Nurse Bob's Film Festival Reviews

PICKS AND PANS FROM THE VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2011


7 Sins Forgiven (India) (8): Sexy, sultry Susanna was born into a privileged home where she was doted on by family and servants alike. Unfortunately she also has an uncanny habit of marrying boorish and violent men; men who, coincidentally, always seem to wind up dead not long after the wedding. Told mainly in flashbacks narrated by the only man who truly loved her this monstrously wicked film is a potent brew of black comedy, domestic horror and Bollywood excess culminating in an eye-popping finale filled with enough sacrilege to earn everyone involved a one-way ticket to purgatory. For someone who never really gave Indian cinema more than a passing nod I must admit this cunning little gem was like a cool and refreshing glass of water (laced with arsenic).

Alps
(Greece) (7): With this intense and often very cruel film director Yorgos Lanthimos has taken our inherent needs for identity and a sense of belonging and thrown them back in our faces. Four diverse people come together to form “Alps” a most macabre service which provides stand-ins for the recently deceased so that grieving families can spend a little more quality time with their dearly departed loved ones. Under the icily detached mentorship of leader Mont Blanc (each participant is named after a mountain for reasons best explained in the film) group members take on various roles including a blind woman’s long dead husband and a young tennis pro killed in a car crash. But what happens when the ersatz personas begin to crowd out the members’ own sense of self? Where do we draw the line between me and not-me, and what is left when identity and belonging are set adrift? Lanthimos’ cast is superb, their wooden expressions and dispassionate monotones highlight the film’s sense of falseness while a few subtle touches provide wry commentary; it’s no coincidence that one character’s coffee mug sports “LOS ANGELES” in big red letters. An unpolished, angry film that’s sure to ignite debates among thinking moviegoers everywhere.

Amador
(Spain) (8): With her marriage faltering, the rent overdue and, unbeknownst to her husband, a baby on the way, new immigrant Marcela finds herself in dire straits. Barely eking out a living with the money raised by her husband’s second-hand flower sales Marcela is understandably delighted to take on the job of babysitting the curmudgeonly old Amador while his daughter is away on business. For 500 Euros a month all she has to do is see to his basic needs, hand out a few pills and turn a blind eye when his favourite hooker visits every Thursday. Unfortunately a few days into this plum job the old man suddenly drops dead leaving Marcela in a quandry; if she reports his death she loses her job. With no one to turn to she devises a most macabre plan to hide his passing and maintain her employment. Of course the best laid plans often overlook the unexpected and complications soon arise when a nosey neighbour notices a peculiar odour and Amador’s daughter pays a surprise visit. What could have played out as a simple dark comedy (it is very funny after all) instead reaches for wholly unexpected depths. Laced with rich metaphors and deceptively ordinary banter (you’ll never look at a jigsaw puzzle the same way again) Fernando Léon de Aranoa’s film foils our expectations and proves almost impossible to categorize. Touching on issues both spiritual and secular, deeply tragic and personally liberating, Amador saves its final ace for the end; a cafe encounter between Marcela and Amador’s daughter of such deadpan practicality it had me giggling throughout the final credits.

A Separation (Iran) (6): Simin, upset that her husband Nader not only refuses to emigrate with her but also refuses to allow her to take their 11-year-old daughter Termeh, applies for divorce and moves in with her mother. With a senile father living with him Nader hires the taciturn Razieh to be both housekeeper and nursemaid to the old man while he is at work. Devoutly religious (she phones dial-a-mullah to see whether or not it’s a sin to wash the old man’s penis) and 4 months pregnant to boot, Razieh soon finds the demands of her new job too much to bear even though her ne’er-do-well husband has been unemployed for months. Before she can quit however an altercation between Razieh and Nader erupts over some missing money and apparent physical abuse of the father leading to a most serious charge being laid against Nader. The ensuing court case focuses on the many inconsistencies in both parties’ stories as statements are given, then revoked, then changed ad infinitum. “The truth is the truth...” storms Nader to his timid daughter at one point, “...it doesn’t matter who says it.” With too many holes to be ignored A Separation fails as a courtroom drama. Where it excels however is in its meticulous dissection of the many layers of half-truths and deceptions people weave whether they’re trying to escape punishment, protect a loved one, or avoid the consequences of a bad decision. Everyone twists the truth here and director Asghar Farhadi examines the effects of those lies on innocent bystanders, in this case Termeh and Razieh’s own daughters, both of whom look on with varying degrees of sadness and recrimination. It is Termeh’s own descent into moral compromise, at the behest of her father, that gives voice to the film’s central theme. To his credit Farhadi refuses to provide us with all the information necessary to decide where the truth really lies so that, like the characters themselves, we are left in an ethical quandary. Despite magnificent performances all around; the young girls are excellent and Leila Hatami as Simin displays the luminous qualities of a young Ingrid Bergman, there is a distinct lack of quality editing causing a few scenes to run on far too long and others to be chopped in pieces. Add to that some unnecessary repetition and unwarranted histrionics (or is that an Iranian thing?) and you have a fractured narrative marring an otherwise compelling drama.

A Simple Life
(Hong Kong) (6): Stoic and self-effacing, Ah Tao has been the Leung family’s maid for over 60 years. Nowadays, with its members either dead or scattered around the globe, she keeps mainly to herself. A visit from Roger Leung, a high-powered executive in the film industry, gives her a new sense of purpose as she scurries about the marketplace and busies herself cooking and cleaning up after him. But a sudden debilitating stroke lands her in a nursing home and finds the traditional roles of lord and housekeeper suddenly reversed. Owing Ah Tao a lifetime of gratitude (she not only raised him but nursed him after his first heart attack) Roger spares no expense to ensure she gets all the care and attention she requires to live out this final chapter of her life and in the process gains a new respect, bordering on love, for the old woman. Focusing on this renewed relationship Ann Hui makes more than a few pithy comments on the plight of the elderly in China’s money-obsessed economy, the meaning of “family”, and the bonds of responsibility that form an integral part of the social contract. She even manages to sneak in the occasional wry observation on Hong Kong’s movie industry for good measure. The camera lovingly embraces everyone it touches from the luminous Deannie Yip as Ah Tao to the cast of elderly extras populating the nursing home. This is a film of gentle conversations and warm memories which, despite its underlying sense of loss, elicits moments of genuine humour. Unfortunately it is also firmly rooted in Hong Kong cultural realities and as such much of its subtle commentary on race, identity and status are lost on Western audiences. It is this one drawback that renders it a very well made, if unexceptionally generic, family drama.

Best Intentions (Romania) (9): Partway into Adrian Sitaru’s tale of domestic crisis it suddenly dawns on you that the film lacks any momentum whatsoever. There is no real plot, the characters themselves are going nowhere and the non-stop dialogue is composed of little more than commonplace banalities; a pointless argument here, a needless explanation there, and the rest just so much vapid small talk. This is when you consider your options; either gather up your things and leave the theatre in a huff or sit back and enjoy one of this year’s funniest non-comedies. The story centres on twenty-something slacker Alex, mildly obsessive-compulsive and given to fits of pique, who finds out his mother has been admitted to hospital with a suspected stroke. Hopping on the next train (after making a series of meandering phone calls) he arrives at the hospital with a chip already firmly embedded on his shoulder. He wants to move mom to a better facility, dad wants to leave things as they are, the doctors can’t seem to make up their minds either way, and mom just wants her pink pyjamas. Meanwhile the patient in the next bed seems overly helpful while the one across the room traipses about wearing a bunny mask to hide her accident-scarred face. With its long tracking shots, often taken from the POV of one or more characters, and even longer humdrum conversations Best Intentions is too low-keyed to be farcical yet, conversely, too absurd to be regarded as mere vérité. Sitaru presents us with a slice of everyday life taken from a decidedly skewed angle which manages to milk heartfelt guffaws from the most commonplace situations. It’s all stuff and nonsense really, and pretty much pointless. And that is precisely the point.

Black Bread (Spain) (6): Interpreting the realities of fascist Spain through the eyes of a child is not unique to Spanish cinema; films such as The Beehive and Pan’s Labyrinth accomplished this with great effect. Agusti Villaronga’s contribution to the genre however is a not entirely successful mix of gloomy visuals and convoluted conspiracies. With his father on the lam for spouting leftist ideology (a sympathetic acquaintance has already been brutally murdered) and his mother forced to work long hours in the local textile mill, young Andreu is sent to live with his grandmother in the deep dark woods. By day his head is filled with glorious propaganda by an alcoholic schoolteacher and by night his grandma weaves frightening tales of the ghosts which wander the local forests and caves. Aided by his sexually precocious cousin, an embittered girl whom the war has scarred both physically and emotionally, Andreu slowly uncovers the truth behind the legends and in so doing makes the terrible discovery that grandmother’s monsters are closer to home than he ever thought possible. “People are evil” quips his his father at one point and Andreu’s horrifying revelation makes that only too clear. Moving from scenes of sunlit fields to shadowy attics Villaronga suggests a slightly skewed view of the world without the use of elaborate embellishments. Much import is given to the fragile wings of a captive songbird, a cookie shared with an “untouchable” tuberculosis victim and the titular bread, a sign of subservience and poverty. Andreu himself is portrayed as a sad little pawn, powerless before the mysterious adult machinations that control his life yet determined to make his small voice heard. The film’s bittersweet coda in which Andreu finally asserts himself by relegating his remaining family tie to the level of ghost is both heartbreakingly real and sadly inevitable. There is a good solid base to this film yet for some reason it all fails to come together sufficiently. Perhaps it is the needlessly complicated plot that proves a bit too distracting, or the fact that despite the quality of their individual performances the actors fail to establish a screen chemistry amongst themselves. Either way, Black Bread left me vaguely disappointed.

Black Butterflies
(Netherlands/South Africa) (6): Movies about people coming undone are not the easiest to pull off and this biopic of troubled poetess Ingrid Jonker, dubbed the “Sylvia Plath of South Africa”, can attest to that fact. Raised in a strict authoritarian home after the death of her grandmother, the free-spirited anti-apartheid Ingrid often found herself at loggerheads with her father, a senior government official in charge of censoring literary works. Her bohemian lifestyle eventually led to several affairs including an on-again off-again relationship with novelist Jack Cole, a couple of abortions, and more than one hospitalization for severe depression and attempted suicide. But her beautifully visceral poetry earned her a permanent place in South African literature; Nelson Mandela even quoted one of her poems during the first session of that country’s democratic parliament. Unfortunately director Paula van der Oest captures neither her protagonist’s passion nor her underlying demons. Instead we see a shrill, annoying woman running around in circles and alienating everyone she comes in contact with. There is no emotional connection with the audience hence no empathy while the pat script fails to engage us intellectually. The scenery is wonderful though, the acting adequate, and the few snippets of poetry moving.

Bonsái (Chile) (7): At the outset of Cristián Jiménez’s savvy little romance we’re informed of two things; Julio and Emilia will fall in love and Emilia will die. Everything in between, the narrator assures us, is fiction. Rather than act as a spoiler this revelation frees us of any uncertainty and allows us to revel in the film’s true beauty as it showcases Jiménez’s love of cinema and author Alejandro Zambra’s love for the written word. Divided into chapters, like any good book, the film weaves back and forth across an 8-year period where we see a lovestruck Julio begin a hesitant affair with Emilia, his candidly realistic classmate, and a more mature Julio trying to understand what went wrong. Their relationship begins with a lie (and a very funny seaside take on “The Scarlet Letter”) which leads to a string of embellishments and half-truths as both partners feel their way not only around each other but the greater world beyond. Heavy on metaphor, the titular plant’s longevity and need for constant care figures prominently, the film also pays loving homage to its literary roots. In fact, passages of classic novels and poetry become a part of the plot with each character seemingly involved with words whether it be translating a technical manual or Julio converting a handwritten manuscript into a word document; the latter pursuit involving a cunning conceit I won’t divulge here. Like the bonsai and the pot in which it grows, there is little distinction between the writer and the words being written and Jiménez deliberately blurs this line between reality and fancy, challenging us to distinguish the difference.

Bullhead (Belgium) (9): The ongoing governmental crackdown on illegal growth hormone usage in the Belgian beef industry forms the basis for this powerful character study. All is not well on the Vanmarsenille cattle ranch; they’ve become involved with the local “hormone mafia” and younger brother Jacky is an emotionally unstable steroid-injecting meathead who has more than a few things in common with the bulls he raises. With a police sting operation closing in and the murder of a detective weighing heavily on everyone’s mind it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. What separates this amazing film from the usual crop of crime dramas is that the focus is not on police procedures but rather on the dark and complex character of Jacky. A heavily muscled brutish man given to fits of violent anger, Jacky’s haunted eyes hold a terrible secret which director Michael Roskam slowly, almost reluctantly reveals through a series of childhood flashbacks. He is a tragic figure embodying both a sorrowful yearning for the things he can never have and an impotent rage against the cold realities that delineate his life. Taking small comfort in the illusion offered by the many steroids he snorts, pops and shoots, Jacky personifies the question of what makes a man a man. Given the recent cinematic glut of gun-toting macho stereotypes it’s refreshing to see a director make a sincere attempt to explore the more fragile recesses of the male psyche.

Corpo Celeste (Italy) (7): The Catholic church receives a well-deserved black eye in Alice Rohrwacher’s finely nuanced tale of one young girl’s introduction to the absurdity of organized religion. It’s not been an easy year for Marta; her family has moved back to Italy from Switzerland, she’s having her first period, and now she has to endure endless catechism classes in preparation for her Confirmation (a Catholic voodoo ceremony intended to cement one’s commitment to both God and dogma). Furthermore, her older sister is a bitch and her younger sister never misses an opportunity to play the adorable card as she dreams of becoming a saint because “people give you presents...” But instead of revealing deep spiritual truths the catechism lectures contain little more than useless trivia, mechanical prayers and insipid group activities; in one especially telling scene Marta and her cadre of future Catholic adults are blindfolded and forced to stumble aimlessly about the altar. Disillusioned by the hypocrisy and dogmatic prattle she witnesses Marta grows sullen and begins questioning the faith she’s expected to embrace. It takes a road trip to an abandoned country church to provide the epiphany she’s been waiting for, leading to a most wondrous and unique Confirmation of her own. Rohrwacher shines a light into some of the church’s darker recesses to lay bare a few uncomfortable truths. Despite the pious trappings and righteous euphemisms it’s all about power and control, a fact compounded by one woman’s degrading encounter with a Bishop’s dour aide. Neither heavy-handed nor sanctimonious this intelligently drawn film relies instead on the amazing talent of its diminutive star; a promising young actress with the ability to speak volumes with a single stare. A need for some tidier editing was its only flaw.

Coteau Rouge (Canada) (6): Coteau Rouge, we’re assured, is one of Montreal’s meanest and poorest suburbs although it’s hard to imagine this when we’re presented with a postcard neighbourhood of smiling faces and quaint candy-coloured bungalows. The Blanchard family have lived here for generations; widowed patriarch Honoré and son Fernand run a corner gas station (a far cry from their previous job of dumping dead gangsters into the St. Lawrence) while granddaughter Hélène is married to Éric, a sleazy land developer whose bonhomie is as false as his wife’s “pregnancy” (to avoid all the nastier effects of carrying a child Hélène has her mother act as surrogate while she prances about with a beach ball under her blouse). The fun really starts however when Éric decides he’s going to buy up the Blanchard’s neighbourhood in order to build condos. Although a few residents take the money and run the majority that remain, including Honoré and Fernand, decide to put up the fight of their lives. While watching this featherweight comedy one gets the impression that director André Forcier had a pair of rose-tinted glasses firmly in place throughout production. There’s enough family togetherness and forced poignancy for a string of Disney clones; a side story involving Fernand’s dying wife and adorably resourceful son really pushes the pathos envelope. Furthermore, the shallow character of Éric is the type of evil capitalist caricature one expects in these types of films while the residents of Coteau Rouge are the kind of folk for whom the phrase “salt of the earth” was coined. Add to that a few silly devices (man-eating sturgeons?!) and you have all the makings of what should have been a complete flop. What saved the film for me however was its sense of playfulness and some very funny scenes. The moralistic message of family values vs. corporate greed is definitely overdone, but for a bit of cinematic fluff it had me smiling throughout.

Dendera
(Japan) (7): An isolated village has a rather ruthless solution to the problem of overpopulation and limited resources; upon their 70th birthday every elderly inhabitant is escorted to a makeshift shrine high up in the mountains and left there to die. However, unbeknownst to the townsfolk, a group of abandoned grannies have banded together to form Dendera, a women-only commune (the grandpas are left to die) ruled by the iron-fisted Mei, a brusque centenarian hellbent on exacting bloody revenge on the villagers who treated her and her sisters so cruelly. But fate, in the form of a quasi-mystical monster bear, seems determined to thwart her plans at every turn. This is a grand old popcorn movie part Swiss Family Robinson, part Lord of the Flies and wholly Japanese in its wry humour, colourful manga embellishments and spurting fountains of bright red blood. There is a fantasy element at work here aided by gorgeous widescreen shots of snowy mountaintops and crimson sunsets. Watching these geriatric guerillas cuss and bicker in between knitting and skinning rabbits you’re left with the impression that this is both a raggedy love letter to grandparents everywhere as well as a spiritual allegory on growing old and facing one’s mortality. Some tighter editing would have made a world of difference.

Elena (Russia) (9): Elena is a quiet, docile woman whose life seems to revolve around playing housemaid to her wealthy older husband Vladimir and doting on Sergey, her good-for-nothing son from a previous marriage and his equally useless family. Although loving in his own way, Vladimir refuses to support Sergey claiming the unemployed lout needs to get his own act together and start taking responsibility for his wife and kids. But when Elena’s cretinous grandson Sasha is faced with mandatory military service due to poor grades at school only a sizable bribe will buy his way into college; a bribe Vladimir refuses to provide. Desperate to help the boy, Elena hatches a diabolical plan to ensure her son’s family receives all the money they need. Although couched in the conventions of film noir this bleak tale of one desperate woman driven to extreme measures speaks volumes on Russian society. The stark contrast between upper and lower classes is made glaringly evident as Elena travels by taxi, bus and train from her elegantly appointed condo overlooking a quiet city park to Sergey’s decrepit apartment block squatting in the shadows of a nuclear power plant. Suspended between both worlds Elena cannot understand why her husband exhibits an apparent lack of charity towards those less fortunate (even if they brought it upon themselves) yet shamelessly spoils his own daughter who is every bit as useless as Sergey. “Why do you think you’re so special...” she says accusingly at one point, “...just because you have money.” With long, beautifully framed shots and a pounding yet subtle orchestral score by Philip Glass director Andrei Zvyagintsev maintains an aura of almost subliminal tension coupled with a touch of contemporary angst. His ending, when it comes, is a masterful stroke of unspoken guilt and sobering satire hinting at darker days to come.

The Fairy (Belgium) (2): Life takes a drastic turn for the surreal when Dom, a meek rubbery-faced hotel clerk, comes face to face with Fiona, a wacky woman claiming to be a real live fairy. Not only does she grant him 2 wishes (with a third one pending) but before the week is out he’ll break into an asylum, get chased by police and father a child after what has to be the shortest gestation period in history. Chockablock with all the usual eccentrics, stale pratfalls and maddeningly repetitive visual gags (will Dom ever get to eat that gosh darn sandwich hahaha!!) this is the type of insipid drivel that apologetic critics love to tout as “Gallic humour”. What few laughs exist are confined to the first ten minutes, after that it just becomes increasingly cringeworthy. I’ve seen more sophisticated comedy coming from The Three Stooges.

Footnote (Israel) (8): Embittered and moody, Professor Eliezer Shkolnik resents having to live in the shadow of his son’s (Uriel) academic success. Both are Talmudic scholars but while Eliezer’s years of meticulous study have gone largely unnoticed Uriel’s numerous books and lectures have earned him a permanent place amongst Israel’s academia. All this changes one day when Eliezer learns he is to receive the Israel Prize, that country’s highest honour for lifetime achievement. While the old man partakes in a bit of righteous gloating Uriel makes an earth-shattering discovery; there has been a clerical error and the wrong Professor Shkolnik was contacted. The Prize, in fact, is being awarded to him and not his father, a fact known only to Uriel and the award committee. Armed with this devastating news Uriel must make a momentous decision; does he plead on his father’s behalf or accept the honour and destroy’s dad’s last shred of dignity? It doesn’t help that Eliezer openly criticizes his son’s intellectual dalliances, nor that Uriel is having problems with his own son, a lost soul who is unable to live up to his dad’s rather stringent expectations. This is a stylish, tightly paced drama revolving about an enormous ethical dilemma which examines the often turbulent and contradictory relationships that exist between fathers and sons. Both actors approach their roles with a natural intensity while the actress portraying Eliezer’s wife conveys a sense of suspended judgement with her tight-lipped silence. Director Joseph Cedar refuses to offer an easy out and instead ends his amazing film with a quasi-dreamlike sequence laced with elements of farce and divine fury. Unfortunately much of the story’s finer points are lost on those of us not familiar with Talmudic references. Apparently Eliezer’s painstaking research is considered more legitimate than Uriel’s shallow forays, and this would definitely add an important spin to the narrative; but Footnote remains a gripping experience nonetheless.

The Front Line (Korea) (6): Towards the end of the Korean War as the military brass are fighting over how to divide the peninsula both sides are laying claim to one lone hill; a minuscule yet highly contentious and symbolically important point of land. As both North and South take turns capturing and recapturing this hill the cost in human lives and military hardware continues to rise. Into the midst of this insanity arrives a strait-laced military intelligence officer from the South who was sent to investigate allegations of enemy collaboration. What he finds goes beyond his worst fears; the camp is close to chaos, the dispirited soldiers are being led by a morphine addict, and there is an almost chummy relationship with their Communist counterparts when they’re not actually trying to kill one another. But on the eve of the armistice both sides are ordered to launch one final assault... Director Jang Hun takes great pains to show the futility of war with one small cratered hill being an apt metaphor. His camerawork, ranging from grainy frantic handheld sequences to long shadowy vistas, captures both the horror of a raging battle and the listless ennui left in its wake. Unfortunately he mines all the usual war film clichés but uncovers nothing we haven’t already seen from watching countless American forays into similar territory. In the end it doesn’t really matter who’s behind the camera, “War is Hell”.

Grandma, A Thousand Times (Lebanon) (4): One of the valuable lessons documentarians should learn in Film School is quite simple; no one is interested in your home movies. Apparently director Mahmoud Kaabour missed that lecture and thus we are treated to 50 minutes of watching his grandmother gossip, reminisce about her late husband and take a few hits off the hookah. In an attempt to augment the old gal’s ramblings he throws in a few gimmicky camera techniques and some scratchy recordings of his grandfather playing the violin. He finally caps the whole thing off with a pointless “death” scene which proved to be more puzzling than whimsical. I guess grandmothers are a bit like pimples, just because everyone has one doesn’t mean they’re interested in staring at yours.

Happy, Happy (Norway) (8): Kaja is a woman determined to put on a happy face and keep it there despite being stuck in a tiny northern town with Eirik, her boorish dolt of a husband and a young son who, although still innocent, is already mimicking a few too many of his dad’s habits. It’s no surprise then that she is overjoyed when a sophisticated couple from the big city begin renting the house next door with their little adopted African son in tow. Although Sigve and Elisabeth are definitely not country folk they soon warm up to their quirky neighbours, especially after a disastrous night playing board games. And that’s when the complications begin. The new couple, we soon discover, have a few problems of their own and as everyone begins letting their guard down the stage is set for some very interesting twists. Alternating snowy landscapes with warmly lit interiors Anne Sewitsky has fashioned a wonderfully modest little crowd-pleaser with just the right balance of humour and drama. Her four leads are completely believable as they take turns sticking pins in one another unaware of the effect their behaviour is having on the two children who embark on a series of cruel games themselves. With fidelities being tested and relationships on the brink it takes a few stinging revelations to set everyone back on track, even if some find themselves pointing in new directions. A well made little gem that respects its audience yet never takes itself too seriously. And the Greek Chorus of gospel singers was brilliant!

Honey Pupu (Taiwan) (2): All over the world honeybees are vanishing at an alarming rate. It’s widely believed that their disappearance is due to the effects of modern technology in particular the disorienting effects of cellphone signals on the bee’s natural homing abilities. In Chen Hung-I’s lamentably amateurish film contemporary society seems to be having the same effect on the younger generation as they fall prey to a silent epidemic of disappearances, more metaphysical than physical, which goes largely unnoticed by adults. Late night DJ Vicky is searching for her lost lover following the clues contained in a series of enigmatic snapshots; meanwhile Cola, Assassin and Cheesebaby have entered into a destructive 3-way love affair which ends tragically. For good measure the director also throws in some muddled ruminations on adultery, urban sprawl and sexual politics. Focusing on this small circle of attractive twenty-somethings as they struggle to express deep thoughts in between bouts of chatroom banter and childish games Chen attempts to show how the “natural world” has been usurped by manmade constructs, and meaningful conversation has given way to sound bytes and text messages. In reality his entire script is composed of little more than trite banalities presented as profound insights thanks to some fancy camerawork and a hyper-cool soundtrack. There are a few moments of budding artistry as when a moss-covered forest gives way to a dreamlike vision of Taipei with skyscrapers composed entirely of corporate logos and high-tech gadgets; but there is nothing new here nor does Chen have anything novel to add. Repetitive, ostentatious and hollow, Honey Pupu is the very embodiment of the modern superficiality it sets out to denounce. And the subtitles suck ass too.

In Darkness (Poland) (9): As the Nazis cut a bloody swath through the Jewish ghetto of Lvov, a handful of desperate people seek refuge in the sewers beneath the city. Woefully short on supplies and confused by the complex maze of crumbling tunnels and narrow conduits, they find themselves completely at the mercy of Leopold Socha, a Christian sewer worker whose motives for aiding the renegade Jews are more monetary than humanitarian. Despite the rats, the foul dank atmosphere and several deaths, the surviving fugitives settle into something resembling a routine with daily prayers for some, homework for the children and illicit sexual liaisons for others. But when their bribe money runs out and Socha begins to feel the pressure of harbouring “Jewish vermin”, a capital offense under German occupation, an already grave situation quickly becomes unbearable. Agnieszka Holland accomplishes two amazing things with her near perfect film; first of all she manages to concentrate the horrors of Germany’s pogrom against the Jews into an area the size of an underground chamber (ironically located beneath a Catholic cathedral) and secondly, by using only three main characters, Socha; his wife and his small daughter, she records the reaction of an entire nation. While he devises a plan to cash in on the escapees’ desperation, his wife goes from religious pacifism to frightened denial when the question of aiding the persecuted ceases to be a moral abstract. Meanwhile their daughter exhibits a bewildered innocence towards the atrocities around her as she plays with her “Jewish dollies” one moment and takes her father to see a row of hanged prisoners the next. Even the hidden refugees, romanticized by so many directors in the past, are shown here as fully human with all their flaws and qualities intact. There is a dynamic evolution in Holland’s work as her characters undergo changes in both heart and mind. A magnificent final sequence fraught with icy tension ends with all the dignity and confusion one would expect and left me with one of the most powerful cinematic images thus far; an open manhole cover seen from below, blinding white sunlight, and an arm reaching down...

Innocence
(Czech Republic) (8): When a prominent doctor is charged with molesting an underage patient the police detective assigned to the case has more than a passing acquaintance with the defendant. Not only were the two men best friends at one time but the doctor also had an affair with the cop’s wife, eventually marrying her himself. In Jan Hrebejk’s incisive drama “truth” seems to be whatever we choose to make of it. As his characters find their comfortable lives turned upside-down by a vengeful 14-year old girl’s accusations layers of deceit, duplicity and self-delusion are slowly peeled away to reveal what actually happened. But, like the masks and subtle fairytale imagery that crop up throughout the film, there is often a discrepancy between what is seen and what is real.

I Wish (Japan) (7): After their parents separated six months earlier soft-spoken Koichi chose to live with his depressed mother and her family while his outgoing younger brother Ryu chose to move across the island to live with his loving yet slovenly musician father. When a new north-south bullet train route is announced on the news, Koichi hears a rumor that all those who witness the two trains passing each other for the first time will have their one wish granted. Hoping to wish their parents back together the two tykes ditch school, hook up with their best friends, and make their way along the coast to the section of elevated track where the magical event will supposedly take place. Kore-eda Hirokazu once again proves his unerring ability to portray children in a realistic if somewhat sweetened light in this warm little comedy. Although the character of Ryu is perhaps a tad too precious the children nevertheless provide the film with a youthful gravity as they finagle their way out of class, outwit the benevolent yet ineffectual adults around them, and studiously write their wishes on a makeshift prayer flag (in an especially poignant scene one little boy hopes for his dead dog to come back to life). Of course in typical Hirokazu fashion the children don’t exactly have their wishes granted but instead receive a few lessons in life’s gentler realities; one budding actress finds the courage to stand up to her overbearing mother, a young girl with dreams of becoming a great artist continues to patiently wield her magic markers, and the two brothers learn that part of growing up is growing apart. Meanwhile the perpetually falling ash from a grumbling volcano not far from Koichi’s home reminds us all of life’s unpredictability. Not as piercing as his earlier works and some of the dialogue occasionally veers dangerously close to Disney territory but I Wish is still a genuine treat.

The Jewel (Italy) (6): Based on a true case, Andrea Molaioli’s drama follows the downward spiral of a corporate CEO and his board of directors as they try to sustain their once-profitable company by doctoring financial statements, lying to investors and, finally, stealing as much money as they can before the cops show up. All the elements of a great film are here; magnificent performances, a sharp script and assured camerawork which moves effortlessly between crowded boardrooms, towering skylines and smoky cathedrals. Molaioli’s portrayal of amoral rats fleeing their sinking ship is at once infuriating and strangely operatic as he makes clever use of religious symbolism and a dark musical score; a scene of office drones and managers alike rushing to destroy incriminating documents plays out with an almost Wagnerian intensity. But it’s when the camera focuses on the moral dilemma of one conscience-stricken accountant that we see the true toll of all this corporate avarice. Unfortunately less is oftentimes more when it comes to cinema and the film suffers from an acute lack of editing causing some scenes to drag on interminably resulting in an uneven pace and diluted tension. Pity.

The Kid With a Bike (Belgium) (6): Stuck in a foster care home and ignored by his deadbeat father, 12-year-old Cyril is given to moments of manic determination and violent temper tantrums. It’s during one such frenzied outing (he’s searching for dad while being chased by care staff) that he latches, quite literally, onto Samantha, a soft-spoken hairdresser who takes a liking to the bratty tow-headed tyke and, after a disastrous meeting with Cyril’s father, agrees to be his weekend foster family along with her ambivalent boyfriend. Angry with his dad and looking for a sense of belonging it isn’t long before Cyril gravitates towards the wrong crowd, in this case the local neighbourhood tough who introduces him to the lucrative world of delinquency despite Samantha’s impotent warnings. Will her love for Cyril be enough to save him? And will a final showdown in a sunlit woods prove to be his downfall...or salvation? Using one small child on a bike, the Dardenne brothers examine the ways in which morality and accountability (or their opposites) are handed down from father to son whether it’s Cyril’s father slamming the door in his devoted son’s face or another father teaching his errant boy how to fabricate a believable story for the police. It also goes to great lengths to illustrate the effects of anger, neglect and, conversely, unconditional love on the development of the child and, by inference, society at large. Unfortunately, for me at least, it proved to be a colourful parable with a hollow centre. Very little here is wholly believable and the story’s paint-by-number structure is just too neat and tidy. While the character of Cyril does possess a certain off-putting combination of childish belligerence and pained vulnerability (amazing performance) the guardian angel role of Samantha is just a tad too contrived despite a brief scene hinting at some personal issues of her own. Destined to be one of those heart-warming crowd pleasers.

Kill List (UK) (9): Jay, a former freelance hit man now unhappily unemployed, is at his wits’ end. With his shrewish wife belittling him every chance she gets and their comfortable middle-class existence threatened by a dwindling bank account he reluctantly agrees to join his old partner Gal for one last, highly lucrative assignment. The two men are given a list of three men targeted for elimination; a priest, a librarian, and a member of parliament. The reasons for these targeted killings are known only to the wealthy benefactor who hired them but accepting the job comes with a sinister caveat...fulfill the contract or else. It doesn’t help that Jay has an uncontrollably violent temper nor that the two men are still haunted by something that happened “in Kiev” eight months earlier. But when the first two men on their kill list greet the two assassins with a smile even as they take their final breath it soon becomes evident that there is more to this contract than meets the eye. Starting off as a stylish gangster drama, Kill List quickly draws you into the story thanks to Ben Wheatley’s strong directorial hand and the powerful lead performances. And then the other shoe drops. I must admit that when this wickedly intelligent film revealed its true motives I was caught completely off guard despite the handful of subtle clues laid out in the beginning. Wheatley has fashioned a long dark night of the soul as we see Jay go from righteous murderer (he only kills “bad” people) to a man so completely consumed by anger that it transforms him into something monstrous while poisoning everyone around him. As the film’s grotesque displays of ritualized violence and emotional cruelty come to resemble, much to our horror, a fiendish rite of passage Wheatley’s own summation of his film as “...dealing with the erosion of the whole social contract in England...” becomes appallingly clear. This is the stuff of nightmares.

Kooky (Czech Republic) (8): Six-year-old Ondra suffers from debilitating attacks of asthma aggravated by dust and dirt, a condition which prompts his mother to toss out his favourite bedtime companion; a little red bear-like toy stuffed with straw and named “Kooky”. Upset over the loss of his plush friend Ondra comforts himself by making up stories about what’s become of Kooky. Waking up in a junkyard gulag ruled by despotic pop bottles and garbage bags the wee toy manages to escape to the woods where he falls in with the tiny forest denizens and their leader, known as “The Captain”. But a pair of malevolent flasks (one equipped with a cigarette lighter for a nose) from the dump are hot on his trail aided by an ambitious walnut-headed traitor who wishes to usurp the Captain and take his place. With elements from both A. A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame (and a dash of George Orwell) this enchanting little story foregoes most modern technical marvels and instead relies more on old-fashioned animation and puppetry techniques. The result is at once charmingly retro and surprisingly lifelike as we see our tiny protagonist interact with bicycling mushrooms, paddling acorns and an entire host of spirited roots, vines and leaves; a series of high-speed car chases (yes, they have cars fashioned out of human trash) are particularly exhilarating. A whimsical little confection painstakingly rendered and written with intelligence and a sly sense of humour. I want a Kooky doll for Christmas!

Las Acacias (Argentina) (7): A gruff yet kindhearted trucker gives a lift to a young mother and her 5-month old daughter. They’re both on their way to Buenos Aires, he’s delivering a load of lumber and she’s hoping to land a job with the help of her cousin. And that’s about all there is in terms of storyline. There is no climactic crisis, no passionate tryst, no tragic highway carnage, just two fellow human beings sharing a ride and, perhaps, forming the basis of a future relationship which may or may not materialize. Wonderfully downplayed performances (the baby even sneezes on cue) make this gentle little slice of life downright charming from start to finish.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (USA) (8): After running away from a backwoods cult in upper New York state twenty-something Martha, tight-lipped and badly damaged, moves in with her sister and wealthy brother-in-law at their sprawling lakeside cottage. At first content to be away from the sinister mind-controlling influences of “the family” and it’s madly charismatic leader, Martha soon realizes that simply putting miles between her and them is not going to be enough as traumatic memories begin surfacing unbidden and the cult’s warped philosophy continues to cloud her own perceptions of reality. Puzzled by her younger sister’s bizarre behaviour Lucy and husband Ted try to make sense of Martha’s mood swings and odd conversational twists (there is an unspoken history between the sisters) until a series of violent outbursts prompts more drastic action. Sean Durkin’s remarkably controlled film tracing the disintegration of one young woman’s psyche plays out like a waking nightmare laced with paranoia and confusion. Jumping back and forth in time, and occasionally superimposing different timelines on top of each other, he gives us cause to question our own perceptions of what is really happening right up to the film’s darkly ambivalent final scenes; are these memories, delusions, or both? Aided by dreamlike cinematography and solid performances his story creeps under your skin and stays there after the houselights come up.

Michael (Austria) (8): Films dealing with pedophiles are not the easiest to watch nor, apparently, are they the easiest to make falling as they do into two main traps; over-psychoanalyzing their subject or demonizing the offender to the point where you expect pitchfork-wielding peasants to storm his front yard. Not so with Markus Schleinzer’s disturbingly restrained opus examining the shifting relationship between Michael, a mousy 30-year-old office drone, and Wolfgang, the 10-year-old boy he keeps locked up in a secret basement room letting him out only at night when the doors and windows are firmly locked and shuttered. In this tightly edited and finely nuanced film it is the sheer ordinariness of their routine that proves the most unsettling as they wash dishes together, do housework and go on small outings where Wolfgang dutifully keeps to himself despite countless passersby. And in the evening they watch TV before Michael locks the boy up for the night in his IKEA furnished cell, sometimes joining him with a bottle of lube in hand. With a cold, impersonal eye reminiscent of Haneke, Schleinzer shows Michael for what he is; an immature, emotionally stunted man-child sans devil’s horns (they’re not needed), while Wolfgang’s progression from obedient timidity to sullen resentment and, finally, outright rage are traced with a clinical precision bordering on detachment. In so doing Schleinzer not only imparts an almost subliminal aura of dread and anxiety but sets us up for the film’s intensely powerful one second final frame. Dark, uncompromising, and very very Austrian.

The Mill and the Cross (Poland) (10): Destined to be one of my top 10 films for 2011, this visually stunning meditation on Christ’s passion, complete with political and historical overtones, takes Pieter Bruegel’s richly detailed 16th century painting The Way to Calvary and, quite literally, brings it to life using magnificent hand-painted backdrops, some 21st century technical wizardry and a huge ensemble cast anchored by Rutger Hauer as the artist himself, Charlotte Rampling as the grieving Virgin Mary, and Michael York as Breugel’s wealthy benefactor, a beneficent nobleman disgusted with the corruption he sees around him. Presented with very little dialogue the film relies instead on its powerful imagery to create a feeling of time and place. This is a surreal Flemish countryside of rocky cliffs, solemn windmills and pastel clouds all bathed in the rich buttery light favoured by the Dutch Masters. While the camera moves from one pastoral scene to another over the course of a single day we begin to sense the quotidian rhythm of these rural peasants as they go about the business of living and dying, often stopping in a frozen tableau while Breugel walks among them sketching and explaining the many metaphors to be found in his artwork. As in the original painting Christ’s crucifixion seems lost amongst all the hubbub surrounding him, yet it is this sacrifice which anchors both canvas and film providing the former with a sly social critique and the latter with a grand climax filled with tempests and heavenly wrath (though ending, ironically, with a return to the bucolic splendour of its opening scenes). With The Mill and the Cross Lech Majewski has fashioned a small cinematic masterpiece which deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Miss Bala (Mexico) (3): Shortly into this overwrought mess you begin to suspect that director Gerardo Naranjo couldn’t decide whether he wanted to produce a bona fide indictment against his country’s illicit drug trade or a lurid telenovela about a beauty queen gone wrong. He fails on both counts. Sweetly innocent Laura Guerrero, twenty-three years old, leaves her father and brother behind and travels to the big city with dreams of being crowned the next Miss Baja California. Her dreams are derailed however when she witnesses a gangland slaying and before you can say “¡Ay Caramba!” she’s being forced to run unlawful errands for the evil drug lord Lido and his band of hairy men. But despite being forced to transport dead bodies and fly laundered money across the border she still manages to get back to the studio in time for the swimsuit competition and final judging. Unfortunately, her final assignment goes terribly awry when she’s sent to seduce a government bigwig targeted for assassination and the resulting hail of bullets threatens to blow the tiara right off her head. In the title role Stephanie Sigman exhibits the emotional range of a head of lettuce while everyone else either leers and scowls or wanders about in a clueless daze. Lastly, a final series of ironic twists do little more than elicit more laughter. Miss Bala couldn’t have been any more camp if they had hired a cast of drag queens.

My Little Princess (France) (5): Loose biopic by first time director Eva Ionesco based on her own childhood experiences from the 1970’s. Her mother Irina (Here called Hannah Giurgiu and played to the hilt by Isabelle Huppert) was a crazy bohemian and so-so artiste who gained international notoriety for taking seductive and outright pornographic photos of her painfully young daughter. At first tickled to be the centre of mom’s attention, Eva (here called Violetta) soon went from crinolines and dolls to dressing like a veteran prostitute and knocking back the occasional martini at gala art showings while Hannah basked in her newfound fame. Violetta’s simmering resentment towards being exploited by her mother finally comes to a head when Hannah asks her to pose nude with a lecherous UK millionaire; the resulting fallout not only marks the beginning of the end for mother and daughter but a criminal investigation sparked by Hannah’s photos eventually lands Violetta in a halfway house and leaves Hannah struggling on welfare. Of course Huppert’s performance is wonderful, that’s a given, but as the supposedly emotionally scarred Violetta, Anamarie Vartolomei delivers little more than pouts and tantrums. There is no doubt but that Irina Ionesco was guilty of horrendous child abuse while an amoral art community egged her on, nor is there any doubt as to the effects of that abuse on her daughter. Unfortunately Eva fails to plumb the emotional depths her film demands and instead we are treated to a series of manic costume changes punctuated by the occasional hissy fit and shouting match. It all gets very loud and very tiresome very quickly.

No One Killed Jessica (India) (3): When an aspiring model is senselessly killed by the son of a high-ranking government official a horde of eyewitnesses promises an open and shut case. But the wheels of injustice are quickly set in motion thanks to the accused’s rich and influential father and after a prolonged trial in which evidence is tampered with and witnesses are paid off the hotheaded young man and his accomplices are declared not guilty. Cut to the lovely and vivacious crusading reporter Meera who, outraged at this miscarriage of justice, takes it upon herself to bring the guilty parties to justice and expose the nation’s corrupt legal system in the process. Chanting “Justice for Jessica” all of India soon takes up the cause giving rise to endless slow-motion vistas of weepy eyes and soaring orchestral strings. I’m told that this is in fact a highly contentious film in its native land as no other Indian film has ever addressed official corruption so loudly. Be that as it may, to my Western sensibilities it came across as a blatantly manipulative tearjerker overflowing with enough sentimental tosh and self-aggrandizing sermons to make Steven Spielberg wince. But the pounding techno soundtrack was awesome!

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey) (9): On a darkening landscape of barren hillsides and rustling grassland a lonely convoy of police cars slowly makes its way along a tortuous country road. A murder has been committed and the prime suspect is leading police on an apparent wild goose chase in search of the victim’s body. As night falls and a tempest rages in the skies above the officials in charge, including a medical examiner and public prosecutor, engage each other in banal conversations and idle gossip while the prime suspect seems to stare at something only he can see. Nuri Ceylan’s latest masterpiece starts out as a police procedural but quickly morphs into a deeply discomfiting psychodrama as he explores the many ways people lie both to others and to themselves. It seems everyone in this small motorcade has a secret to hide or a skewed tale to tell and the landscape, as if sensing their self-delusion, answers back with lightning bolts and howling winds. Ceylan once again proves himself to be a master of both large canvas imagery as we see the natural world threaten to overwhelm the screen with ominous portents and the delicately ethereal as a simple offering of tea carries the spiritual impact of an angelic visitation. The film ends appropriately enough with an enigmatic mix of guilt, recrimination and deception which suggests a greater truth while revealing nothing.

Play (Sweden) (5): Ruben Östlund takes us on a disquieting journey into the heart of every Caucasian’s nightmare as we see a small group of black boys spend a lazy afternoon inflicting petty humiliations and small cruelties on a pair of timid white boys and their Asian sidekick. In a parallel story an irate train conductor tries to find the owner of an inconveniently stowed cradle which is blocking an exit door. As the adults they encounter either turn a blind eye to what is happening or react with exaggerated violence, the motley group of kids enter into a perverse alliance which sees the victims becoming willing participants in a psychological game of power and control. With its long static shots, off-centre blocking and downplayed performances (the amateur cast is perfect) Play has the uncomfortable feel of a realtime documentary. Furthermore the deceptively mundane dialogue is laced with unvoiced threats and mocking recriminations while subtle background details touch on social and economic inequalities. But, aside from an acute need for editing, the film’s greatest flaw is the fact it’s all been done before ad nauseam. Thankfully we are (mostly) spared the “poor coloured immigrant vs. evil white man” defense but unlike Michel Haneke who provokes his audience into uncomfortable territory Östlund seems content to simply provoke. An ironic denouement involving cultural appropriation and the benefits of being privileged doesn’t quite excuse the preceding 2 hours of emotional goading.

Por El Camino (Uruguay) (6): When an unemployed investment banker from Argentina offers a ride to a whiney Belgian backpacker the stage is set for an overly long road movie. Part romance, part political metaphor and part travelogue from the Uruguayan Department of Tourism, Por El Camino chronicles the young couple’s journey as they meet a cross section of that country’s denizens; from the monied gentry to a humble rancher, before ending up amongst a commune of dreadlocked hippies. Director Charly Braun has obviously seen enough French nouvelle vague films of the 60’s to be able to capture some of their style if not their underlying aesthetic. Jump cuts and wide angle shots compete with low resolution handheld sequences and incidental images of pastel sunsets and buzzing flies. The two attractive leads definitely exhibit an onscreen chemistry, their performances are wholly believable thanks in large part to a script which is kept spare and natural. The individual scenes are pretty enough and the supporting cast, including a “WTF!?” cameo by Naomi Campbell, are up to the task. Unfortunately the film suffers from a lack of cohesiveness and a rambling narrative that has trouble navigating through all those pastoral postcard backdrops. Still, for a first feature one can certainly see the promise of better things to come.

The Prize (Germany) (6): After their country was reunified Germans quickly realized there was more than a concrete wall dividing east from west. In Elke Hauck’s deceptively simple story a young architect is hired to gut and renovate the rundown apartment block he used to call home in the former East Germany. Brash and practical Alex would prefer to raze his own childhood memories as well but familiar faces, some openly hostile, keep cropping up causing him to relive some bitter moments from the past including his role in the downfall of a friend. Hauck shows that not much has changed in the intervening years as the false idealism of the old socialist order gives way to modern anomie. The dreaded Stasi now strut around in business suits, Alex’s former neighbours seek comfort in the past, and a simple act of official criticism, once hailed as a patriotic duty, is revealed to be the bitter act of betrayal it actually was. Sometimes moving at a glacial pace thanks to a few dramatic non-sequiturs and an overly ambitious reach this is still a subtle critique that looks beyond the grandstanding and photo-ops that occurred in the fall of 1989.

Pure (Sweden) (7): Director Lisa Langseth’s overtly theatrical story of one young woman’s iron-willed (and slightly unhinged) determination to rise above her white trash roots plays out like a teenage opera for the MTV crowd. But she pulls it off with such brazen temerity that I found myself applauding anyway. Stuck in a dead-end job and branded as a slut by her former classmates, twenty-year-old Katarina seems doomed to follow in her alcoholic mother’s footsteps. The only thing separating her from the suburban herd however is an intense love for classical music; a love which unexpectedly lands her a receptionist job at a concert hall where she catches the eye of the arrogant, and very married, resident maestro. The conductor wastes no time seducing the naive woman with quotes from Kierkegaard and mp3 tracks of famous symphonies, reducing her to the level of a quivering acolyte before unceremoniously dumping her. Finally realizing that philosophy books and Mozart CDs alone are not going to raise her station in life, Katarina undergoes a sea change which transforms her from humiliated stalker to enraged valkyrie and culminates in one of this year’s most intensely outrageous confrontations. The acting is pitch perfect, the classical soundtrack gloriously overdone and the film’s sly denouement refuses to insult our intelligence. The story itself may be lightweight fare but Langseth serves it up with a vengeance!

Restoration (Israel) (7): Widower Yaakov Fidelman has been running his furniture restoration business for decades when he discovers he has been left penniless thanks to some creative bookkeeping by his recently deceased partner. With his self-centered son Noah trying to sell the business from under him and the banks refusing to loan him money all seems lost until fate offers Yaakov a few temptations in the form of Anton, an enigmatic drifter who becomes both apprentice and surrogate son to the old man (and potential lover for Noah’s pregnant wife), and the discovery of a valuable antique piano hitherto forgotten at the back of the shop. This character-driven family drama rests squarely on the shoulders of father and son with secondary characters providing little more than contrast. Indeed, Anton is deliberately presented as more of a character sketch than a fully fleshed presence while Noah’s wife serves to mirror Yaakov’s own dilemma; does she remain faithful to family ties despite all their flaws or forsake everything in order to pursue the chimera of perfection she sees in Anton. The acting is impeccable, the script free of Hollywood-style bombast, and the film’s final round of resolutions remains both believable and faithful to the nature of its characters. A fine kitchen sink drama, Israeli-style.

The Sandman (Switzerland) (9): Benno is an caustic jerk who takes devilish delight in belittling the dreams of others whether it’s his friend’s attempt to write music or Sandra, the young woman in the coffee shop downstairs who fancies herself a singer. His own life leaves much to be desired however; he works in a dead end job, has a lukewarm relationship with his girlfriend and is still bitter over a shattered dream of his own. His life takes a peculiar turn one day however when he discovers sand in his bed...sand which is not only originating from within his own body but has a most peculiar effect on all those who come in contact with it. Benno soon finds it necessary to duct tape his cuffs and shirttails in order to contain the gritty emissions and his apartment comes to resemble the Sahara dessert with mini dunes stretching from kitchen to parlour. With the medical establishment unable to help him and God holding his calls (a side-splitting bit of televised satire) Benno is left to discover the truth behind his peculiar malady himself...and the answer may very well be more frightening than the disease. A macabre mixture of slapstick comedy and psychodrama, Peter Luisi’s brilliant little opus takes a novel approach to examining the ofttimes subjective nature of truth. Benno’s waking reality contrasts sharply with the puzzling dreams he’s been having involving sunnier climes and erotic encounters with an uncharacteristically passionate Sandra. But which reality is real? The sand of the title serves as both a surrogate conscience and an emotional catharsis as Benno discovers, quite literally, one must sometimes lose oneself in order to find oneself. Bravo!

Sauna on Moon (China) (7): Zou Peng’s cheeky satire on China’s emerging bourgeois consumer culture could have used some extra editing but its sting is still readily felt. Centering on the pimps and hookers working in a massage parlour situated on China’s idyllic south coast Peng proceeds to rip the Communist government a tiny new asshole. With religious idols and benevolent posters of Mao overseeing scenes of blowjobs, official bribery and everyday corruption Peng obviously has his tongue firmly in cheek. Even the supposed tragedy of a virgin rape turns into just another business proposition for both woman and john while the glorious launch of a lunar expedition turns into an excuse for a drunken skinnydip. Cheap and tawdry seem to be the operative words here, whether it be a pathetic electric rainbow or a sleazy poolside fashion show featuring a bevy of dime store goddesses strutting for a leering congregation of dirty old men. Peng is never preachy, he neither vilifies nor exalts his subjects but instead presents them as the practical self-serving cogs they actually are. There are no victims in his film just buyers and sellers...and the price is always negotiable.

The Singing City (Germany) (7): Anyone who knows me knows that documentaries about the arts are among my least favourite festival offerings. However, this intimate peek behind the scenes as the Stuttgart Opera company prepares for an ambitious staging of Wagner’s Parsifal proved to be easy on both eyes and ears. All aspects of the production are revealed as the camera follows everyone involved from the costumer to the carpenters to the performers themselves. Director Jendreyko allows the visuals to tell the story rather than relying on an endless succession of talking heads and technical footnotes. The end result is an engaging piece of cinema, intelligently presented, which left me with a keen interest in renewing my membership with the Vancouver Opera.

The Skin I Live In (Spain) (8): How do you describe a Pedro Almodovar film and still do it justice? Once again he combines his love for the female form with his signature penchant for extreme gender-fucking to produce yet another warped telenovela guaranteed to delight his twisted fans and confound the uninitiated. This time around he focuses on the brilliant yet unorthodox plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, sexier than ever) whose highly contentious experiments in human skin regeneration are being carried out in a secret underground laboratory. The subject of these experiments is the lovely yet volatile Vera, an apparent prisoner of the good doctor, who spends her days practicing yoga and writing graffiti on the walls of her spartan cell while wearing a skintight body stocking. But who exactly is Vera? Why is she being held captive and why is Robert so obsessed with her? And while we’re at it, why is his housekeeper’s son dressed like a jaguar? This is quintessential Almodovar, a cinematic magician at the height of his powers whose appreciation of the absurd has not mellowed over the years but has rather grown sharper and more focused. Bravo!

Sleeping Sickness (France/Germany) (7): A novel approach to examining the complex and often detrimental relationship between African nations and the Western powers who seek to help them by sending (or withholding) financial aid. A German doctor combatting an outbreak of “sleeping sickness” in Cameroon finds himself unable to leave the country despite the fact that the epidemic is completely contained and his wife and daughter have already left for Europe. A French doctor (of African parents) is sent by the WHO to assess the situation only to find a growing sense of lassitude and petty corruption in a land he cannot understand even though he speaks the same language. There is a dreamlike quality to Ulrich Kohler’s film as both doctors appear to sleepwalk around each other, and a final mystical transformation carries undertones both spiritual and political.

Stopped on Track (Germany) (10): Movies about terminal illness have become such a Hollywood cliché over the years that it is unnerving to see one portrayed with such stark yet tender honesty. As the film opens, forty-something Frank and his wife have just received the devastating news; he has an inoperable brain tumor and even with chemo and radiation treatments he only has a few months to live. His final days, the doctor warns, will see him deteriorate both mentally and physically until he is unable to perform the most basic tasks. The family odyssey that follows contains several deeply affecting scenes as Frank’s wife and their two children cope with rapidly shifting family dynamics and their own personal grief. At first mildly befuddled, Frank begins exhibiting moments of total confusion, bouts of irrational anger, and worse when he forgets where the bathroom is located. He eventually becomes confined to bed with visiting hospice staff keeping him comfortable while helping his wife find the courage to accept his impending death. And then there is that one final Christmas... Andreas Dresen’s bold film deftly avoids any attempts at cheap manipulation; his camera forces us to confront Frank’s mortality and, by association, our own with such intimacy that we feel like a member of the family ourselves. He tempers an otherwise overpowering story with flashes of humour as various self-help gurus ply their trade and Frank records his final days on an iPhone (a talking hamster application is priceless!) Furthermore Dresen provides just a hint of the surreal when Frank’s declining mental functions have him hallucinating that his tumor is now a television celebrity; the latter touch a bit gimmicky at first but, towards the end, giving the film one of its more poignant visuals. Running the gamut from disbelief, anger and resentment to quiet resignation the cast is absolutely brilliant, the camerawork tight and natural, and Dresen’s assured direction evident in every frame. As someone who has worked extensively in both hospice and oncology wards I found this film to be entirely accurate and free of any Hollywood hyperbole whatsoever. A profound and moving testament.

Sufferosa (Poland) (1): Seven years in the making and heralded (by its creator) as the world’s first fully interactive cinematic experience this repetitive amalgamation of scratchy sound bytes and pretentious video loops is about as exciting as watching someone surf the net. In fact that’s exactly what it’s like as we watch director Dawid Marcinkowski shuttle the cursor of his macbook back and forth clicking here and there for our amusement. There’s a mysterious kidnapping, some suspects with famous names, and something else about a rejuvenation process for the wealthy which also involves gender reassignment. By constantly clicking on various icons Marcinkowski controls what passes for a narrative with 20 possible locations, 25 characters and 110 scenes to choose from, all leading up to 3 possible endings. We hit “delete” after 30 minutes and left the theatre.

Sunflower Hour (Canada) (3): What English-Canadian cinema lacks in depth and talent it usually makes up for with the occasional sophomoric gross-out comedy. Such is not the case with Sunflower Hour however, a formulaic mockumentary which takes a premise that should have been comedy gold and instead delivers a series of blanks. When the producer of a popular children’s TV show holds auditions for a new puppeteer the search yields four promising finalists; a closeted Christian homophobe, a neurotic teenager, an ambivalent goth girl and a schizoid Irishman who talks through a leprechaun permanently attached to his left hand. The cameras follow this disparate quartet as they suffer through their screen tests, experience emotional meltdowns and generally piss each other off until there’s only one left standing. Meanwhile the show’s producer is also running a lucrative porn business on the side with his estranged wife (cue a handful of stale T&A jokes). Subtlety is the key to making these types of comedies and subtlety is the one thing this fiasco is sorely lacking as director Aaron Houston never misses an opportunity to cram the film’s many forced ironies into our faces. The one-joke characters are shallow and their weak performances come across as too carefully rehearsed to be spontaneous. Furthermore the Christian homophobe is so crudely portrayed that he winds up being vaguely insulting to both gays and evangelicals alike. Houston tries to salvage what he can by injecting a little sobering drama into the mix (Irishman ditches leprechaun, goth chick discovers The Gap) but it proves to be the final nail in the coffin.

Target (Russia) (8): At a recent Q&A director Alexander Zeldovich stated that Russia is still very much an atheistic country. With no belief in a God that provides, he maintains, the people instead turn to consumer goods to attain a sense of satisfaction; a fact brought home with dramatic effect in this dense and highly satirical sci-fi oddity. Moscow in 2020 is a fairytale landscape of shining glass towers and crumbling glory where super-highways are clogged with endless semis and the Utopian ideals of “freedom, youth, and happiness” are now commodities to be bought and sold. There are electronic masks to smooth away wrinkles, holographic mirrors that let you look down upon any scene you wish, and everywhere there are ubiquitous touches of faux-Chinese culture now that Beijing is world economic leader. Even good and evil can be quantified thanks to a new pair of high-tech goggles which allow you to see the relative amounts of each present in everything from rocks to humans. “Evil can be kept in the ground...” quips one government minister, “...we can now mine only good for the betterment of all society.” Against this backdrop of hedonistic consumerism and laissez-faire corruption comes a rumor out of the far north; a fountain of youth has been discovered that will grant you immortality. Heeding this siren call are six Muscovite yuppies who journey to Mongolia in order to spend a night in the Target; a gigantic abandoned astrophysical observatory that concentrates healing “cosmic rays”. Upon returning to Russia however, they soon discover the truth behind that old adage “Be Careful What You Wish For” as their dreams quickly spiral into nightmares. Casting a jaundiced eye on Putin’s New Russia Zeldovich wastes no time showing this bright Utopia for what it really is; a crass illusion of materialism and self-indulgent apathy where political ideology is discussed on tabloid-style cooking shows and people switch partners as casually as if they were a pair of shoes. The film closes appropriately enough with a scene of orgiastic excess worthy of Hieronymus Bosch before cutting to one lone character’s quiet salvation. Ultra-cool in appearance with some nice special effects this is a small epic as cerebrally stimulating as it is visually seductive.

Taste the Waste (Germany) (7): Apparently the amount of food wasted by developed countries each year could feed the world’s starving citizens three times over. This is the central point around which this enthusiastic documentary revolves. Traveling from farmers’ markets in America to supermarkets in the E.U. and banana plantations in Cameroon, director Valentin Thurn reveals how unrealistic government regulations, profit-driven industry standards and finicky consumers all contribute to the millions of tons of food thrown out each year; a staggering quantity of waste which affects everything from world economics to global climate not to mention the the vast amounts of energy required to produce, and then dispose of, all those breadsticks and yogurt cups. Sickening images of perfectly edible groceries being tossed into landfills by the truckload are counterbalanced somewhat by stories of urban visionaries planting rooftop gardens, using organic waste to feed livestock and even turning mouldering garbage into a clean energy source. Not as preachy as you would expect given the subject matter (free range granola-munchers beware) and some of the claims may be a bit exaggerated but overall it presents a chilling critique of our disposable consumer culture.

Tatsumi (Japan) (5): Eric Khoo’s respectful tribute to pioneer cartoonist Tatsumi Yoshihiro founder of gekiga, a darker, more adult form of manga, is based on Yoshihiro’s own illustrated autobiography A Drifting Life. Using meticulously crafted 2D animation techniques Khoo traces Yoshihiro’s life from his childhood during WWII to his highly successful adult years. Along the way he also presents five of the master’s more popular short stories, presented in animated form for the first time. Despite the popularity of manga on both sides of the Pacific I’ve never been able to develop an interest in the art form myself, I find it overly long with very little dramatic payoff in the end. Perhaps it’s cultural, or perhaps it’s my age showing, but aside from a few nicely drawn sequences (the horror of Hiroshima was especially effective) I was just plain bored. There is no doubt as to Yoshihiro’s talented contribution to a genre loved by millions, but I still left the theatre unenlightened and unimpressed.

Tyrannosaur (UK) (10): Joseph is an angry man given to fits of brutal violence and self-loathing. Hannah is a seemingly kindhearted shopkeeper and devout Christian who’s own violent anger has been turned inwards causing her to reach for the bottle more than she should. When these two tortured souls meet head-on one fateful afternoon the tentative relationship which ensues leads to both a tragic confrontation and a small glimmer of redemption for both. In Paddy Considine’s unrelentingly intense drama there seems to be a pandemic of rage, projected by some, internalized by others, which leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. Using a palette of sombre earth tones against a backdrop of gloomy skies and everyday cruelties he launches an assault on our sensibilities. But even as we flinch at his frank depictions of other peoples’ hells we can’t help but feel a certain degree of compassion for the all-too-human monsters he presents. There is a masterful control at work in this film, aided by a phenomenal cast, which prevents it from spiraling into a gratuitous punch-fest. Furthermore the many subtle allusions to brutality; a broken figurine, the shadow of a growling dog, a child abandoning his stuffed bunny in order to play war games with toy soldiers, serve to reinforce the film’s central theme; the capacity for violence exists in all of us. Magnificent.

Water at the End of the World (Argentina) (7): Despite working in a dead end job at the local pizzeria, young Laura is trying her best to scrape together enough money to make her dying sister’s final wish come true; a trip to Argentina’s southernmost tip, otherwise known as the end of the world. But when a roguishly handsome street musician enters Laura’s life his presence has a profound effect on the sisters’ already volatile relationship. Director Paula Siero took what could have been a manipulative tearjerker and instead fashioned a wonderfully nuanced three-person drama which, despite its sad overtones, contains flashes of love, humour and some genuine eroticism. Shying away from the usual pitfalls associated with these type of films (I still gag whenever someone mentions Beaches) Siero relies on the impressive performances of her three leads to carry the story while ubiquitous images of dripping faucets and gushing shower heads remind us of the inevitability of fate.

White (Korea) (5): In an effort to boost their sagging popularity, girl group “Pink Dolls” move into a new studio where they set about bitch fighting over who gets to be the next lead singer. While exploring their new digs eldest band member Eun-Ju happens upon an old VHS tape featuring an unknown artist performing a kick-ass song called “White”. The Pink Dolls immediately decide to do a cover of this mysterious song and that’s when the kimchi hits the fan for not only is the studio haunted (cue long boring flashbacks) but the tape ends up resurrecting one very pissed off spirit (more flashbacks). As the girls are picked off one by one it falls down to Eun-Ju to solve the mystery and put the malevolent ghost to rest; but the faded diva has a few sinister plans of her own. Pretty generic Asian horror fare with all the usual shocks and plot twists and an ending which pays such tribute to Carrie that it borders on plagiarism. Entertaining nonetheless, but for all the wrong reasons.