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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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+]

Review: ‘Borgman’ 9.12.14

Alex Van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” is an unbelievably unique and undeniable singular vision. One that follows on the heals of films by celebrated international directors like Pascual Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs”, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009’s exceptional “Dogtooth”, Michael Haneke’s 2009’s “The White Ribbon”, Ben Wheatley’s 2011’s “Kill List”, and Claire Denis’ 2013’s “Bastards”. I bring up these directors and their respective films I chose because all of them in some shape or form, be it in their social allegories (“Dogtooth”, “The White Ribbon, “Martyrs”), or their penchant for the macabre (“Kill List”, “Bastards”), were just a handful of the films that acted as reference points throughout. Especially “Dogtooth”. What interested me so much about this movie first was that I was hearing that it drew comparisons to the aforementioned films. But also that it was the first Dutch movie in 36 years that the panel at Cannes felt like belonged on their small slate of 18 films. I sometimes have to stress to people how unbelievable of a feat it is to get your movie selected and shown at Cannes. You’re talking about thousands of movies that are submitted every year from international film makers from all over the world to the world’s most prestigious film festival. That and only 18 make the cut. So pretty much of a film is selected at Cannes, chances are 9 times out of 10 that I will make a mental note of and see it when it’s released later in the year.

If you showed this movie to a 100 people everybody would give you a different explanation of what it was about. It’s very interpretive and most of the time you’re left wondering “wait a minute what the” or “what did I just see and what did it mean”? The story starts with a priest and 2 hillbilly types, getting ready for some kind of attack. They storm the woods and come across a network of people that live under the ground (yep), who escape their demise, and the leader, Anton, finds himself coming out of the woods and wandering into one of those rich, suburban, upper class communities. He goes door to door asking if he can take a bath or shower (uh-huh) and people are adamant about not letting him into their home, not only because it’s such a strange request, but because he looks like some kind of vagrant pedophile. He finally manages to be let into one woman’s home, because her husband gives him a beating, and she winds up feeling sorry for the guy. Here’s where things start to really get interesting (if they hadn’t been enough already). He infiltrates their home, and his focus seems to be to “move up the chain” and “sit at the big table”. Since his wife is hiding him from her husband this isn’t necessarily realistic. So he winds up camping out in their back shed. Soon after he starts to get comfortable, he begins calling what appears to be a sort of network of people, all who seem to be in it for some greater cause. To me I interpreted this “cause” to be wrecking havoc on the upper class. But that makes it sound too simple. By a series of events, they manage to take over the home, not literally, but in that the main character, Anton, shaves and goes under the guise of a gardener to secure a job and spot within the family’s home. Now him and his cronies, or what could be better referred to as “the network”, can really take over. That’s more or less the setup. Then really strange things start to happen involving hypnotizing the children in the home, killing people and putting their heads down in planting pots filled with concrete and sinking them in the water, serving up some kind of mysterious poisonous liquid to unsuspecting guests, along with tearing up the families entire property with bulldozers for reasons not entirely clear (like I said nothing is spelled out for you in this film). Along with various other antics and shenanigans. This is bizarre, absurdest, and extremely strange stuff indeed.

But within it’s absurdity also lies its brilliance. From the second the beginning credits started to role to the second they rolled up the screen following. I was totally hooked and immersed in the story. The brain light switch went on and didn’t go off for the duration of the entire film. What were these people’s motives? Who were they supposed to represent (they live underground, need to be invited into the homes, etc). The devil’s spawn perhaps? Some kind of group/cult/organization with supernatural tendencies? Clones? What on earth is going on here is what I was constantly asking myself throughout the film. But within that ambiguity of not really knowing what was going on I found myself more and more fascinated by it. It’s nicely shot and has some almost mystical, dreamlike sequences that were pretty effective. It’s also a great social allegory on classicism, racism and discrimination. And how protective people of the upper class really are of their privacy, and how they react once it’s been invaded. This was a very hard movie to review because there really were so many aspects one could refer to when talking about it. Which I thought was its greatest strength; its ability to engage the audience while still remaining faithful to the unbelievably strange and challenging source material. This I would definitely recommend but only to a certain demographic. If you are like me and are a fan of incredibly bizarre, experimental, absurdest, psychological  material. Well then this one might be for you. For everybody else, you might have a difficult and frustrating time of trying to get into such a weird and obtuse film.

Grade: strong B (*but strictly for a very specific type of audience)