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Entries in foreign films (215)

Sunday
Oct052014

NYFF: Beloved Sisters

"...and that is why you should nominate us for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars."Our NYFF coverage continues with Nathaniel learning a 'don't procrastinate lesson'

This will be brief though the movie is not. IMDb lists the running time of Beloved Sisters, a fine new costume drama, as 138 minutes. The version that screened this past week at NYFF was 170 minutes long or nearly three hours. I do not know which version AMPAS  foreign language film committee will be screening but as soon as I find out I'll share. I do know this: a 170 minute long movie in which you can't read any of your notes (due to scribbling on the same line repeatedly in the dark) should be written up immediately and not left to swiss cheese memory. 

Beloved Sisters is a true(ish) story about sisters Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline (Hannah Herzprung) and the talented man they fall for (Florian Stetter as Friedrich Schiller). The sisters are the best of friends but for financial reasons they have to part; Their mother widowed, Caroline marries for money to help support her family. As the movie begins, Charlotte is now old enough to be shopped around town... excuse me "introduced into high society" as well. Though Charlotte is lovely and (mostly) obedient, she doesn't have the right temperament to acclimate to stuffy society events, aristocratic mores, and arranged marriages. Instead she wants to marry the penniless poet Schiller who will eventually become famous, hence the interest in making a movie about this at all over 225 years later. Her mother, in need of money, doesn't approve.

Soon married Caroline is also in love with Friedrich but, in stark contract to most love triangles, the sisters are happy to share him. One near-drowning which ends with Friedrich scandalously naked and warmed by the sisters sets this odd triangle on its two-decade course. Since history is not at all explicit about what went down between Schiller and the sisters he became so close to, there are many theories and Dominik Graf's film fills in the blanks with a kind of lush romanticism that wouldn't be out of place in a swoony romance novel albeit one without the bodice ripping salaciousness. The film is interested, though not heavily invested in the life of the mind and rather timid about sex actually. This doesn't feel like a misstep exactly since Charlotte's ideas of romance is naive and youthful and the character arcs largely involve the three of them accepting the compromises and difficulties of marriages and friendship.

Though many of the details of the film have slipped by me two weeks later (blame a month of constant film festivalling, not the movie itself) I still remember evocative production design from rich wallpaper to a the delapidated ruins of a family house,  and the wonderfully complicit reading of letters directly to camera. Most of all I remember the first half (which flies by) when love is new and all consuming. Beloved Sisters feels more ordinary the longer it plays, unfortunately, but the first half has a charming youthful idealism and a firm grasp on illicit if modest thrills that come from soulmate devotion, and secretive infatuations like a Heavenly Creatures without the blood spattering psychosis.

Previous NYFF Reviews here. Oscar submission charts here
16 Foreign Oscar Submissions Reviewed:  ArgentinaAustraliaBelgiumBrazilCanadaCuba,FranceGermanyIcelandLatviaMauritaniaNorwayPolandPortugalSweden and Venezuela

Friday
Oct032014

NYFF: A Tiger and a Princess (or Two) Walk Into a Cafe...

NYFF continues. Here's Nathaniel with brief takes on three films...

Allow me to break a rule of film criticism. Rather than wag fingers at directors/films and call them "pretentious!" (a common and near-useless criticism for films with ambitions) or "opaque" (a beautiful adjective, less judgmental but still descriptive of the "ummm..." effect), I shall simply admit that sometimes I don't get it. I think we all have these cases, whether it be films/genres or even entire filmographies that are headscratchers to us whilst others drool. Most people are loathe to admit it lest they seem dumb but I don't have time to worry about that. Way too busy for that particular insecurity. Especially with all the room in my schedule I make for the other ones.

I'm pairing these three films (Ming of Harlem, The Princess of France, and Hill of Freedom) for that reason and also because they all have "of" in the title. Deep reasons. Here we go...

MING OF HARLEM 
Ming is a tiger. Harlem is Harlem.

This documentary is about a 400 lb tiger that was once living in a Harlem skyrise not too far from where I live. My cat lives with me in a Harlem skyrise, too, but he's only 11 lbs. The film is part of the "Projection" series at NYFF. That's a potentially less offputting title for a swath of moviegoers than "Views from the Avant Garde" which is what it used to be called. Having seen the picture, I'm not sure I understand what's avante garde about it?

Perhaps it's the lack of talking heads projecting emotions on to animals OR explaining the psychology of the man who housed them until he was sent to prison for doing just that. Perhaps it's the very sparse insertion of local and national news footage from the time of the scandal, of which there is surely a lot more. The movie is, in part, more of a meditative look at two animals; the tiger shared his apartment with a full grown alligator albeit not in the same room...

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Oct022014

Tim's Toons: Latvia's animated submission to the Best Foreign Language race

Tim here. The cut-off date for countries to choose their official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was October 1, and while the list hasn’t been officially confirmed by the Academy yet (and there’s a good chance of one or two titles falling out), it gives us something to work with.

And, wonder of wonders, there even happens to be an animated feature among this year’s official submissions, something that has only happened around a dozen times in the past (only once of that dozen times did the animated picture make the final nominee list: in 2008, Israel’s submission of Waltz with Bashir made the cut, losing to Japan’s Departures). The film is the semi-fictional Rocks in My Pockets, directed by New York-based Signe Baumane, and I will suggest right off that it has a an unhappily good chance of being disqualified: spoken entirely in English by the filmmaker, and made on a mixture of American and Latvian money, it has all the feel of those movies that the Academy rejects for being insufficiently native to the country making the submission.

All the more reason for me to sing its praises right now, while it’s still making its nigh-invisible crawl across the U.S. For it’s a pretty special little film, all in all: a personal recollection of Baumane’s history battling depression, nestled into a family history by which she traces how suicidal thoughts and other mentally imbalances have plagued women in her family since Latvia in the days before it was absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Cheery stuff for a cartoon. But one of the best things about Rocks in My Pockets is the way that Baumane brings in a sense of frank humor to discussing terrible subjects, such as the amount of energy she’s put into the way she’d kill herself to avoid making too much mess if her bowels vacated. That’s the series of observations that opens the movie, in fact, setting up some immediate rules for the film to follow: one is that we can expect her to hold absolutely nothing back and refuse completely to hide behind clinical language or euphemisms; two is that she’s not angling for any kind of sympathy or asking to be treated delicately. It’s a film that invites us to dive right in and confront the reality of depression and suicide candidly, but without nervous solemnity.

It helps that the stories Baumane recounts about her family (the film ends with the standard “some characters and incidents were invented” disclaimer, so it’s not absolutely clear how much of this is truth and how much is an interpretive version of truth) are so damn compelling. Most of the film isn’t about Baumane, but her paternal grandmother Anna, whose life as a mother of eight children in Soviet Latvia provides the usual range of anecdotes about the grinding poverty of life in the USSR, so horrifying that it’s almost impossible not to start laughing at the sheer absurd awfulness of it.

And while Baumane’s thick accent ends up forcing her into some weird emphases of words and whole sentences, she’s an enthusiastic, engaging storyteller, relaying even the ugliest stories with briskness and humor, and employing a range of voices to give personality to the various relatives whose lives she relives.

The film’s mixed-media style – papier-mâché sets over which are layered character drawings that have the look of colored pencils, for the most part – pairs neatly with Baumane’s ebullient way of reciting. Weirdly, given the content, Rocks in My Pockets ends up being awfully like a bedtime story: soft figures, lots of bunnies, comic voices, a tendency for the narrator to start laughing at her own punchlines as our cue that it’s okay to laugh, too.

 

And yet for all that, it’s still a really smart, potent discussion about depression. The light style and conversational approach, all making sure that it doesn’t get too grim and confessional, has given Baumane the freedom to share bleak truths without having to dwell on them in anguish. The sketchbook-style artwork allows her to visualize the sensations of depression using visual symbolism and distortions that hammer home the sense of broken perception that comes along with depression. No matter how funny and energetic the film gets, it goes to some really shattering, serious places. Baumane is a terrific memoirist, both honest in her observations and witty in her expression, and while I’d put Rocks in My Pockets as having something like no chance of making it all the way to the Academy’s finalist list, I think that even the little bit of exposure it now has is a wonderful thing it if puts more people in line to watch this insightful and discomfiting psychological portrait.

16 Foreign Oscar Submissions Reviewed To DateArgentinaAustraliaBelgiumBrazilCanadaCuba,FranceGermanyIcelandLatviaMauritaniaNorwayPolandPortugalSweden and Venezuela

Wednesday
Oct012014

The Golden Era at the Golden Horse Awards

You may recall that last year the Golden Horse celebrated its 50th year so it was a big big deal. All the stars of Chinese language cinema were out with all the living winners of the lead acting prizes prominently displayed on stage. Zhang Ziyi finally took home Best Actress for The Grand Master, a prize that had continually eluded her. This year, the 51st, is bound to be a let down in comparison but it's still worth noting since we like to see how the Oscar submissions from various Asian countries fare. So let's just hit that straightaway...

Tang Wei stars in The Golden Era, a 30s era biopic of an important Chinese writer

THE GOLDEN ERA (Ann Hui) - Hong Kong's Oscar submission
This historical bio of a famous female writer finds Lust Caution's then-novice star Tang Wei headlining another acclaimed 3 hour period epic. It's nominated for 5 awards and they're all major ones: Feature, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress and Original Screenplay. No tech nominations though, which seems strange for a period epic. I'm still kicking myself for missing this one at TIFF but it's hard to fit the super-sized movies into those jampacked schedules.

ICE POISON (Midi Z) - Taiwan's Oscar submission
Our own Oscars don't ever have the "lone wolf" director anymore with the expanded Best Picture lineup and an increasing willingness to embrace chillier critical darlings anyway, but the Golden Horse got one this year. This Taiwanese drama about a poor young farmer and a woman escaping an arranged marriage who both  get mixed up in selling crystal meth is only nominated for Best Director.

MY BELOVED DEAREST (Sanif Olek) - Singapore's Oscar submission
Last year, Singapore was the surprise winner of the Best Feature Golden Horse (which tilts heavily China and Hong Kong) for their Oscar submission Ilo Ilo but this year their representing film either wasn't eligible or was not well loved by the Golden Horse jury. Zero nominations.

Black Coal Thin Ice led the nominations

We don't yet know what the mainland has chosen as their Oscar submission but the other films that were embraced by the Golden Horse Jury were: Black Coal, Thin Ice from China and winner of the Golden Bear early this year (Glenn reviewed) which led nominations with 8 including all the biggies - Feature, Director, Actress and Actor; Blind Massage from China, exactly what it's title implies, was not far behind with 7 nominations including Feature and Director; Kano from Taiwan, a true story baseball movie set in the 1930s won 6 nominations including Feature and Makeup & Costumes; Coming Home, the new Gong Li drama about a man returning from prison to his estranged wife, missed the key nod for Best Feature but won 5 other nominations including two for acting: Gong Li and a Newcomer nod for Zhang Huiwen who plays her daughter; Paradise in Service was also big in acting categories with three supporting nods but it missed Best Feature, too; A Fool about parents desperate to save their son convicted of a crime won five nominations including Feature.

Young Detective Dea: Rise of the Sea Dragon is available on Netflix Instant Watch!

And finally, just because it's fun to know these films -- and because yours truly kind of misses the days a decade ago when everyone was excited about wuxia movies - other films that did well, particularly in the tech awards included Brotherhood of Blades set in the Ming dynasty, The White Storm a drug underworld action film, No Man's Land about a lawyer's adventures in the Gobi desert and the biggie, a wuxia prequel with five tech nominations: Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon which is available on Netflix Instant Watch.

You can see a complete list of nominations here.

Extensive charts of this year's foreign language Oscar submissions (71 announced to date) are fully updated  here.

 

Tuesday
Sep302014

NYFF: Saint Laurent is Über-Stylish but...

Our NYFF coverage continues with Nathaniel on France's Oscar submission Saint Laurent.

If you're going to make a biopic of one of the great fashion designers, it better damn well be stylish. Saint Laurent one of two new biopics tackling the iconic French designer Yves Saint Laurent assures you of its gifts in this area almost immediately. There's nary a frame, at least for the first two thirds of the film, that you couldn't frame and admire for aesthetic reasons: rich decadent colors, gorgeous actors as gorgeous people, carefully composed shots in elaborately decorated homes, dark exclusive clubs, and interiors of stores that that are so beautiful in their rigidity that they look more like institutional museums after hours, free of consumers but full of art. Even the daring full frontal nudity is stylish, whether it's employed for confrontational queer desire or for humor as in a memorable sequence late in the picture between a clothed woman and naked one. The scene plays like unintentional comedy for a moment until you discern that it's actual comedy, a meta joke about overdetermined STYLE and the fashion world's self mythologizing nature within a movie positively dripping with style and self-mythologizing.

The director Bertrand Bonello (House of Tolerance, The Pornographer) has chosen the right form for his movie -- at least in part, telling the story visually first and foremost, and lushly and creatively at that. Would that I had a photographic memory to recount the many fine choices but there are three that stuck with me, all from the first and second acts...

dangerous gay players & beautiful dress-up muses after the jump...

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Sep302014

NYFF: Blue Is The Lukewarmest Color

Our coverage of The New York Film Festival continues with Jason's take on actor-director Mathieu Amalric's The Blue Room.

The ordinary afternoon street-scene beyond an open window half-illuminates a hotel room, letting in a miniature horde of visitors - refracted sunlight, a honeybee, a cool breeze, the implacable face of somebody's unexpected husband - all inclined to land upon the sweat-strewn backs of the bed's entangled bodies in one way or another. In Mathieu Amalric's The Blue Room the lovers inside dare this space, their nudity displayed openly, to crash down around them - the bee makes a pretty picture, the breeze cuts the sticky air, and the husband, well, he'll have his day too.

The Blue Room is based on a 1964 book by Georges Simenon, a writer who's been described by some as the French Patricia Highsmith, and much like we've come to expect from adaptations of that writer this story is obsessed with crime and sex and where the twain shall tragically meet - the "criss cross" of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train especially sneaks to mind. Simenon seems less interested in Bruno & Guy's kind of repression though; he and Amalric's concerns seem to blossom off passion's full expression. So sweat and blood roll down parted lips and Amalric lingers upon the contents of that room as if they themselves hold all the answers. Time and again we flash back to the lovers, often frozen as post-coital still-life, flushed and spent - what happens when those moments can't stay contained?

Amalric's film tries to have it both ways, running simultaneously cold and hot - the frame square as an ice-box, the strings lush with heat, a court-room drama told through lurid tales of windswept outdoor encounters - but it tends to meet in the middle more often than not, lukewarm when it should boil and tepid when it should chill to the bone. The fractured timeline structure robs us of too much emotional investment - it becomes more a what-happened than a why; an assortment of mostly unknowable glances piled up and posed.

 

The Blue Room screens tonight Sept 30th (9 PM)

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