Tag Archives: Foreign

Road, Movie

The trailer for this film made it look like Cinema Paradiso on wheels… a rather irresistible idea. Instead, it is more like Field of Dreams made by Fellini in India. Not so irresistible (and I like Fellini).

In fact, this movie was ultimately rather unsatisfying, particularly since the main character is such a dick. He starts off a petulant boy in a man-suit and ends up, metaphorically at least, becoming a real, full man. But it wasn’t really sold well enough and we never care about the guy as he is, as I said, such a dick.

The supporting characters don’t add much either, though they aren’t unlikable or unentertaining. But they only exist as guides and bumpers for the main character whose motivations and goals are obtuse, at best, and non-existent at worse.

I will fully admit that perhaps I missed the point or was the wrong audience on this one, so I’m not saying run away unequivocally. There are aspects to this that show ability and intriguing possibility, but for me this never came together and I’d like my time back.

Road, Movie

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass)

You may recall that  I recently got to see another Iranian film, A Dragon Arrives!, and had mixed reactions. During the introduction to that film, this Palme d’Or co-winner was mentioned, so I decided to continue my understanding and education.

Up front, after watching it, I did look up the critical response to this movie. To say it was divisive is kind. Taste of Cherry is definitely a love it or hate it film. There is a particularly wonderful response by Roger Ebert. I also watched an interview with the director, Kiarostami, who is credited with altering the path and possibility of Iranian cinema with this offering (particularly its subject matter).

So, here’s the thing. Where this film falls apart for me is at the very end. Much like Dragon, it takes a wild left turn to either provide distance or make a point that was utterly lost on me. While I never expected an explicit ending, Kiarostami’s choice was frustrating at best. The lead up to the resolution is either a physical metaphor for the struggle of the main character or a long, drawn out and boring road trip movie on a circular track. Neither is a ringing endorsement, though the first option has a bit more resonance as a manifestation of the rumination involved in the man’s decision (which may be an unintended apologist’s remark).

After listening to the director and seeing the film, I can honestly say I don’t need to see another Kiarostami bit of cinema. From a purely cultural voyeuristic viewpoint, it certainly provides a window on a particular lawn to consider.

Taste of Cherry

The Swimsuit Issue (Allt flyter)

With the English title I was expecting something more along the lines of Calendar Girls or The Full Monty. The original title of this film is actually a bit more on target for the story. Loosely translated it means “everything is flowing well” or “going in the right direction.” That’s a very loose interpretation, but you get the idea.  Really, it is more a family drama with comedy than a comedy with family drama.

Of course, while this is a comedy, it is a Swedish comedy, so I didn’t expect a lot of belly laughs. It is more subtle than A Man Called Ove, and even a bit darker, in its way, about the characters. Though both are character driven, Swimsuit is more wry. The script is also more forced, but it still manages to entertain with some fun moments as well as an overall story.

The Swimsuit Issue

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)

Animation is so often seen as a children’s medium. Zucchini turns this on its head by making the kids the subject of the film. And not just any kids, this bit of stop-motion (an oddly poetic medium for this tale) focuses on the broken, abused, and ignored children of society. It isn’t a maudlin tale, it is, in fact, hopeful and sweet, but it doesn’t ignore the harder truths in life.

The voice work (French and English) is interesting and subtly effective. By design, it feels almost documentary-like in its delivery. The approach and sound quality, however, also leaves it oddly distancing. Perhaps that is a good thing given some of the emotions. We get to hover above it all and enjoy the successes rather than struggle with the realities.

As his first feature, director and co-writer Claude Barras adaptation of this challenging tale is impressive and even snagged an Oscar nomination as well as other nods. There is even a delightfully weird short animation on the disc to enjoy (The Genie in the Ravioli) that exposes his odd sense of wonder and design even more. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of Barras and his crew in years to come.

Even if it isn’t overly brilliant animation (which isn’t to say it isn’t good), make time for this if you haven’t already. It is pretty unique in its tale and is definitely worth the 70 mins you’d need to invest.

My Life as a Zucchini

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

Ikiru (To Live)

What is a life worth living? What is a life well-lived?  Akira Kurosawa tackles these questions through the life of a mid-level bureaucrat in 1950s Japan with his trademark patience and dark humor. From the start, Kuraosawa makes sure that while the subject may be deep, you aren’t taking it too seriously. His intent is to nudge rather than hit you upside the head.

Takashi Shimura drives this film in the main role. It is one of the most unpresupposing performances I’ve seen. We watch him literally open up and flower as the film goes on. There are few “big” moments, but several small, intense events that awaken in Shimura’s character a need to live. But is isn’t just the character journey that has impact. The overall structure of the narrative is just as intriguing as the story itself, unfolding in unexpected but necessary ways. If it weren’t for Kurosawa’s inventiveness, the 2.5 hours would have suffocated under its own weight. Instead, he manages to keep us intrigued through fearless storytelling, probably informed a little by his previous foray into narrative structure in Rashomon just two years previous.

Ikiru also marked Kurosawa’s moment before Seven Samurai and some of his most lasting cinema. Kurosawa, as a writer and director, has created and influenced some of the top films and directors of all time (including Star Wars via The Hidden Fortress). There is a beauty to his stories and craft, but never a moment when he insults his audience. His films are about his characters and their troubles and challenges… they just happen to also provide inspiration and commiseration for the viewer. Ikiru is a beautifully funny and heart-warming part of that opus that can still inspire 65 years after its release.

Ikiru

The Salt of the Earth

I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this powerful piece. Perhaps the right way is with the director, which is counter-intuitive, but the result of this movie is directly related to Wim Wenders’ (Pina) involvement.

Making a film about a photographer is fraught with issues. A medium of moving pictures trying to elicit an understanding of a medium that relies on single, frozen moments is practically at odds from the start. Wenders, who narrates a large part of the film, comments on that in a way at the top of this documentary. But Wenders was a perfect choice as a man who could take this story and make the film feel like a Salgado photo from beginning to end. He captured the sense, sensibility, and framing of the great photographer’s works and filmed Salgado commenting on his photos while looking at them. The overall feel is often like an intimate, private show.

Tackling this subject also meant finding the story of Salgado’s life, the narrative by which Wenders captures your imagination and exposes the root of the art. He went with the title as it is now, but it could also have been “The Life, and Death, and Life of Sebastião Salgado” given the shape of his life and tale. Salgado has led a fascinating life both in deeds and trajectory.  His story is as inspiring as his art, not only for its unlikely path but also for its intensity and dedication to the purpose and result. To discuss it would be to rob you of the journey and revelations, so I won’t.

I discovered Wim Wenders as a narrative filmmaker. His power, however, as a documentarian is proving to be equally or more emotionally and artistically impactful for me. He embraces his subjects and holds them close, for years in some cases, before embarking on trying to tell their story in the right way. This movie is no exception and the result is something that has to be seen.

The Salt of the Earth

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli)

I tucked in for this 3 hour, year-in-the-life of late 19th century Bergamo peasants in Italy thinking it was going to be a story; that wasn’t exactly what I got. It is beautifully filmed and it has moments, but doesn’t really satisfy as a story. Because, if it is a story, the only message is that the Church destroys peoples lives, and I don’t really see that as the intended message. What I believe documentarian Ermanno Olmi, wrote and directed instead is a well-researched and nicely depicted slice of life.

Clogs released in 1978 and gathered up a number of awards. Today, if this film were to be made, it would probably have ended up as a mini- or event-series. There are through-lines, but no investment in a character by the audience is rewarded. People go about their lives, and life goes about its pounding of the peasants.

As an artistic achievement, it is quite the accomplishment. Criterion has also done a beautiful job on the restoration of the print and sound. If I had approached it as a documentary, my response may well have been different. If you are fascinated by, or curious about history, particularly the late 1880s in Italy, it is a must see. It is also disturbingly resonant with today’s world in both politics and economy. But as a movie, as a piece of fictional entertainment, it failed for me.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Arianna

Over-examining this film is probably a mistake. It is, at heart, simply an impressive and effective coming of age film. Arianna’s story has resonance for anyone, regardless of their biological or gender identity. It is even more laid back than the similar XXY and much more focused on the core issue as well.

The success of this movie is very much on the lead’s, Ondina Quadri, shoulders. It isn’t just about her look or costuming, but also her subtle movements and quiet emotion throughout. She keeps you focused on the challenges and the internal turmoil of Arianna rather than the potential theatrics. Both Quadri and director Carlo Lavagna gathered up a number of awards for the results.

The film lays out its intent at the very beginning, but it does still come to a bit of an abrupt halt at the end. I didn’t find it a problem, but you may or may feel incomplete by the choice. I would argue that it fits the purpose and the promise well. However you feel about the end, it is still worth the journey and the performance.

Arianna

Prime Suspect (1973)

Dame Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty) cemented Jane Tennison as one of the bedrocks of British mystery, and one of the strongest and most complicated women to make it to screen. You cannot think of Jane Tennison without thinking of Helen Mirren in that role. The show had a much vaunted 7 series run (1991-2006) that still enjoys reairs today.

But how did Tennison become the ballsy, broken, insightful DS we bade farewell to 11 years ago? Since 2006 several other unforgettable detectives have been given the prequel treatment. Endeavour and Young Montalbano come immediately to mind as especially successful forays into that territory.  These shows provide(d) both a continuation of series when the original show either had no where to go or when the original actor was no longer available, and an opportunity to understand the characters in a new way. We love their quirks (good and bad), but rarely know how they came about. For instance, Morse’s love of Opera, Montalbano’s love of seafood, and, of course, their love lives and tendency to drink.

Tennison was definitely ripe for this treatment. However, while the casting physically wasn’t bad, with Stefani Martini (Emerald City) in the lead role, the writing by series creator, Lynda La Plante, and Glen Laker just wasn’t as complex and solid as their competition. Had this series come out five years ago, I think I would have been much more impressed. But what the other two examples manage, and which this missed, was the steady building up of the character we know. Every episode of Endeavour, for instance, adds one of his traits or clearly leads to it.

Compounding my frustration with the series, I just couldn’t see Tennison in Martini. Even by the end of the 6 episode arc, there is only the barest hint of the Tennison we followed for over a decade. Whether that issue should be laid at the feet of Martini (lack of research?) or director Caffrey, I can’t be sure, but the fault doesn’t matter so much as the effect. What I got was a good mystery, but not so much a peek into the driving formation of Tennison herself. Or, not as much as I’d have hoped over 6 episodes.

I am willing to give them another bite at the apple on this one. The story of this particular series was interesting. The cast solid, especially with Alun Armstrong (The Hollow Crown), Jessica Gunning (Pride), and slew of other recognizable faces. It isn’t bad and there is definitely potential and room for growth. I would hope they would look around and realize that these kinds of shows require something just a bit different than the typical Brit mystery. They have a legacy to support and an audience to re-engage.

I have to say that with all these prequel and existing series running, I now have a dream to have a cross-over that starts with Endeavour, goes to Prime Suspect, then into George Gently, and finally ends, years later, as a cold case for Vera. For fun, you could involve Montalbano somewhere in the Gently cycle as I think they’d overlap by the next Gently series. As long as each kept their own sensibility, it could be a fabulous romp. If you really want to go crazy you could bring in a few of the longer running, cozy mystery series as well, but I think that would shatter the illusion of a single world.

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