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Entries in foreign films (239)

Friday
Sep122014

TIFF Quickies: Behavior, Cub, The Gate, and The Farewell Party

Nathaniel's adventures in Toronto, the last leg.

I came out of my last screening a few hours ago and a plane awaits me tomorrow which is a good thing since I'm running on fumes. Four more films need writeups and we'll probably do a podcast. But we'll worry about this tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day. My TIFF screenings ended tonight. And get this: Less than 48 hours after my return to NYC, critics screenings for NYFF begin. I'm not even exaggerating. No rest at all for poor Nathaniel.

 

 

LMAO. Tweet of the Year! Okay, on to the movies...

Behavior (Cuba)
A huge hit in Cuba, and their probable Oscar submission if they submit at all (they often skip it), Behavior tackles tough topics like educational buerocracies, dead-end poverty, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, prejudice against immigrants, you name it. More importantly it asks questions that have interested educators forever: how involved should a teacher be in the lives of her students? do you prepare them for life outside of school or merely provide them shelter from that life for a part of each day? Do you break the rules for one if you feel that child is a special case? Yet for all these heavy topics, provocative questions and the film's frequent classroom scenes, this drama never feels didactic or preachy but organically dramatized around its dimensional characterizations rather than characters as stand-ins for ideas/types (with a couple of exceptions). It's the story of an old passionate teacher Carmela (Alina Rodriguez), past retirement age, who is always at odds with the schoolboard because she's inflexible when it comes to bending rules to meet a student's needs. It's also the story of her class trouble-maker Chala (12 year old Armanda Valdez Friere in a frankly amazing debut), who the schoolboard wants to send to the Cuban equivalent of a juvie home. Chala is the sole breadwinner at home (through illegal means) and his mother drinks away the money rather than paying the bills. Carmela believes the kid has a good heart and continually demands disciplinary leeway at school.

a moving story of teacher and student

While many of the plot developments in Behavior are depressing and predictable, the movie is stubbornly hopeful, knowing the odds are against success but pressing on anyway. Writer director Ernesto Daranas, a fine new voice in Latin American cinema, makes sure this doesn't happen in a corny inspirational way, as in so many inferior teacher/student dramas do, but with roll up your sleeve grit in its narrative and smart visual choices - the camera is often exactly the right distance from the actors, to keep you fully aware of their tough environment and also their dreams. (Cue multiple shots of Chala on rooftops.) Behavior suggests that Carmela has saved a few students from their own lives, knows it, and will save as many more as she can manages before she dies... maybe even Chala. Her stubborn heroism? She knows that the broken system and these broken homes will long outlive her. B+

Cub (Belgium)
I got dragged to this slasher movie by two friends who I hadn't seen in a long time. Spent the film with fingers carefully crossed over my eyes for watching / not watching simultaneously. A group of Cub Scouts are out for a camping weekend and they pick a spot much further into some spooky woods than they were intending, woods they're warned against but you know how people are in movies, they never turn back when warned. The Scouts three barely adult supervisors tell the young boys the tale of Kai a boy who becomes a deadly werewolf at night. It's a legend meant for campfire scares but we see Kai right away, not a werewolf but a boy their age with a creepy one horned mask who watches them from afar. He takes an interest in one of them, a loner named Sam (Maurice Luijten), the film's lead. Kai doesn't attack him but starts the bloodletting elsewhere. It's mildly entertaining but the characters aren't that well delineated and I predicted the finale about 75 minutes in advance. My friends thought the kills were imaginative and I will concur that two of them were, particularly a morbidly funny group kill. But ... GROSS.

"GROSS". That's actually my full sophisticated one-word review, and come to think of it my review for all slasher movies. I have come to understand and admire the broader horror genre after years of reading great critics enthusing about it, but this subgenre I'll never get - even when it comes with subtitles.  C-

The Gate (France/Cambodia)
Like Labyrinth of Lies a few days back, The Gate benefits from a continually engaging true story. The new film from Regis Wargnier, who won the Oscar for the Catherine Deneuve epic Indochine, returns to that rich well of stories, French expatriates in countries they've colonized. The Gate, more appropriately titled Le temps des aveux in French, is based on the memoirs of a man named François Bizot (Raphaël Personnaez) who was arrested by the Khmer Rouge while he was innocently researching Buddhist traditions at monasteries. The communists believed this Frenchmen was a spy for America and the film becomes a battle of wits and test of humanity as Bizot and his captor Much (Phoeung Kompheak) argue and debate about Bizot's purpose in Cambodia and his fate. Like most good prisoner/captive dramas, their relationship is perversely intimate and the heart of the movie. Since its based on Bizot's memoirs, and the film begins near the ending, with Bizot returning to Cambodia we know he survives but things look bleak for a time and even when freed, the chaos isn't over since his wife and child are Cambodian/French and they don't have as much protection. Intense at times and surprisingly well acted -- most of the cast were non-actors aside from, of course, handsome French movie star Personnaez. B


The Farewell Party (Israel)
Israel's Oscars, "the Ophirs," have heartily embraced this dramedy about senior citizens who accidentally and after much prodding become crusaders for mercy killings of their terminally sick friends and spouses. It is far more tasteful than it sounds starting with heartbreaking decisions among longtime friends. But, curiously, the mood gets lighter and lighter in mood and the film funnier and funnier as it progresses. The comic highlight is a wonderfully cheeky display of solidarity when one of the friends is diagnosed with dementia but there are many little laughs along the way and each ensemble member finds a way to shine in a dialogue heavy film. It's a difficult film to describe, part drama about longterm love (both platonic and romantic), part ensemble black comedy, part agitprop about personal choice in matters of the end of life rather than machine-mandated life, and all parts delightful. It's not a done deal yet but it's easy to imagine this as Israel's Oscar submission and if submitted, an actual nominee in the Foreign Language Film category.   B+

Also at TIFF
A Little Chaos
The New Girlfriend
Wild
The Theory of Everything and Imitation Game
Foxcatcher and Song of the Sea
The Last Five Years
Wild Tales and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Force MajeureLife in a Fishbowl and Out of Nature
Mommy
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Charlie's Country

Thursday
Sep112014

TIFF Quickies: 1001 Grams, Sand Dollars, Labyrinth of Lies

Nathaniel's adventures in Toronto. Day whichever.

Three more quick takes on Norway's Oscar submission, a LGBT romance of sorts in the Dominican Republic and a surprisingly intense film from Germany that I hadn't heard of before arriving.

Bent Hamer directs Ane Dahl Trop in the Norwegian Oscar submission "1001 Grams"

1001 GRAMS
How much does a soul weigh? I don’t mean to bring up painful memories of 21 Grams, but everything in 1001 Grams must be effortfully measured. Lab technician Marie is just such a meticulous woman, in charge of the official Norwegian kilo, which is to be weighed and calibrated in Paris at an annual seminar to ensure that all countries kilos are the same or else: chaos! Though the oddity of this international standards milieu suggests a comedy, what we get is stonefaced drama... or possibly comedy so dry, I needed a humidifier in the room to get it. Bent Hamer, who directed two previous Norwegian Oscar submisssions O'Horten and Kitchen Stories (neither won nominations), so precisely calibrates this new film that every image feels carefully storyboarded. There's a gorgeous balance of stark blues and bright whites and he often abandons our lonely protagonist in silhouette in dark sparsely furnished apartments. Even Marie’s car, an cute electric thing, fits the color schemes. When Marie and her colleagues take smoke breaks at work the images are so strictly shot that the actors seem like mice stopped for a moment to think (?) in a narrow stretch of  bureaucratic maze. Marie is so controlled that she can’t even express her grief when her father dies, and the actress Ane Dahl Torp, doing fine if limited work by the nature of the role, has to squeeze all Marie's hurt into tiny hollow syllables like “takk” (thank you) when people wonder how she’s doing. It’s a solid movie but unfortunately its strength, that crafted precision, is also its weakness. There’s so much time spent establishing how regimented, monotonous and empty Marie’s life is that the film turns into a dull laborious watch. Things eventually begin to change for Marie when she meets a bird-loving Frenchmen at a business seminar but the actual drama is so backloaded that it's tough to make it to the final stretch. Slightly touching in an unusually low key way, but it’s a complete mystery as to why Norway chose it as their Oscar submission over the daring and hypnotic Blind (Sundance review) which was also in the running. C+

Yanet Mojica and Geraldine Chaplin star in "Sand Dollars"

SAND DOLLARS
Wealthy septuagenarian Frenchwoman Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) is wiling away her twilight years on a private beach of the Dominican Republic. There’s little to tether her to France, her only child being estranged, and she’s fallen in love with a young local girl named Noeli (Yanet Mojica) though she knows almost nothing about her. Money is often exchanged though Noeli is neither, strictly speaking, a prostitute nor a kept girl. This intimate and relatively stable relationship (two years and counting) begins to crack when Anne wants to take Noeli back to Paris with her permanently. Sand Dollars hits its encomic colonialism, class disparity, and exploitation notes relatively indelicately  -- there's no mistaking the themes -- but the odd connections between its characters are, in contrast, delicately observed. Noeli's true feelings are hard to read, but she is both an attentive lover and shameless about requests for money. Little details begin to accumulate like the way Anne's mascara clumps always look like she's crying even when she's happy, how Noeli dances both for self pleasure and with awareness of the practical value of her body, the way that even when Noeli's boyfriend  looks away he's weighing the presence of "the old lady". The film gets under your skin especially with the complications of actual affection where only a business transaction would be easier for everyone. A minor film but sensitively delivered and blissfully short (80 minutes) in keeping with its slim story. B/B-

LABYRINTH OF LIES
For the first reel or two of this postwar German drama, I wondered why they’d cast such a handsome but blank lead actor (Alexander Fehling) as the protagonist Johann Radmann. Radmann is an ambitious young lawyer who, somewhat on a whim, takes an interest in unpunished war crimes and former Nazis teaching school children that a local activist reporter has clued him in to. But the initial empty suit impression is a false one. At a party early in the film the reporter tells his bohemian friends that they have to encourage Radmann until his flicker of humanity turns to a raging fire. It’s meant as a ‘loosen up’ joke, and very smartly delivered as an offhand remark rather than foreshadowing. But this is exactly what happens in this impressive debut feature from Giulio Ricciarelli. Fehling's performances, very well modulated, grows more and more intense as the new case shifts from curiousity to a detective-like fascination and then full blown righteous vendetta with Fehling's blown out eyes and angrier voice dramatizing that he hasn't slept in weeks, and that his daydreams are all nightmares. The story is fascinating, detailing the widespread ignorance about The Holocaust in Germany just one generation after the war. Auschwitz, for example, the chief subject of the investigation, is a place most young Germans the lawyers talks to have never heard of. Labyrinth of Lies is glossily made (perhaps too glossy?), well acted, and moving with a constant throughline of the need for survivors to tell their stories and for people to understand their own country's history and face their own demons.

Germany was the first country to ever try its own soldiers for war crimes and if there is a significant mark against the film it's that this is, frankly, an impossible story to squeeze into a 122 minutes motion picture. It's implications are so vast and though the movie has many fine scenes and is appropriately sober about the psychic turmoil of survivors and the need to understand your nation's own character and face your own personal demons, it also wants to be a detective story and a romance. Labyrinth is sometimes so swift that some of the developlments and results feel convenient rather than desperately produced or are brushed off so quickly that they matter less in retrospect. I rarely ask for movies to be longer but this one could have used Zodiac's willingness to chase loose ends and run on for at least another half hour or so. B/B+ 

Alexander Fehling loses himself in horrific documentation of World War II

Also at TIFF
A Little Chaos
The New Girlfriend
Wild
The Gate, Cub, The Farewell Party and Behavior
The Theory of Everything and Imitation Game
Foxcatcher and Song of the Sea
The Last Five Years
Wild Tales and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Force Majeure, Life in a Fishbowl and Out of Nature
Mommy
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Charlie's Country

Sunday
Sep072014

TIFF Scandinavian Quickies: Force Majeure, Life in a Fishbowl, Out of Nature

Nathaniel's adventures in Toronto. Day 2...

Part of Day 3's adventure was losing the internet and not being able to recover an entire review I'd written. With time so short that feels more disastrous than it actually is. But since Day 2 was just great from start to finish we won't let Day 3's mistakes -- I also fell asleep unintentionially for 2 hours -- distract us from the goal: sharing it with you.

Life in a Fishbowl (Iceland)
I am told on Twitter that "Life in a Fishbowl" is a terrible English market title and that the title of the film in Icelandic is actually Hope Street. Unless that's a the adress of a nearly empty home which preoccupies two of the three leads, that title is even more perplexing since these characters are quite unhappy. "Life in a Fishbowl" is the name of a novel within the film (as I recall... though perhaps that was just a subtitle flourish?). It's a multi-strand narrative wherein the characters are all connected in some way. If this fills you with as much terror as it does me, rest assured that the movie doesn't strain for "twists" or "ooh, that's how they connect!" moments of faux profundity but just tells it's three stories which eventually intertwine. We meet a handsome athlete turned banker who is being showered with gifts from his new company. (We know that these gifts will come with a hefty price even if he doesn't since he is a movie character and we have seen lots of movies.) We also follow a local celebrity poet stumbling drunk around the city who has just finished his first novel in many years but who is perpetually drowning, figuratively speaking, and not just in drink. Finally there's a struggling single mother who earns her extra cash as a prostitute.

There's nothing particularly new or grandly ambitious here which makes the film's rather rapturous blurbs from home "best icelandic film ever" puzzling. Still, it's quite engrossing with a novelistic feel and amounts to a big leap forward for the director Baldwin Z (Jitters). [This film is Iceland's Oscar submission and though it's good, it's not half as distinctive as their great submission last year, Of Horses and Men.] B/B+

A great Oscar threat and a fine manly ass after the jump...

Click to read more ...

Saturday
Sep062014

TIFF: Hayao Miyazaki's Swan Song

Nathaniel's adventures at TIFF. Day 1

Are documentaries about filmmakers that are at least in part documentaries about the making of particular films, just giant infomercials? Can they ever not be even when they're good? The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about Studio Ghibli in Japan made me desperate to see Miyazaki's final picture The Wind Rises. And I've already seen it

Kingdom purports to be about Studio Ghibli but is actually much closer to a profile of Hayao Miyazaki and his regimented and consistent working methods: he works from 11 AM to 9 PM exactly Mondays through Saturdayshe storyboards all of his movies in chronological order while they're in production (no actual screenplays) so no one, including him, knows how they'll develop and end; his daily routine includes a walk in which he waves to the children of the animators in the in-house nursery and a trip to the roof near sunset with his animators in tow; and so on. This routine has remained the same for decades as has, one could argue, the quality of his work.

Several darker implications or offhand remarks that Miyazaki is a pessimistic unhappy soul, that Studio Ghibli is on its last legs, or that Miyazaki is incredibly demanding and tough on his animators, particularly the best ones, are never fully explored by the smitten filmmakers but they do serve to contour the portrait a bit and prevent a hagiography. We don't hear much about other filmmakers and projects beyond two interesting business meetings about things like Spirited Away merchandise and what to do with Miyazaki's son who is also a filmmaker albeit a reluctant one. The most lively thread is arguably the ocassionally bitchy and exasperated references to Miyazaki's mentor, former partner, and creative rival Isao Takahata and his interminably slow production of The Tale of Princess Kaguya (which was meant to premiere alongside The Wind Rises but has only recently been completed and is also playing here at TIFF!).

Despite its limitations this documentary is never dull and is often extremely charming. Particularly wonderful are the many shots of a black and white short tailed cat that wanders freely around Studio Ghibli demanding doors be open for it. This cat, who almost seems like an animated character, strangely never ventures into Miyazaki's workspace as if blocked, staring, by some invisible wall. Still, Miya-san likes him. They share a brief funny moment at a picnic table outside late in the film, the cat sleeping, the filmmaker looking on with envy; Miyazaki has since retired. But this documentary practically insists (or pleads?) that the great filmmaker's new nap time can't possibly stick. B

Wednesday
Sep032014

Off to TIFF: Nathaniel's Journey Begins

For the curious among you this is my very tentative list of films on my very jam-packed schedule at TIFF. This will be the 10th anniversary of my very first trip to TIFF from which my fondest memory was sitting behind Gael García Bernal and Javier Bardem for the premiere of The Sea Inside (the fondness of the memory is due to the view, not the movie). I haven't been attending annually but perhaps last year's short trip was the start of a tradition?

This list is highly subject to change - there are always cancellations, late starts, pop ups which all throw off schedules, you can try to follow the critical buzz which will throw off the schedule, you can meet with friends for food and conversation which will throw off the schedule, and you can sleep which will throw off the morning screening schedule. It's a madcap journey: eye strain, memory loss, and international film culture await up north. Some of these films are scheduled because I'm dying to see them, others less so because they fit exactly into the proposed schedule at an opportune moment. I'm going to try to skip some "must sees" like Maps to the Stars, Clouds of Sils Maria and more but 'WHY?' you shout in anger? Here's why: ten or so mouthwatering titles from TIFF's abundance are part of the New York Film Festival and those screenings begin in NYC literally the day after TIFF wraps. 

on my tentative schedule
1001 GRAMS (Norwegian Romantic Drama)
BANG BANG BABY (Canadian Musical)
CHARLIE COUNTRY (Australian Drama)
CUB (Belgian Horror)
DUKTHAR (Pakistani Drama)
FAREWELL PARTY (Israeli Drama, Ophir Nominee)
FORCE MAJEURE (Swedish Oscar Submission)
FOXCATCHER (Channing Tatum in a singlet. I think other people and things are in it, too.)
THE GATE (Cambodian/French from the director of "Indochine")
THE GOLDEN ERA (Chinese epic starring Tang Wei from Lust, Caution)
A HARD DAY (South Korean drama)
IMITATION GAME (Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing breaks the enigma code)
IN HER PLACE (I already forgot what this one is)
KINGDOM OF DREAMS AND SADNESS (Documentary)
THE LAST FIVE YEARS (Musical)
LABYRINTH OF LIES (German Drama)
LIFE IN A FISHBOWL (Icelandic Oscar Probability)
A LITTLE CHAOS (Kate Winslet back in corsets. Whoooo)
LOS HONGOS (I already forgot what this one is)
MARGARITA WITH A STRAW (Indian, LGBT)
MISS JULIE (Jessica + Colin)
MOMMY (new Xavier Dolan) 
THE NEW GIRLFRIEND (new François Ozon)
OCTOBER GALE (from the director of "Cairo Time" starring Patty Clarkson again)
OUT OF NATURE (Norwegian Drama)
PHOENIX (German)
A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON ITS EXISTENCE (Swedish Oddity)
THE PROPHET (animated)
RED AMNESIA (Chinese Thriller)
RETURN TO ITHACA (from the director of "The Class")
THE RIOT CLUB (from the director of "An Education")
SCARLET INNOCENCE (I already forgot what this one is)
SHREW'S NEST (Spanish Thriller)
SONG OF THE SEA (from the filmmakers behind "The Secret of Kells")
STILL ALICE (indie Julianne Moore drama)
THEORY OF EVERYTHING (Eddie & Felicity court each other and Oscar)
TODAY (Iranian drama)
THE TRIBE (Ukranian Oscar Probability) 
WILD (Reese hikes toward Oscar #2?)
WILD TALES (Argentinian comedy) 

Anna Kendrick with the brilliant composer Jason Robert Brown ("The Last Five Years")

That's 40 films and I can guarantee I won't actually see that many and it's unwise to if you hope to remember any of them. But wish me luck in staying very roughly on track. Remember this: comments and retweets and shares are helpful fuel for those on the run from screening to screening. Follow Me on Twitter and Instagram if you want smaller and more frequent updates in addition to the reviews I'll be offering here.

What About the Blog? 
I'll try to get you one TIFF diary a day. Meanwhile the team has some fun stuff planned for you while I'm up North including more "back to school" pieces, a Team Top Ten and a mini fest celebrating the centennial of Robert Wise. 

Tuesday
Sep022014

Iceland, Norway, and Foreign Chart Updates

We travel now overseas to two of my all-time favorite places on Earth. I lived in Norway many years ago (and went back for the first time just last summer for my birthday). And Iceland is just about my favorite vacation spot  these days. Well, okay, I've only been there twice but I'm eager for a third. It's so otherworldly beautiful. If you saw Land Ho! this summer (reviewed), that sweet comedy is basically one long commercial for booking a flight to Reykjavik, post-haste.

NORWAY
The land of the midnight sun has chosen three finalists for consideration for Oscar submission and I write this prematurely since they'll name their official pick tomorrow. I'll be travelling to Toronto so you might hear before I do. The race is between these three films: Bent Hamer's 1001 Grams, which premieres in Toronto, a romantic drama about a female scientist who travels to Paris and falls for a Frenchmen; Hisham Zaman's Letter to the King an immigrant drama about five refugees who travel to Oslo; and finally Eskil Vogt's Blind, about a blind woman with a potent imagination and a troubled marriage. I loved this film at Sundance so I hope they pick it. Vogt is the co-screenwriter of Joachim Trier's beautiful and highly acclaimed movies Reprise and Oslo August 31st. This is Vogt's first time in the director's chair and it turns out he's got quite an eye as well as a tongue.

ICELAND
They've narrowed it down to four films: Paris of the North, Life in a Fishbowl (which is playing in Toronto) Metalhead, and Harry & Heimir. My friend A.D. (who you also may know as Dzong2) who cowrites the Oscar charts in this category with me, suspects its between Life in a Fishbowl which is extremely popular at home and Paris of the North (which recently played Karlovy).

I'm betting on Life in a Fishbowl due to its spectacular hometown reviews. When you get blurbs like "The Best Icelandic Film In History" and "The Golden Age of Icelandic Cinema Has Begun" and such, people don't just like you - they're obsessed. 

NEW OFFICIAL SUBMISSIONS:  Sweden has chosen Force Majeure (also known as Turist) which made a good splash at Cannes; Finland has chosen Concrete Night; Estonia is submitting a film called Tangerines; Croatia has chosen Cowboys as its submission, Serbia has chosen See You in Montevideo; Luxembourg went with Never Die Young; Venezuela and The Phillipines are also down to just a few films so they'll announce soon. You can read about them all at the Oscar charts which have been fully updated as of today.

UPDATE 11:18 PM: Venezuela has just finished voting and chose the historical drama "The Liberator" in a tight race with the gay-themed poverty drama about a boy and his mother called "Bad Hair" (of which I am a huge fan)

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