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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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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.

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