to Jaume’s fading trophy wife Marisa and handsome son Lucas, Petra unwittingly becomes engulfed in an atmosphere of emotional cruelty which will slowly but surely lead her to the brink… Shot with a cold detachment in which even the camera wanders off its mark (often while characters are still speaking) and misery is divided into convenient chapters, Rosales underscores the film’s more operatic passages with solemn chorales that hint at a divine intervention which never seems to arrive. Fine performances all around but the movie find’s its dark heart in Joan Botey as Jaume, his soft-spoken grandfatherly demeanour belying a soul of pure ice and malice. Rosales may delight in pulling the rug out from under us before giving the knife one final twist, but at least he has the decency to toss us a line just before the screen fades to black.

Pity (Greece): After his wife recovers from an extended coma, a prosecuting attorney finds that he really misses the extra attention he once received from well-meaning neighbours and colleagues. Desperate to recapture that sympathy he resorts to lies and a succession of increasingly bizarre schemes… Babis Makridis’ deadpan comedy takes a case of Munchausen Syndrome to its logical extreme and in so doing turns out one of this year’s guiltiest pleasures. As if to underscore his protagonist’s addiction to pity he places him in a world where apathy is the norm—blank faces and monotones are de rigueur—and then heaps on the irony by having him work in a profession where emotional manipulation is key to winning cases. Finally, heavenly choirs and a succession of intertitles, all paeans to woe and suffering that read like a madman’s diary, add a sobriety that only heightens the film’s discomfiting sense of the absurd. You’ll be damned if you laugh and damned if you don’t.

The Scythian Lamb (Japan): In order to both lighten the prison budget and bolster dwindling rural populations, six convicts are paroled to the tiny seaside village of Uobuka in the hopes that they will fit in and settle down. A nondescript little fishing community, Uobuka boasts an annual festival meant to appease the town’s guardian spirit, Nororo, a fishy aquatic demon immortalized by a giant cast iron statue situated on a nearby hilltop. But the town’s sleepy equilibrium is thrown out of balance when a murdered body is discovered and it’s going to take drastic measures to set things right—for Nororo is plenty pissed. A better editor could have given Daihachi Yoshida’s cheeky amalgam of superstition and social satire a much needed tightening, but the end result is still a highly watchable drama with a few laughs and a whiff of magic. It’s sacrificial lamb served up with a side of ramen and just the slightest of nods to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Shoplifters (Japan): Hirokazu Koreeda’s ability to marvel at everyday life is as keen as ever in this gentle heart-tugger which challenges the idea of what constitutes “family”. Pre-teen Shota lives with his ersatz kin in a run-down apartment where they get by on grandma’s pension, dead-end jobs, and a bit of fraud and theft. His child’s eye view of this perfect life takes a hit however when his substitute father brings home Yuri, a five-year old waif and possible victim of abuse he just happened to find sitting on a verandah. The little girl’s arrival sets in motion a series of events which ultimately reveal some shocking secrets—secrets that will set a maturing Shota on a path he never envisioned. One of Japan’s greatest living writer/directors, Koreeda plays his cards with restraint and detached compassion as he explores the tiny bonds and small tyrannies that go into making a family unit regardless of whether its members are tied by blood or by mutual need. A deeply human film that never shies away from sad truths yet still manages to soften those hard edges with warmth and humour.

Sicilian Ghost Story (Italy): Fantastical reimagining of a 1993 kidnapping in which a 12-year old boy was held for two years in order to prevent his mafia hitman father from turning police informant. After the search for her missing boyfriend turns cold, Luna decides to bypass the adults around her (especially her controlling mother) and search for him herself—a desperate pipe dream which to her impressionable mind slowly transforms into a Homeric odyssey. Seamlessly blending fairy tale imagery with hefty dose of Greco-Roman mythology, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza turn the classical thriller into a bleak adolescent fantasy where enchanted forests teem with animal familiars (Cerberus, Pegasus, and Minerva’s owl make cameos), magical lakes lead to revelations, and mafioso bogeymen prowl the night. As Luna traverses this psychological landscape—at once firmly grounded in reality yet given to illusory passages with each nodding daydream—Grassadonia and Piazza blur the lines right up until that final triumphant frame, a triptych worthy of an ancient Roman fresco.

Transit (Germany): In the very near future a wave of fascism is sweeping across Europe causing those marked as undesirables to scramble for asylum overseas. One such man, Georg, takes on the identity of a dead author in order to book a passage from Marseilles to Mexico—but his plans hit a series of snags when the deceased’s wife shows up on the scene. Presented as a cheap dime store pulp fiction (with a cheap dime store narrator) Christian Petzold’s drama can be taken as a cautionary political satire aimed at rising nationalism especially when we see people rushing to escape only to wind up back where they began over and over again. As a Kafkaesque psychodrama it explores the fluidity of identity with Georg wearing many masks while an autocratic bureaucracy slowly tightens its grip. Lastly, as an infernal metaphor one could also view it all as Hell’s waiting room where everyone takes a number (enter the American consulate help desk) but no one gets served. Personally I just found the tedious repetition made the exit doors look awfully damn good.

The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey): Fresh out of college, wannabe author Sinan —full of youthful arrogance and carrying a dad-sized chip on his shoulder—travels back to his old village where he immediately becomes a thorn in everyone’s side, especially the gambling-addicted father whom he blames for most of his personal failings. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan turns Sinan’s visit into a secular Pilgrim’s Progress with the highly opinionated youth running into all manner of avatars and muses, devil’s advocates and animal familiars, as he navigates through a countryside alive with symbolic portents: a dry well speaks of creative struggle; a purloined apple offers the same old temptation; and snow either drifts or thaws according to the emotional climate. Unfortunately, at three hours, the film gets caught up in a few too many rustling metaphors and philosophical tangents as the director becomes enamoured with his own message—part celebration of the artistic mind and part rebuke against Turkey itself. Two scenes did stand out nevertheless: Sinan getting a long overdue dressing-down from an accomplished author tired of his narcissistic ramblings, and Sinan goading two imams as they argue over the nature of God—their increasingly ridiculous bombast counterpointed by the distant barnyard sounds of cackling chickens and bleating goats.

Winter Flies (Czech Republic): “Once upon a time two mischievous boys hot-wired an Audi and made their way through the forest to grandfather’s house…” Or so Olmo Omerzu’s adolescent road movie could have begun. Delinquent Mára and his dorky sidekick Hedus are the boys and their journey through the Czech countryside will bring them face to face with a not-so-evil wolf, a damsel in distress, and a decidedly un-wicked stepmother-cum-policewoman as they learn a thing or two about growing up and owning up. Fairy tale images are mostly confined to cutesy wildlife (except for the eponymous houseflies which, like the boys themselves, seem out of place) and there’s nary an adult role model to be seen.