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My recap of April’s Film Fest DC (belatedly) continues with the more serious films. Films that intend to have meaning, explore themes, and/or push outside the usual boundaries of cinema. Some succeed very well. Some succeed at being boring.

Since my colleagues don’t like films where films don’t go boom frequently or deign to move at a pace slower than “breakneck,”* I will identify the Grouch that would hate each film the most.

Julia’s Disappearance (Giulias Verschwinden), Switzerland, dir: Christoph Schaub

I think if someone made Another Year for a wider audience and set it in Zurich, the result would be Julia’s Disappearance, a wonderfully thoughtful and amusing film about aging and youth. Six stories intersect in one Swiss night. The titular Julia rides the bus to meet her friends at a restaurant for a dinner celebrating her 50th birthday. A gentleman her age catches her eye, but his eyes instead wander to a young woman in a revealing dress. An older woman next to Julia quips that at some age women become invisible.

While that older woman goes to her friend’s 80th birthday party at a retirement home, Julia bails on her friends and strikes up a flirtatious conversation with a German businessman at a bar. Meanwhile, her three sets of friends bicker and make sly observations about getting old as they wait for the guest of honor to arrive. Finally, some teenage girls on the initial bus decide to steal some sneakers for a boy they like.

Julia’s Disappearance doesn’t have the level of authenticity of Another Year, but that’s because it’s played more for laughs. The conversations are full of snappy dialogue. It does feel like movie dialogue that real people wouldn’t say, but who cares when it’s so humorous and insightful. Of the four major story threads, the one among the waiting friends in the restaurant is the best. A married couple, a gay couple with a sizable difference in age, and a bachelor growing forgetful in middle age spend their time ragging on each other and other patrons who are chasing youth through a doctor’s scalpel.

I might have done without the teenagers’ subplot, which feels a little superfluous, but Julia’s playful night with the stranger businessman is a delight and the older woman’s birthday party devolves into some amusing physical comedy. It’s not without its contrivances, but it’s infused with charm while holding back on the sentimentality. The result is a very enjoyable and intelligent film. A

Grouch who’d like it the least: Adam. Too talky.

The Hostage of Illusion (Rehén de ilusiones), Argentina, dir: Eliseo Subiela

This movie is the cinematic equivalent to claptrap. The director was in attendance at my screening and a Q&A followed. Audience members kept asking questions about various themes they picked up in the film and each question astounded me further. “You saw that??? The whole thing’s nonsense!” is what a more confident John would have yelled.

The synopsis provided an interesting premise: an author afflicted with writer’s block is haunted by his previous characters who want him to continue their stories. That could have made for a clever story indeed. It also only lasts one scene. The rest of the film follows the author as he embarks on an affair with a crazy woman.

And that’s really all there is to it. There’s no good reason for their attraction as best I can tell. He likes that she’s young, cute, and will sleep with him. She likes him because… she’s crazy? I don’t know. She has some manic and depressive episodes, he frets, the end.

You may find yourself wondering some of the same things my audience asked of the director. What if the woman is herself one of his characters haunting him? So what? What point is a question if it’s totally inconsequential? What if Superman was a Nazi? Who cares? D

Grouch Who’d Like it the Least: Brian, who’d probably be most offended at how unimportant it all is. I have a sneaking suspicion Jared wouldn’t even hate it all, given that it’s somewhat of a romcom with a version of a manic pixie dream girl.

I Am Slave, UK, dir: Gabriel Range

I was having second thoughts walking into this. It seemed unlikely that this drama about human trafficking wouldn’t turn into a manipulative mess. But boy was I wrong. It’s an entirely effective film that earns its emotion.

Malia is kidnapped from her south Sudanese village as a girl and pressed into service at a rich family’s home in Khartoum. Later she is shipped to another family in London. As she grows up a servant, her father travels through the country looking for her.

The greatest service of this film is addressing the tricky “whys” of human trafficking: why doesn’t she run away? Why doesn’t she fight back? The physical restraints are somewhat minimal. It’s the psychological torture that prevents Malia from doing anything. Her masters tell her that she is worthless, that no one outside will help her, that they will kill her family if she leaves. From our perspective as western viewers, we know these threats to be baseless. To a girl yanked away from the Sudanese countryside at the age of 12, the threats are her prison. She runs away once in London, just to come back. I hope viewers will understand this from Malia’s point of view and not grouse about why she didn’t just leave.

The film also does well to not become preachy or manipulative. The villains are not particularly cartoonish. They’re just housewives who fill similarly subservient roles for their husbands and they are even capable of some kindness. It’s a film that relies on its grounded realism to get its point across. The ending packs a powerful emotional punch and it’s a good sign that the only noteworthy criticism I have is that it should have been longer. A

Grouch Who’d Like it the Least: Adam. All this anti-slavery talk is just leftist mumbo jumbo. If she didn’t want to be a slave she should have learned a marketable skill.

The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), France, dir: Michel Leclerc

I’ve learned that “comedy” doesn’t always mean what I think it means when it comes to French films and film festivals. That didn’t bode well for The Names of Love, billed as a “witty and politically pointed romp of a romantic comedy.” And it gets worse: one of its significant themes is what it means to be French in modern France.

And yet, would you believe me when I say it’s delightful? And very funny? It’s populated by zany characters, none of which are realistic but all are entertaining. At the center is the unlikely love connection between Arthur, an awkward government scientist, and the free-spirited Bahia, an avowed leftist who sleeps with conservatives to convert them to her cause. They bicker and fall for each other and, while it’s not totally believable, it’s sweet enough.

A lot of zany things happen, some of them a little more serious than others. I guess more than anything it touches on themes of identity the most, but there’s a lot going on here, even including some Holocaust discussion. I can’t say it always works, but parts that hit wrong move along quickly. And even if the characters are cinematic creations, they at least have some real problems. B+

Grouch Who’d Like it the Least: Adam. French mumbo jumbo

Black Bread (Pa negre), Spain, dir: Augustí Villaronga

If Pan’s Labyrinth has taught us anything, it’s that the cruel era after the Spanish Civil War was a time with a lot of… surrealism. And if you’re in the mood for some supernatural Fascist barbarism, give Pan’s a look instead.

In a small Catalonian town, the young Andreu has his life upended when his father must flee the authorities and he goes to live with his grandmother and extended family. The plot revolves around a search for a spirit who may have killed the man Andreu’s father is accused of murdering. There’s a convoluted conspiracy involving some powerful Fascists and various other troubling things Franco’s thugs pull off.

But, honestly, the plot doesn’t matter because it devolves into a dreary slog. It’s never terrible but it lost me about a third of the way through. The supernatural elements never work and I can’t say the real world ones add up to much either. And the ending is pretty dumb. I don’t recall where, but one review I read said the main lesson Andreu learns is that adults can be pretty awful. Sounds about right and also sort of inconsequential. D+

Grouch Who’d Like it the Least: Jared. Boring. I think Brian would at least get something out of the history and Adam would appreciate that some lefties get killed real good.

*Their retort would surely be that I’m a snob. But they are dumbheads. So there.

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I always look forward to John’s posts on film festivals, and this year continues to justify that stance.  I was able to see a bunch of the films with him this year, so I figured I’d share what additional comments I could.  I’ll start off with the film I got to that John didn’t, then the one film I saw with he that he hasn’t recapped yet (I hope I don’t steal your thunder!) and then I’ll build on what John wrote for the films we saw together.

Outrage (Autoreiji), Japan, dir: Takeshi Kitano

I don’t know very much about Japanese cinema, so I can’t comment on Kitano’s previous work, other than that I’ve read he started out as a successful stand-up comedian and segued into gangster films for awhile.  I did recognize him, as I’m sure many other people my age would, from his roles in Battle Royale and the TV show “Takeshi’s Castle” (which, of course, was used for MXC)

Anyway, Outrage is a Yakuza movie about warring families/clans (apologies if nomenclature is incorrect) who operate within a larger group of clans.  About a half hour into the film, it becomes clear that the movie is really about who is going to kill who, and how twisted the death scene will be.

My fundamental problem with the film, and I’m not entirely certain to what extent it is a cultural thing, is that it felt like so much of the movie dealt with the bureaucracy of the Yakuza.  The guy at the top would order a kill, or imply that he wanted a kill.  His second in command would relay that order to the appropriate head of family, sometimes changing it slightly.  The head would pass on the order to his second in command, or perhaps ignore it.  The second in command passed it on to his henchmen, sometimes, who would execute the kill.  And then the information would go back up the chain a similar way.  Rinse and repeat.  Like the bloodiest game of telephone ever.

The other problem is that we don’t really get to know the characters.  And few of them have any sort of distinguishing characteristic.  So it is hard to care too much when they get offed.

Some of the kills were cool.  But I wouldn’t recommend to see the film just on that basis, there are plenty of movies with better death scenes, I think.   It isn’t a bad film, though, and if you are a mob movie fanatic or completist, it is probably worth your while.  C

Grouch who’d like it the most: If the film actually pulled off what it intended to, Adam.  As is, maybe Brian.

The Names of Love (Le noms de gens), France, dir: Michel Leclerc

As I mentioned, I really do look forward to John’s recaps and I’m curious to hear his thoughts on this film.  But as a romantic comedy with a subplot involving Jewishness, well, this movie was probably a little more up my alley.

Superficially, The Names of Love exhibits many of the hallmarks of the traditional romantic comedy.  Jacques Gamblin is your straitlaced leading man.  He’s a government official in charge of investigating avian deaths, does stuff by the book, and you can tell he is goody-goody because he wears glasses.  Sara Forestier is your impossibly attractive free-spirit of a leading lady.  They meet cute, get together, break up, and I won’t reveal the end.

But the film is much more layered than that.  We learn at the beginning (through flashbacks that are (500 Days of Summer by way of Amelie) that Forestier is the daughter of an Algerian father who came to France after the war and married a hippie.  We also learn that she was sexually abused as a teen, something the family tries to avoid talking about.  Gamblin is the son of two very staid technophiles who always get into better, but failed products (e.g. Betamax).  His immigrant grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, something the family tries to avoid talking about.

I bring all that up because in many ways the movie is about how so much of who we are is where we come from, whether we embrace it (as she does) or hide it (as he does).  But counter to that, the film is also about not letting where come from determine who we are.  There’s also a minor political bent to the film as she employs the tactic of sleeping with members of the opposite political party, in order to eventually persuade them to join her side.  And he continually votes for a losing candidate.

The film is also quite funny at times.  It has, hands down, the funniest Holocaust humor you’ll see all year.  Being French, the film is also maybe a touch more risque than our romantic comedies generally are.  But the nudity actually has a legitimate purpose here.  One other than establishing how crazy hot Sara Forestier is, I promise.  B+

The Robber

Honestly, I didn’t even think the action scenes were all that great.  An interesting premise, to be sure, but it never gets beyond that.  As John pointed out, we never really get to know the main character’s motivations.  Which was a problem to me, since finding out why and how he became a world class marathoner and bank robber were the primary things I wanted to know as the film played on.  I’m not saying this needs a Michael Bay remake or anything, but I could see the film being a lot more successful when done by an American writer and director who could put in some more interesting heist scenes and trim out the German nihilism.  C

Transfer

John nailed this one.  It deals with the kind of sci-fi I love, but fell into the trap of films I often describe as being like a TV pilot: it started creating the beginnings of an interesting world and brought up tons of questions.  The premise isn’t that unlike Dollhouse, for example, especially second season.  As John said, to be more successful, the movie really had to focus in on the questions it wanted to tackle.  And I know it sounds weird, but the dubbing really was distracting.  B-

Home for Christmas

OK.  When you hear something like Love Actually, what do you think?  Probably something along the lines of a light, breezy, fun movie with a bunch of interconnected scenes.  Right?  I think that’s fair.  OK.  The very first scene of Home for Christmas ends with a child in the crosshairs of a sniper.  In any case, I disagree pretty strongly with John, here.  I didn’t think the film did a good job at all of eliciting emotions.  And when it did, it used rather cheap ploys.  It it a dark, dismal, drab tale.  Which can be fine, but this film never got past the surface of anything.   Two things I think Love Actually does well is tie the storylines together enough that it makes sense all the different threads were part of the same movie, and make each thread self-sufficient and interesting enough that it could stand on its own.  This movie does neither.  None of the stories go anywhere and they certainly don’t end up together.  D

Another Film Fest DC has come and gone and this year I did it up right, squeezing twelve screenings into nine days. The DC fest concentrates on international offerings rather than domestic indie films. These run the gamut from overseas blockbusters (Aftershock, the most expensive and successful movie in China’s history, was featured) to smaller, artsier films.

Last year I divided my post-fest recap into genre films that one could imagine finding commercial release in the US had they been filmed in English and the more art house pictures. I liked that divide and no other option for splitting up the films revealed itself this year, so today I’m starting with the genre flicks. Action, sci-fi, crime dramas, and Chrimassy dramedies find their place here with commercial success and sizable budgets in their homelands.

Jared joined me for a few films this year and he can chime in on the one he saw. Otherwise I’ll continue to identify the Grouch who’d like these entertaining films the most (and later we’ll discuss who would hate the most the more thematic artsier films that actually make you think).

The Robber (Der Räuber), Austria/Germany, dir: Benjamin Heisenberg

Andreas Lust plays Johann, the title robber, a newly-released ex-con who combines his loves of running and bank robbery. He trains in his cell and comes out of nowhere as a contender in the Vienna marathon. But many of his training runs involve taking a train (or hijacking a car) to another city and holding up a bank.

The running and robbery scenes are beautiful. They are artfully constructed and help us feel the serenity Johann feels in his runs and the adrenaline rushes in his crimes. That rush is in fact what appears to motivate him in both of his endeavors, but that’s all we really get to know about him. Johann is a blank slate and we see little of his motivation beyond the idea that both activities thrill him.

This lack of development is particularly troublesome when it comes to a relationship he has with a woman he apparently knew before his jail sentence. It means we don’t understand why they are together or even if he cares about her and we don’t care about Johann’s fate. At 90 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome by much, but beyond a few well constructed action scenes I can’t recommend much. C

Grouch who’d like it the most: I’m not sure any would like it much but I could see Brian enjoying it.

Transfer, Germany, dir: Damir Lukacevic

Here is a film that has a terrific premise but still manages to be half-baked. A new technology allows the minds of the old and infirm (and rich) to be transferred to young, healthy bodies. An elderly German couple tentatively tries it out and two attractive Africans are their hosts. The catch is that the hosts wake up and once again have control of their bodies for a few hours per day while their guests sleep.

You can imagine the philosophical issues such a technology might present. The problem is this movie does too and gives a half-hearted attempt at all of them. How do the hosts and guests learn to live with each other? They can sort of feel each other and communicate in writing. What sort of racial issues arise when old white Germans get implanted in young black Africans? Did the hosts truly give up their freedom under their own free will? What happens when your other halves have sex, fall in love, and even get pregnant?

Whenever the film starts to present an interesting point, it veers off to explore something else. The consequence is every theme gets short shrift. I wish it had been reined in thematically or perhaps lasted longer as it only clocks in at 93 minutes. Though, truth be told, none of this was treated very expertly. For example, the feelings the hosts and guests have for their other halves seems to vary wildly. One moment the host male is saying his guest is an interesting guy and the next he’s trying to escape.

I must point out one technical aspect and that is some very distracting dubbing. The host Africans are played by black American actors and they are clearly speaking in English. The German is noticeably dubbed and it sounds dubbed, like a cartoon voiceover. At times I found myself paying more attention to the dubs than the rest of the movie. C+

Grouch who’d like it the most: I think Brian would get the most out of the intriguing premise while having less of it ruined for him by how much it falls short.

Easy Money (Snabba Cash), Sweden, dir: Daniel Espinosa

First, marvel at how awesome that Swedish title is. Snabba Cash? That is delightful.

This is a pretty straight-forward crime story. Joel Kinnaman (now on AMC’s “The Killing”) plays JW, an ambitious college student that gets a taste of the good life through some classmates he wants to impress. He falls in with a gang of criminals that is about to up their game significantly by smuggling drugs into Sweden. In doing so they are trampling on the territory of the incumbent Serbian gang and reprisals ensue.

It’s rife with cliches but they never feel particularly burdensome. One Serbian gangster receives custody of his daughter and it makes him want to leave the crime life. JW, for his part, gets over his head pretty quickly and through him a standard “crime doesn’t pay” parable plays.

The film is nicely but not overly stylish. It’s also not terribly thrilling or emotionally resonant, though the climax does somewhat succeed in both regards even if it’s not very surprising. It mostly avoids boredom but a love story and JW’s envy of his richer classmates are introduced and then mostly forgotten. The look at Swedish crime life gave it some novelty for me. An English version of this same movie might end up forgettable, like a We Own the Night. B-

(It has now come to my attention that a remake is in the works, supposedly starring Zac Efron and Rachel Weisz, directed by Daren Aronofsky. Very interesting. On the other hand, news on the project within the last year seems slim and I’m still waiting on a Mark Wahlberg-led remake of last year’s Film Fest DC fave Reykjavik-Rotterdam.)

Grouch who’d like it the most: I think Adam would thoroughly enjoy this crime story.

Win/Win, Netherlands, dir: Jaap van Heusden

This drama set in the world of finance intrigued me but also worried me going in. The catalog promised a hot shot protagonist burdened by the pressure and moral quandaries of the industry. The potential for the film to turn into a brash anti-capitalist screed concerned me. But what I didn’t expect was to be bored.

Oscar Van Rompay plays Ivan, our savant, who is discovered by the firm bigwigs after leaving stock tips on post-its around the office. His rise at the firm and the gradual cracking of his shy exterior are actually quite entertaining. As time goes on his work becomes less fulfilling, helped by the professional and personal downfall of a coworker he has been befriended.

But here’s the issue: there doesn’t seem to be any special reason for his sullenness. He mopes around the city and considers blowing his career, but why? He works a lot, but it looks like he does it because he likes it has a knack for it. The job doesn’t present any specific ethical issues. The worst seems to be that several of his coworkers are kind of dicks, but they’re not terrible. More intense than anything.

So what’s the point? I guess I’m glad it didn’t turn into a ham-fisted treatise on our economic times, but at least that would have had some meat. I know this post is supposed to be about films that, with a language change, could be seen in US multiplexes, but I think for Win/Win to work here it would need a good scandal or something and that would be welcome. D

Grouch who’d like it the most: Adam would dig the business plot the most, but perhaps would also hate Ivan’s career malaise the most.

Home for Christmas (Hjem til jul), Norway, dir: Bent Hamer

This Christmas dramedy alternately warms and breaks the heart. A half dozen story lines intersect in a small Norwegian town on Christmas Eve. There’s a bum going home, a doctor with a struggling marriage, a man juggling a wife and a mistress, and a dad trying to see his estranged kids.

Some of these stories are cozy Christmas stories and some are dark. I don’t think it does anything new and exciting, but the emotion is well-earned and appropriate. The gloomier parts probably disqualify it from the Christmastime rotation of feel-good films, but it’s a good reminder about how the holidays are not happy times for everyone. And sometimes you just want a sadder Christmas movie, you know? Like how my favorite part of Home Alone is when Kevin has that talk with his scary neighbor in the church and finds out he’s a lonely man who misses his granddaughter. It’s a stray poignant, sad moment and Home for Christmas delivers similarly.

Also, there’s a bizarrely graphic sex scene near the beginning. It’s totally strange and incongruous. B

Grouch who’d like it the most: I’d definitely say Jared, but I saw it with him and I know he wasn’t fond of it. I think his problem was that I mentioned I heard it described as “Norwegian Love Actually” and it’s definitely not as cheery as that film. Still, I think it’s more up his alley compared to the other guys.

I took a long break between posts about the AFI Latin American Film Festival to go to, well, Latin America. Two weeks eating steak in Argentina make me an expert now, right?

Carancho, Argentina, dir: Pablo Trapero

Here’s a hint to other travelers: don’t watch a movie about how dangerous your destination is just days before leaving. Carancho is set on Argentina’s dangerous roads and made me worried to jump in a cab while I was there.

The plot revolves around a dirty lawyer who chases ambulances in Buenos Aires, signing victims to represent, then pocketing most of the insurance settlements. Or sometimes he skips the chasing and just stages the accidents himself. The life is weighing on him, but his attempts to exit the business are stymied by his criminally-connected boss. Meanwhile, he begins a relationship with a paramedic.

The film is good, but uneven. The lawyer’s plight is more interesting than the paramedic’s and it’s one of those movies that is better thematically than narratively. In other words, it’s more interesting thinking about it later than sitting through it. The lawyer is fascinating and he is more than the simple “bad guy looking to for a way out” stock character. I loved the ending, especially the very, very end, which is a bit deus ex machina but perfect.

Argentina nominated Carancho for the Foreign Language Oscar. It is coming off a win in the category last year with The Secret in Their Eyes and the two films share star Ricardo Darín, so it’s sure to get some attention. I doubt it will grab a nomination, however. Scott Cooper, who directed Crazy Heart, is said to be in line to direct an American remake.


Bad Day to Go Fishing (Mal día para pescar), Uruguay, dir: Álvarao Brechner

This is sort of like the South American The Wrestler. A washed up East German professional wrestler travels around dinky South American towns challenging locals. His manager sets up the bouts and fixes the outcomes while convincing his frustrated star to stick to it and not return home. In one town, a capable opponent refuses to be bought and the prize money the challenger stands to win would bankrupt the traveling star.

This one’s a bit of a bore. I wouldn’t say it fully drags, but the lack of progress in the middle wore on me. Part of that may have been that I thought I knew where the plot was heading. Happily I was wrong and the ending is terrific. All in all a decent film.

 

And that brings to an end our coverage of the AFI Latin American Film Festival. Also see Part 1 and Part 2. I had a nice time over those few weeks and it was a good way to get ready for my trip (and tune up my Spanish). AFI does some interesting programs throughout the year and hopefully I’ll be able to take some in.

I guess it’s no surprise that the most economically unequal region in the world produces plenty of films about class. The Widows of Thursdays was sort of about that, but the two I’m discussing today are even more explicit.


Southern District (Zona sur), Bolivia, dir: Juan Carlos Valdivia

A portrait of a white upper-class family that lives in a villa in a rich part of La Paz. The matriarch is divorced and her children are a lesbian college student, a teenage son that spends his time partying and having sex, and a five-year-old son. Two Indian servants round out the household.

Vadivia puts the camera in the middle of a room and gives it at least one full rotation as the scene unfolds. The technique is immersive and interesting. It’s also quite effective since the film concentrates on the characters’ interactions and allows the viewer to pick up subtle cues rather than developing much of a plot. There are some visual flourishes that I thought went over the top, but otherwise it’s a fascinating film.

Southern District was Bolivia’s submission for last year’s Foreign Language Oscar race but was not nominated.

Chance, Panama, dir: Abner Benaim

Another movie dealing with a rich white family’s interactions with its native servants, but it’s about as different as possible. When the family is about to head out on a pricey weekend vacation even though they haven’t paid their staff for weeks, the maids decide to fight back. They take the family hostage and demand a ransom. But it turns out the father has blown through the family’s wealth, so the maids have to get creative.

I think the film has designs on being a commentary on class, but I’m not sure it works terribly well in that regard. I guess it has some lessons to impart, but they’re hardly novel. Instead, it works very well as a broad comedy. I think if it was remade for American audiences it would star Tim Allen and there would be at least one flatulence joke. It’s quite funny, though the jokes are pretty obvious. It’s very much an enjoyable crowd-pleaser and it had me happy leaving the theater.

The AFI theater here in the DC area is running its 21st annual Latin American Film Festival this month and I’m el Gruñon de Oro en la escena.

Why? Partly because all of the news out of Venice, Toronto, and Telluride has me film fest-happy and a Toronto trip aborted at the last minute left a hole in my heart. Partly because some of these films will have Oscar aspirations in the Foreign Language category. But also because these little film festivals pull some obscure titles. When I sit down with a film festival catalogue I find guidance on what films are worthwhile from some far-flung internet sites. Hopefully I can turn some random Googlers onto a hidden gem, or steer them away from an elusive stinker.

Optical Illusions (Ilusiones ópticas), Chile, dir: Cristián Jiménez

In a southern Chilean city, six people look for meaning in their lives through science, consumerism, and capitalism. One struggles when he loses his job. Another wants to save up for breast enhancement surgery. A third chases a married woman he catches shoplifting at his job as a mall security job. Another formerly-blind man has his sight restored with a new surgical procedure only to discover he might have preferred staying blind.

It’s meant to be a humorous, wry look at modern life. I didn’t really think it went anywhere. Everyone’s lives intersect, but not in interesting ways. Each character’s story is superficially interesting. A man navigating the ridiculousness of his company’s outplacement phase where he sits in a room all day until he can find a new job is an interesting situation. It just doesn’t really develop. There’s not much in the way of conflict or characters that learn or change. By the time several of the characters end up in the hospital I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to come away with.

It also feels very, very long for its 105 minute run time. Unfortunately, this is one to skip.

The Widows of Thursdays (Las viudas de los jueves), Argentina, dir: Marcelo Piñeiro

I’ll often call something “melodramatic” and mean it pejoratively. But here is a film that’s melodramatic and delightfully so. It’s not overly dramatic, but it revels in its domestic drama without turning over-the-top.

The setting is an upscale gated community near Buenos Aires in the lead up to Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse. The four main families have the full-range of suburban problems: job insecurity, marital strife, unruly children, not to mention some darker troubles. But they also exhibit a lot of love and self-confidence (and self-awareness) so they are not caricatures or soap opera characters.

Three of the men are found dead in a swimming pool and the film uses flashbacks to tell of the time leading up to their demise. I found it very effective as the film is not about how they die but why. It’s an engrossing look at a certain type of community at a certain point in time. The ending didn’t do much for me, but the journey is terribly entertaining and enjoyably – yes – melodramatic that I didn’t mind.

Note: the AFI has it translated as The Widows of Thursdays but the film itself translates the title as The Thursday Widows, which makes more sense and just plain sounds better. Maybe the latter title will be used in the future. Or, Thursday Night Widows, as per some sources. Or Thursday’s Widows.

As the Grouch On the Scene at this year’s Film Fest DC, I didn’t only take in fun genre flicks that, with a language change to English, could pass for good multiplex fare. I also got to see some more artistic films. Yes, films that take their time. Films that take art seriously. Films that are about something.

In other words, films that the other Grouches would have hated.

Actually, I only really liked one of the following four anyway.

Medal of Honor (Medalia de onoare), Romania

The catalog description read like it was written just for me. Romanian New Wave? Yes! The other films I’ve seen in this movement have been fascinating. A mid-90s setting as the country shifts to capitalism? Goodness, yes! A plot about a man who receives a medal of honor for actions he can’t remember? A thousand times yes! Who wouldn’t be interested in a film about the subjective nature of history and the impermanent, unreliable character of memory?

Those themes didn’t play out quite as I hoped. For a better example – also Romanian – check out 12:08 East of Bucharest. I’d say Medal of Honor is more about an old man confused in a new world.

Ion I. Ion is in his 70s, living in a cramped apartment with a wife who barely speaks to him. He has rambling, frustrating conversations consisting mostly of complaints with anyone he crosses. His son is a doctor in Canada and won’t speak to him after his father turned him in for trying to escape Romania before Ceausescu fell. It was for his own good, he said.

When Ion receives notice that he will be awarded a medal for World War II bravery, he doesn’t know why. He served, but he doesn’t remember doing anything particular brave. But the medal means a lot to him and gives him some prestige with his cohorts. It even gives him an in to get his son to speak to him. So as time goes on he convinces himself of his own acts of bravery. After all, the government gave him a medal and it can’t be wrong, right?

This film is Ion, a man befuddled by the new world order. The plot unfolds slowly and without many surprises. It’s the deep treatment of Ion that allows the film to succeed, though two hours with this stubborn man is plenty for a filmgoer. He’s the guy in your office who you avoid because you know he’ll pull you into a conversation about himself for twenty minutes.

Other Romanian New Wave films I’ve seen have had distinctive visual styles. Medal of Honor doesn’t adhere to that style as much and is filmed more conventionally, though the characteristic long shots still appear from time to time.

Grouch who’d hate it the most: Jared’s dislike for slow films pushes him to the top as Adam would at least see the bureaucratic absurdities in the film as reinforcing his goofy libertarian world view.

Louise-Michel, France

This is one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve ever seen. I hated it. You should not see it and I will tell you everything that happens so you can get a taste of the ridiculousness of it.

Louise is a hulking woman working in a provincial French garment factory staffed with other women. She’s keeping her head low after doing time for blowing off a banker’s head with a shotgun (graphically portrayed). The women arrive at work one day to find the factory completely empty. Their union gives them a severance and they pool their money for their next venture. Why not hire an assassin to kill the man who shut down the factory, suggests Louise. And so that’s what they decide.

Louise meets Michel, a frumpy security guard who lives in a trailer park. He takes the job but soon realizes he’s unable to kill. The solution? Hire his terminally ill cousin to walk into a party, shoot the factory boss, and then shoot herself. She gets to end her misery and Michel gets the money. Win-win! She pulls off the job.

But it turns out the now-dead boss wasn’t the real boss as the factory was part of a large multinational. So it’s time to pack up another terminally-ill acquaintance of Michel’s, this one wheelchair-bound, and road trip to Brussels. But before the man can wheel his bomb into the boardroom he gets struck and killed by a bus. No matter since the real boss is in the English Channel tax haven of Jersey anyway.

At about this point we find out that Louise is actually a man posing as a woman to land a job after his prison stint. And Michel is actually a woman living as a man. Why the gender switcharoo? I have no earthly idea. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film and is just an element of pure anarchy, fitting since Louise-Michel was actually a historical anarchist. Good thing they found each other, too, because a bickering relationship has given way to affection. Aw!

After stowing away to Jersey, the pair find the company executive. They break into his compound and slaughter everyone on site: the boss, security personnel, servants, babies. Then they go to jail where, nine months later, Michel has their baby. The factory ladies are happy to hear the joyous news and begin their plot to take out the real owners: a California pension fund. The end.

Mind boggling.

Grouch who’d hate it the most: Adam, since at least Brian and Jared would relish in the absurdity.

Alamar, Mexico

We (ahem, Jared) often give films crap because “nothing happens.” Alamar takes this concept to a whole new level. I met my girlfriend after the film and she asked how it was. “Nothing happened,” I said.

“But the catalog actually says that nothing happens,” she replied.

“You don’t understand,” I said. “Really nothing happens. At all. Nothing.”

Alamar follows three generations of men living in a stilt house over the sea in Quintana Roo. But this isn’t Cancun. It’s 73 minutes of the three of them fishing and snorkeling and hanging out in the hut. Skills are passed along from older to younger generations before the young grandson returns to his Italian mother in Rome.

Do you remember the short film segments on Sesame Street that were nothing but footage of kids playing? Like five minutes of just kids finger painting and nothing else? That’s what this reminded me of. There’s no drama, no conflict. Just footage of teaching the grandson how to fish, making bird friends, and feeding crocodiles. I think it’s meant to be a story about passing along tradition in a changing world and of simple father-son bonds even as fate would pull them apart. But these themes are so understated as to be almost nonexistent.

The setting is very pretty and I got by for most of it thinking that it would be nice to be hanging out in a hammock on the world’s second largest barrier reef. But mostly I was bored to death.

Grouch who’d hate it the most: This film is basically the antithesis to Jared. The anti-Jared. If Jared were to watch this film I think they’d cancel each other out and both would cease to exist.

Lourdes, France

Lourdes is a Pyrenees French town known for several visions of the Virgin Mary in the mid-19th century. Now it hosts thousands of ailing pilgrims per year who pray, visit holy sites, and bathe in holy water in hopes of receiving a miracle. The film follows one quadriplegic on a group pilgrimage. She interacts with the other pilgrims and the helpers while visiting all the important Lourdes sites. The first part of the film lets us into this world full of pain, frustration, faith, and desperation. I really dug this part.

When a miracle seems to happen in the group, the reaction is muted. Everyone’s happy someone received their miracle, but they question: Why her? And why not me? What did she do that I didn’t? I’m more devout. She didn’t seem to pray as hard as me at the shrine.

It’s a beauty pageant where the infirm are contestants and God is the sole judge. The losers smile and hug the victor while being upset it wasn’t them. Then there’s the remorse for the jealousy.

It was this exploration of the conflicting emotion and questioning of faith that I looked forward to most going in. Unfortunately it didn’t work too well for me as it didn’t seem to dig deeper than to confirm that there are indeed conflicting emotions. Most of it is way too underplayed; the periphery characters feel most of this conflict while we watch our blank-slate protagonist. And when it strays from the understatement it swings wildly to shrill melodrama. It’s a shame too because for about a third of the film I was entirely on board.

Grouch who’d hate it the most: Adam due to his hatred of all things French.

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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