Tag Archives: Foreign

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

The City & The City

[3 stars]

Much like the title and conceit of the story, I had two simultaneous reactions to this story. First, I was awed watching the impossible being brought to screen. At the same time I was led down a path of disappointment in support of the purpose and the plot.

I’ll come back to that, but be assured there is a great ride for a long part of the series. A good part of that success goes to David Morrissey (Extant, Doctor Who). He is subtle but intense in his role, which is highly flavored with an East European flare. Mandeep Dhillon (Whitechapel), as his sidekick, is energizing and entertaining and far from superfluous. Maria Schrader (Fortitude), as another associate, brings a very different type of intensity to help it all along. And Lara Pulver (Electric Dreams) is a great Macguffin for the tale, slowly peeling back layers and history for Morrissey. And that’s just a sampling of the characters. You may have  noticed that despite the male lead, this story is dominated by strong women. In smaller, pivotal roles, Christian Camargo (Europa Report) and Danny Webb (A Little Chaos) are a bit less believable, but still serve their purposes.

Now, back to the plot. The first three episodes of the four installment series are brilliant and engaging. The combination of writing, directing, and cinematography walk you through a challenging set of ideas in a convoluted world. But in the fourth episode, after a promising start, it all falls apart into either an odd political polemic or disappointing bit of naturalism. I haven’t read China Miéville’s book of the same name yet, so can’t speak as to whether it follows the source closely, but I can believe it does; the flavor of the ending matches Miéville’s sensibilities.

But here’s the thing about The City & The City, you’ll get to the end and, probably, be annoyed. But you will keep thinking about this show and its  points and implications. In fact, it may not even land at first, but will keep poking at your brain demanding to be acknowledged; the metaphors are incredibly powerful. However, that doesn’t make it satisfying, only poignant. I think that it would have done better as an episode in an anthology series or a one-shot film rather than a four-part series that seems to lead in one direction only to veer off into another. Forewarned, it is likely a better experience than going in blind. So take this as your heads-up and then make time for the series, it really is worth it just for the brilliant execution of the near-impossible by director Tom Shankland (The Fades) and writer Tony Grisoni .

Tom of Finland

[3.5 stars]

Many things can define a culture or a group. It can be music, food, fashion…or in this case: art. You may not know his nome de pencil,  Tom of Finland, but you can’t have escaped the images that Touko Valio Laaksonen produced. He defined a great deal of gay culture starting in the 40s up through the 80s, evolving his art from providing a voice to the fantasies of forbidden desire to, ultimately, celebrations of life in the face of illness. Whether or not you were part of the leather culture, his images captured raw sexuality in a heightened way that was an equal response to, and a statement about, how repressed culture was pretty much everywhere.

Beyond his art, Laaksonen himself, had a fascinating life that we pick up during WWII. Yes, he struggled with a repressive culture and horrifying laws and bias, but he also struggled with simply being a veteran of war. His wish to avoid confrontation, to not have to fight anymore, is something universal to soldiers returned from the front. Seeing that play out in his life was an unexpected aspect of the history.

Director Dome Karukoski also told the story in an interesting way, without explanation flipping around the chronologies at times, but always with a purpose that would pay off. He maintains a respectable distance from his subjects, but allows us to invest in them and hope for them. There is an odd clinical feeling to many of the exchanges that is reflective of Finland and Germany, but it never leaves you feeling closed out. In some ways the lack of warmth heightens the brief moments of connection for Touko and contrasts nicely with his later life.

This movie works equally well as a story and as a documentary/biopic. Primarily in Finnish, it also has plenty of German and English dialogue and nothing is so rapid fire as to cause subtitle strain. In fact, a lot of the film is without dialogue, allowing the story to play out with looks and action alone. It is well done and, ultimately, educating. It will also provide you a new appreciation for Tom of Finland, his work and his purpose, not to mention his place in history.

Tom of Finland

 

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

[3.5 stars]

In the Fade packs a lot of story into its shy two hours. And while I’m not a Diane Kruger (The Host) fan, often finding her stiff and unemotional, she is powerful and painfully exposed in this film; she carries it utterly. In fact, the only other actor that leaves a real impression is Johannes Krisch, who’s super creepy and foul lawyer will twist your guts as he does his work.

Director/co-writer Fatih Akin tackles what is becoming an all-to-common story in the last ten years. However, he focuses the story very personally and small, expertly guiding Kruger and the cast, keeping it paced and under control. The story, however charged, stays ensconced in the painfully mundane, which is part of how it earned the many awards it was was nominated for and/or won last year.

Admittedly, In the Fade is not a light film for a night of simple distraction, but it is a well-done film that should be seen at some point. Because it focuses on the individual rather than the broader societal threads, it is oddly more palatable. We connect with Kruger and invest in her need for meaning, even when her actions are far from anything we may personally identify with…and even more so when they are.

In the Fade

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

[3stars]

Annette Bening (20th Century Women) does a wonderful job of recreating Gloria Grahame with a sort of Marilyn Monroe at the Grand Hotel vibe. Grahame had a tragically fascinating life, full of huge successes and personal regrets. But the film never feels like a biopic. Writer Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere BoyThe Look of Love) didn’t fall prey to assuming we already knew Grahame and were invested in her. He brings us to her just as Jamie Bell (Fantastic Four) and his family, Dame Julie Walters (Brooklyn) and Kenneth Cranham (Bancroft), come to and become attached to her.

Director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) also navigated the complicated plot and characters with confidence. He doesn’t make excuses for the characters, but allows them to be honest as he unpacks the truths over the course of the story.

I didn’t know about Grahame going in. In fact, I didn’t even realize the film was biographical till the end. It is simply an interesting story told and acted well. Benning, in particular, brings her A game to a very layered, and at times desperate, woman. This film would also make a great double-feature with Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.

Film Stars Don

Gloria (2013)

[4 stars]

Even when a movie like this one earns your attention and trust you aren’t always sure it’s working until the final moments. By the end, however, it most definitely pays off; in fact, the final moments are transcendent for the character and the audience.

The success of the final scene is worth the entire movie to get to…and wouldn’t work without what comes before. Paulina García’s (Narcos) subtle performance holds you and endears you to her over time. And, it must be said, she is certainly helped along in the finale by the 80s hit that shares the same title. (As a side-note, there is a fascinating history to the song and its lyrics and why you may not recognize the translation.) Without question, this is García’s film. While Sergio Hernández certainly gives her something to work off of, she controls the story and screen from start to finish.

Gloria is a quiet film of discovery and life for its main character. The tale is interesting, but not provocative. Like Finding Your Feet, it allows the information to seep out and inform over time. We travel with Gloria through a critical period of her life, starting 12 years after her divorce. It is clear that, up till now, she had drifted through life’s events, shifting directions as they sent her. We aren’t really sure where she’ll end up nor whether anything is going to change as we see her wake up to that reality; the tension of that question and the accessibility of her character pull you along to the end.

Director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio’s (A Fantastic Woman) love of the character and his trust in the material and in the audience is wonderful. He is expert at showing us what we need, and nothing more, while helping us celebrate his characters, flaws and all. You would be excused for not seeing how well its working till the end; but the final scene makes it clear how undeniably good his craft is and why, even with a small opus, he has so many awards nominations and wins. Make time to celebrate Gloria at some point, and keep an eye on Lelio. He is clearly a talent to watch with many more tales to tell.

Gloria

Finding Your Feet

[3.5 stars]

Yes, another tale of late-life discovery and rebirth. But it does it well, with humor, and with a hell of a cast.

The story is led by the incomparable Imelda Staunton (Pride) and Celia Imrie (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as a pair of estranged sisters reconnecting after more than a decade. The two work brilliantly together both emotionally and with their timing. Imrie’s world is full of other characters that spur Staunton’s rediscovery of herself and life. Chief among these are Joanna Lumley (Me Before You) and David Hayman (Macbeth) as the core of her group along with the most unlikely of the cast: Timothy Spall (Denial). Spall has often carried stories, but rarely, as in this case, as the romantic male lead. Not your typical choice, and yet he manages a sweet magnetism and vulnerability that makes it all work.

The script for this life and aging adventure was from a pair of writers: first-timer Meg Leonard and the more-heeled Nick Moorcroft (Burke & Hare). But as fun as the film is, it falls prey to taking a couple simple “outs” with the plot rather than working toward their goal in a more challenging way. Honestly, it was a bit of a shame as the scope of the story across age, love, and loss was pretty sweeping; perhaps a little too sweeping given how they solved the problems. But, they still manage to land the moments and the point, even if a few of the paths were far too generic and obvious from the get-go.

Regardless of any weaknesses or clichè in the script, Richard Loncraine (Richard III) directed the story with a sure and powerful hand, controlling the leaps in time and emotional evolution well. The story borders on broad comedy, but has just enough of a tinge of bitterness and embarrassment to feel real during the most challenging moments. It is also unafraid to quietly feel pain at its rawest.

As a tale and reminder that life doesn’t end until it does, this is a great couple of hours. It is for the romantic, at whatever age, and the time invested is worth it just to get to the final frame.

Finding Your Feet

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

Thelma

[3 stars]

Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) brought his award-winning ability directing and co-writing (with constant collaborator Eskil Vogt) this intense and suspenseful tale. It isn’t an easily defined story, but Eili Harboe (The Wave) owns the title role with wonderful subtlety and angst.

The result, as close as I can come, is a coming-of-age horror(ish) tale. You know from the opening scene that something isn’t quite right but it is a paced story that builds the situation from Thelma’s point of view. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen support Harboe as Thelma’s parents in echos of many other similar stories, but without becoming histrionic.

In fact, that is one of the biggest differences in this riff on a plot you’ll recognize quickly, it is told simply and naturalistically rather than with big moments and effects. It is, above all, a story about Thelma and her becoming an independent adult. It is also doesn’t explain everything or provide simple answers to some of the actions, though it certainly raises questions. The story is as much metaphor as truth.

This isn’t a fast film, but it is gripping and interesting,  performed and constructed with real ability. It was nominated for and won many awards deservedly, but it is more on the art-house end of the spectrum than, say, A Quiet Place, that subverts the genre in a different way. When you want something familiar, but that feels new, check this out.

Thelma

The Divine Order (Die göttliche Ordnung)

[3 stars]

Picture it: 1971 Switzerland. Rolling farmland. Mountains. And women still without the right to vote. Yes, seriously. This film chronicles the weeks leading up to the 1971 referendum that reversed that absurdity (though it would be another 10 years before it was added to the constitution).

What is weirder is watching the story and seeing the world that so many in power today pine for.  It is a village locked in the 40s and 50s in look and 1800s in mentality. For all that, it is full of humor and entertainment. It isn’t a belly laugh kind of film, well not often, but it balances the darker side of the reality with the lighter side. There is a particularly wonderful scene with Sofia Helin (The Bridge) on that front.

Unlike other “rights” movies, like the wonderful Pride, there is never a huge moment of triumph, despite the wins. Writer/director Petra Volpe instead gives us a series of small victories and a sense that the efforts have to always be going on to maintain and protect those rights. Sound familiar?

Definitely a timely and interesting film to see against the backdrop of today. It is well acted and emotionally satisfying, capturing the culture and the history in unexpected ways. Oh, and it was well recognized on the festival circuit as well.  Make time for this movie for both inspiration and entertainment.

The Divine Order