Tag Archives: international films

Limbo Time

Coma

by George Wolf

Bursting with contrasts of art and ideas, Coma lands as a captivating time capsule of creativity, waiting to be savored by future viewers looking to understand a uniquely unsteady time.

Writer/director Bertrand Bonello casts his own daughter, Louise Labèque, as “L’adolescente,” a teenage girl trying to cope with life in lockdown. She FaceTime chats with friends and looks to YouTuber Patricia Coma (Julia Faure) for guidance on living in a present that has “come to a halt.”

Coma calmly and seductively stresses the need for achieving “limbo” – where we become “blank spaces waiting to be filled,” no longer needing to worry about making our own choices.

Bonello (The Beast) weaves together existential dread, dream and dreamlike narratives, and some black comedy with alternating live action and animation styles to create a hypnotic patchwork that probes a simple idea with utter fascination.

Among the understandable glut of lockdown films, this one stands out as a different animal indeed. The true effects of the pandemic – particularly on the young – may not be fully known for decades. Bonello wants us to realize that now, and Coma is an intriguing and insightful thought starter.

Handle With Care

Handling the Undead

by George Wolf

With his source novel and screenplay for Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist mixed vampire bloodlust and emotional bonds. Handling the Undead (Håndtering av udøde) finds Lindqyist turning similar attention to zombies, teaming with director/co-writer Thea Hvistendahl for a deeply atmospheric tale of grief, longing, and dread-filled reunions.

We follow three families in Norway, each one dealing with tragedy. An old man and his daughter (Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World) have lost their young son/grandson; an elderly woman still grieves for her lifelong partner; while a man (Anders Danielsen Lie from The Worst Person in the World and Personal Shopper) and his children struggle to accept that the wife and mother they depend on (Bahar Pars) may now be gone.

Hvistendahl sets the stakes with minimal dialog and maximum sorrow. Characters move through sweaty summer days in a fog of grief that’s expertly defined by cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth. They grasp at memories and battle regret over feelings left unexpressed.

And then an unexplained electro-magnetic event hits Oslo…and the dead aren’t so dead anymore.

In the film’s first two acts, Hvistendahl unveils these awakenings with a barren and foreboding tenderness. Everyone knows this can’t end well, but the tears of joy that come from seemingly answered prayers create moments that straddle a fascinating line between touching and horrifying.

How much of our grief is defined by selfishness? And how far could it push us before we finally let go?

Those may not be new themes for the zombie landscape, but the way Hvistendahl frames the inevitable bloodshed goes a long way toward making her shift of focus less jarring. While so much time is spent exploring the pain of those left behind, we know that eventually zombies gonna zombie.

And indeed they do, but Hvistendahl sidesteps excess carnage for a more subtle form of gruesome. The interactions between the living and the undead take on a surreal, experimental quality that seems plenty curious about whether we’d really think dead is better.

After all, the grieving family in Pet Sematary went asking for trouble. Here, the trouble comes calling, and Handling the Undead answers with a bleak but compelling study of desperation meeting inhuman connection.

Nature Boy

Evil Does Not Exist

by George Wolf

Two years ago, the magnificent Drive My Car became the first Japanese film to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and earned Ryûsuke Hamaguchi well-earned noms for writing and directing.

Now, writer/director Hamaguchi rewards his wider audience with Evil Does Not Exist (Aku wa sonzai shinai), another thoughtful, gracefully intellectual tale that finds him in an even more enigmatic mood.

Takumi and his young daughter live in Mizubiki, a Japanese village near Tokyo. Father teaches daughter about the wonders of nature, and about her place in the village’s careful balance of give and take.

That balance is threatened when a big firm plans to build a ”glamping” (glamorous camping) site very close to Takumi’s own house. Two P.R. reps come to convince the villagers that the company will also be careful, but these townsfolk know manure when they smell it.

The reps try to curry favor by offering Takumi a job as caretaker of the glamping site, but the more time they spend with this pillar of the simple life, the more they start to see wisdom in his ways.

Hamaguchi delivers some salient points on ecology while showcasing his skill with probing character purpose, motivation and the different ways they interact.

At a town meeting, an older villager gently reminds the P.R. reps about the responsibilities that come with “living upstream,” and the speech becomes an eloquent metaphor that the film begins dissecting with sometimes abstract detail.

And though the one hundred six-minute running time might seem rushed for a filmmaker that has favored three, four, and even five-hour films, Hamaguchi’s storytelling here is more patient than ever. Yoshio Kitagawa’s exquisite cinematography often showcases nature’s beauty in wordless wonder, always buoyed by an Eiko Ishibashi score that is evocative and moving.

What Evil Does Not Exist doesn’t do is provide any easy answers for the dramatic choices Takumi makes once his daughter goes missing. The film ends as it begins, staring into the natural world and asking us to ponder how we best fit in.

Wolves at the Door

Four Daughters

by George Wolf

The Oscar-nominated documentary Four Daughters tells the story of Olfa Hamrouni and her four girls. The two youngest, Eya and Tassir, still live at home and speak for themselves. The eldest, Rahma and Ghoframe, are played by actors (Nour Karoui, Ichrak Matar) as the real sisters “were devoured by the wolf.”

Yes, it is a metaphor, one that Tunisian writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania explores with a deeply sympathetic mix of doc and drama.

Most of the time, Olfa will tell her own story while veteran actress Hind Sabri stands by, ready to step in and play the role when the emotion is too much for Olfa to bear.

Mother and daughters laugh, cry and bicker as we hear of their life in the patriarchal society of Tunisia. Olfa moves between gregarious and reserved, as capable of flashing a strong defiant streak as she is of handing down oppressive customs because “that’s just the way it is.”

And as Ben Hania slowly moves toward the source of the family’s heartbreak, the film’s many moving parts don’t always engage in perfect sync. The subtle aspects of Ben Hania’s reenactments – such as having actor Majd Mastoura play all the male parts, or the surreal interplay between real sister and stand in – pay dividends. But moments when actor and subject go off script to debate the familial choices can begin to blur unfortunate lines.

The staggering 2012 doc The Act of Killing used similar tactics, but the arc of barbaric murderers recreating their genocidal crimes mined insight from intimacy. Here, the staged production of pain spurs questions about when intimacy becomes exploitation.

Ben Hania wisely travels a more conventional road in the film’s third act. The reason for the elder sisters leaving home becomes clear, and Four Daughters leaves its unique mark.. A compelling, touching story of memory and generational trauma, it’s a heartbreaking roadmap to radicalization marked with a family’s despair.

Trip of a Lifetime

Io Capitano

by George Wolf

The destination may be Italy, but the Oscar-nominated Io Capitano unfolds like a classic Greek fable. Director and co-writer Matteo Garrone crafts a stirring and often gut-wrenching modern Homeric tale, with a young African refugee enduring multiple hardships while refusing to surrender his character or humanity.

16 year-old Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) have been planning for months to leave their home in Senegal for the hope of a better life in Europe. The locals warn against the dangerous trip, and Seydou’s mother (Ndeye Khady Sy) forbids it, but the boys take the stash of money they’ve been saving and head out in secret.

The journey will not be kind. From Niger to Libya to the unforgiving Sahara (presented with breathtaking scope) and beyond, the boys will face shakedowns, bribes, arrest and torture, while subtle twists of fate conspire with glimpses of human kindness to keep them moving forward.

Sarr is absolutely terrific in a highly emotional and physical role, allowing Garrone (Dogman. Gomorrah) to strategically build empathy for the young man and his mission. With brutality all around him, Seydou must ultimately defend his humanity with stirring defiance, cementing his standing as a true and just wanderer.

But though Seydou’s odyssey may have a classic structure, the subtext here is never in doubt. Io Capitano succeeds on both fronts, bringing stark intimacy to the global refugee crisis, along with realization that stories can often speak so much more clearly than statistics.

Memory Lane

Lie With Me

By Rachel Willis

Past memories and present regrets mix in director Olivier Peyon’s film, Lie with Me.

Returning to his hometown after decades away, celebrated author Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec) looks to dig up the ghosts of his past in hopes of inspiring something lost. Or in this case, one ghost. 

In 1984, a young Stéphane (Jérémy Gillet) begins a relationship with popular student, Thomas (Julien De Saint Jean). The only condition of their relationship is that no one can know. What starts as something tawdry deepens as the two boys spend more time together. Scenes from the past intermingle with scenes from the present, as memories of his first love overwhelm an older Stéphane.

It’s not clear if Stephane expects to encounter his past love when he returns, but he is floored when instead he meets Thomas’s son, Lucas (Victor Belmondo). 

There are two very touching relationships in the film as we watch the budding romance between Stéphane and Thomas unfold, along with Stéphane’s friendship with Lucas. The two actors portraying Stéphane are equally skilled at bringing the character to life in a seamless blend of one person at two different times in life. It’s as effectives as the contrasting natures of Thomas and his son, Lucas. Where Thomas is reserved, never revealing who he is, Lucas is at ease with himself.

The slow steps the film takes in trying to reveal Thomas are elusive; can we ever really know a person who doesn’t know himself? In hiding a part of himself from everyone but Stéphane, he essentially lives a stunted life.

There are some scenes that don’t always work. A few are too heavy-handed and sentimental in a film that works better when it embraces restraint. As the older Stéphane, de Tonquédec can convey a range of emotion with his expressions. When his controlled façade slips, we see sadness and radiance as he recalls moments of love and loss. 

The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s touching. There is a quiet sadness that haunts Stéphane as we follow him through his memories. While some scenes carrying a heavy weight, the film is not without hope. While it’s true there are some people we can never really know, often they leave hints, revealing as much of themselves as they can. It’s depressing, but it’s hopeful, too. 

Perhaps one day, the world will learn the accept others for who they are and there will no longer be a need to hide.

Rules Are Rules

The Teacher’s Lounge

by George Wolf

“What happens in the teacher’s lounge, stays in the teacher’s lounge.”

Mrs. (Carla) Nowak uses that line as a condescending quip to avoid some pointed questions from her students’ even as she’s starting to desperately wish it were true.

Carla (Leonie Benesch, fantastic) teaches 12-year-olds at a German grade school. Carla exchanges small talk with her fellow teachers, and doesn’t look away when she notices one who helps herself to what’s in the office coffee fund jar just minutes after Carla donated some change.

It’s a small but meaningful moment that writer/director Ilker Çatak uses to effectively illustrate Carla’s idealism, and to foreshadow her coming clash with reality.

The conflict begins to simmer when Carla witnesses two other teachers try to coerce some “good” students into naming who they think might be behind the recent rash of thefts at the school. Carla objects to the line of questioning, and reacts by using her wallet and laptop camera to set a trap and expose the guilty party.

What follows is a tense and utterly fascinating parable of accusation, distrust, paranoia and anger that has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature. Çatak crafts the school community as a Petri dish of contrasting agendas, one where teachers, students and parents fight for claims on the moral high ground.

Benesch is simply wonderful. Carla’s care for her students is never in doubt, but as the gravity of her situation begins to dawn on her, Benesch often only needs her wide eyes and tightened jawline to deliver Carla’s increasingly desperate mix of emotions.

As perspectives change, you may be reminded of Ruben Östlund’s insightful Force Majeure. But with The Teacher’s Lounge, Çatak moves the conversation to how the tribal nature of modern society can lead to separate realities, and how quickly those dug-in heels can be weaponized.

King’s Ransom

The Promised Land

by George Wolf

Just going by its trailer, you might not expect The Promised Land to have much in common with Saltburn, but the similar themes are there. So while there’s no shocking bathwater here – or much bathing at all – there is a sweeping historical epic of one man’s quest for social climbing.

The man is Ludvig von Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen), a longtime captain in the German army who returns home to Denmark in 1755. Desiring both wealth and honor, he visits the court of King Frederik V with a promise to bring the King what no one else has managed to deliver: settlements on the Danish heath.

Ludvig promises to tame the barren land in exchange for a noble title, a manor and some servants. And to seal the deal, Ludvig will finance the farming project with his own military pension.

Battling the elements and the roaming outlaws will be tough enough, but Ludvig also must face the wrath of sadistic county judge De Schinkel (Simon Beenebjerg), who wants to claim the land as his own and make good on his promise to Ludvig that “life is chaos.”

Director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel adapts Ida Jessen’s historical novel as a harrowing tale that consistently reveals new layers throughout its two compelling hours.

Mikkelsen – teaming again with Arcel after 2020’s terrific Riders of Justice – is perfection as the battle-tested soldier with steely-eyed dreams of nobility. Ludvig’s arc plays out patiently, but as the Captain takes in two runaway peasant farmers (Amanda Collin, Morten Hee Anderson), a well-meaning pastor (Gustav Lindh) and an unwanted child (Melina Hagberg), Mikkelsen ensures the awakened humanity feels well-earned and real.

And Arcel keeps the stakes rising to thrilling effect. Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk’s majestic frames serve and volley with the twists of the screenplay to mine drama that can be as subtle as a framed patch of dirt or as overt as the triangle that springs from Schinkel’s intended fiancée Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp) eyeing Ludvig as the man who can save her.

What price ambition? It remains an intriguing question, whether you’re surrounding it with delicious ultra-modern pulp or re-imagining true events from hundreds of years past. The Promised Land takes the road less adorned, forging a rousing tale of savagery, revenge and fulfillment that will not be denied.

Live to Work, Work to Live

Between Two Worlds

by George Wolf

You’ve probably already guessed that Juliette Binoche is excellent in Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham). Her turn as Marianne is effortlessly human and engaging while she keeps the cliched trappings of a “brave” performance at bay.

The Oscar-winner doesn’t bother with her hair and makeup! And, she’s often seen scrubbing toilets as part of a “commando” cleaning crew. Earning only minimum wage, Marianne and her co-workers have only 90 minutes to clean rooms on the cruise ships that dock in the port city of Caen, France.

Marianne is the newbie on this crew, as her life of leisure ended when her husband left her for a younger woman, forcing her to return to the workforce after more than two decades. Marianne becomes a trusted member of the work family, forming an especially tight bond with the gritty Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert, excellent) a single mother with unwavering drive to provide for her kids, whatever it takes.

Chrystèle doesn’t have time for indulgences like the side trip to the beach that her new friend insists upon, which should have been the first clue that Marianne is not what she’s pretending to be.

She – just like French journalist Florence Aubenas, author of the source work – is an accomplished author, posing as a working stiff to conduct first-hand research for a book on the rising uncertainty of the French economy. That book became a best-seller, and director/co-writer Emmanuel Carrère brings it to the screen with a strange mix of empathy and tone deafness.

Carrère and his authentic ensemble make sure we feel the desperation of the workers, and share in their happiness when one of their own lands a better opportunity and leaves the nest. And though we also share in the hurt when Marianne is found out, the film itself never holds her truly accountable.

Sure, she’s sad, but mainly because her friend Chrystèle won’t forgive the abuse of trust. Credit Binoche for giving Marianne enough layers to make the question of “ends justifying the means” even plausible, but how the film works for you may ride on your own experience with both of the lifestyles.

Are the “invisible people” fair game as long as you feel bad about it? Even if Aubenas still thinks so, Between Two Worlds could have put a little more trust in the audience rank and file.

No Country for Young Women

The Night of the 12th

by George Wolf

The police work on display in The Night of the 12th (La nuit du 12) is methodical, committed, and sometimes intense. You can say the same about the filmmaking.

Director and co-writer Dominick Moll introduces his latest as a retelling of a “based on true events” unsolved case that still haunts a veteran French police captain. But as he unveils the facts of the investigation in an intimate and calculating manner, Moll deftly brings more universal concerns to the forefront.

Yohan Vives (Bastien Bouillon) rises to Le capitaine after a retirement on the force, and it’s at the going-away party for the retiree that we first glimpse the signs of a generational divide.

Not long after Yohan’s promotion, 21-year old Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier) is attacked and killed while walking home from a party. And as Yohan digs into the details of the life Clara had been living, he starts to realize that something’s also “amiss” between men and women.

Moll (With a Friend Like Harry…, Lemming, Only the Animals) pulls off a tricky balancing act here. He brings a detached, documentary-like approach to the investigation itself, but adds layers of humanity through Yohan’s growing obsession with the case, and the B story involving an older investigator named Marceau (Bouli Lanners).

Marceau’s marriage is suddenly in serious trouble, and the effect this has on his approach to Clara’s case brings the narrative threads together with a weary resignation. Bouillon and Lanners are terrific leads amid a first-rate ensemble that includes Pauline Serieys as Clara’s grieving best friend and Anouk Grinberg as a sympathetic judge who urges Yohan not to give up on the case.

Cinematographer Patrick Ghiringhelli immerses us in the imposing beauty of the French Alps, while Moll’s Memories of Murder setup gradually adopts a more Cormac McCarthy worldview, but it’s one more focused on how that world views women, young or old.

This is a completely absorbing crime drama, and one that is not afraid to reach beyond its local jurisdiction. By the end of The Night of the 12th, Moll has drawn us into a tragic mystery and left us searching for answers to questions beyond the identity of Clara’s killer.