Tag Archives: Foreign

Tasting Menu (Menú degustació)

[3.5 stars]

Honestly, the extra points for this film are for the food design, which is glorious. The story itself is definitely engaging on its own, but it’s fairly standard. Like the food being served, the story is a collection of smaller tales that come together into something a bit larger by the final course. It’s all a bit soapy, but it has plenty of humor and mystery to help drive it forward.

Director Roger Gual pulled together an international cast with such folks as Fionnula Flanagan (Song of the Sea), Stephen Rae (Greta), and Andrew Tarbet (This is Wonderland) on the English speaking side and Jan Cornet (Mallorca Files), Vicenta N’Dongo, Togo Igawa, Marta Torné (Night Manager), and others on the Spanish and Japanese side. The combination provides a range of humor from the farsacle to comedies of manners.

But what pulls together all the bits and pieces as we jump from story to story, even as they intersect, is the food. It’s a feast for the eyes as much as one for the senses (even if we don’t get to taste it ourselves). So go for the humor, stay for the meal, and enjoy it for what it is: a light comedy that will leave you feeling reasonably full.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

[4 stars]

A quiet but intense love story that is (dare I say it?) a slow burn. I was worried that, despite all its awards, director/writer Céline Sciamma’s (Tomboy) two hour story of a portraitist and her subject would drag. It doesn’t.

The silences between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are tense with unspoken thoughts. Their verbal sparring is equally charged, though spare with words. And Merlant’s relationship with her supplies and canvas is just as intriguing. Watching these women discover each other and themselves never let’s you relax.

Around the main story are smaller tales supported by Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino. Both women bring a lot of story with very little explained.

One of Sciamma’s achievements with this film is that it is, essentially, all women. And all strong women, in their way. Men are not only incidental, they are a hindrance to their worlds. It is also visually a stunning piece of cinematography; as painterly as the story it tells. And the final moments of the story are a collection of joyously heartbreaking scenes. It reminded me of the end of Gloria in its ability to deliver a resolution.

Portrait is an unexpectedly moving story and one worth seeing. On big screen it must have been breathtaking, but even on a smaller screen it is a feast for all your movie senses.

@Suicide Room

[3.5 stars]

Suicide as a subject, even when the best intentions are observed as with 13 Reasons Why, often ends up exploitative. Writer/director Jan Komasa, most recently lauded for his Corpus Christi (including an Oscar nomination), managed to respect its realities and create an engrossing story.

Jakub Gierszal (Dracula Untold) is at the center of this gut-punch of a tale; a teenage boy who starts (over)confidently and then crumbles despite and because of everything around him. His performance is raw and, at times, uncomfortable, but always gripping. Roma Gasiorowska becomes his gadfly and external conscience as he withdraws from the world that is simultaneously pushing him away. She is as magnetic as she is mercurial. In a smaller but pivotal role is Bartosz Gelner (Floating Skyscrapers), providing the catalyst and lighting the fuse for Gierszal’s discovery of his online world and a group of lost individuals.

The story has a lot of interesting devices and tremendous amount of emotionally exposed nerves. It is at once a fable and plain look at broken people. And broken here has many levels for both the kids and the adults. Frankly, the story itself starts strong and then loses its thread and references, but pulls it all together at the end in a way that works, even if it is far off track from where you think it may go from the opening 20 minutes.

Don’t go into this one lightly. It feels light at the top, but that masks the currents in the depths that will eventually reach the surface. However, it is another stepping stone for Komasa’s body of work, which continues to impress me. And it is a peek into Polish culture and family that isn’t often seen.

Suicide Room

Faraway, So Close! (In weiter Ferne, so nah!)

[3 stars]

In 1987 Wim Wenders hit the international consciousness as a writer/director with Wings of Desire… a tale of isolation and revelation with the backdrop of the Berlin Wall as metaphor. And then, in 1989, the wall fell and the world changed. In 1993 Wenders revisited his characters in this new reality with this award-winning, if not as successful, sequel.

Wings was a wonderful film…after the first 20 minutes of philosophical setup. You can argue that the extended prologue was necessary, but it honestly kept the film from taking flight, which it did once we really got to Earth and let the story go. Faraway is structured much the same, but with even more philosophical musing and exposition (45 minutes). This time, however, the discussion is set amongst the world and it sets up a lot of the movie’s ultimate action. Of course, that isn’t clear for a long time and is, perhaps, one of the more surprising aspects of the film. A lot of very disparate threads and seemingly tangential moments all come together for the final sequences in some very unexpected and, in one case, hysterical ways.

All of the main characters from Wings return: Otto Sander (from a personal favorite: Killer Condom), Bruno Ganz (The House that Jack Built), Peter Falk, and Solveig Dommartin (Until the End of the World) to bridge the stories. However, other than Sander, they are all secondary to the new plot. Part of what makes this film so clever is that it really is a new story, even though we get to see what happened to those who were the focus of the first.

The new people in this tale are rather surprising…Willem Dafoe (Motherless Brooklyn) and Nastassja Kinski (Cat People) join the story, and there are even small roles for Mikhail Gorbachev and Lou Reed. Which brings up the soundtrack…loaded with Reed and other period greats. It doesn’t have the staying power of Until the End of the World’s soundtrack, but there are some interesting surprises in it.

Though Faraway is a direct sequel in many ways, I’m not sure you need have seen Wings of Desire first. I think the relationships and returning characters get explained enough. However, you’ll definitely have a different experience if you see them in the intended order. But Faraway is, ultimately, a better crafted film, if a little overwrought at times. It is a worthy sequel and cleverly crafted. But it is, in every sense, a very European film of its time. It is slow to build momentum, highly intellectual, full of poetry and grand gesture, and not quite reality, though very down to Earth (literally) in its grounding. If you enjoy Wenders’ work or just want to see something with very different pacing and approach than today’s hyper-kinetic fare, this is an excellent, if long, choice.

Dotor Who (series 12)

[3.5 stars]

Honestly, I don’t know whether to be excited or infuriated by this latest series. There are so many possibilities and answers and openings, and yet it was executed a bit ham-handedly and, ultimately, rushed.

Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) continues to grow her sense of the Doctor…and does so with aplomb. Our intrepid companions are evolving, though they have been pushed more to the side as the Doctor has gained confidence and energy. The dynamic of the foursome isn’t always smooth from a story point of view, but they all work well together. I think when Chibnall really gets a feeling of the reins, he could equal Davies first few seasons. But first he really has to get some guidance on what building an arc really means.

This season is very reminiscent of Moffat’s disastrous series 8 as show-runner; fractured and confused. Though I think Chibnall’s overall quality is significantly better than Moffat’s awful season. But Chibnall has struggled with the overall arc and flow. He also allowed the series to get “in your face” preachy about too many issues. The ideas, and even presentations, were fine, but the expositions were painful. The same ideas could have been imparted without stating it all out in detail. In other words, he didn’t trust his audience enough. Even kids would have understood the implications without the pulpit speeches. At least, I do think Chibnall has the sensibility of Dr. Who correct (unlike Moffat much of the time). I just wish he’d be a bit more Torchwood and a bit less Saturday morning kid’s show.

Overall, it wasn’t an unengaging season, and it has some things to chew on, but I’m hoping next round will have more control and shape.

And now, the play by play as the series aired, if you want to understand how I came to these statements.

By the episode (with spoilers): 

Spyfall (parts 1 & 2)
As a sendup of Skyfall, this Bond-like episode has a lot of fun and opens up some new avenues. However, I missed not having a stand-alone holiday special rather than just launching into the 12th series. In part I was also very, very frustrated with the revelation of the big bad. Not that Sacha Dhawan (Iron Fist) isn’t entertaining (if not exactly a Master I can get behind quite yet), but I really felt like that thread had been tied up ever so nicely during the Capaldi years. I suppose, however, that Chibnall just couldn’t resist trying to tackle one of the primary enemies and put his own stamp on it. What these episodes brought us, however, was the shape of the upcoming season with the reveals at the end. Was it worth it? I guess we’ll see.

Orphan 55
This episode starts off interestingly, but devolves into the worst kind of preachy science fiction that just doesn’t work well. Surprising as Ed Hime wrote one of the more challenging episodes from the previous season, It Takes You Away. It’s a shame as there were missed opportunities and, certainly, some fun riffs on Damnation Alley that could have taken the story in different directions. For instance, what if the Dregs were the results of virus infected terraforming tech that Kane was using. But, as it is, it’s one of the weakest episodes they’ve had a in long while. At least it was well directed and acted. And it was fun to see Laura Lane (The Loch) and Lewin Lloyd (Judy) in some different roles. Perhaps this is the one really weak episode this season (there’s always one)…and we’re getting it out of the early rather than late.

Nicola Tesla’s Night of Horrors
Well, I’ll give them this, Edison was portrayed at least a bit like the ass he was. The episode as a whole was OK. It’s another high octane, hand-wavy adventure in history, though this time on American soil with Goran Visnjic (Beginners) and Robert Glenister guesting as Tesla and Edison respectively. Fun, sure, and nice to see Tesla sort of get his due. it was also somewhat clever (and perhaps disingenuous) that Who elevates his ideas, even if the tragic aspects of his life remain.

I do have to wonder, after setting up the larger arc in the first episodes, why have we not even touched on it again yet? There aren’t that many eps to play with so waiting seems like a bad idea to me.

Renegade of the Judoon
Now this is what I’m talking about! This was the best and most complex episode of the season so far. It picks up the opening mystery and explodes it with two major reveals of multiple time lines and the delightful return of John Barrowman’s Capt. Jack Harkness. As a mid-season pivot, it’s wonderful. Why they dropped the thread for a couple eps escapes me as there is clearly a lot of material to work with. The mysteries should have at least been tagged into the intervening episodes to keep it more alive. But we’re here now…hoping the momentum continues and it’s a sprint to the finale.

Praxeus
Really? They couldn’t just keep focusing on the main thread? We had to have yet another “we’re destroying the planet” PSA? And, by the way, they’re getting a bit much and far too preachy in the writing. I know this is aimed at kids, but they’re smarter than the script allows for as well.

The episode is definitely an energetic and entertaining one. It even brings in Warren Brown (Good Cop), who gets to recap a lot of his characters in this one, but with some nice twists with the help of Matthew McNulty (The Paradise). But we just left off a huge revelation and there isn’t even a hint of that in this story.  There are only four episodes left and a hell of a lot to wrap up. Chibnall needs to get a better grip of his seasonal arcs and learn how to weave a whole cloth.

Can You Hear Me?
This fast-paced and energized adventure is great fun and sets up…something. Not sure what yet, but I don’t think this will be the last we know and see of these newest “monsters.” But the story is almost entirely off thread from the main series arc. At least it certainly appears to be stand-alone. What is clear from this episode is that we’re headed to some sort of change-over in, at least, the companions.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati
OK, here we are again with another view of the night Frankenstein was created (the most recent being Mary Shelley). Admittedly, this is a fun and unique use of that infamous (though more likely apocryphal) night. And it gets us back on the main arc…though with more questions than answers by the end.

With only two episodes left in the series, and the stakes and issues all finally at the forefront (although a continued aversion to discussing Jack or the other Doctor), I certainly hope they are both about wrapping all this up. This particularly story is fine, but because of the many recreations of this night, the trappings frankly felt a bit tired to me despite the creative concepts.

Ascension of the Cybermen
Talk about a long lead. Finally we are closing the loop begun in the first episode. This is an action packed story that raises the horror of the Cybermen another notch. While not an official two-parter, the resolution won’t come till next week’s finale. Frankly, not much really happens in this episode other than some adrenaline-based setup and the pulling in of at least some of the open threads. Mind you, there are still far too many left untouched, but I suspect that will change. I just hope the final episode of the series is super-sized so they don’t have to rush the resolution or, worse, leave it unresolved until the holiday special or next season. In other words, this was a fun and exciting episode, but not a complete or satisfying one on its own.

The Timeless Children
As I feared, this episode ended up rushed and, ultimately, open-ended. That said, at least we finally have an answer to Matt Smith’s regeneration from a few seasons back (that infamous number 13) which was never explained. You can buy into that or not, but at least Chibnall has attempted to provide an answer without shattering the canon. However, the depiction of The Master here, both by Sacha Dhawan and as written, is just over the top and weakly supported…and it flies in the face of the most recent incarnations. Sure The Master was always a bit off his nut, and a lot of that was due to his personal competition with The Doctor, but it needed more foundation and explanation throughout the series to get him onto a new path. And the one thing this episode never explained is how The Master survived the end of last season.

And, finally, the tag was more than a little angering. While it pulled back in aspects of the opening episode nicely, it leaves us utterly hanging at least until much later this year (with a possible special). I would have much preferred a conclusion and then a bridging special with tag into the 13th. It felt like a desperate attempt to get folks back after a mixed-result series.

Doctor Who

Four Staples Enter New Cycles

Tis the killing season again. And by that I mean the return of four mystery series who continue to prove it is almost impossible to depopulate small English villages (or even cities or small islands) no matter how many people you kill off.

Back for their latest runs are:
Endeavour (series 7)
Vera (series 10)
Grantchester (series 5)
Death in Paradise (series 9)

What they all have in common this year, despite being spread across different decades (70s, 2020, 60s, and 2020 respectively), is that they are all shaking up their formulae to bring a fresh energy and potentially purpose into their series.

Endeavour is moving in earnest to close the gap to Morse.  Continuing to build on the previous round, they literally have him building the home we got to know Morse in, while also finally turning the corner on his personality. Endeavour is starting to show that Morse cockiness and total lack of self-awareness when it comes to women…which they’ve played with, but we are finally meeting the woman that broke Morse permanently. DS Strange has taken a step forward toward the character we know from his future, as well. Neither leap is completely clean…it feels like we missed some steps…but the shift is a necessary one if not a fluid one. This is also a much shorter season than previous, with a single arc pulling together three episodes. The cost of the show and the age of the bridging actors is making that a necessity…and with only a few years to go before Morse would abutt the stories, you can see the acceleration in their plan.

Vera remains at four episodes, but our dear Brenda Blethyn is getting crankier and more brittle this year. Not that she was ever a total teddy bear, but there is an edge and weariness starting to creep into Vera and I’m feeling like they’re headed toward wrapping her up or handing off the show in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the mysteries continue to be nicely complex and full of human foible and foolishness.

Grantchester has moved fully into its new phase with its new priest. A number of the original struggles remain, but with Tom Brittney owning the whole season for the first time, they have a different foundation. And while he has his own personal demons and challenges, there is something a bit less soapy about it all. That aspect has been load-balanced onto the rest of the cast in some interesting ways. By the end of the series, we’ve entered into yet another new phase for the characters and the show. Grantchester is one of those rare series that has managed to weather a complete shift in the driving core of the show while hardly changing at all. It really is a remarkable thing to examine as a writer. As a viewer it simply keeps it all familiar and yet still fresh.

And, finally, Death in Paradise is the odd outlier here in format. Primarily a cozy with a lot of comedy, it still has plenty of murder and mayhem on St. Marie. And while evolution has been part of its bones from the beginning, with a series of detectives and police staffing, it has approached the rhythm of this series differently than previously. More importantly it’s starting to shift the focus onto the St. Marie police force from the English interlopers…at least in part. Of the shows discussed here, Death in Paradise is by far the lightest fare, but it is definitely trying to stretch its muscles into some new areas and breadth of action.

Vera Endeavour Grantchester Death in Paradise

The Pale Horse

[3 stars]

Sarah Phelps (The ABC Murders) is becoming the preeminent adapter of Agatha Christie. Her skills are best when she sticks close to the original material, as she did for Ordeal By Innocence. But when we she veers from that material, like The ABC Murders, the work is less worthy. It should be noted that she also works outside Christie’s ouvre, with intriguingly built adaptations like Dublin Murders. In other words, the writer/creator has chops.

The Pale Horse is one of those lesser known, rarely (if ever?) produced stand-alone Christies. Previous incarnations of it dragged it inappropriately into the Marple or Poirot worlds, as I recall. It is, as a book, still in the cozy category, with a pair of intrepid lovers discovering and solving a string of murders. Phelps reconceives the tale as something closer to Turning of the Screw crossed with Crime and Punishment, bringing it squarely into the psychological horror arena and putting the lovers at odds with one another. It has a highly stylized presentation, with a lot of creep factor; think Midsommar (the horror film, not the series).

Led by, and generally through the eyes of, Rufus Sewell (Judy), the story begins as a dark mystery of loss and fear and spins out from there. As a horror story it is effective, if not entirely satisfying by the end. Kaya Scodelario (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gets to stretch her muscles into a role that is more adult than teenager for the first time. Her stressed 60s housewife is both darkly funny and depressing. Sean Pertwee (Gotham), on the other hand, gets somewhat abused as Inspector Lejeune. And Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) has some fun in the mix, getting to wear a pair of the ugliest dentures ever seen on TV. But, generally, all of the cast do well filling out the world, victims, and those pulling the strings.

Perhaps part of the delivery gap of this series is down to young director Leonora Lonsdale. This is only her second full-length delivery. While the result, absent context, is fun, she allowed Phelps script to lead her too far astray from the source material. Depending on your relationship with Christie, your opinion and enjoyment of the story will vary. It is definitely not a light tale of murder on the green, but it is a complicated and layered tale of loss and greed, with just a suggestion of the supernatural.

Wisting

[3.5 stars]

You may be thinking: yet another Scandinavian mystery series? But there are reasons to take a look at Wisting. While the feel and flow of the mysteries may seem familiar, the series has an intriguing structure.

First, there are two main mysteries in two five-episode chunks. But there are several smaller mysteries as well, not all of which connect (but some of which that do) over the ten episodes. That alone helps provide a more interesting journey through the season; we see cause an effect of various decisions within the season rather than from season to season.

Second, to help gain a broader audience, the first five episodes include an American element. Carrie-Ann Moss (Jessica Jones) is a core part of the first mystery as a semi-rogue FBI agent on the heels of an old murder.

There are some challenges with the series. Part of that stems from the difference in culture (and that Wisting’s family is messed up on top of that). The other part stems from different power structures and laws in Norway. If you’re a procedural fan, the stories here will hurt your head at times as you try to figure out why some things are such a big deal and who is really exposed by aspects.

That said, as a whole it is a solid start that adapts several of Jørn Lier Horst’s books into a fairly satisfying series, and whets the appetite for the next.

Wisting

As You Like It (2006)

[3 stars]

Kenneth Branagh (All Is True) has been associated with Shakespeare since he burst onto the international scene in 1989 with Henry V. Though his career ranges wide, he has continued to circle back to the Bard, investing in and reinventing the canon as actor, director, and writer. This particular comedy is no exception, but it also marked the beginning of his departure from standard period presentations of the tales.

Branagh sets his As You LIke It in feudal Japan, though with a cast of British ex-pats in the main roles. And quite the cast he pulled together as well…frankly too long to list, but with a number of established as well as up-and-comers to enjoy. The important aspect of this transposition is that it provides a nice foundation for the initial coup and sense of danger necessary to get the tale rolling, and it adds a sort of magical aspect to the feeling of the piece.

The play itself, like all the comedies, is somewhat interchangeable with most of Shakespeare’s other secondary tales. It explores love in many aspects through four different couples and three sibling relationships. And thanks to Branagh’s deft directing and writing, those reflections and comparrisons stay crisp and interesting rather than just seeming happenstance as they often do in the longer play. He even shfits the coda to further embrace his theatrical audience and to remind the audience to not take anything too seriously.

There is little believable in the the actual story of As You Like It, other than the emotions and desires. It is simply a romp with reminders that our relationships and our hearts are more important than our possessions and power. It is a comedy, so despite any of the darker aspects, no one is left unredeemed or saved in some way. And it is, of course, funny (often laugh-out-loud funny). So for a light evening of entertainment in iambic pentameter, settle in for some pleasant escape and great performances.

As You Like It

The Other Son (Le fils de l’autre)

(3.5 stars)

Changeling tales offer up interesting opportunies to investigate identity and family. Few, however, found quite the flashpoint as swapped births between an Israeli and Palestinian family.  Lorraine Lévy’s tale of two young men discovering their past is quiet and simple, with a modicum of political and religious fervor from the outside. It is focused more on how the young Jules Sitruk (Son of Rambow) and Mehdi Dehbi (A Most Wanted Man, Messiah) reassess who they are because of the revelations rather than how the world views them.

How their families deal with the revelations is part of the success and failures of the story as a whole. It tends to remain, wonderfully, understated. There are emotional moments and stressors, but this isn’t a melodrama. However, some of the choices and conversations feel manipulated to allow for other things to occur, which got a little frustrating even while the interplay was good. Fortunately, Lévy directed it all with a calm, sure hand rooted in reality rather than histrionics.

I have to admit I spent a good deal of the film waiting for it all to blow up into some kind of tragedy. And while an argument could be made that the tension that provides adds to the story, I found it more a distraction. So, I’m letting you know it isn’t a tragedy, though neither is it devoid of bigger issues and problems.

The Other Son is a thoughtful mental experiment that forces some interesting questions upon its characters, and through them the audience. Despite its quiet demeanor it is suprisingly gripping, and ultimately worth the journey.

The Other Son