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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

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