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]

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: ‘Bastards’ 11.7.14

I deliberately chose to revisit this film for 2 important reasons. One, because it currently holds a spot on my top 10 films of 2014, and two, because I never got around to writing a review for it. Paris born writer/director Claire Denis has just about as diverse of a résumé as almost any other international filmmaker that I can think of. She first caught the eye of the filmmaking landscape with her debut breakthrough film – 1988’s “Chocolat”. She made quite a few films throughout the nineties, all of which admittedly I haven’t seen. But starting with around the turn of the century is about when I caught on and got interested in her work. Her incredibly controversial body-horror picture “Trouble Every Day” (2001) was my real first introduction to her. A film that stands out as one of the pioneering films of the French New Extremity movement. That film resonated with me so much to the point that I still think about it often when talking about my conversations on film. Then
my next taste of Denis was with 2008’s “35 Shots of Rum”. A rich, poignant family drama about a bi-racial daughter and her recently widowed father. Then only to be swept up once again the following year with 2009’s “White Material”. A film about a young woman trying to stay alive in a war-torn post-colonial Africa. One thing that stands out at least to me in relation to Denis’ work is not only her ability to make such a diversity of different films within her body of work, but ones that are always risk taking and seem to challenge her audience. Having really liked the 4 previous films I had seen of hers, mixed in with the fact that it received a Un Certain Regard nomination at last year’s Cannes Film Festival I knew this was one I wasn’t going to miss.

The film starts right off the bat with a suicide. The man’s wife is questioned and believes she knows why her husband went to such lengths. We flash forward a year, and the story introduces us to Marco (the great French actor Vincent Lindon) who moves into the apartment building of his now widowed sister and dead brother-in-law. Marco also takes an interest in one of the other building residents. A rich heiress whose husband was the business partner of his late brother-in-law. A man who Marco feels is responsible for his death and the suffering and financial debt he put his sister in. Though Marco seems to have quite a fascination with the man’s wife, and the two soon develop an affair. Meanwhile his grieving sister’s daughter goes missing and is found brutalized after an accident in the hospital. Marco’s focus then shifts to finding out who could have possibly done such a thing to his niece while still continuing his affair with the man’s wife who he think’s is responsible for his dead brother-in-law. Did her husband really have something to do with it? Why did his niece get into the accident and wind up in the hospital? Are the two interconnected in some way? This is what the film goes on to explore in its second half.

What can I say other than I absolutely loved this movie. And consider it to be Denis’ best film to date. Given that Denis is now in her late sixties and even though probably has a few films left in her, it almost felt like a culmination piece in relation to the rest of her body of work that I’ve seen. It’s a noirish and nightmarish vision that’s shrouded in mystery. Like some of her more controversial pieces (ala “Trouble Every Day”) it’s a grand statement on the dark side of humanity and the depths to which people out there can go. Except it’s not intentionally nihilistic like the films of her other French counterpart Gasper Noe. Denis is much more of a psychological director whose movies contain quite a bit of mystery. It’s reminiscent of films like George C. Scott’s “Hardcore” (1978), David Lynch’s trilogy of films about mistaken identity – “Lost Highway” (1997), 2001’s “Mulholland Drive, and “Inland Empire” (2007), alas mixed in with a taste of Joel Schumacher’s “8MM” (1999). It’s incredibly dark, erotic, and perverse much like those films were. Also, like most of Denis’ work she seems more interested in really challenging the audience to think more than anything. Which who anybody that knows me knows how much I value that aspect in terms of how I view film. Lastly, is the film’s last act which contains some unabashedly truths about the innately evil and unspeakable horrors of the dark side of humanity. Totally taking me by storm and one which had me sitting there not knowing exactly what to do with myself once the credits rolled. This is an unforgettable film, but only for people who like their films to be both dark and challenging. If this sounds like your cup of tea, well, then there’s really not a better foreign film I can recommend to you that I’ve seen all year. This is one that currently stands high on my list of the top 10 films of 2014. One in which I’m pretty confident in saying that I think should hold out and remain there by year’s end.

[A-]

Review: ‘The German Doctor’ 10.14.14

 

It’s these types of films that I intentionally seek out as they often times have the pedigree to be something better than almost anything I can find in American cinema. Maybe it’s my fascination with WWII era stories. But even moreso, I think a lot of it has to do with the the fact that films of this kind usually depict some sort of protagonist or antagonist, who are faced with  adversities that people in modern day life take for granted. I personally love films of this genre. German films like 2004’s “Downfall”, 2007’s “The Counterfeiters”, and both 2012’s “Hannah Arendt” and “Lore”. All of which center around stories revolving around people plights against injustices brought on by war. I actually didn’t know much about this one going in. Other than I had jotted it down as I do every year when the Cannes Film Festival lineup is announced and I see something that piques my interest because of its genre. What I knew about this was it was billed as a “historical thriller” that takes place during WWII. I had also seen that it had snagged an “Un Certain Regard” nomination at the festival. So just solely based on those two things alone I told myself that at the very least it most likely would wind up being a worthwhile rental.

Based on a true story, the story takes place in Patagonia, Argentina in the year 1960. It involves a young girl, Lilith, and the doctor Josef whose motivations aren’t entirely clear when we meet the two at the start. However, in a voiceover that goes along with the opening credits, we learn that Lilith is “the perfect speciman”. We then come to discover that the doctor is in Argentina for reasons unexplained. He does seem however to have a certain fascination with the young Lilith. So much so that he finagles his way to where he convinces Lilith’s family to allow him to follow them as they head on a family road trip to the motel they own. Towards the end of their trip both he and the family part ways. That’s only until he somehow catches up with them again and manipulates his way yet again to persuade them to rent him a room. The focus of the story then turns to Lilith, who seems to be having a hard time adjusting to her new school because she has some sort of genetic disease that doesn’t allow her to grow like other children her age. Through a series of deceptions involving the doctor helping Lilith’s mother he convinces the family that he can help Lilith grow through a series of experimental tests. None of which the family is too keen on doing, but seeing how miserable Lilith is in school they eventually wind up allowing it. It’s at this point where we start to learn what the doctor’s intentions are and what his true identity is. As we meet someone who thinks they recognize him.

Overall I felt pretty indifferent about this film. A part of me liked a fair amount of elements about it but couldn’t get myself to overlook some of the others. I thought the story, while compelling, unraveled just a bit too slowly for my tastes. And while although I thought the director did a pretty good job at creating a sense of tenseness where I was engaged to the point in that I was waiting for what was going to happen next, it didn’t really catapult itself into the climax that it could have. Plus, once I realized who the doctor really was towards the end, I thought that he could have been played more menacingly and more feared of. The doctor’s character, though threatening, came across as a little bit too subdued and subtle. Which would be effective in certain films just not so much ones of this type. And even despite it being confidently shot with some strong and assured direction it was just barely shy of just being enough for me. What I will say however is that it leaves things at sort of an ambigious ending. Which I thought forced the viewer into thinking about the doctor’s conscience and moral compass. So while it didn’t necessarily work for me as a whole, it did get me to think. Which is one of my 3 criteria with film and why I can give it a worhwhile and passing grade.

Grade: B-