Actually, this post should read “Grouch” because I was the only one to take advantage of Film Fest DC a few weeks back. This year’s fest didn’t have the best record for me (four good ones out of seven) but I had a very good time poring over the schedule, running to screenings, and taking in some films a little bit outside of the mainstream.

Film Fest DC concentrates on international film rather than domestic indies. One interesting result of bringing the best of world cinema to the nation’s capital is that a good portion of the selections are genre pictures. Straight up mainstream fare that just happen to have subtitles like Hungarian musicals, Chinese spy thrillers, and Spanish crime dramas. Film festival attendees can be a snooty bunch and as they laughed and gasped like they were at the multiplex on a Friday night, I wondered how many of these people would have not deigned to see these films if they came from Hollywood.

Three of the films I saw I’d qualify as fairly mainstream fare, if not true genre flicks. They’d do fine as US productions – one has an American remake already in the works – and perhaps even garner Grouches attention come award time.

The House of Branching Love (Haarautuvan rakkauden talo), Finland

My favorite of the fest. It’s a madcap domestic comedy where all the humor is dialed up to the absurd. Tuula and Juhani are a late-30s married couple whose marriage is ending. But neither wants to move out so both decide to stay in the house, she (Tuula) upstairs and he (Juhani) in the basement. They set some ground rules, including no hook-ups, a rule he promptly breaks. You can perhaps get a sense of the film’s sense of humor when I say her discovery of his late night visitor involves setting the bushes on fire.

She starts seeing a young hunk who parks his seaplane in the lake behind their house, so Juhani decides to get even by hiring a prostitute to pose as his girlfriend. He gets this prostitute by talking to his criminal brother, who in turn sees this as an opportunity to hide his girlfriend at his brother’s place while her handlers look for her and the money they think she stole. Her handlers’ boss, in turn, is actually Tuula’s mother, an Estonian crime lord.

Loads of misunderstandings ensue as the exes try to one-up each other, bumbling criminals stumble their way into a situation they completely misjudge, and kidnappings go horribly wrong. I laughed my ass off at this movie. It’s quite funny and pretty nuts, but is grounded in some interesting, complex characters and isn’t afraid to take some dark turns. That, plus the intensely clever plot despite all the slapstick, makes The House of Branching Love stand out beyond other silly comedies.

Grouch who’d like it the most: Jared, who likes silly comedies.

Reykjavik-Rotterdam, Iceland

The Film Fest DC guide says an American remake is already in the works starring Mark Wahlberg and it’s easy to see why. However, I think the Hollywood version might push the envelope a bit further than liquor smuggling.

Kristofer is an ex-con eking out a living in Reykjavik. His brother-in-law gets in trouble with a smuggling ring so Kristofer agrees to return his to his old trade of sneaking liquor past Iceland’s tight border controls. He talks his way onto his old ship – where his old captain is understandably wary of his presence and makes for a good foil – on a trip to the Netherlands to load up on jugs of bootlegged booze to be stashed in various hiding places on the ship. Naturally things don’t go quite right.

Reykjavik-Rotterdam falls into the standard crime thriller genre, but with enough laughs and clever turns to make it original. I talk a lot about the worlds films inhabit, and this one of cargo ship life – both upstanding and underhanded – really interested me. And it comes together with a terrifically tidy ending. All in all very entertaining.

Grouch who’d like it the most: Adam would dig how straight-up entertaining it is.

The Army of Crime (L’armée du crime), France

A tale of French resistance in Nazi occupied Paris. Sounds like an historical drama made for film festivals like this. The protagonists of this one are Communists (and Communist Jews). Missak Manouchian is an Armenian exile who leads a cell of resistance fighters, laying bombs and assassinating officials. A host of other characters are supporters, fellow soldiers, family members, and lovers.

The plot twists and turns as loyalties change and personal ethics are tested. Honestly the film doesn’t advance the Nazi resistance genre that much. It keeps things a little too black and white for my tastes. It’s a little manipulative but it packs an emotional punch and it’s consistently entertaining.

I also found the history of the film fascinating. The resistance receives its orders from the Soviets and French Communists. The structure of the organization and how the orders get passed along as part of the broader Communist movement make for a different angle than we usually see in these types of films. While a sense of justice and a desire to save their Jewish brethren play a role in their motivations, these partisans are Socialist through and through. And life under occupation is a topic that always interests me.

I could easily see this coming out of Hollywood with an awards season push. And it’d probably do pretty well, though likely to the consternation of many who may find it too formulaic.

Grouch who’d like it the most: I think Brian would be like me and find the history of the film interesting.

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