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Nurse Bob's film reviews

PICKS AND PANS FROM THE VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2019




Amare Amaro
(France/Italy): When his delinquent brother is killed after deliberately driving his car into a neighbourhood pub—killing two patrons in the process—Gaetano is determined to bury him next to their mother in the nearby cemetery. This immediately puts him at odds with the local magistrate who, bowing to local pressure, refuses to let the universally despised hellraiser be interred anywhere near the village. Refusing to back down, the two go head-to-head in a titanic battle of wills which threatens to visit tragedy upon tragedy… Taking inspiration from the classical play Antigone, director Julien Paolini certainly paints the screen with Greco-style Sturm und Drang—tempers flare, lightning crackles, and his two antagonists face off as if they were on an Athenian battlefield while flashes of mordant humour provide a bit of comic relief (the body ends up in the strangest of places and the pet pooch is cute). I think Sophocles would have been flattered.

And Then We Danced (Georgia): Georgian society’s toxic homophobia gets a rainbow punch in Levan Akin’s bittersweet coming-out drama. Schooled in his country’s famous folk dancing since he was a child, teenaged Merab is thrilled when he’s offered a chance to audition for the National Ensemble. But his biggest rival, dark-haired Irakli, is also vying for the golden opportunity—a rivalry which takes an awkward romantic turn when both men discover they have more in common than a love of dance… By turns quietly erotic and heartbreakingly realistic, Akin sidesteps maudlin sentimentality and instead goes right for the jugular as he rips into Georgia’s macho posturing with the lightest of touches: a dance instructor has trouble keeping his testosterone in check, Irakli can’t quite get both feet out of the closet, and a brilliant tracking shot through a dysfunctional hetero wedding ratchets up the irony. But Akin saves his best shot for last with a choreographed bit of defiant sexuality set to a hammering drumbeat that left us laughing and clapping.

Bacurau (Brazil): Ever since they defied a local corrupt politician the few dozen inhabitants of Bacurau—a tiny village lost in the wilds of Brazil—have faced one backlash after another. First their water supply is shut off, then they lose their power and internet connection, and finally their town is literally wiped off the map. The worst is yet to come however when an international group of trigger-happy tourists arrive just outside of town (unofficially, of course). But Bacurau was once the site of a failed uprising and the plucky denizens, emboldened by outrage and a few hits of psychotropics, are not about to let history repeat itself. With shades of Eli Roth’s Hostel, he murky waters of third world politics is given a surreal edge in this deadly serious satire that sees Western foreign policy and homegrown corruption joining hands to deal with populations deemed inconvenient. Violent, cheeky, and filled with rage, Bacurau’s finer points may be lost on world audiences but it won’t be difficult to spot the Brazilians in the theatre—they’ll be the ones cheering the loudest.

Balloon (China): On the wild steppes of Tibet happily married Drolkar is juggling a few problems: her sister, a Buddhist nun, is dredging up some past trauma; her oversexed husband is going through condoms as if they were candy, and her eldest son needs university tuition. And then the Wheel of Life and Death makes an unexpected stop on her doorstep forcing her to make a fateful decision. Against a backdrop of China’s strict family planning laws of the 1980s (billboards and posters extol the virtues of obedience) director Pema Tseden mixes politics and religion, free will and obligation, to fashion a tale of one woman torn between familial wishes and the dictates of practicality. To bolster his narrative he employs some lovely visuals—two children observe the world through the opacity of an inflated condom; rainwater reflects an old soul making its way towards the next life; a pensive face is lit by the electric blue of a cellphone screen—and his native cast throw themselves into their assigned roles. Unfortunately, in a swirl of incense and clacking prayer beads, what could have been a wry feminist parable becomes just so much “inspirational” Buddhist porn. Pity.

Burning Cane (USA): A pall of southern gothic smothers Phillip Youmans’ tale of self-destruction set in a small Louisiana town whose residents have ceased to believe their black lives matter. An angry husband—emasculated by unemployment—stands ready to pass his legacy on to his son. A pastor bolsters his flagging faith with empty sermons and shots of bourbon. A grandmother, hemmed in by blind faith and a lifetime of disappointment, ponders a fatal decision. And a woman laments over her mange-infested dog (this latter thread only making sense once the final credits begin scrolling). In his eagerness to pile misery atop misery Youmans (only nineteen-years old, give him credit) becomes so lost in stylized angst that he fails to elicit enough substance to hold all his stories together. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the terrible price of poverty all make cameos (repeatedly) yet leave us with little more than a pile of unhappy anecdotes which, in the hands of a more experienced director, may have sufficed. However there is more than a hint of promise in his use of voiceovers and surreal pans which have been compared to the likes of an early Terence Malick. But at this stage in his career that’s like comparing a paint-by-number Mona Lisa to da Vinci’s original.

Castle of Dreams (Iran): After the death of his ex-wife, truculent Jalal is forced to reunite with the two children he hasn’t seen in three years—taciturn Ali and innocent chatterbox Sara (Niousha Alipour giving this year’s standout child performance). But what starts out as an uncomfortable road movie turns into something much heavier as Ali witnesses first hand the lies adults tell others, as well as themselves, in order to make life bearable. Why is dad’s female “business partner” so angry with him? Why do his brothers-in-law want to hurt him? And what really happened during mom’s last few days? Big questions for such a small child, and ones which director Reza Mirkarimi answers using cinematic strokes as heartbreaking as they are beautiful.

Chained (Israel): When controlling police officer Rashi is faced with allegations of misconduct on the job the resulting internal investigation (and loss of face) exact a toll on his home life. In this clinical examination of a dominant alpha male’s marriage coming undone, part of his Love Trilogy, Yaron Shani coaxes convincing performances from a largely unprofessional cast; their partially ad-libbed exchanges often carrying a documentary realism heightened by the fact he chose not to augment their dialogue with needless background music. Unfortunately, in addition to problems at work, the other stressors in Rashi’s life—a rebellious teenaged daughter, fertility issues, a wife who runs hot then cold for no apparent reason—lead to verbal confrontations which soon become tedious in their repetitiveness and certainly fail to justify the film’s heavy-handed resolution. In addition, the irony of Rashi’s upbeat ringtone (“Life is sweet as cherries..!”) loses its effectiveness after the first couple of calls. Would have made a far more powerful short film.

The Day After I’m Gone (Israel): Yet another film about unresolved grief, only with writer/director Nimrod Eldar it is merely a pretext for something much greater—namely the pathology of an entire nation. A year after his wife’s demise Tel Aviv veterinarian Yoram is still so wrapped up in his own pain he’s unable to see it reflected in they eyes of Roni, his taciturn seventeen-year old daughter. Living like roommates rather than father and child, he exhibits more compassion for the animals in his care while she derives what comfort she can from strangers on social media. And then Roni attempts suicide and Yoram, not knowing what else to do, takes her to visit relatives upon her release from hospital—a visit that will open more wounds than it closes. Against a backdrop of sinkholes, circuses, and the empty trappings of religion, the disconnect between father and daughter plays out on a much larger stage with an older generation unable to communicate with the younger—in the case of a deaf adolescent, quite literally. With nothing to offer their children but criticism (or a plywood memorial if they should die in battle), Roni’s older relatives are too busy shouting and blaming to actually hear a response. Even an impromptu “intervention” aimed at helping the young girl turns into a eulogy of sorts for her dead mother instead. Beautifully filmed with scenes that use Israel’s arid landscapes and congested cityscapes to full effect, this is both a warm humanist drama about two injured people stumbling towards absolution (note whose behind the steering wheel) and a caustic examination of a generational/idealism gap that’s turning families into strangers.

Divine Love (Brazil): In a very near future Brazil secularism has all but given way to a high-tech fundamentalism which sees Carnaval transformed into a religious rave; salvation offered “to go” courtesy of drive-thru churches; and security scanners indicating who’s legally married and who’s carrying an unregistered fetus. Joana, an acolyte of the popular “Divine Love” Christian cult, has been misusing her position as Registrar of Divorces in order to bring new members into the light of Jesus, but what she really wants is a child of her own. Unfortunately, despite fervent prayers and a ridiculous mail order device, she and her husband have yet to conceive. To amend an old adage however—be careful what you pray for—because even in a world of blind faith God’s “mysterious ways” sometimes backfire… It’s always nice to see religious batshittery get torn a new one and director Gabriel Mascaro’s low-pressure satire leaves few sacred cows unturned. From empty rituals in a muddy lake to the holy sacrament of wife-swapping (this is a Brazilian film after all) he eagerly takes the superstitious fervour currently fomenting in his country—and the rest of the world, sadly—and propels it to a logical conclusion. Atheism never looked so good.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Finland): Mistaken for a sex comedy by the Saturday night popcorn crowd, J. P. Valkeapää’s disturbing tale of grief grown morbid is in fact an urban tragedy. Several years after his wife drowned while they were on holidays, Helsinki physician Juha is still not coping with the psychological pain and vague sense of guilt associated with her death. And then, quite by accident, he crosses paths with S&M dominatrix Mona and discovers a release of sorts by substituting his mental anguish for physical pain and humiliation. But as their sessions grow more intense Juha discovers that the temporary emotional catharsis offered by sadomasochism can be more addictive than any drug… Filmed in lurid shades of black and red reminiscent of Italian gialli films, Valkeapää’s voyeuristic camera doesn’t shy away from leather whips and blood (you’ve been warned) but as the story progresses the transgressive slowly turns pathetic as dom and sub become the co-dependants they actually are. Can be compared to Hlynur Palmason’s superior Icelandic film, A White, White Day in that it focuses on a particularly male expression of pathological grief—but whereas Palmason’s grieving husband could at least see the light ahead, Juha forsakes it altogether in favour of the tunnel itself.

Escher: Journey Into Infinity (Netherlands): Famous for his iconic wood prints, Dutchman M.C. Escher always considered himself a mathematician rather than an artist. Certainly his fantastical pieces depicting houses that could only exist in multiple dimensions and overlapping animals that seem to recede towards an endless horizon display something of the mathematical precision he was so fond of. But Robin Lutz’s engaging documentary goes beyond the optical illusions presented by Escher to concentrate on the man himself as well as his obsession with illustrating the higher order he sensed in the world around him. With his works enjoying a renaissance of sorts (they were once the psychedelic poster children of the 60s drug counterculture—an intellectual theft he abhorred) Lutz’s authoritarian opus—scripted from Escher’s own diaries and letters—is a must-see for anyone interested in the subject.

Every Day a Good Day (Japan): Clumsy and awkward, highschool student Noriko finds her centre by studying the highly disciplined Japanese Tea ceremony at the hands of an aging sensei. Over the next twenty-four years her growing mastery of the skill will have an unexpected influence on her life. Tying the ritualized intricacies of a tea ceremony with the vagaries of existence may prove difficult for Western audiences, but director Tatsushi Ohmori’s quintessentially Japanese film demands both patience and a willingness to simply enjoy the scenery whether it be an old woman’s garden marking the passing of the seasons, a delicate glazed bowl, or the sound of Autumn rain on bamboo shingles. Could have been edited by a few minutes and a wholly predictable tragedy arrives like a bullet train, but if you’re looking for a few moments of Zen cinema then take a deep breath and repeat the film’s mantra…

Joel (Argentina): A childless couple living in Patagonia apply to adopt a child, but instead of the little tyke they were hoping for the only child available turns out to be a reticent nine-year old boy who’s already seen more pain than most adults. Slowly getting used to one another, the three start to get along until Joel starts telling tall tales at school leading to friction at home and an angry backlash from the other parents. A long and totally unremarkable film about a couple learning to become parents which is only notable for its lack of clichés—the adults are not martyrs and the kid is just a kid, not the Antichrist.

Jojo Rabbit (USA): 1997’s Life is Beautiful earned Roberto Benigni accolades (and some critical disdain) for doing the impossible, namely writing a comedy set in the middle of the Holocaust. Now, with his screen adaptation of Christine Leunens’ book, Taika Waititi kicks it up a notch and takes on the entire Third Reich in a terribly silly and wholly satirical send-up of everything from Nazi propaganda to the Gestapo. Proud of his brown shirt and simply mad about swastikas, little 10-year old Hitler Youth Johannes “Jojo” (Roman Griffin Davis, simply perfect) bolsters his lack of courage with frequent pep talks from his imaginary friend—none other than the Fuehrer himself (Waititi shamelessly camping it up in jack boots and tiny moustache). But when he discovers a teenaged Jewish girl hiding behind the drywall in his house his nascent Nazi loyalties are put to the test as the headstrong Elsa and the imaginary Adolph both vie for his allegiance. Rich in one-liners and cheap but effective sight gags—a youth camp training session turns into a slapstick farce and Jojo’s attempt to impress his hero by writing a textbook on the evils of Judaism had me rolling—Waititi also knows when to rein it in, at least a little, for a few fleeting scenes of wartime brutality which acknowledge the reality behind the lampooning. Outrageous in concept yet never disrespectful where it counts, Jojo Rabbit mocks the perpetrators of one of modern history’s darkest chapters while simultaneously suggesting that sometimes laughter is the better medicine after all—providing enough time has elapsed. Or in the words of Johannes himself, “FUCK YOU HITLER!” Scarlett Johansson co-stars as Jojo’s secretive mother, Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell provide yucks as camp commandants, and it’s all bookended by The Beatles and David Bowie belting it out in German. Yowza!

La Belle Époque (France): Grumpy old luddite Victor Drumond is approaching his final years with a suitcase full of woes: he’s fed up with all things newfangled, his career as a cartoonist has been sunk by the internet, and his wife’s own mid-life crisis is causing her to yearn for greener pastures. Then he receives a free trial offer from “Time Travellers Inc”, a vast theatre production company that specializes in recreating any time period of your choosing complete with costumed actors, elaborate sets, and special effects. Choosing May, 1974—the day he first laid eyes on his future wife in a smoky Lyon bar—Victor, at first somewhat cynical, gradually loses himself in the staged illusion (thanks in large part to the actress hired to play his love interest) until a rude wake-up call reminds him that you really can’t go home again. Nicolas Bedos’ sparkling feature works so well on so many levels it’s difficult to fit it into any one particular slot. As a warm romantic comedy it follows the evolution of two very different relationships—Victor and his wife weighed down by the past, and a Time Travellers director and his girlfriend who can’t quite synch with the present. As a study on the fluidity of time and memory there’s a definite touch of 1980’s The Stunt Man in the way the aforementioned director orchestrates reality from behind his two-way mirror. As a wistful game of “What If” Koreeda’s After Life immediately comes to mind, for although Victor is still very much alive he’s still looking to relive that one perfect moment of happiness even if it plays out on a soundstage. Lastly, as in Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, we see the vanity and ultimate futility of trying to heal the present by conjuring up the past. Very funny for all its deeper implications and chockfull of clever surprises, watching La Belle Époque feels like falling in love all over again.

The Lighthouse (USA): Using physical spaces to denote psychological states is not new to cinema. With this in mind Robert Eggers’ muddled mess of guilty consciences and psychosexual urges hardly breaks new ground despite it’s claustrophobic box-like aspect ratio and antiqued B&W cinematography. In 1890 two gruff loners—Ephraim, a taciturn naif (Robert Pattison murdering a New England accent) and Thomas, a crusty old veteran (Willem Dafoe doing the same to Long John Silver)—spend a four-week stint running a remote lighthouse on a barren thrust of rock in the north Atlantic. At first establishing an uneasy civility towards one another, a combination of wild weather, isolation, and Thomas’ constant criticisms eventually throw Ephraim’s sanity into question leading to unsettling hallucinations and a paranoid suspicion that the island is home to something else not quite human… With most of the dialogue lost to unintelligible howls, mumbles, and a shrill soundscape of screeching birds and pounding elements, one has to wade between the visual cues to gain any insight. Severe camera angles accent the Lighthouse’s phallic appearance, a homoerotic passage spells conflict, and Thomas’ salty tales of waterlogged gods and finned demons set the stage for some silly supernatural flourishes including one risible glowing-eyed tableau. It’s dime store Freudian psychology filtered through H. P. Lovecraft. It’s an allegorical bitch fight between Poseidon and Prometheus. It’s one man’s cakewalk through purgatory. But mostly it’s a very disappointing, unintentionally (?) funny follow-up to Eggers’ vastly more effective shocker, The Witch.

Little Joe (Austria): If 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a thinly veiled warning about the effects of communism on red-blooded Americans, Jessica Hausner’s entertainingly ridiculous horticultural Frankenstein flick preaches directly to the anti-GMO/anti-pharma crowd. When a plant geneticist creates a new species of flower, one which rewards its owner by releasing pheromones that induce happiness, the corporation she works for immediately sees dollar signs on the horizon. However, upon further investigation, she begins to suspect the feeling of joy it offers is but a symptom of something much more dreadful—especially after she innocently brings one of the plants home. With a slightly better than mediocre script (how many times does a character need to explain what’s happening?) and an ill-advised soundtrack of hypersonic whistles, barking dogs, and twanging Chinese opera music (huh?) Hausner’s first English language feature never reaches the level of paranoia it was aiming for, landing instead somewhere between Day of the Triffids and Village of the Damned. But those scenes of a high-tech greenhouse filled with scarlet blooms bobbing about like ominous toilet brushes do look good.

Melancholic (Japan): Despite being a graduate of the prestigious Tokyo University (a Japanese in-joke which runs throughout) depressed and painfully awkward Kazuhiko still lives with his parents and still hasn’t found lucrative employment. Case in point, his current nowhere job doing janitorial work at a public bath. Then he discovers the bathhouse is being used as an after-hours killing floor by a yakuza gang and, not one to shut the door when opportunity knocks, Kazuhiko starts earning overtime mopping up after messy executions. But when you dance with the devil you never know where it’s going to lead… Seiji Tanaka’s straight-faced comedy of blood and manners starts off promisingly enough with lead Yoji Minagawa playing the perpetually stunned Kazuhiko for all the self-conscious laughs he can muster—his clumsy interactions with a new girlfriend and even clumsier dealings with a hardened executioner are good for a few chuckles. But it all runs out of steam after the first act leaving you half asleep by the time the big twist arrives. Not that it was worth staying awake for anyway.

Mr. Jones (Poland): As a direct result of Stalin’s attempts to collectivize the farmlands of the Ukraine circa 1930, millions ended up starving to death—a fact the dictator did not want the world to know about. Agnieszka Holland’s (mostly) English language feature follows Welsh journalist Gareth Jones whose attempts to break the story in the Western media were met with official denials as politics and economic opportunism trumped human suffering—a disgraceful bit of history which would later prompt George Orwell to pen his dystopian classic, Animal Farm. Hopping from London to Moscow (where the foreign press is wooed with drugs and hookers) to the frozen Ukraine where emaciated corpses seem to haunt every snowbank and abandoned village, Holland’s expert widescreen mix of bureaucratic intrigue and human drama calls to mind the epic sweeps of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. But there is no gauzy love story here nor any grand revolution, just a frightened journalist with a camera and a passion to expose the truth to a world not willing to hear it. Co-star Peter Sarsgaard eats up the screen as the sycophantic New York Times Moscow Bureau chief Walter Duranty—a man so caught up in Stalin’s dream that he sacrificed his own journalistic integrity for the sake of state propaganda.

Noah Land (Turkey): Forty-one year old Ömer agrees to drive his estranged father, Ibrahim, back to his old village one last time for the old man is terminally ill and wishes to be buried beneath the tree he planted there fifty years ago. But in the intervening decades the local villagers have declared the tree a sacred shrine, claiming it was planted by Noah four-thousand years ago, and adding insult to injury they also refuse to recognize Ibrahim’s deed to the land on which it is growing. As Ömer’s secular outrage goes up against religious fervour a battle erupts which threatens to end in tragedy… Although director Cenk Ertürk takes a dim view on superstitious nonsense (the local Imam openly doubts the tree’s lineage and local piety seems directly related to the profitable pilgrim trade) this is, at its heart, the story of a toxic relationship between a dying father and an adult child who is torn between grief for what’s to come and resentment over what happened in the past—a past he blames for his own failed marriage. Told in that slow, deliberate way so integral to Turkish cinema, Ertürk paints the screen with snowy night skies and lingering sunsets as father and son cleanse each other’s wounds while in the background images of water, wildlife, and the tree itself provide fitting metaphors.

No. 7 Cherry Lane (Hong Kong): Unfolding like a series of passionate memories, Yonfan’s animated evocation of a semi-mythical Hong Kong is pure visual poetry in the same vein as Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Set during 1967’s political unrest it focuses on the love triangle which slowly develops when university student Ziming is hired by widowed Mrs. Yu to tutor her daughter in English. As mother and daughter vie for the handsome young man’s attention—joined by the fading opera diva upstairs—their heated affections are reflected in the rapidly changing world around them: the local theatre marquee advertises The Graduate, police and protesters clash in the street, and Hong Kong’s once ubiquitous red cottonwood trees fill the air with romantic fluff (much like Yonfan’s corny script). There is no mistaking the film's visual artistry, and those psychosexual impulses—represented by several very Freudian cats—are well played, but without a compelling story the images simply flash by like so many pleasant water colours accompanied by a grab bag of musical styles. Sensuous, painterly, and steeped in kitschy eroticism. And way….way…too long.

Once in Trubchevsk (Russia): The equilibrium of two neighbouring families is upset when it’s discovered the wife of one neighbour has been having an affair with the husband next door. But the joke’s on the cheaters for when everything hits the fan they find out the grass isn’t very green on either side of the fence. What sparse comedic elements there are, namely two old crones—one a gossipy mother-in-law, the other an endearingly clueless landlady—and a local Remembrance Day celebration which rubs our noses in irony, fail to offset a lifeless script and a host of generic performances. As dull as dishwater and just as funny.

Out of Tune (Denmark): Incarcerated while awaiting trial on corruption charges, wealthy financier Markus Føns realizes that in order to elevate himself within the often baffling prison hierarchy he’ll need to make friends, influence enemies, and discredit the competition—in this case Niels, the soft-spoken director of the prison choir. Envious of the many privileges Neils enjoys, Markus calls upon every dirty corporate trick he can think of in order to secure the position of choirmaster for himself. But jail is not an entirely accurate reflection of real life, a fact soon made abundantly clear… If you took the beginning of Frederikke Aspöck’s droll sociopolitical satire and pasted it on to the end you’d have a winning short film oozing with irony and a razor sharp wit. Sadly, at ninety minutes, its sting is dulled by tedium and misplaced sympathies.

Pain and Glory (Spain): The closest thing to a biopic we’re ever going to see from Spanish legend Pedro Almodóvar is this absolutely delightful ode to the man and his work, told with all the usual warmth and panache. Pedro alumnus Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo (anyone up for anagrams?) a film director facing middle-age with pain both physical—a bad back has him downing analgesics by the handful—and metaphysical as he feels his artistic juices waning. Drifting back and forth from the present to his impoverished childhood, Mallo reflects on the journey his art has taken him including a failed love affair, a rocky relationship with his mother (Penélope Cruz), and the myriad choices he had to make along the way. Bright primary colours abound as well as sly references to such classics as Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. True to form there is a dry humour at work, a bit of drug-taking, and one or two beautiful male bodies—but in the end it’s all about love (especially of the women in one’s life) and, above all else, the pursuit of art. An endearing little ruse at the end is pure Almodóvar magic.

The Painted Bird (Czech): With WWII booming on the horizon, a young Jewish boy finds sanctuary of a kind with his grandmother in the hinterlands of Eastern Europe. But with the old woman’s sudden demise he’s unceremoniously cast out into a cruel, surreal world where every comforting hand conceals a dagger and even nature itself seems to coil like a scorpion. Separated into chapters, each more brutally disturbing than the one previous, Václav Marhoul’s allegorical tale of innocence destroyed follows its young protagonist as he’s passed from the Communists to the Nazis to the Catholic church to villages full of cold-hearted peasants—and with each successive assault to body and mind his wide-eyed naivety slowly transforms into something else. Comparing favourably to such like-minded classics as The Tin Drum, Come and See, and the Nietzschean terror of The Turin Horse, this is definitely not a film for all sensibilities since Marhoul seems determined to fully immerse his audience in one young boy’s nightmarish odyssey. But his austere B&W cinematography transforms even the most horrifying scenes into grave works of art while subtle anachronisms (Christian arrogance vies with pagan savagery) reminds us that this is a story as old as time and as fresh as yesterday’s headlines.

Parasite (Korea): Penniless but wickedly resourceful, the Kim family slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of the wealthy Parks and and their two darling children by posing as tutors and domestic servants. But their hilarious taste of the high life is cut short when a face from the not-so-distant past emerges and threatens to expose the entire ruse. With an affectionate nod to Buñuel, Joon-ho Bong’s uproarious class-conscious comedy pits the clueless “haves” against the cunning “have-nots” with a script that rolls effortlessly between droll satire and all-out slapstick. But beware, for like Buñuel, Joon-ho’s farce hides a sting so painful it will make you rethink the preceding two hours of knee-slapping.

Queen of Hearts (Denmark): Danish defense attorney Anne (the phenomenal Trine Dyrholm) has made a successful career out of helping the weak and vulnerable, from victims of rape to abused minors. But when she finds herself irresistibly drawn to her delinquent teenaged stepson a series of sexual trysts ensue which not only jeopardize her career and marriage, but also send her moral compass into a flaming tailspin leading to a devastating decision. Dyrholm gives one hell of an emotionally draining performances as a paragon of ethical values whose private fall from grace, laced with hypocrisy and a gross abuse of power, unravels with all the ferocity of a Shakespearean tragedy. Yet, while watching her preen in front of the bedroom mirror or flirt like a girl half her age, a certain pathetic vulnerability emerges which for me was more disturbing than the explicit sex which followed. An unflinching, at times brutal film which hits you like a raw nerve—but in the expert hands of Dyrholm and director May el-Toukhy also makes for compulsive viewing.

The Realm (Spain): When his party becomes embroiled in multiple corruption charges, politico Manuel López-Vidal finds his lavish lifestyle compromised after he is set up to take the fall. Not willing to go quietly, he decides to turn whistleblower only to discover that the stakes are higher…and deadlier…than he anticipated… With a pounding soundtrack of electric beats and some off-kilter cinematography that could teach Gaspar Noé a thing or two, Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s paranoid political thriller imagines a society so rotten to the core that no one person or institution seems untainted, a fact his protagonist learns one plot twist at a time. But just when you think you’re being prepared for a typical nail-biting Hollywood ending, he follows up his “bang” with an angry whimper before everything cuts to black. Even I didn’t see it coming.

Retrospekt (Netherlands): As in her previous film, Can Go Through Skin, writer/director Esther Rots takes a linear storyline, chops it into bits, then throws the shards onto theatre screens so audiences can try and knit the pieces back together again. Mette is a social worker dealing with domestic abuse (standout performance from Circé Lethem). Miller is an abused woman trying to flee her partner with Mette’s help. Simon is Mette’s big bear of a husband who often travels for work. With these three characters anchoring the film, Rots proceeds to ignore timelines and narrative cohesion as her script darts back and forth and sideways across time. We know that Mette has allowed her work to intrude upon her private life putting more strain on an already shaky marriage. We know that Miller, far from innocent, is helping to perpetuate a pathological relationship in which both partners are simultaneously the addict and the drug. And we know that at some point Mette will end up hospitalized in serious condition. Rots uses the fragmentary nature of memories—especially those associated with trauma—like pieces of a puzzle which slowly come together to form a larger picture, yet she leaves the final interpretation of what we’re seeing to us. And a ridiculous background score of faux opera arias celebrating domestic banality provides one more question mark—are they meant to be ironic or sarcastic? Both a psychological rabbit hole and a fractured contemporary tragedy, this is definitely not for those like to be passively entertained.

Scarborough (UK): Barnaby Southcombe’s adaptation of Fiona Evans’ stage play opens in a grand old seaside hotel where two separate May-December affairs are taking place under the sardonic eye of the desk clerk. But there are serious problems which go beyond the mere age difference for the two older partners—one male, one female—are high school teachers and their teenaged lovers also happen to be their students. A prickly situation to be sure but one in which Southcombe refuses to cast the first stone, showing us instead how a precarious balance of power can shift over the course of a single weekend fuelled by fear, half-truths, and childish fantasy. True to its theatrical roots the film starts out with a fluid symmetry as both couples read from the exact same script, but it’s when the stories begin to diverge that Southcombe forces his audience to think (and then think again) about what we’re witnessing for he not only pulls the rug out from under us but kicks us down the hotel stairs for good measure. A masterful film which takes a familiar theme and then veers into a wholly unexpected direction.

Sometimes Always Never (England): The minefield betwixt fathers and sons takes an amusing twist in Carl Hunter’s gentle little charmer. When one of his adult sons goes missing the disappearance serves as an emotional catalyst between a fastidiously British widower (Bill Nighy, pure gold) and his long-suffering other son as their search dredges up memories and resentments from the past. With green screen backdrops and theatrical sets giving the impression of an English sitcom, the two men (along with a perpetually upbeat daughter-in-law, a kind-hearted slacker grandson, and a bickering couple in similar circumstances) wend their way towards a new understanding with dad’s passion for Scrabble adding just a touch of the farcical as the game board alternates between slick moneymaker and Ouija oracle. Not a film to remember, but a pleasant way to pass some time just the same.

Sorry We Missed You (England): This latest from Ken Loach is not so much his usual working class tragedy as it is a string of Labour Party rants meant to smack that middle class complacency right off your face. Rick and Abbie Turner are barely able to pay their rent and cellphone bills—she’s a contract nurse who laments over not being able to spend more time with her patients (naturally), and after quitting a series of dead end jobs (they weren’t to his liking) he’s now delivering packages to ungrateful clients for a measly commission. The two kids aren’t faring much better: family stressors have eleven-year old Liza Jane wetting the bed and her older brother Seb is lashing out against the evils of capitalism by skipping school and defacing public property with spray-painted doodles. With circumstances thus so dire it would only take one unfortunate incident to put everything in jeopardy. And, of course, that’s exactly what happens… Too eager to heap misery upon misery (that’ll teach the audience!) Loach foregoes subtlety and reaches for that ton of bricks—a hospital waiting room is a study in socialized wretchedness; the cold black heart of Rick’s Free Market boss couldn’t be any more evil if it spouted devil horns (you get two minutes for lunch and you have to carry a bottle so you can piss on the go); and Loach’s ginger-haired everyman gets kicked in the teeth so many times you can set your watch by it. Despite some sympathetic passages—probably filmed when the director paused to take a breath—I still felt as if I were watching a whiney delinquent and two adults who turned making bad choices into a career.

Stitches (Serbia): Two hour after he was born, Ana’s son was pronounced dead. That was eighteen years ago and despite the passing of time there still remains too many unanswered questions surrounding what exactly happened for her to let it go. For one thing she was never allowed to see the body nor was she told where it was buried. Furthermore her quest for closure has not only uncovered some official discrepancies, it has also put her at odds with the police, the courts, and her own husband and grown daughter. Director Miroslav Terzic has taken a bleak footnote from his country’s troubled past and distilled it down to the story of one grief-stricken mother’s quest for the truth—and the resulting story, a mix of suspense and emotional catharsis, is nothing less than devastating in its sheer simplicity. Lead Snezana Bogdanovic wrings every nuance from Ana, a quiet downcast woman with a steel determination, while Elma Tataregic’s terse screenplay knows precisely when to talk and when to let heavy silences speak for themselves. An engrossing and intelligent film right up to that bittersweet final frame.

Stuffed (USA): Aside from a morbid curiousity, I’ve never given much thought to taxidermy let alone taken the time to consider it as an art form. Erin Derham’s decidedly niche documentary certainly casts the practice in a different light with a group of eccentric taxidermists from around the world waxing philosophical on everything from the nature of death to the death of nature as they skin and mount carcasses—some animals posed as if they were caught in flight, others becoming part of exhibits which go beyond the pale. There’s no mistaking the exuberance of Derham’s oddball subjects, and the artistic and educational merits of their creations are self-evident, but besides satisfying my aforementioned curiousity there really wasn’t much else to engaged me.

Waves (USA): Some films are propelled by a gripping storyline alone while others rely on the director’s sheer exuberance of style to move them forward. Trey Edward Shults’ family drama, engaging despite all its clichés, definitely falls somewhere in between. Miami highschool jock Tyler has it all: a loving girlfriend, a comfortable upper middle class home, and a father determined to drive him to greatness. But when an injury sidelines his wrestling aspirations at the same time an unforeseen crisis scuttles his relationship, his teenaged coping skills prove inadequate—especially when he sees the disappointment registered in his father’s eyes. Then one night Tyler—his pain sharpened exponentially by alcohol, rage, and macho self-pity—makes a decision which will send painful waves crashing through his entire family from his domineering dad to his conciliatory mother to his impressionable kid sister who’s just starting out on her own journey towards adolescence. Graced by a catchy soundtrack of urban rhythms, spoken word, and orchestral riffs which always seem to provide just the right emotional accompaniment, Shults blasts the screen with saturated colours and a camera which goes from static long shots to a swirling frenzy between one beat and the next. Lightning crackles on the horizon, police strobes split the sky, and everywhere random images of love and loss compete whether it be a clandestine kiss beneath roiling storm clouds or two hands that refuse to touch. An exquisitely rendered tale about coming apart and coming together told with panache and a dream cast who wear their roles like a glove.

Wet Season (Singapore): Approaching middle-age with nothing of note to show for it, highschool teacher Ling is in a rut. Her husband’s affections have long since withered, her Mandarin classes are considered redundant by a student body eager to embrace English, and most of her home time is spent caring for an invalid father-in-law. On top of all of that, her biological clock is running down taking her dreams of motherhood with it. And then she begins tutoring Wei Lun, a handsome young man who’s been failing her class, and as the teacher-student relationship begins crossing professional boundaries Ling is forced to confront some harsh truths. It’s an old story and director Anthony Chen has nothing new to add to it—in fact a few rather corny passages seem as if they were penned by a lovestruck teenager rather than a seasoned screenwriter. But the performances are bang on and the unpredictable monsoon weather provides the perfect metaphor for lives in flux.

The Whistlers (Romania): Crooked cops, drug cartels, and a sultry femme fatale are all on the menu in Corneliu Porumboiu’s operatic salute to film noir, a production whose convoluted plot shares equal billing with soaring arias and action that flips between the mean streets of Bucharest, high-tech Singapore, and the subtropical charms of the Canary Islands where natives speak in clicks and whistles. But to explain the plot in detail—a double-crossing heist gone wrong—would be to ruin it; suffice to say no one (good or bad) ends up quite where they were expecting to be. An eclectic soundtrack runs from Iggy Pop to Tchaikovsky while a savvy script casts sly winks at Hitchcock and John Wayne with one very unlucky film director thrown in to remind us that, above all, this is a…movie!! Porumboiu’s love for cinema proves contagious.

A White, White Day (Iceland): Pathological grieving is front and centre in Hiynur Palmason’s gripping psychodrama following Ingimundur, a recently widowed police officer (standout performance from a grizzled Ingvar Sigurdsson), who is unable to come to terms with his wife’s accidental death. Alternating between rage, suspicion, and denial, his mental anguish begins to take its toll on everyone around him. With the crags and freezing mists of Iceland setting the tone, Palmasson’s amazing visuals make the film’s terse dialogue seem superfluous at times—Ingimundur’s half-finished house makes a fitting metaphor; wild animal familiars (in this case a herd of ponies) are never more than a few hoofbeats away; and a box of his late wife’s possessions goads more than it comforts. Even a silly children’s TV show morphs into a lament on mortality while a psychiatrist appointment held via Skype comes to resemble a circle of Hell. Fine performances all around with a notable turn from Ída Hlynsdóttir as the grieving man’s little guardian angel-cum-granddaughter. It’s a journey towards the light, but “light” can carry many different meanings…

The Wild Goose Lake (China): A touch of Orson Welles drifts through every frame of Yi’nan Diao’s moody homage to Film Noir—a study in colour and composition so over-the-top it practically reinvents the genre. Accused of murdering a policeman, petty motorcycle thief Zenong Zhou is on the lam from both the authorities and a handful of gangsters eager to use his predicament to their advantage. Eventually holing up in the unsavoury area bordering Wild Goose Lake in the company of an enigmatic prostitute who may or may not have his best interests at heart, Zenong has but one overriding wish—to reconnect with his estranged wife… Diao creates a mesmerizing world of saturated colours and skewed symmetries where rain falls on cue and distant flashes of lightning underscore a spare script which somehow manages to make every cliché sound fresh. Drifting cigarette smoke wreaths a pair of sultry eyes, neon signs turn puddles into abstract art, and every garbage-strewn alleyway turns into a psychedelic maze alive with gunfire and racing footsteps. Heady and darkly romantic, with just a slight tinge of macabre humour, Diao doesn’t take himself too seriously and the result is both highly visual and vastly entertaining.