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The 2012 edition of Filmfest DC (aka the Washington DC International Film Festival) wrapped up well over a month ago and I’ve been slow as usual to get up my recaps. But I felt this was sort of an underwhelming festival so it was tougher to get myself moving. While there were few films that I actively disliked, most of the selections I saw were fine if not terribly memorable. I’m not even going to bother guessing which of my colleagues would love or hate a film the most.

I will use my usual method of dividing the films into art house and genre fare, but given this year’s theme of international comedies, my schedule leaned heavily towards the latter.

King Curling (Kong Curling), Norway, dir: Ole Endresen

My desire to see this film began and ended with the word “curling.” Genre, plot, pedigree: none of it matters because how often do you get to see a movie about The Roaring Game?

It turns out King of Curling is an average entry in the silly sports comedy genre with an extra quirky bent, like a Wes Anderson version of Dodgeball by way of Norway. In fact, I suspect director Ole Endresen has much of Anderson’s oeuvre in his DVD collection because there are a lot of similarities in style and theme.

The king of curling is Truls, a perfectionist skip of a championship-winning team. But his obsession with perfection drives him over the edge, landing him into a mental institution for a decade. Upon his release, his wife is given control over his life and he must stay away from the ice. But when he hears his mentor needs a life-saving surgery and the upcoming national curling championships has a winners’ pot of exactly the amount needed, Truls tries to get his team back together while not succumbing to his obsessions.

The curling takes a backseat to everything else in the film (and it doesn’t even bother getting the curling right). It’s really about intensely quirky characters in various stages of melancholy and midlife crises. Truls’s three teammates are now consumed with anger attributed to an inability to find a comfortable pillow, seeking rare birds, or hitting on anything that breathes. He escapes his disintegrating marriage on a motor scooter while wearing a bathrobe. And if all that isn’t enough, the shots and color palette are also Andersonian.

In the end it’s fairly forgettable, wrapped up in its quirks instead of finding true humor or making coherent points. I didn’t hate it or anything, but it didn’t do much for me and even at 75 minutes I couldn’t have seen it lasting even one more minute. C.

Headhunters (Hodejegerne), Norway, dir: Morten Tyldum

Here is a comedic thriller that manages to grow both progressively darker and zanier. Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter in Oslo who also happens to be an art thief, using his business contacts as marks. He partly does this to continue living beyond his means in a beautiful house with a wife that’s out of his league. When he chooses the wrong victim he has a new problem: finding himself being chased by an ex-special forces assassin.

Roger barely manages to survive several run-ins with the super assassin while simultaneously fleeing the police. Part of the charm of Headhunters is that these situations become more twisted, growing more dark and gruesome but also totally bonkers. As his pursuer follows him to a cabin in the woods you may begin to guess how Roger might get away but you will be quite wrong.

The plot’s twists and turns provide great entertainment and the various threads come together in a satisfying if somewhat pat manner. Headhunters opened in US theaters in April and is still in release. I give it a hearty recommendation: A-.

Robot & Frank, USA, dir: Jake Schreier

Sometimes films just can’t live up to their premises. Maybe some premises are just too hard to live up to? Robot & Frank imagines a near future where helper robots are common tools. Frank Langella’s Frank receives a robot from his son when he begins to show signs of dementia. He’s not fond of the imposition until he realizes the robot’s steady mechanics and emotionless logic would be helpful in his prior profession: burglary.

Unfortunately that’s about all there is to it. The film takes aim at a few points but mostly lands only glancing blows. There are potential points to be made about our relationship with technology and how it shifts our relationships with each other, or a broader look at aging and dependence. There’s a potentially poignant moment where Frank can erase the robot’s memory to cover his tracks after his crime but struggles. The robot has become his friend; can he do to the robot what dementia is doing to him? But it doesn’t make much of an impact.

Instead the film settles for cheap humor, a sweet old man with a new friend story, and a cliched look at the impact of dementia (which sure seems to only appear when the film finds it convenient). It’s harmless and pleasant enough, but I wish it gave more thought to what it was trying to do with its knock-out sci-fi concept. C+.

War of the Arrows (Choijongbyeonggi Hwal), South Korea, dir: Kim Han-min

As a child, Nam Yi promises his dying father he will protect his sister, Ja In. Years later, rampaging Manchus take her and much of their village captive and Nam Yi sets off to bring her home. That’s about it for the plot in this Korean historical epic. The story simply serves to move the action along to the next fight sequence.

And for the most part that’s fine. The archery battles are fun and provide something different from the usual sword fighting in these types of movies. There are some clever touches, like an arrow with a huge blunt head that can blast through obstacles like a mini cannonball. All the action sequences tend to blend together into a big blur and it is somewhat hard to care about most of the characters with such a thin plot. But the action is entertaining and the tone is light-hearted enough that I had a nice time. B-.

Eliminate: Archie Cookson, UK, dir: Rob Holder

One of my favorite aspects of In Bruges is the series of bizarre, fatalistic shootouts near the end. None of the antagonists really dislike each other but they are upholding their own version of a moral code. One characters feels it’s his duty to kill another; his target feels like it’s his duty to run, though he doesn’t really care that much. They take time outs to set ground rules based on what they know of the situation at the time: “I’ll escape from the back of the building and you run around and try to shoot me from there,” “For now I’ll just shoot your leg since it doesn’t do me any good to kill you now but I need to hurt you somehow.”

Eliminate: Archie Cookson stretches that idea over the entire movie. Archie is a former British spy with a career in decline. He works in a translation lab with a bottle of whiskey by his side and goes home to an empty apartment after his wife kicked him out. In his hands ends up a recording whose owners will stop at nothing to keep secret. Hence he becomes marked for death.

The hired assassin is an old friend of Archie’s. The guy massacres Archie’s office when looking for the tape but later meets Archie at a diner. They exchange pleasantries and reminisce over better times. It’s not a lamentful conversation but rather somewhat detached and fatalistic, like they both know what their roles are meant to be: killer and victim. The killer gives Archie a day to find and return the tapes in exchange for his family’s safety.

Archie tries to figure out how to save himself, which sets up a number of chatty shootouts and deadpan conversations. All told it’s an interesting idea to pair this sort of tone with a spy thriller. But it doesn’t entirely work as I don’t think there’s enough of interest happening on screen to make this type of humor pay off time and again across 80+ minutes. It’s also not very believable in the world it creates, that the two sides can lob witty barbs as they hunt each other while dozens of innocents are bloodily and casually dispatched for laughs.

The crowd in my theater laughed a good deal during the screening (and a good deal more than me) so it’s safe to say others may very well get a lot more out of it than I did. But it needed somewhat more polish to sustain its ideas to really please me. C.

Superlasico, Denmark, dir: Ole Christian Madsen

Superclasico made it to the final short-list of nine films in the running for a Foreign Language Oscar nomination and I have no idea how. It’s not that I didn’t like it – I found it perfectly pleasant – but I can’t imagine anyone feeling strongly about it. How did so many voters leave loving this Danish film about a man traveling to Argentina to win back his wife so much that it beat out dozens of other movies?

While in Buenos Aires, the hapless hero must contend with his wife’s new beau, a soccer superstar on the verge of a lucrative move to Europe. He wanders about the city being a general sad-sack and encountering zany characters, like a gruff wine producer and a sexually confident old maid. Meanwhile, the couple’s son runs off to rather creepily obsess over a girl and the wife tries to deal with the chaos her life has plunged into.

I enjoyed the film’s use of Buenos Aires, including a fun sequence where everyone gets lost in the Recoleta cemetery, echoing an experience of my own. It manages to be pleasant in an amusingly quirky way. But it seems to be trying to make some points about modern love that never entirely hit. B-.

Cousinhood (Primos), Spain, dir: Daniel Sánchez Arévalo

Buried somewhere in Cousinhood is a fantastic movie. Alas it has to settle for being merely very good. The film uses the now-common formula of making cogent points about modern life in the middle of profane humor and bromances. This story follows Julian, Diego, and Jose, three cousins who repair to the seaside town where they summered as kids after Julian is left at the alter. He experienced first love with Martina in that town and hopes he can rekindle something with her.

While he hopes to mend his broken heart by getting into Martina’s bed, Jose endeavors to manage his hypochondria on his own without his girlfriend and Diego tries to reconcile a local drunk with his prostitute daughter. All sorts of hijinks, witty banter, and dirty jokes ensue. Each of the plot threads evolve and conclude in satisfying, thoughtful ways without straying too far into patness.

Director Sánchez Arévalo was in attendance at this screening. The movie was an autobiographical and cathartic experience for him: a project for himself after getting dumped and harkening back to his own seaside summers. My impression is that he scribbled out a script and he and his friends headed for the coast. The script could have used a little more polish to hit home its punchlines and themes. It also suffers from basic structural deficiencies like a confused timeline that insists the film takes place over the course of a weekend, which seems impossible given the number of events, encounters, and – I think – days and nights depicted. And yet it still overwhelmingly succeeds and left me with only a small wistful thought of what it could have been and ranks as my favorite narrative film of the fest.

A US version would probably get pilloried by critics for its treatment of its women, and appropriately so. Julian and Jose’s girlfriends are harpies. Martina is some sort of surreally selfless and wise fantasy who puts up with Julian’s bullshit for some unknown reason with no apparent regard for her own desires. I guess even in Spain male filmmakers can devise their perfect women: super hot and caring only to make their men happy. But even though she’s a caricature, at least she’s the most positive and likeable character in the film. She isn’t real but the audience will love her. A-.

August 2020