Tag Archives: foreign language films

Supa Fly

Supa Modo

by George Wolf

At the risk of limb outing, I’m guessing a little film that might restore your faith in human decency would not be unwelcome right now.

Supa Modo may center on a young girl with a terminal illness, but it will warm your heart in the sweetest way, spinning its tale of escapist fantasy, cold reality and the simple joy of the movies.

Nine year-old Jo (Stycie Waweru, wonderful) spends most of her days under the care of a Kenyan hospital, dreaming of flying like her favorite film superheroes. But after a distressing visit with the medical staff, Jo’s mother Kathryn (Marrianne Nungo) decides her dying child should spend her remaining days in the comfort of home.

Jo’s sister Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia) encourages Jo’s superhero fantasies, and her neighbors unite to create situations where Jo can flash super powers and right wrongs in the village.

It’s a lovely “Make a Wish” scenario that is not uncommon, but director Likarion Wainaina and a team of writers deepen the humanity through simple contrast.

Kathryn does not support the indulgence of Jo’s imagination, clashing with Mwix and the villagers over what is best for her child. This push and pull keeps the film grounded when overt sentimentality offers a road more easily traveled.

And, naturally, good conflict makes a more satisfying resolution. Wainaina plays his hand skillfully, turning what could have been a lazy and cliched final shot into a moment full of the happiest tears.

Express Yourself

And Then We Danced

by George Wolf

Despite its title, And Then We Danced uses the art form as more metaphor than setting, as a young dancer fights for the freedom to express himself beyond performance stage or rehearsal studio.

Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a dancer in the Georgian National Ensemble, is unsettled by the arrival of Irakli (Bachi Valishvilli), a replacement for a male ensemble member who has been banished amid scandalous rumors.

Irakli is blessed with more natural talent and assured charisma, and a subtle rivalry with Merab soon gives way to a mutual attraction. When a spot in the main ensemble opens up, both men vie to be chosen, even as the danger of their feelings draws increasingly close.

Writer/director Levan Akin unveils the romance in graceful but familiar fashion, keeping the political undertones evident without becoming overbearing. It’s well-crafted and well-acted (especially by Gelbakhiani), but you begin to wonder just when the film will up its ante with a uniquely resonant statement.

And then Akin (Cirkeln, Certain People) and Gelbakhiani demand the spotlight with a finale of intimate defiance. As Merab grapples with societal expectations as both a Georgian Ensemble dancer and a man, the film finally reveals Merab’s soul, speaking to the beauty of liberation in just the way you were hoping it would.

Honorable Mentions

The Traitor (Il traditore)

by George Wolf

If you think Scorsese set the bar for three and a half hour mob epics, well, you may have a point.

But, although it clocks in at one hour south of The Irishman, Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor also uses one man’s true-life experience to frame an expansive reflection on a life in the mob.

Tommaso Buscetta, the youngest of 17 children in a poverty-stricken Sicilian family, found his ticket out through organized crime. Rising to the rank of “Don Masino” in Sicily’s Costa Nostra, he eventually lost many family members and allies to the mafia wars. Disillusioned, Buscetta became one of the very first to break the mob’s strict code of silence and turn “pentito,” or informant.

Pierfrancisco Favino, who probably gets women pregnant just from introducing himself, is tremendous as the “Boss of Two Worlds.” Unlike DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran, Buscetta is looking back with defiance, secure in his standing as the only man “honorable” enough to call out the less honorable. Favino brings a quiet intensity to this inner strength that comes to define Buscetta after personal loss drives him to the depths of despair.

The moral complexities of honor among killers is Bellocchio’s strongest play. Early in the film, he sets the stakes effectively through sustained tension and stylish violence (a set piece inside a window factory is especially impressive) offset with familiar loyalties. Bellocchio invites our sympathies for a career criminal, and Favino rewards them.

But once Buscetta starts singing to anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), the film gets bogged down in the minutiae of courtroom testimony. Though American audiences may be intrigued by some of the differences in Italian trial procedure, Bellocchio’s prolonged attention to these details makes us long for the pace of the film’s first two acts.

The scope of Buscetta’s story is grand and Bellocchio’s ambitions noteworthy, but even at 145 minutes the film ultimately feels like a finely-crafted overview. Favino has the goods to give us the The Traitor‘s soul, but not the freedom.

Maybe another hour or so would have done it.

Many Mansions


by Hope Madden and George Wolf

We’ve said it many times, but since there may still be people who haven’t heard, we’ll say it again. If Joon-ho Bong makes a film, you should see it.

Today, make it Parasite.

The film’s opening act introduces the Kim family, folding pizza boxes in a squalid basement apartment in Seoul and scrambling from room to room in search of free WiFi after the neighboring business locked theirs down with a password.

In a single scene the film appears to articulate its title and define its central characters, but the Kims are not who you think they are. In fact, every time you think you’ve pinned this film down—who’s doing what to whom, who is or is not a parasite—you learn it was an impeccably executed sleight of hand.

Longtime Bong collaborator Kang-ho Song (Memory of a Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer) anchors the film with an endearing and slippery performance. Kim patriarch, he is simultaneously beloved head of the household and family stooge. Watching Song manipulate his character’s slide from bottom to top to bottom again without ever losing his humanity—or the flaws that go along with humanity—is amazing. It’s a stunningly subtle and powerful performance.

He’s nearly matched by Yeo-jeong Jo as the righteously oblivious Mrs. Park, who spends her days in constant search for an empty validation that comes from every new indulgence for her children.

When young Kim Ki-woo ( Woo-sik Choi from Train to Busan and Bong’s last film, Okja) is able to convince Mrs. Park he’s a suitable English tutor for her daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the Kim and Park families become connected in one of the few ways afforded by the social order: master and servant.

Methodically, the rest of the Kim clan gains employment from Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) through the systematic feeding of the Parks’ ego and privilege. And then just when you think Bong’s metaphoric title is merely surface deep, a succession of delicious power shifts begins to emerge.

Think the simmering rage of Joker with a completely new set of face paint.

As the Kims insinuate themselves into the daily lives of the very wealthy Parks, Bong expands and deepens a story full of surprising tenderness, consistent laughter and wise commentary on not only the capitalist economy, but the infecting nature of money.

Bong, as both director and co-writer, dangles multiple narrative threads, weaving them so skillfully throughout the film’s various layers that even when you can guess where they’ll intersect, the effect is no less enlightening.

Filming in an ultra-wide aspect ratio allows Bong to give his characters and themes a solid visual anchor. In single frames, he’s able to embrace the complexities of a large family dynamic while also articulating the detailed contrasts evident in the worlds of the haves and have nots.

Parasite tells us to make no plans, as a plan can only go wrong.

Ignore that, and make plans to see this brilliantly mischievous, head-swimmingly satisfying dive down the rabbit hole of space between the classes.

Welcome to the Jungle


by George Wolf

On a mountaintop that rests among the clouds, eight child soldiers guard an American hostage and a conscripted milk cow.

They play what games they can manufacture and train for battle under the exacting eye of The Messenger (Wilson Salazar), whose visits bring supplies, decisions on permitted sexual “partnerships” among the group, and orders from the commanding Organization on how to carry out an ambiguous mission.

While The Messenger is away, one bad decision creates a crisis with no easy solution, becoming the catalyst for Alejandro Landes’s unconventional and often gut-wrenching Spanish-language thriller.

Yes, you’ll find parallels to Lord of the Flies, even Apocalypse Now, but Landes continually upends your assumptions by tossing aside any common rulebooks on storytelling.

Just whose story is this, anyway?

The Doctora (Julianne Nicholson)? She’s the hostage with plenty of clever plans for a jungle escape, and a sympathy for some of her captors which may be used against her.

What about Bigfoot (Moises Arias, impressive as usual)? He’s got plenty of ideas on what’s best for the group, but without Messenger’s blessing as squad leader, limited power.

Wolfie, the “old man” of 15? Shy, baby-faced Rambo? Lady? Boom Boom?

Landes never gives us the chance to feel confident about anything we think we know, as the powerful score from Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie) and an impeccable sound design totally immerse us in an atmosphere of often breathless tension and wanton violence.

While Monos has plenty to say about how survival instincts can affect the lines of morality, it favors spectacle over speeches. Even the gripping final shot, containing some of the film’s most direct dialog, conveys its message with minimal force, which almost always hits the hardest.

It does here. Landes, in just his second narrative feature, crafts a primal experience of alienation and survival, with a strange and savage beauty that may shake you.

The Umbrella Academy


by George Wolf

There was a brief interruption, but we now return to the usual mastery of Yimou Zhang.

While 2016’s The Great Wall (Zhang’s first English language film) stood less than tall, the return to his native tongue results in yet another rapturous wuxia wonder, one nearly bursting with visual amazements and endlessly engrossing storytelling.

Taking us to ancient China’s “Three Kingdoms” era, director/co-writer Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) creates a tale of martial artistry, lethal umbrellas and political intrigue gloriously anchored in the philosophy of yin and yang.

After generations of warfare, the cities of Jing and Yang have been peacefully co-existing in an uneasy alliance. Now, thanks to a brilliantly devious plan for revenge that’s been years in the making, that fragile peace is threatened.

While the tragedies and backstabbings recall Shakespeare, Dickens and Dumas, Zhang rolls out hypnotic tapestries filled with lavish costumes, rich set pieces and thrilling sound design, all perfectly balanced to support the film’s dualistic anchor.

Working mainly in shades of charcoal grey with effectively deliberate splashes of color, Zhang creates visual storytelling of the grandest spectacle and most vivid style. There’s little doubt this film could be enjoyed even without benefit of subtitles, while the intricate writing and emotional performances combine for an experience that entertains and enthralls.

But seriously, you will never look at an umbrella the same way again.


Polish Romance

Cold War

by Hope Madden

Set against shifting political and musical environments and spanning at least four countries and 15 years, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a gorgeous and mournful ode to star-crossed lovers that feels equally sweeping and intimate.

Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) share names and characteristics with Pawlikowski’s own parents, though their story certainly differs a bit. As the film begins in post-war Poland, Wiktor is recording the songs of the people—folk songs handed down by peasants, which will become part of a new arts program aimed at celebrating Poland’s authentic voice. Until, that is, the program is co-opted and the songs become tributes to Stalin and agricultural reform.

Zula is unphased. A pragmatist, a survivor and a bit of a con artist, she wiled her way into the company by enchanting Wiktor with a song she’d learned from a Russian movie—not exactly a peasant’s lament.

As the film follows this very different and yet somehow connected pair, Pawlikowski casts a spell—with an assist from Lukasz Zal, whose black and white cinematography here is as glorious as it was in his Oscar-nominated 2013 collaboration with the filmmaker, Ida.

Together they capture an evolving tone and changing rhythm as folk ballads become jazz tunes, as Poland becomes East Germany and then Paris. In everything, Pawlikowski holds those melancholy, wistful notes just an extra beat. It’s a melody Kulig and Kot dance to beautifully.

Kulig impresses most as the ingénue who is master of her own future. Her performance is unpredictable and unapologetic, emphasizing the will of a character who does what she feels she must do, although that is rarely what anybody else expects.

Kot’s gentle, smitten but equally tortured character offers a fascinating, sometimes frustrating counterpart. It makes sense that these two creatures are based at least somewhat on living people. It would have been far too easy for them to fall into stereotypes, but instead they are as authentically confounding and beautiful as any committed and self-destructive couple.

Pawlikowski uses music to inform a shifting relationship; he uses a relationship to illustrate changing global politics; he leans on an impossible political situation to articulate insurmountable challenges within a relationship. The result is poetry.

The Judgement of Paris

Memoir of War

by Matt Weiner

So a screenwriter, the president of France and a spy walk into a café… have you heard this one? If so, you might have read the book La Douleur (War: A Memoir for the English translation), an autobiography by Marguerite Duras based on diaries she allegedly wrote during World War II.

Duras rose to fame as a writer, garnering a screenplay nomination for the Alain Resnais-directed Hiroshima mon amour. That film’s novel treatment of memory and chronology echoes throughout Memoir of War, adapted from Duras’s book and directed by Emmanuel Finkiel.

Mélanie Thierry plays the film version of Marguerite, whose recollections span the waning days of Vichy France through the Liberation of Paris, the end of the war and the immediate aftermath of Europe reckoning with news of the Holocaust.

If this sounds like a lot of history to cover for one movie, it would be—except Marguerite’s reflections are unconcerned with straightforward chronology. Her diaries and narration compress time and memory into one long, all-consuming reverie for her captured husband, Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu).

It makes for a deliberately disorienting experience, one that Finkiel pulls out a few tricks to heighten: there’s the nauseatingly atonal strings of the soundtrack, as oppressive as a horror score. But most effective is the way Marguerite’s memories of these monumental years unfold so frequently in claustrophobic interiors.

We get the entire moral arc of world war by way of smoky Parisian rooms. As the war winds down and Robert’s fate seems more and more dire, Marguerite retreats both mentally and physically. And we experience the two most triumphant moments—the Liberation of Paris and what should be another happy occasion after the war—through Marguerite’s furtive glances out the window, like gossamer filters keeping the reality of the world at large a step removed from ever being something she can attain herself.

It’s a demanding role, and it rests almost entirely on Thierry to hold everything together even as her character seems to slip in and out of time. She pulls off resolve with gusto, and even tempers it with a haunted uncertainty that feels completely natural as the enormity of the Holocaust becomes clear.

Memoir of War is a difficult film to get a handle on. The Resistance intrigue is discarded as quickly as it starts to take shape. The historical romance is mostly MacGuffin. And the war barely leaves the cafés, let alone the city.

The slipperiness is apt though. Marguerite’s memories are their own fog of war, and the author’s real-life diaries play coy with authenticity vs. artistic liberty. Finkiel pieces together a fitting adaptation, and if the parts never hold together long enough to say some cohesive whole, at least he can say he makes us feel something Marguerite would recognize.

Crouching Tiger


by Cat McAlpine

When you recommend this film, do not lead with “French, subtitled.” Though an accurate description on both counts, the association of moody cigarette smoking would do little to represent the raw heart of Dheepan.

Dheepan is a Tamil freedom fighter (called Tigers) who flees as the war begins its bloody close. Having lost his own wife and daughters, he must travel with Yalini (26) and Illayaal (9), posing as family to secure asylum in France.

These three strangers become dependent on one another for the facade that protects them. Unfortunately, fleeing Sri Lanka makes only minor improvements in their livelihoods, and the makeshift family discovers that war comes in sizes great and small.

Writer/director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is hyper-aware of light, using both color and shape to carve out living, breathing moments. Dheepan battles his monsters in a red-lit basement room. An elephant sways slowly in the dappled light of the forest. Yalini leaves the door open while she showers, and the blue light from the bathroom flickers teasingly.

This is the vision that truly guides the narrative, finding those quiet moments in-between the gruesome truths of war, gangs, poverty, immigrants, and trying to love someone you do not know.

The camera work, too, defines these moments. The close-up seems to be a favorite of Audiard, but it is not misused in context. The camera betrays when Dheepan’s world feels small and when it feels large. The watcher often feels like they are peering into rooms where they were not invited.

Jesuthasan Antonythasan’s Dheepan is stoic, contemplative, and yearning. You can feel his need for anything simple and real. His violence is believable and earned. Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Yalini builds a curious fear of the world and people around her. She is rarely likable, but always enthralling. That’s the humanity in Audiard’s characters, they are more real because they are less likeable, but this can make Dheepan harder to watch.

The film could lose 20 or 30 minutes, or at least appropriate it to the more aggressive scenes. Beautiful and real though it is, there are long periods where not much happens. Its pinnacle violence is gruesome and triumphant, leaving you wanting more. But a lust for violence is precisely what Dheepan and his family have been running from.


Keep Digging

The Treasure

by Hope Madden

Corneliu Porumboiu’s new film The Treasure is just that, if you have the patience to wait for it.

The Romanian director is a master of the deadpan comedy of manners, setting his films firmly in the conflicting values and strapped economy of post-Communist Romania. Dry, that’s what I’m saying, but no less than wonderful.

In The Treasure, he is once again braiding historical ideas with workaday sensibilities to create the driest kind of treasure hunt.

The ripe ground for this comical examination is a chance to escape the paycheck-driven world. The stage is set when Costi (Toma Cuzin), an office worker with a bland if contented life, is offered a sketchy opportunity to find riches buried in a neighbor’s crumbling family property.

Like Porumboiu’s excellent 2009 film Police, Adjective, The Treasure uses its low key approach to turn the minutia of daily existence – administrative red tape, day to day boredom, bill paying – into understated yet absurd comedy.

Cuzin’s performance – much of it simply the expression on his face – offers so much with so little. As boringly adult as his life has become, there is a childlike quality to the character that gives his every choice a sweetness. Is he naïve, even ignorant, to buy into this clearly desperate scheme?

His quietly likeable good guy is perfectly counterbalanced by his griping neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu). Adrian’s sense of entitlement and bitterness come out most strongly and most humorously when a third treasure hunter – just an interested party with a metal detector (Corneliu Cozmei – a non-actor and actual metal detector technician) enters the picture.

The banter as the three men tediously sweep the property, gain and lose hope, bicker over the situation, exposes the social commentary about Romania’s political landscape in a way that is familiar, believable, and uncomfortably funny.

Porumboiu’s consistent use of stationary, wide shots exacerbates the film’s sense of inertia, which is used to generate the tension that fuels the comedy.

It can feel like a long set up for a surprisingly lovely climax, followed by the most inspired use of music. When the final, surprising but fitting image rolls against the death metal band Laibach’s cover of the 80s pop hit Live is Life, the absurd clash of reality and fairy tale is complete.