Tag Archives: foreign language films

Tricking the Scales

The Good Boss

by George Wolf

For awhile, The Good Boss (El buen patrón) seems to reflect that elusive uncertainty principle the characters often discuss. The more we try to pin it down, the less we know of its nature.

And then writer/director Fernando León de Aranoa reveals his hand in a delightfully satirical manner, only to end up tipping the scale in the opposite, obvious direction.

And that would cause a furrowed brow from Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem), head of the Blanco Industrial Scales corporation. Blanco’s life – and work – is about perfectly equal measures.

“Hard work, balance, loyalty” is the company motto. Employees are family. Their problems are Blanco’s problems. And just when he’s a finalist for a prestigious business excellence award, Blanco’s got plenty of problems.

A longtime worker’s son is in trouble with the law. His production head’s wife might be banging another employee. And that new young intern (Almudena Amor) is returning Blanco’s frequent glances.

But worst of all, a guy he “had no choice” in firing (Óscar de la Fuente) is camped out across the street, protesting Blanco with signs and a bullhorn. And the guy will not leave.

As de Aranoa ticks off the days of the week, there are some glimpses of playful humor in the drama. But when Thursday rolls around, and Blanco’s security guard starts complementing the bullhorn guy’s rhyme schemes, The Good Boss starts having finger-wagging fun with the myth of benevolent “job creators.”

Bardem, no surprise, is a wonder. He slowly reveals cracks in Blanco’s facade of ethical bullshit, while never causing us one moment’s doubt about Blanco’s firm belief in this image he’s created. For Blanco, as long as the scales appear balanced, they are, regardless of the tricks it took to get there.

And anyway, he needs that award and the government subsidies that come with it. We don’t want “those artists” to hog the award money, do we?

Yes, the satirical fruit can hang pretty low, and de Aranoa’s subplot juggling skills start to waver as his narrative becomes more madcap. But right to the bitter end, Bardem can be trusted most when Blanco deserves it least, making sure The Good Boss is a satisfying day at the office.

Forbidden Fruit

Apples

by George Wolf

Apples opens with the thump-thump-thump of Aris (Aris Servetalis) slowly and deliberately hitting his head against a wall. We won’t know why for about 90 minutes, as director/co-writer Christos Nikou reveals the layers of his debut feature as carefully as Aris peels his favorite fruit.

Later, on a city bus, a confused Aris becomes the latest victim of a worldwide pandemic that causes sudden amnesia. When his condition does not improve and no relatives can be located, Aris is enrolled as “14843” in a recovery program designed to help “unclaimed” patients build entirely new identities.

Armed with a Polaroid camera and a list of assignments from his doctors, Aris must document the completion of each directive with photos to be displayed on separate pages of an album.

Even if you didn’t know Nikou got his start as second unit director for Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth, you would instantly notice the similarities in detached mood and deliberate pacing. And while it may be unfair to expect anyone to rival Lanthimos’s skill with deadpan irony, Nikou favors a dour, awkward brand of humor (Aris dances the twist!), and a more clear-eyed and gentle resolution to an opaque turn of events.

Nikou’s beautifully realized world resembles the present day, but it is consistently quiet, slow paced and free of digital tech (hence the Polaroid). The film’s comment on disassociation is a compelling surface layer, but Apples has a more haunting goal in mind.

How much of who we are do we owe to our memories? And how far might we be willing to go to put painful memories out of reach? Nikou’s approach to these questions is finely textured, displaying a blend of craftsmanship and vision that bears attention, both now and for whatever he takes a bite of next.

They Don’t Like Me, They Really Don’t Like Me

Official Competition

by George Wolf

Who’s more full of it: The cinema snob who dismisses whatever’s popular, or the escapist fan wary of any whiff of highbrow? Awards shows, or those who protest them too much? Film festival agenda twisters, or film festival attention whores?

Official Competition is here to nominate them all. Co-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (both also co-write with Andrés Duprat) come armed with plenty of knives, and their mischievous and wonderfully witty satire has them out for pretty much everyone involved in movie making.

When an 80 year-old millionaire (José Luis Gómez) decides his legacy should involve producing the film version of a Nobel prize-winning novel, critic’s darling Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) gets the call to direct. But Lola insists on adapting “La Rivalidad” with a unique vision, one that starts with casting polar opposites in the lead roles.

Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) is the worldwide box office star, while Iván Torres (Oscar Martinez) is the legendary thespian. They will play warring brothers, while their own philosophical clashes grow more volatile – and more dryly hilarious – by the day.

And don’t bother looking to Lola for cool-headed problem-solving. She’d rather provoke the tension with a variety of creative exercises – such as wrapping her two stars in restraints and threatening to destroy their most prized awards right in front of their panic-stricken faces.

Subtle it ain’t, but funny it is.

And even when a joke or two lingers a beat past its expiration, this sublime trio of actors makes nearly every frenzied interaction a joy to behold.

Is Lola a motivational genius or a complete fraud? Does Félix have the chops to go toe-to-toe with the prestigious Iván? And does Iván secretly admire Félix’s success? Cruz, Banderas and Martinez are clearly having as much fun acting it out as we are trying to sort it out.

And like much of the best satire, Official Competition is talking about one thing, but saying something else. Its barbs aimed at the movie business may be silly, acerbic and insightful, but none can hide the respect this film has for the entirely mad nature of the creative process.

Call it a love letter, with a completely entertaining ‘smidge of hate.

New Kid in Town

Fear (Strah)

by George Wolf

Okay, Fear. So what are we afraid of?

Writer/director Ivaylo Hristov takes a measured, confident approach in attacking the question at its roots, ultimately arriving at answers that are as universal as they are intimate, as tragic as they are timely.

Svetla (Svetlana Yancheva, terrific) is a widow who lives alone in Bulgaria, very close to the Turkish border. Her sour mood is not improved by the loss of her job at the local school, or by the threat of refugees arriving in her village.

Armed with her hunting rifle when she crosses paths with Bamba (Michael Flemming, warm and wonderful), Svetla takes him prisoner. Bamba is a refugee from Africa, traveling on foot to Germany in search of a peaceful life. Svetla’s plan is to turn Bamba over to the border police, but a recent roundup of several Afghan refugees means they have no room in their modest quarters .

So Svetla takes him home.

The language barrier between them leads to some sweetly humorous moments, and of course Svetla comes to find Bamba is a gentle, intelligent soul who is fleeing a horrific situation, and who poses a threat to no one.

The village full of white faces feels differently.

“We are a hospitable people, but Bulgaria belongs to the Bulgarians.”

And what the village folk fear is more than just people who aren’t like them. Anyone who doesn’t share in their fear is also not to be trusted, and also deserving of whatever provocation it takes to make the villagers feel justified in their bigotry.

You’ll recognize early some of the places Hristov is taking you, but his touch is understated, which always makes the punches land that much harder. And while Fear is a film that doesn’t pretend to have the answers to the global issues on its mind, it does seem to have a firm grip on the basic question at the heart of these matters.

And that’s a start.

He Sees Dead People

The Long Walk

by George Wolf

Even before the opening credits, The Long Walk (Bor Mi Vanh Chark) is a fascinating film.

The near-future setting that mixes sci-fi, horror and mystery thriller themes is interesting enough. But after a two-year wait for release, it becomes the first Lao film to screen theatrically in the States, as well as the latest project from Mattie Do, Laos’ first and only female director and the only Laotian filmmaker to work in the horror and fantastic genres. 

If Do felt any added pressure from all those firsts and onlys, it doesn’t show. She crafts Christopher Larsen’s script into an emotional, compelling and culturally rich tale of life and death and afterlife.

The Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) sees ghosts. It started when he was The Boy (Por Silatsa) and first encountered The Girl (Noutnapha Soydara) dying on the side of the road.

The ghost of The Girl became a silent friend to The Boy, and now, some 50 years later, The Old Man finds that his spiritual guide can transport him back in time to when his mother was near death from illness.

Alongside The Old Man’s time-traveling quest to ease his mother’s pain, he’s contacted in the present by Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), a woman whose mother is missing and presumed dead. Lina has heard of The Old Man’s psychic abilities, and seeks his help in locating the body so her mother’s spirit can find peace.

Do is in no hurry here, and not interested in clearly marking when the time or narrative thread is shifting. But stick with it and look closely to find another layer revealed that connects past to present in this Loatian village, along with subtle nods to the poverty and governmental policies that are no friend to lengthy life spans.

Ultimately, The Long Walk is more atmospheric than scary, and more enigmatic than thrilling, with even Do and Larsen (who are married) disagreeing over interpretations during a recent Q&A. But give it your time and attention, and the film will reward you with multiple stories in one, inviting you to consider universal themes from intimate new perspectives.

Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon

The Worst Person in the World

by George Wolf

The older you get, four years can pass in what seems like a whirlwind weekend. But to a twentysomething like Julie (Renate Reinsve), that same slice of life can end up being monumental in shaping the course of her life.

For The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske), Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier uses understated insight and a revelatory performance from Reinsve to effectively fuse coming-of-age sensibilities with romantic drama. 

In that pivotal 4-year time span, we see Julie move through multiple career choices and two long-term relationships. Despite a 15 year age gap with established comic book artist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), Julie moves in with him while adamantly proclaiming she doesn’t want children.

As the relationship begins to grow stale, Julie’s head is turned by the younger, more impulsive Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who is also in a committed relationship.

Choices will be made and harsh realities will be dealt, all in a poignant, surprisingly funny and quietly engrossing package that strikes a fine balance between finding romance and finding yourself.

Even when Julie is at her most selfish, naive or indecisive, Reinsve makes sure she’s always sympathetic and, above all, relatable. Her performance delivers a wonderfully layered reminder that most of us surely recognize this road Julie is traveling.

As one woman navigates what she wants in a career, in a relationship, and ultimately what she wants out of life, Trier and Reinsve craft small, indelible moments that bind together for a refreshingly honest look at how, as John Lennon once said, life happens when you’re busy making other plans.

Like Red But Not Quite

The Pink Cloud

by George Wolf

Want to know tomorrow’s lottery numbers today? Check in with filmmaker Iuli Gerbase, because if The Pink Cloud (A Nuvem Rosa) is any indication, she’s got a window to the future.

And the first of many fascinating aspects in the film comes right up front, when a disclaimer lets you know that Gerbase wrote the script for her debut feature in 2017, filming it two years later.

The timeline may not seem like much at first, but soon you’re wondering how your perception of the film might change if that disclaimer was placed at the end, or perhaps not even placed at all.

Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) are a Brazilian couple waking up on a terrace after what appears to be a one-night stand when a government warning orders them inside. There’s a strange pink cloud in the sky, and it’s lethal after just ten seconds of exposure.

Welcome to a new world of quarantine.

Except in 2022 that premise is anything but new, which instantly gives the film an ironic prescience that’s just as likely to attract an audience as it is to repel it.

As the days of lockdown turn to weeks and then to years, Gerbase crafts a quietly unsettling clash of the complex intimacies seen in The Woman in the Dunes and Room with a more universal rumination on how the seams of a population react to forced isolation.

And while our shared experience the last two years will reveal some of Gerbase’s internal logic to be a bit unsteady, she hits an eerie amount of bulls-eyes, including one bit of dialog that lands as much more of a reveal than Gerbase could have possibly imagined.

On a video chat with Giovana, a desperate friend tearfully pleads for any salvation from the crippling loneliness, leading the film to a Twilight Zone moment that dramatically re-frames the arrogance driving one of today’s biggest flashpoint issues.

Lélis and Mendonça both deliver wonderfully insightful performances, as their characters try their best to make a go of a relationship never meant to be long term. The cloud works on Giovana and Yago in different ways, leading to some extreme measures as they drift away from each other and then slowly back again.

Disclaimers aside, The Pink Cloud is an absorbing peek inside the delusions that hide our frailties. But viewing it through the lens of our recent history reveals a filmmaker finely tuned to human nature who should command more attention in the future.

Life Is a Highway

Drive My Car

by George Wolf

Adapting a short story into the three-hour class on storytelling that is Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ), writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffeur from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

The key word here is seemingly, because there is nothing simple about the way Hamaguchi structures a screenplay.

Yasuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a Japanese stage actor and director who shares an unusual method of creative inspiration with his playwright wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). But just when you think this is a film about their complex relationship, it’s not.

Jumping ahead two years after a sudden tragedy, Kafuku travels to a Hiroshima theater festival to direct an adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. Though he cherishes thinking through his projects alone in the car during long commutes, Kafuku is forced to accept a chauffeur during his time in Hiroshima.

Casting and rehearsals get underway, and Kafuku’s art begins to imitate his life, and vice-versa. Just as one of his star actors gradually reveals long held feelings for Oto, Kafuku slowly learn to trust his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura), a stoic young woman with a complex past of her own.

Hamaguchi’s resume includes both four hour and five-hour films, and he has become a master at layering long form narratives so skillfully that there isn’t one minute that seems self-indulgent, or the slightest of human interaction that doesn’t weigh heavy with meaning.

The performances from Nishijima and Miura are equally understated and affecting. They peel away their characters’ defenses with a deep sense of purpose, cementing Hamaguchi’s use of those long drives as a metaphorical journey.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring treatise on grief and trauma, of forgiveness and moving on.

Not to mention the unending lure of a fine automobile.

Face of the Nation

France

by George Wolf

France is the setting for this movie called France about a woman named France. So, subtle it’s not. But the latest from writer/director Bruno Dumont does manage to deliver some stylish eye candy with a fluffy middle that tastes plenty familiar.

Léa Seydoux is mesmerizing as France de Meurs, a celebrity journalist and host of “A View of the World,” one of the most popular talk shows in all of France. She’s juggling fame, her career, and family life with a blasé attitude about it all.

Her home life seems to bore her, the fame is satisfying only when it feeds her ego, and the integrity of her profession never seems to cross her mind. But a sudden traffic accident delivers the overdue wake-up call, and France begins to question if the person she’s become is the person she wants to be.

In the opening minutes, when some nifty editing has France asking pointed questions during an actual press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Dumont sets the stage for an over-the-top satire that never emerges.

Instead, it settles into a very repetitive, 133-minute groove that questions the increasingly blurry line between news and entertainment. But as France continually stages her pre-recorded reports, you realize the breezy nature of the opening has given way to an overwrought narrative that spends 30 minutes belaboring a point that Broadcast News made in 5.

Dumont is clearly speaking to his homeland first, though the message will be instantly relatable to U.S. audiences. It’s the film’s tone that becomes more curious in translation.

Seydoux is almost enough to forgive it all, with Dumont making sure his lens loves her as much as the TV cameras love France herself. And while that might not seem a difficult task when the luminous Seydoux is involved, it’s a crucial element that goes a long way toward helping the film resonate as much it does.

Holding Out

A Hero

by George Wolf

If you’re familiar with Asghar Farhadi films such as The Past, A Separation and The Salesman, you already know what to expect from his latest. The Iranian writer/director’s calling card has become the intimate drama of complex moralities and lasting impact, wonderfully layered stories that probe the societal strife of his homeland while ultimately revealing universal insight.

Farhadi does not disappoint with A Hero (Ghahreman), a film that finds him questioning the increasingly blurred lines of truth and perception.

When we first meet Rahim (Amir Jadidi), he is coming home on a two-day leave from prison. Locked up for failing to repay a debt, Rahim is hoping to use his brief amnesty to talk his creditor into withdrawing the complaint in exchange for partial payment.

It doesn’t look promising, until Rahim finds a lost handbag full of gold coins – and returns it instead of selling the coins to pay his debt.

Suddenly, Rahim is a hero. But today’s hero is tomorrow’s milkshake duck, and it isn’t long before distrust of Rahim’s story begins to threaten the promise of freedom and a new job.

Is resisting temptation even worthy of such celebration, and how far will Rahim go to retain his perceived nobility? Is it possible to recognize the moment when the best of intentions can no longer justify a possible deception? Is “the truth” even a realistic goal in the social media age of constantly manipulated realities?

Jadidi crafts Amir with a deeply sympathetic balance of earnestness and suspicion, and the terrific ensemble cast helps cement a sharp morality play that often crackles with the tension of a thriller. Farhadi seems more than comfortable moving further from his stage roots than ever, illuminating Amir’s journey with a realism that patiently waits until the final shot to get showy.

Farhadi makes sure that separating the good guys from the bad guys won’t be easy. The moral high ground of A Hero is constantly shifting, which proves to be the perfect anchor for a gifted filmmaker’s latest examination of modern life’s often messy ambiguities.