Tag Archives: foreign films

Crime Family


by George Wolf

“Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family.”

A softly nuanced testament to home being where the heart is (and the Palme d’or winner at Cannes), Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters finds its considerable magic by letting small moments reveal big emotions.

On their way back from pilfering a few items at the local grocery, a Japanese father and son find a young girl named Yuri outside alone, shivering in the Tokyo chill.

They take Yuri home for the night, with a plan to help her return to her parents the next day. But Yuri endears herself to the extended family of small time crooks she’s introduced to, and as Yuri’s behavior points to a possibly abusive home life, it is decided that she should stay.

Writer/director Koreeda returns to the nature vs. nurture themes he has probed throughout his career, most notably in Nobody Knows (2004) and Like Father, Like Son (2013). What defines a family most: bloodlines or genuine love?

Yuri joins a house crowded with characters who may or may not be blood relatives. Slowly, we learn about their lives outside the home, and the part each plays in the network of cons and thefts that allow everyone to keep eating.

The cast is universally charming, and when Koreeda is content to ride the casually observational pace he introduces, Shoplifters works humanistic wonders with its sweet vignettes of love and mercy.

Doubts about the family business slowly creep into the house, though, and with them an unusually heavy weight is added to Koreeda’s hand. Interactions begin to carry pregnant dramatic pauses that only highlight the surprising obviousness of the dialog that follows.

The catch-22, of course, is that it is the subtle effectiveness of the film’s first two acts that makes the hurried nature of the final act seem more desperate than it actually is. Disturbed only momentarily, the spell cast by the memorable family in Shoplifters is still sturdy, and one not that easily broken.

Friend of the Family

The Cakemaker

by George Wolf

A delicately subtle and sometimes poetic film, The Cakemaker boasts sterling performances and finely drawn characters for a resonant meditation of love, loss, faith and…food.

Thomas (Tim Kalkhof in a wonderfully tender, understated turn) is a German baker at a Berlin cafe. He begins a long-term affair with Oren (Roy Miller), an Israeli businessman with a wife and son in Jerusalem. When Oren misses his monthly visit to Berlin and calls go unanswered, it takes some persistence on Thomas’s part to discover that Oren has been killed in a car accident.

Grief and confusion take Thomas to Berlin, where he discreetly seeks out Oren’s widow Arat (Foxtrot‘s Sarah Adler – excellent again), takes a job baking at her cafe, and assumes a growing place in her life. This brings differing (and telling) reactions from Arat’s family, and could threaten her cafe’s important kosher certification.

Writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer adopts a quiet, observational tone that is deceptively effective. Though this type of triangle may not be new (especially to foreign film fans), the way Graizer lingers on little moments (especially those in the kitchen) make even the most mundane encounters seem sensuous.

You may know where The Cakemaker is going, but getting there is a sweet and satisfying trip.




Crisis Acting


by Rachel Willis

A single act of teenage rebellion is the catalyst for a family’s destruction in director Sadaf Foroughi’s feature debut, Ava.

It’s a harmless action that tears apart the family’s fragile peace – Ava (Mahour Jabbari) tells her parents she’ll be studying at her friend, Melody’s, house only to sneak out to meet a boy and win a bet with a few of her classmates. Trying to prove she’s won, she’s late to meet her mother. Because of this, Ava’s mother, Bahar (Bahar Noohian), begins a campaign to weed out any element she deems unsavory from her daughter’s life.

It’s a hard world for a teenage girl. Gossip runs rampant, and it’s not just fellow teenagers spreading rumors, but teachers and parents, too. One mistake can ruin a young woman’s reputation and determine the course of her life. It’s not surprising that Bahar treats her daughter’s single offense with such vehemence. However, when Ava discovers a buried family secret, her rebellion takes on greater significance.

As Ava, Mahour Jabbari is sympathetic and compelling. Her desire for independence is understandable, but her actions are careless. Few of the women in her life show any compassion toward her choices. Only her father (Vahid Aghapoor) stands by her as someone who believes what she says and supports her decisions. However, his support puts him at odds with Bahar, who knows better than her husband how deeply a single mistake can affect a woman’s life.

Both Aghapoor and Noohian are stellar. Each character is confused by their daughter’s choices and her attitude, but how they handle the situation elevates the tension. They turn on each other; a once happy couple becomes another source of stress in Ava’s life.

Unfortunately, some of Foroughi’s stylistic choices are more distracting than beneficial. Blurry images dominate the frame, while the focal point is relegated to a small image in the corner. Arguing characters will be shown from the neck down, their heads cut off at the top of the screen. The commentary Foroughi hopes to achieve, unfortunately, doesn’t really come across.

Ultimately, though, the filmmaker has crafted a compelling, thoughtful portrait of a family in crisis.

An Artist’s Life

Tom of Finland

by Hope Madden

Leathermen, homoeroticism, beefcake—three things you should not expect from the film Tom of Finland.

This biopic, often gorgeously shot with a painterly eye that mirrors the talent of the protagonist, examines the repression and fighting spirit that mark the life of artist Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang).

Still, there is something lacking: the energy, the bravery and the daring sexuality of the art of Laaksonen—later known as Tom of Finland.

The hushed restraint of director Dome Karukoski’s film suits its opening act as Laaksonen, a WWII lieutenant in the Finnish army, struggles against the dangers of his homosexuality. Beginning early in the film, Strang portrays a self-defined, quietly defiant figure—never reckless, but unafraid to take chances.

A strong ensemble surrounds Strang. Jessica Grabowsky and Lauri Tilkanen are particularly memorable as the artist’s sister and lover, respectively.

He finds peace and some degree of identity through his drawings—sketches of hyper-masculine men. This treatment—this particular art as a lifeline into Laaksonen’s bleak, solitary existence inside a violently repressive Finnish culture—is echoed later in the film as the art finds a grateful and receptive audience around the globe.

Unfortunately, this is where Karukoski’s presentation loses footing. There are moments where you almost feel the joy and power in this leather-clad image of defiance that Tom of Finland’s characters became, but that tonal shift gets the better of Karukoski.

Though the film touches on powerful themes of identity, art as salvation, even porn as politics, Karukoski’s reserved approach robs the film of the very vibrancy—not to mention subversive vision—of the artist’s work.

Tom of Finland is a solid, finely acted tribute to an man whose bold artistry—self-preserving though it may have been—made him a cultural icon. It just could have used a little more of his fire.

Moving Films, Impeccable Performances For Your Queue

The wonderful, must-see Chilean import Gloria drops on home audiences today, boasting a beautiful performance by Paulina Garcia in the lead role. A sort of coming-of-middle-age tale, it’s a film of surprising honesty and candor, with every emotional moment heightened by Garcia’s generous performance.


Treading somewhat similar territory and yet telling a tale entirely its own is Starting Out in the Evening. Here’s another film boasting an absolutely magnificent central performance, this time from the ever-reliable Frank Langella, who plays a long-retired writer coaxed back into the profession and into life. It’s bittersweet and deeply touching, with Langella hitting every emotional note perfectly.

Two New Foreign Gems For Your Queue

We normally like to use For Your Queue to champion an underseen new release and pair that with an older film you may have missed. This week, however, there are two wonderful films coming out on DVD that you should check out. Both are foreign language titles – one that went sorely underseen, while the other won the Oscar.

The Past is the newest film from Asghar Farhadi, whose magnificent A Separation took home the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2012. Another intimate examination of rocky family bonds, The Past winds through one man’s journey into his estranged family’s crisis. Centered on a volatile and brilliant performance from Berenice Bejo, the film is another exceptional family drama from one of modern cinema’s most promising filmmakers.



Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar winner The Great Beauty also drops today. A visual wonder, combining satire, silliness and social commentary with a loose narrative and the brilliant performance of veteran Italian actor Toni Servillo, the film lives up to not only its Oscar, but perhaps more impressively, to its “Fellini-esque” label.

Countdown: 2013’s Bounty of Foreign Films

The Academy did a nice job this year in honoring foreign language films. Each candidate was wonderful, and we were especially pleased to see The Hunt and The Broken Circle Breakdown get attention. But the fact is, there were so many exceptional foreign language titles released this year, a lot of really wonderful movies didn’t get the nod. And that’s too bad, because without the Academy stamp, they went largely unnoticed in theaters. So, we decided to honor them ourselves. Please enjoy our list of the best foreign language films that did not get an Oscar nomination this year.

1. Gloria

If there’s one thing the films on our list have in common, it’s the strength of their female leads. Nowhere is this more the case than with the Chilean import Gloria. Paulina Garcia owns the title role with a performance that is raw emotion in action. With nary a false note, Garcia takes us on whirlwind coming-of-middle-age tale that never ceases to surprise.

2. Blue is the Warmest Color

Moving at its own pace, the French film packs an emotional wallop as it follows young Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) through her first affair of the heart. Anchored by Exarchopoulos’s powerhouse performance, and her touching chemistry with co-star Lea Seydoux, Blue is a beautifully human, wildly compelling love story.

3. The Past

Available today on DVD is a poignantly complicated, beautifully told tale of family dysfunction and the constant presence of our past. Blessed with unflinching performances – particularly from a magnificent Berenice Bejo – the wonderfully textured The Past keeps your attention as its mystery slowly unravels before your eyes.

4. Beyond the Hills

A Romanian story of forbidden love, progress and superstition, Beyond the Hills offers an understated and unhurried picture that leaves you shaken. A tale of survival and a displaced generation’s quest for security, the film makes for a beautiful examination of the weird, counter-productive, even dangerous relationship between primitive and modern Romania.

5. A Touch of Sin

That same tug of progress against a backdrop of old world creates the dehumanizing and corrupt environment for Zhangke Jia’s A Touch of Sin. The film dips a toe in four interweaving stories of individuals torn by the too-rapid cultural shift in China. Amid bullet and arterial spray, four beautifully developed characters struggle against their own bleak futures.



Formidable Filmmaker Explores The Past

The Past

by Hope Madden

Original films – not reboots, franchises, or adaptations – are a relative anomaly in today’s movie landscape. Truly original works that take you into authentic human experiences are an even greater rarity. This sad fact puts writer/director Asghar Farhadi in the category of the unique alongside Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch. Like each of these geniuses, Farhadi has a particular style. You can see this style in his latest, the French language drama The Past.

At its own pace, the film unveils the complicated relationships a splintered family has with each other and with its past. Iranian Ahmad (a wonderful Ali Mosaffa) returns to France to attend the divorce hearing his French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) has asked for. He wonders why he had to come in person, and why Marie didn’t book him into a hotel as he asked.

The low key Mosaffa anchors the film of a family spinning out of control, and his unflappable demeanor makes a lovely counterpoint to Bejo’s chaotic bursts of passion. Because of Ahmad’s grounded presence, we can slowly unravel all that brought the family to this point.

Bejo (The Artist) offers an unflinching performance. She’s never worried about being likeable, and indeed, Marie is not. She’s an amazingly textured, complicated mess of neediness, love,  guilt and denial.

As the title suggests, the past itself is also an ever present character. It doesn’t go away, it remains. Like Ahmad, no matter how much distance Marie puts between herself and her past, it is still right there, coloring today as well as tomorrow.

Farhadi writes beautifully, and he draws very natural and dimensional performances from his entire ensemble, even the youngest members of the cast. As the story spills out in every direction, the messes remain true to the characters and their lives. Chaos isn’t created for the sake of chaos, it’s simply examined as a natural side effect of the happenstance of this family.

The Past has Farhadi’s thumbprints all over it, showing countless little similarities in theme, style and tone to his previous efforts, but it pales in comparison to his Oscar winning A Separation. Adults take self righteous stands, young people want to learn from them but have to point out the hypocrisy of their actions, and tragedy hangs in the balance. He understands the sometimes powerfully difficult messes people get themselves into, and the sleight of hand adults use to excuse themselves and blame others.

It just doesn’t work quite as well here. In The Past, the lessons feel a little more like finger wagging. It’s a minor fault, though, in a beautifully acted, well written, expertly crafted and often surprising family drama.




When Push Comes to Puncture Wounds and Bullet Holes

A Touch of Sin

by Hope Madden

A handful of befuddled but beautifully realized characters fall through the tears in the cultural fabric of a too-rapidly modernizing China in Zhangke Jia’s A Touch of Sin.

The film sets four tales spinning simultaneously, each uncovering the unpredictable challenges and opportunities facing four characters who are dealing with capitalistic expansion, an unprecedented and often unstructured change in more than just their economic reality. As each grapples with the task of making a living among the unscrupulous who’ve already learned to exploit the fledgling economy, bloodshed becomes ever more appealing.

Jia’s imagination and scope are epic, but his film remains intimate. Though his pacing is slower and his dialog certainly more restrained, Jia’s film draws on some of Tarantino’s staging preferences when push comes to puncture wounds and bullet holes. Like Tarantino, though, Jia never abandons his characters.

He remains invested in each one, whether it’s the disgruntled miner hoping to hold village officials responsible for community welfare, the young woman defending her honor to herself as well as her unwelcome suitors, the transient who enjoys his freedom and his handgun, or the adolescent thrashing desperately against a lifelong outlook of meager wages and soul-crushing employers.

The physical environment is as unforgiving as anything in this bleak, colorless winter where everyone looks cold and uncomfortable – not abjectly miserable, just utterly unhappy. It’s a perfect backdrop for these lost souls, although Jia seems to be suggesting that these outcasts may not be all that atypical. Not one is in an entirely unique situation, and only the gun-happy transient even seems like an odd duck. No, these are very regular people who finally, irrevocably react rather than submit.

This is the real brilliance in his film. With each passing storyline, the line between “he just snapped” and “would I have done the same” blurs. Jia wonders throughout how an intelligent, rational person is supposed to manage with no future.