Battling the blahs

'Autumn Spring' features a man mired in boredom, while noisy neighbors and jealousy are at the heart of 'Dog Days.'

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Imports from overseas have been plentiful this summer, and often more impressive than their Hollywood counterparts. The latest visitors from abroad aren't among the season's best, but they provide offbeat alternatives to big-studio fare.

Autumn Spring hails from the Czech Republic, once the home of an innovative film industry that produced international classics Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, among many others. These films often thrived on witty observation of ordinary human behaviors, and "Autumn Spring" cleverly picks up on that tradition.

The main character is Fanda, an elderly man whose life has become mired in boredom. He has nothing in common with his aging wife, few surviving friends to call on, and little in the way of hobbies and interests.

Recommended: A week's worth of activities for kids to fend off the winter blahs

Yet he has an adventurous spirit, and it's an odd sort of adventure he enjoys. Together with a cantankerous old crony, he pulls off small-time scams - pretending to be an opera star interested in buying an expensive house, say, thereby getting an upscale meal and free limo travel from the real-estate broker. His wife disapproves of such stuff, especially since he sneaks money out of her cherished funeral fund to pay for his escapades. This increases the tensions between them, also made worse by disagreements about how to handle their irresponsible offspring.

"Autumn Spring" is part caper movie and part scenes from a marriage. It is engrossing much of the way through. Credit goes largely to the legendary Czech actor Vlastimil Brodsky, star of such long-ago hits as the original "Jacob the Liar" and the great "Closely Watched Trains." The supporting cast is also excellent, and director Vladimir Michalek creates a fine balance of pathos and humor.

Unfortunately, the film takes a wrong turn in its final scenes, when Fanda's wife abruptly changes her tune and decides to sympathize with his need for moments of excitement. This leads to a sentimental ending out of tune with the movie's earlier, more emotionally complex moods. That aside, "Autumn Spring" provides a compassionate look at problems of old age that Hollywood rarely bothers to treat seriously.

Dog Days, an Austrian drama with echoes of the American hit "Slacker," visits a suburb of Vienna slogging its way through a long, hot summer that's bringing out the worst in everyone.

Among them are an unsavory young man who goes crazy with jealousy whenever a man glances in his girlfriend's direction; a home-security specialist trying to find out who's putting unsightly scratches on cars parked near a local housing tract; an old man driven to distraction by his noisy neighbors; and a deranged young woman whose idea of a great time is hitching rides and inflicting nonstop chatter on the people nice enough to pick her up.

Some scenes of Ulrich Seidl's first fiction feature (he's already a respected documentary maker) are so brutal and degrading that they're hard to watch. Others are highly atmospheric and sometimes quite funny. It's a mixed bag of a movie, not for everyone despite its winning of the grand jury prize at the Venice film festival two years ago. See it only if you're ready for a bumpy, sometimes nasty ride.

'Autumn Spring,' rated PG-13, contains rough language. 'Dog Days,' not rated; explicit sex and violence.

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