New To DVD/VOD And Streaming Platforms: Review – “White God” 9.12.15

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This particular Hungarian film had been on my radar for a while now, and was one that I waited much longer to see than most films I anticipate seeing. I first heard about it the same way in which I hear about a lot films – in doing my research in each of the year’s most prestigious international film festivals, and taking note of which films were well received by critics. “White God” (English translation of the film’s original title – “Feher isten”) created quite a bit of buzz when it first premiered at the Godfather of film festivals – Cannes – in 2014 (and like with most foreign films it took over a year before it found a distributor and was released stateside). It quickly caught my attention when I saw that it had won the Un Certain Regard award. An award that’s usually reserved for international films that tend to be a bit edgier which would in turn have a harder time finding a distributor without its nomination (or winning such as was the case with this film). Past Un Certain Regard award winners include Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” (Greece – 2009) (one of my top 10 favorite foreign films post 2000), Cristi Puiu’s brilliant “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (Russia – 2005), and Marco Giordana’s 4+ hour epic – “The Best of Youth” (Italy – 2003)…to name a few. That’s not even scratching the surface of the films that haven’t won but have been nominated (it’s a rather impressive list I’ll just say that). So when a film takes home the award it’s pretty much stamped with a guarantee that I will flag it and I find a way to see it whenever it gets released here in the States. As was the case with this film, which just under a month ago became available on many (including Netflix’s) streaming platforms. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than the information I’ve just shared with you, I was pretty excited when I finally got the opportunity tonight to sit down and watch it.

“White God” begins with the story of Lili, a young teenage girl riding her bike down the urban area cross-streets of a metropolitan area somewhere within Hungary followed closely by her dog subservient dog Hagen. Lili is the daughter of two parents who have gone through a recent divorce (this notion of “separation” is a constant motif throughout the film), and when her mom needs to travel out of the country for a few months, she rather begrudgingly agrees to go stay with her father. Her father works for the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and is responsible for distinguishing between good and poor quality meat. He also happens to hate animals (not surprisingly given the grisly requirements of his job) so when Lili shows up with her beloved dog Hagen, he is reluctant to let him stay. That and in this particular part of the world, there’s a certain “tax” on dogs that are unwarranted, or rather “non-pure bred”. So when the inhabitants of Lili’s dad’s apartment complex begin to complain, Lili is left with no other option than to leave a home and after getting kicked out of the music program at a junior conservatory she’s involved in for bringing her dog with her, she flees with her dog and runs away from everything. This doesn’t last for long, as Lili is picked up by her father while searching for her, and he leaves the dog by the side of the highway alone and destitute. From this point on in the film, the story revolves around two story archs which jumps back and forth between both Lili and her dog Hagen’s separate journeys that follow.

This film wound up working for me on a number of different levels. It also wound up being one of those films that felt almost “meta” in that it reminded me of several other different works from pictures that I deeply admire. There’s the clear, obvious influence that is Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000) in its depiction and metaphor for canines as a somewhat “lesser than” being, and how they’re terribly mistreated once taken away from their domesticated environments and thrown into a more oppressed section of society. Which to me seemed to metaphorically represent slavery, segregation, homelessness, and refugee people. Then there’s the story of Lili, who goes on her own personal journey through the dark rungs of society and urban living, as she is exposed to a number of different things that we wouldn’t wish any adult to see, never mind a young teenage girl. Equally as harrowing of a journey is the quest of her dog Hagen, who gets captured and is sold and trained into the ugly criminal underworld that is dog fighting (these scenes are definitely not for the squeamish). Or, if you’re a devout lover of dogs, you may not be able to endure the harsh and unforeseen circumstances in which her canine is forced into (imagine Pascal Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs” but replacing humans with canines). Then there’s what I call the grand finale or climax, which takes up the last quarter of the film and had me envisioning both Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999) (replace “rain of frogs” with “rain of dogs”) and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (2002) which presents us with something that resembles an end-of-the-world apocalypse as taken over by dogs. Does it sound strange to you yet? I’m not sure I would label it “strange”. But it surely was something both entirely unique and original to almost anything I’ve maybe ever seen. And depending on the viewer, this could be the film’s strong point or its downfall. I for one happened to fall into the former category, as even despite of its many influences it, at least for me, wound up being incredibly interesting and at the same time hard to look away from. The film’s director does a fantastic job in what must have been quite a difficult task in telling its two separate characters’ story archs and bringing you into their worlds. Never does it even in the remotest sense feel jarring as the story shifts with a confident sense of editing from dog to dog owner. It also contains a great musical store (Lili is a trumpet player and music is “key” to the story) that combines both classical with more contemporary, urban, club-like music. Lastly, were its two stellar performances by both the young Lili and her dog Hagen (I read somewhere that if there was ever the case to give an awards nomination to a dog than it was this film – and I couldn’t have said it better myself). This was yet another great example of foreign cinema worthy of its Un Certain Regard win at Cannes. “White God” should please those like myself of cinema that falls into the more wanting to be challenged mindset, but for a lot of other people, its the kind of material they just might have a hard time getting into.

Dog lovers beware.

[B]

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Midweek Review: 2 New-To-DVD Releases – “The Salvation” + “Girlhood” and One Trip To The Movies – “Wild Tales” (6/1-6/3)

First up was the Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s “Hannibal”) western drama “The Salvation”, which was officially released Tuesday on both DVD and VOD. What can I say, like the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn I will see just about any and everything this Danish actor stars in. I also happen to like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played the film’s villain and outlay enemy to Mikkelsen’s film protagonist. It’s about as simple as simple set ups go. Mikkelsen’s Danish wife and child meet him in America only to quickly be murdered in a thrilling stagecoach scene and Mikkelsen is left behind. Mikkelsen than goes into bad ass, revenge mode, and swears vengeance on the men who killed them. He does but winds up in one of those small, little frontier towns and learns that one of the men he’s killed is the brother of one of the most notorious and corrupt outlaws in the town (Morgan). A somewhat predictable story follows that (you guessed it) has Mikkelsen escaping and teaming up with some of the local townspeople who aren’t too keen on Morgan’s character and for the rest of the film we get a relatively standard, yet enjoyable, Spaghetti Western, with a fair amount of action but all contained within something I felt like I had seen before. Mikkelsen is enigmatic as usual, as is Morgan as he pulls off just the right blend of menace and ruthlessness. I’m going to recommend this for fans of the Western genre and of the actors involved. However, that being said, it breathes no new life into a genre of which I recently talked about in my “Slow West” review that seems to be reinventing itself in original and innovative ways particularly as of late. I can confidently say you won’t find much of that here. But for the most part, it’s a good time. [B-]

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Next up was a highly anticipated film from the young French female director Celine Sciamma, who wowed audiences with her sophomore effort “Tomboy” just a few years back in 2011. A movie which I held in such high regard that it wound up on my Honorable Mentions list at the end of that same year. “Girlhood” is an extension of “Tomboy” in that it depicts an adolescent girl, seemingly going nowhere and who is on the verge of dropping out of school. She teams up with a rival street gang, where she finds community, moral support, and a new-found sense of confidence. Things that seem to be lacking at home and she seems to find exactly what she’s looking for. But like ., “Tomboy”, this is a deeply probing (and quite moving) look at adolescence. Drawing to mind another film I saw the same year as “Tomboy” – Dee Rees’ “Pariah”, a coming-of-age story, like this one, except in that it focused on a young teenager struggling with “coming out” and showing the world who she really is. “Girlhood” seems to focus more on finding one’s own true identity and being faithful to who you are and not who you think others may think they might want you to be. Sciamma seems to have a perfect and uncanny understanding for these coming-of-age stories of adolescence (sorry Richard Linklater, this is no knock on you) and manages to do it with such a sense authenticity that it’s hard not to get wrapped up and emotionally invested in her characters. This is one of the sleeper house hits of the year, and it’s too bad (well, not for myself, but for others I know who try to stray away from subtitled films…which as an added disclaimer, for those of you that do, you’re missing out on 90% of the world’s best films) that it’s a foreign film in the French language. Because it’s a deeply raw, moving story, about teenage adolescence, that is remarkably well done and should be seen by everyone. This should make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end. [B+]

Last up, was “Wild Tales”, a film I ventured out to the theater to see, as for one it got astronomically good reviews, but even more importantly, it garnered a nomination for Best Foreign Language film (Argentina) at this past year’s Oscars. That and it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (and word has it earned itself a full ten minute standing ovation following). Other than this I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I heard it was supposed to be completely and utterly batshit crazy. The story itself contains six short films, almost like one of those anthology movies you see that have been being released in droves these past  few years. Except with one major difference – this film has got more hilariously depraved and deranged moments in its 2 hour running time than almost any other film I’ve seen like it (similarities could be drawn between it and 2013’s “Cheap Thrills). Except unlike that film, everything seems to take place coincidentally and by a mere matter of chance (think Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” (2012) as a reference point and there’s quite a fair bit of dark humor/black comedy and satire, that takes on an almost screwball “oh my god you’ve got to be kidding me” element to the proceedings that had both myself and my fellow moviegoers laughing hysterically at various moments throughout the film. Just at the mere absurdity of it all. My one critique of the it as is usually with most “anthology” films are that some are segments that are better than others. The first starts off real strong, as the second and third, but I felt like it lost a bit of steam in its fourth and fifth segments, only to finish strong in its final act. Though despite this one somewhat moderate criticism of the film I still had a hell of a time with it. As it’s a funny, daring, original, and undeniably deranged piece of cinema that wound up being well deserving of its Best Foreign Language film nomination. [strong B]

Weekend Recap: 3 New-To-DVD Releases – “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” (TV Mini-Series), “Winter Sleep”, and “Results” (5/30-5/31)

I thought I would change things up here a bit on the website and switch up the format so I could review several movies all in one as opposed to writing a separate review for each and every single film I watch. For a cinephile like myself, I’ve found that the prior format, while enjoyable, was a bit daunting for both myself as a writer and for my followers as readers. Also, I found myself skipping over reviewing certain films that I’ve seen entirely, as to review them all would just be much too much work for the amount of time that my life allows. This way, I can write shortened reviews which will make it more realistic time-wise for both myself, and condense them as well which hopefully will make them a bit more accessible for people to read. As always with anything I do with the site, any feedback that people have whether good or bad is always much appreciated.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst Movie Poster

First off was the 6-part documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”, or otherwise known as simply “The Jinx”. This 6-part series debuted on HBO back in February, and since I’m about as out-of-touch with what’s on cable TV these days (I haven’t had cable in almost a decade) I just now got to this series that I had been hearing a lot about from many people whose consensus was that it was a must see. It’s directed by Andrew Jarecki, whose previous work was the 2003 Oscar nominated documentary “Capturing The Friedmans” as well as the mostly forgettable Ron Gosling and Kirsten Dunst box office flop “All Good Things” (2010). A movie that must have left so little of an impression on me that I didn’t even put two and two together that it was a fictionalized account of a based on a true story about New York City real estate mogul Robert Durst. Durst, unlike the film’s critics, was apparently so impressed by the film that he offered himself to be interviewed by its director Jarecki, hoping to clear his name after four decades and three accusations into murders that he claims he was innocent of (well, with the exception of one you could say, where it was proved that he did it but ultimately was acquitted of because it was found to be out of “self-defense” – one of the highlights but also one of the most disturbing parts about the story).

In a nutshell, this was one of the better documentaries I had seen in quite some time. The presentation of the material is spot on, and like last year’s Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden “Citizenfour”, we are given unprecedented access to fly-on-the-wall interviews with Durst, juxtaposed with the presentation of all of the background material humanely possible, from the disappearance of both his first wife and the murder of his girlfriend, to the third victim, a neighbor, of whom I spoke of above. I thought the beauty of it lay in its presentation of the material, as each episode probes and plunges further and further into every single aspect and detail of all three cases, interwoven with candid interviews from almost everybody involved – friends of the missing and deceased, lawyers, private investigators, police, etc. But even more importantly, the intimate one-on-one interviews between documentarian Jarecki and Durst himself, who prior to this documentary, had never cooperated with the media never mind allow himself to be filmed over several interviews spanning over the course of a year. This is about as good as investigative journalism gets. And everything from the editing to the music, to the way in which the story unfolds, is top notch. Culminating with a jaw gaping conclusion which doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, but the way in which it comes about needs to be seen to be believed. This is A rate documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism, in a story that I embarassingly admit I knew little to next to nothing about prior to my watching it, but following it’s final episode, I was like cement stuck to my couch as I really didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing other than that I thought it was nothing short of exemplary. And currently stands at my #1 spot for Best Documentary that I’ve seen so far this year. [A-]

Next up was the Turkish film “Winter Sleep” by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”). A film that took home the Palme d’Or (Best Picture) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Admittedly I had been pushing this one off for quite some time mostly because of its running time, which clocks in at 3 hours and 17 minutes. But considering how much I loved both “Once Upon a Time” and the director’s 2006 “Climates”, it was just a matter of time before I sat down and fully invested myself in it. The story loosely revolves around a philathropist who owns a hotel in the Turkish mountains outside of Istanbul and lives with both his sister and much younger wife. As well as several of the other townspeople. A recently released man from prison, his brother, and their son, are the other major players that encompass the central story within the film.

Like the works of the Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev (“Leviathan”) and Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) the film explores very deep and profound themes involving interpersonal relationships between family, friends, and foes. While it involved many characters it mostly centers around its central character, the philanthropist and hotel owner Aydin, who sees himself as a man of strict morals and principles. Which are tested throughout the course of the film in what essentially becomes one conversation after another throughout it’s 3 hour plus run time. A lot of people, including myself, might be turned off by a film that’s practically entirely dialogue driven and very little happens in terms of action. That is if the dialogue wasn’t so damn interesting the character development so spot on and pitch perfect. As through each conversation the story reveals more and more about Aydin’s character, which I found utterly fascinating as the story progressed, I found myself more and more engaged to the point where I forgot about its running time. If you, like myself, are a fan of international cinema this is about as high up there on the ladder that it gets. Well deserving might I add of its coveted Palme d’Or win at Cannes 2014. [A-]

Last up was the indie rom-com “Results” which came out this past Friday on VOD, the same day as it was released in theaters. I had seen a trailer for it before a movie I had seen recently, and thought it looked surprisingly rather clever for a genre which I have a guilty pleasure for but am often let down by. It revolves around three central characters – Guy Pearce, the local owner of a gym (who never before has been funnier, here showing that he can do comedy just as well as he can do drama), Cobie Smulders (a breakout gorgeous talent, who reminds me of a Olivia Wilde or Rosemarie Dewitt) his late twentysomething personal trainer who he employs and consequently also has a fling on the side with, and Kevin Corrigan’s too rich for his own good bachelor, the aging fat schlub who reminded me of a character Paul Giamatti would have played back in his “American Splendor” (2003) and “Sideways” (2004) days. The three of them, by way of a series of hilarious events that transpire, wind up in a sort of menage a trois (not literally, but rather figuratively) with plenty of laughs galore. This was a smart, highly entertaining, somewhat satirical look into the lives of personal trainers, and one rich, seemingly naive man, who comes in and complicates the lives of those around him. Resulting in a comedy that’s cleverly written and much smarter than the average romcom. In fact, following on the footheels of last year’s films like “Obvious Child” and “Begin Again”, this was the best of its kind I’ve seen out of the genre since then. And is highly recommended if you’re looking for something lite or if you want to impress your significant other on a date night. It’s very funny, heartfelt, and touching enough, and so far, at least of the films I’ve seen so far this year out of the genre (which admittedly is very few) ranks among its best. [B/B+]

Review: “Force Majeure” 2.9.15

Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as well as receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s ceremony. “Force Majeure” was a film I had been highly anticipating as many of the films that have either been nominated or won the former award, which has only been around for 16 years, have churned out some of my favorite foreign films, only second to the world’s most prestigious’ category – the Palm d’Or, which is the Cannes’ equivalent of the Academy’s Best Picture. The Un Certain regard category in which I speak of is almost always reserved for films that the Cannes voting panelists find to be of great significance and importance in relation to the international film community. Some films that have either been nominated and/or won this coveted award are as follows: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005 winner – Russia), “Tyson” (2008 nominee – America), “Dogtooth” (2009 winner – Greece – still one of my all time favorite foreign films), as well as director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s (“Leviathan”) remarkable “Elena” (a 2011 nominee), and the 1-2-3 punch of 2013’s boastful nominees “Stranger by the Lake” (France), “Omar” (Palestine), and “Fruitvale Station” (United States). As I often times do with seeing a film solely based on the directed of who it is attached to, I also see films (especially foreign) that garner nominations in categories in which I find to have great validity by means of reputation. This film was yet another example of that approach to why I watch certain films. Not knowing or having the faintest idea of what it was about but still trusting my intuition and the word of mouth that comes out of Cannes every year.

The film introduces us to a family taking “holiday” (as most of us know the Europeans call it). They’re what you might consider to be the perfect nuclear family – a seemingly strong-willed father Tomas, his wife Ebba, and young daughter Vera and son Harry. Their holiday at a wealthy ski resort in the French Alps seems like the idyllic family vacation. Which we’re shown through a series of photographs as the start of the story. Ebba is just happy to have Tomas to both herself and their children, as it is inferred that he lives a pretty demanding work life at home. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and I couldn’t help but think of an American version of a trip to Disney World, where at the surface level, everything seems to be perfect. That is until one day they experience a catastrophic event, and the residual and lasting effects that it has on the family, particularly of Tomas’ wife Ebba,  while also acting as a sort of “reawakening” for each member to reevaluate both themselves and that of each of the other family members. This is essentially what the movie goes on to explore, without giving away any further plot details.

This wound up being both a beautiful and remarkable film that had my attention from the first frame to its final one. It works on almost all levels – from the story, to the acting, to the amazing cinematography of the French Alps, but even more importantly, how it explored the interpersonal dynamics of a family following a traumatizing event. The undeniably flawless direction by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund is truly a sight to see for any true fan with an eye for film. The film captures this devastating family tragedy amongst the backdrop of the beautiful French Alps. Not only that, but like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Foxcatcher”) it does so with such a restrained approach using long take techniques to capture a certain sense of stillness to everything. That and like the late great Stanley Kubrick, the director has an uncanny ability of filling up every single frame of the picture without a single inch going to waste. It also incorporates a beautiful classic score which I thought was right up on par with some of the best compositions of Kubrick’s films, which to me seemed so fascinating to the images being shown on-screen as it seemed to fit perfectly even if it comes off as a questionable choice for a movie score on behalf of the viewer at the beginning. The last but most verbose part of the review which I think is unquestionably worth noting in relation to this film is how deeply rooted it was in psychology. Anybody that really enjoys reading between a film’s lines for its underlying subtext should find this to be one of the more denser films they’ve seen. Evoking the works of the German director Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”, “The White Ribbon”, “Amour”) who acted as a reference point for me in its examination of traumatic events that shows how they manifest themselves from an individual standpoint. Looking at themes such as residual and vicarious trauma, self reevaluation, moral dilemmas, as well as the primitive instincts that make us human beings. This was just another example and further proof of a belief I’ve always held, in that foreign or international cinema, is operating at such a higher plane, than many if not all of its American counterparts that try to explore similar themes but that aren’t able to do so with such assuredness and a sense of realism. This wound up being a thoroughly engaging, well acted and shot, and probing psychological film that explores some very deep and heavy themes, that had my brain’s light switch turned on from start to finish. A must see for any fan even remotely interested in foreign or international cinema that challenges the viewer to really think, as opposed to merely sitting back and being entertained.

[B+]