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Let’s finish up this review of the 2011 AFI European Union Showcase. And it may even be relevant if one of these films pops up in the Oscar discussion.

Bullhead (Rundskop), Belgium, dir: Michael R Roskam

Going in this looked like a crime thriller with an unusual setting: black market bovine hormone dealers in Belgium. How can such a premise be ignored? But it turns out our ‘roided-up bull is no cow but Jacky, a pumped up enforcer in the hormone mafia. The film ends up being a thoughtful and stylish rumination on manhood.

A childhood incident left Jacky with a mangled set of male equipment. He uses steroids to become seriously bulky but the side effects of the steroids and his intense feelings of inadequacy combine to cause some major inner turmoil. He’s emotionally and socially stunted, which doesn’t help when some hormone deals go wrong leading to the police and some rival dealers closing in.

Matthias Schoenaerts won the Best Actor award at the AFI Fest in LA a few months back and it’s very well deserved. He’s a muscled ball of rage and indecision. Belgium also chose to submit this film for the Foreign Language Oscar over the Dardenne-helmed festival darling The Kid with a Bike which is certainly the correct choice. I’m not a raging fan of the film. It has a great character and some interesting ideas, plus it can be oddly funny (boy do the Flemish and Walloon halves of Belgium hate each other). But the story is less compelling than hoped and it sort of peters out. I’m not expecting it to score an Oscar nod. Still, it’s an interesting and thoughtful ride. B+.

Black Thursday (Czarny Czwartek), Poland, dir: Antoni Krauze

In December 1970, Polish workers in Gdansk and the surrounding areas went on strike to protest rising prices and stagnant wages. When the Communist government demanded they return to work, shipbuilders were met at the shipyard gates with tanks and machine guns which subsequently opened fire. This led to several days of riots.

Maybe to a Polish audience a film about Black Thursday makes perfect sense as a major event in the country’s recent history. For an outsider that knows little about the specifics of the incident, the film as structured is an effective warning of authoritarian government. Some of the details didn’t quite connect for me, particularly the political wrangling, but the film still makes a powerful statement. It centers its narrative around one worker and his family then zooms out to events as a whole when warranted. As the violence progresses and his family sits at home worried about his fate, we worry with them. And when workers pile a body of a slain comrade onto a door and carry him around town as a martyr while the police take shots at the crowd from a hovering helicopter, we’re down in the chaos with them.

I think the filmmakers set out to make a film about an event in their nation’s collective consciousness. But for the rest of us we can look past the specifics (and ignore the confusing bits) and feel the terror of what it’s like to oppressed. Poland didn’t submit this film for the Oscars, choosing instead a Holocaust drama that is supposed to be terrific. But if it had gone with Black Thursday I think it would have had the chance to do well in the competition. A-.

Tales of the Night (Les Contes de la Nuit), France, dir: Michel Ocelot

We’ll finish with the last film I saw during the festival, an animated film I tacked on at the end because I’m a sucker for animated films. And this one came with an interesting looking animation style from a director who’d made a mini-splash a few years back with Azur and Asmar.

Alas, that style is not interesting enough to overcome a boring narrative. The film tells six short stories, each set in a different historical period and geography (Medieval times, Ancient Egypt). They are simple fables or fairy tales set around a framing device of a young acting troupe bringing the tales to life on a stage in Paris. Each of the stories is quick. The bad ones therefore pass quickly, but none of them get enough time to develop into something interesting.

Ocelot’s animation style turns the characters into black silhouettes set against layered backdrops. It’s interesting enough, but doesn’t provide enough visual stimulation when the narrative falters. I believe the film was released in 3D in France, which may have helped by giving the picture some depth via each flat layer of background. D+.

January 2012