Tag Archives: Foreign Drama films

Tanna-2016

Tanna-2016

Director-Bentley Dean, Martin Butler

Starring-Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa

Reviewed August 18, 2017

Grade: A

Tanna, named for the tiny South Pacific nation of Vanuatu in close proximity to Australia, is a small film made in 2016 and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award. A marvelous work in every way, the crowning achievement is how this particular film was made. Shot entirely on the island with a minimal budget and the use of non actors, the result is  a  romantic, yet tragic  love story that will move its viewer to tears in its innocence and beauty. Tanna is shot in the  Nauvhal and Nafe languages.

Film-makers reportedly spent seven months in the village of Yakel, immersing themselves in the culture and civilization of the tribe. The people are the last of their kind, rebuffing nearby colonial and Christian influences in favor of their own traditional values and beliefs. The story that the film tells is based on a true story of love inflicting two tribe members and played out by the villagers- each portraying a role very close to their own lives and hearts.

As the movie opens, we are immediately exposed to a tribal community going about their daily life- they wash, hunt, and wander through the jungles exploring their natural surroundings. The men wear simple penis sheaths and the women are mostly topless. We sense a great community and a sense of togetherness. When Dain and Wawa  (I am admittedly unsure if these are the “actors” names or the real-life people) lay eyes on one another from across the jungle, they instantly fall in love and begin to secretly spend time with one another in a tender and romantic courtship.

A traditional rule of the tribe is arranged marriage, which becomes a major problem for Dain and Wawa as their love blossoms. When a neighboring tribe attacks the Shaman over a dispute regarding bad crops, Dain wants revenge. When cooler heads prevail, the leaders of each tribe decide that Wawa will marry a member of the other tribe, which leaves she and Dain distraught and desperate- their love is then tested in the ultimate way.

The individuals who play both “Dain” and “Wawa” offer an authenticity and  truth that astounds as reportedly, in addition to never having acted, neither had never seen a camera before, but both pour their souls into the characters they portray. This also goes for the little sister of Wawa, who is a goldmine in her honest portrayal. In fact, all the performances are rich.

Visually, Tanna is just breathtaking. The exotic lushness of the green jungles mixed with the gorgeous running streams and waterfalls are one thing, but the oozing volcano that inhabits the island is both colorful and picturesque during the night scenes.  In fact, the entire film is shot outdoors and is captured incredibly well. In this way, the film immerses the audience wholly in the tribal world.

Comparisons to the William Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet must be made. The film is a romantic tragedy of epic proportions and the doomed couple share  everlasting love and a bond that can never be broken. The truth in this tale is genuine as the couple must agonize over a decision to either remain together or risk the threat of Dain’s life and Wawa’s freedom if they return to their native village. The film is almost poetic, never more so than in the final act, which is set upon the glorious spitting volcano.

Sadly, films similar in both richness and honesty are rarely made in modern times, but that just makes Tanna stand out as a treasure in beauty and thought. Interestingly, because of the real-life couple’s determination and strength, the age-old tradition of chosen marriages has since been lifted and true love encouraged.

Punish Me-2005

Punish Me-2005

Director-Angelina Maccarone

Starring-Maron Kroymann, Kostja Ullman

Reviewed August 9, 2017

Grade: A-

Punish Me (sometimes titled Hounded) is a provocative 2005 German language film that pushes boundaries and titillates the viewer with its racy themes of masochism and pedophilia that will be way too much for your average viewer to marinate and digest. In fact, some may be completely turned off (rather than on) by this film. However, for the edgy thinker, the film is quite the find. Unique, extreme, and thoughtful, Punish Me is an experience to remember.

Shot entirely in black and white (rare for twenty-first century cinema) the film appears bleak and harsh, cold almost- and that is no doubt an intentional measure. The grizzled German landscape (the city is unidentified), gives the film an interesting and effective cinematography, transforming the black and white colors exceptionally well, whether the scene is set in daylight or night time. Something about the black and white decision is genius.

Elsa Seifert (Maren Kroymann) is a fifty year old probation officer. Married and raising a teenage daughter, she appears to live a stable, middle class existence. When one of her charges, Jan (Kostja Ullman), a sixteen year old, handsome young man, gives a pursuit of her, their relationship turns into an obsessive, lustful situation for both. Jan, you see, likes to be sexually beaten, and, at first, hesitant, Elsa slowly gets immersed in Jan’s world.   When other characters begin to catch wind of the situation between Jan and Elsa, the film really becomes intense.

Astounding to me is the fact that Punish Me is directed by a woman, Angelina Maccarone. This both surprises, and impresses me. Thought-provoking is the female perspective in the film. Elsa is not an unhappy woman- though she nervously chain-smokes in almost every scene. She initially has no intention of being sucked into Jan’s eccentricities. As she awkwardly spanks him in their first steamy, sexual encounter, she is gentle, yet she quickly intensifies. Is she insecure with her middle-aged body? She certainly gets carried away by Jan’s charms, putting both career and husband at risk. Can she stop herself before it’s too late?

One wonders a few things- How would this film feel if it were directed by a man? Maccarone centers the perspective on Elsa more than she does Jan- or are we to assume that Jan, at sixteen, is merely experimenting with his sexuality and therefore not the more interesting character?  This was my determination. Elsa has way more to lose than Jan does. We are not sure why Jan is so troubled to begin with or why he likes to be beaten- was he abused by his parents? sexually or otherwise? What deep rooted issues does Elsa have?

I imagined the complexities offered had the film gone something like this- Elsa is a male character. Would man on boy be too much? Is female on boy safer? One wonders, but if Elsa was a male and Jan a female, I do not think the film would be half as controversial or daring. It would seem more exploitative, or dare I say, conventional. Instead, Maccarone, turns the film into a psychoanalytical feast as we wonder what makes both Elsa and Jan tick and why they enjoy the discipline scene? Perhaps there is not clearly defined answer.

The supporting characters are not explored very well, other than a fellow troubled girl that Jan beds, commenting that she is too fat (she is not) or Elsa’s husband being revealed to have once had an affair with another woman pronouncing “it was only sex not love”. From this, one draws the conclusion that Elsa and her husband will reunite and resume their middle class life together, but what will become of Jan?

Thanks to effortless direction and good choices by Maccarone, she makes Punish Me an examine-worthy look at sexuality, desire, and emotions. Many will loathe the film or not bother to give it the time of day based on the subject matter, but the film is a treat for the creative cinematic lover and lovers of analysis.

The Salesman-2016

The Salesman-2016

Director-Asghar Farhadi

Starring-Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti

Reviewed August 2, 2017

Grade: A

The Salesman is the latest film directed by Asghar Farhadi to win the coveted Best Foreign Language film Oscar-2011’s A Separation also won the crown and 2013’s The Past, nestled in between the other films, is nearly as good. All contain mesmerizing and gripping plot elements that leave the audience in good discussion long after the film has concluded- that is what good storytelling is all about.

Rich with empathetic elements and good, crisp writing, Farhadi has quickly become one of my favorite international film-makers as each of his pictures are as powerful in humanity as their counterparts. Along with fellow contemporary Claude Chabrol (admittedly around a lot longer), similarities abound between the two creative maestros in the form of thrills, mystery, and differing character allegiances. I adore how both directors incorporate the same actors into their films.

In clever fashion, Farhadi incorporates classic stage production, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, into the story and the play and the film contain similar themes- humiliation and secrets.  Young and good-looking couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are community theater actors living a happy existence in metropolitan Tehran, Iran. They have a wonderful array of friends and companions and are popular with their close neighbors and theater buddies. Emad, a well-liked high school teacher, and Rana, a housewife, make a perfect couple, but their bond will soon be severely tested.

Forced to move from their crumbling apartment into temporary quarters owned by a theater friend, they are unaware that the former tenant worked as a prostitute and had a bevy of gentleman callers. What they do know is that she left the unit in a hurried way, leaving behind all of her belongings for them to sift through. One night when Rana is home alone, she inadvertently allows a mystery person to enter, which leads to a terrible incident. The film centers around determining what exactly happened between Rana and the intruder. Is she hiding the truth? Can she and Emad get past the implications of the events?

The audience is left  with a powerful and intriguing mystery to absorb and unravel. Throughout most of the film questions are brought to the surface to be thought through. Who was the intruder? Will Emad exact revenge? What happened?

The brilliance of The Salesman is that we, as the audience, never actually see the incident inside Emad and Rana’s apartment take place, so we are baffled by what has transpired. We merely witness the after-effects and the questions the characters (mainly Emad) have. Is Rana being truthful? Did she know the man who entered the apartment? Was it even a man or perhaps the former female tenant? With Farhadi, anything is possible, but rest assured, a startling climax will ensue.

Compelling and the pure genius of the film is how the viewer’s loyalties will not only be divided by character, but will also change within an actual scene. In one tense sequence, a heroic character becomes the villain and slowly returns to being the hero again-talk about a topsy turvy experience! The Salesman is smothered with a roller coaster of emotions and feelings.

In fact, the way that more than one of the central character’s change their motivations is largely the film greatest success. Rana, Emad, and “the Man” are flawed, complex characters, and what a treat it must have been for these actors to sink their teeth into these roles.

A special mention must be given to the other actors involved in the film. The Salesman is fraught with great performances big and small. In addition to the leads (Hosseini and Alidoosti), the supporting cast exudes immeasurable talent. Farid Sajadhosseini as “the Man” is simply astounding in his performance and his family members, appearing largely in the conclusion of the film, deserve much praise. These small characters appear in the most pivotal time of the film and give it the needed acting chops required to pull off the end result.

Asghar Farhadi hits another one out of the park with The Salesman and how deserving is the Oscar win for this man- a director whose films are always sure to be compelling, thought provoking treats. I cannot wait for his next film.

A Man Called Ove-2016

A Man Called Ove-2016

Director-Hannes Holm

Starring-Rolf Lassgard

Reviewed June 12, 2017

Grade: A

A Man Called Ove is a wonderful 2016 Swedish film, honored with a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, that is just a darling watch-in fact, the film is wonderful. Equal parts whimsical, humorous, and heartbreaking, the film churns up emotions in me brought to the surface, and that is quite telling about the experience. The film is magical in a sense. Lovely scenery of Sweden also abounds, making A Man Called Ove an unexpected marvel and certainly worth checking out for good film lovers.

Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a fifty-nine year old curmudgeon living in suburban Sweden. He is the keeper of law and order in his quaint, little community of bungalows, regularly ridiculing rule breakers and the oblivious with torrents of shouts and insults. He despises several of his neighbors including a beautiful cat that saunters around the complex as if she owns the place.  When an interracial family moves in next door to Ove, his life forever changes as he becomes acquainted with the husband, the wife, and their two young girls. In the midst of his new found entertainment, Ove regularly visits his deceased wife’s gravestone, bringing her flowers, and plotting his own suicide. Through flashbacks, we are taken on a journey through the past as we learn all there is to know about Ove.

The film as a whole is a beautiful experience and , admittedly, I worried at first that A Man Called Ove would be too lighthearted and sentimental- just the type of foreign language film the Academy far too often recognizes in lieu of darker, more complex (and in my mind, deserving) films. A Man Called Ove is not exactly dark, but certainly not trivial or fluff either. I found the film rich with great writing and character development.

Romance is also a major theme of the film, but not in a corny way. For a good portion of the running time, Ove’s deceased wife Sonja, is a complete mystery. We only know that Ove misses her terribly and cannot wait to be with her in the afterlife. In fact, we only get brief glimpses of her photo on the table. When finally introduced to the story, we see them both in younger years, filled with hope and promise. I beamed with delight during these wonderful moments. The scenes of their innocent first dates and the connection they develop are heartwarming and innocent.

Later, when Sonja’s story is wholly explored, we come to a new appreciation for Ove and why he is the way he is in present times- we understand him better and the character develops. Some of the paths that life takes Ove and Sonja are tear inducing and emotional, largely due to the character and personality that Sonja possesses. On the heels of the Ove and Sonja back-story, we are treated to scenes of Ove and his father, in the past. His mother dying way too young, the pair develop an unrelenting bond that is severed only by tragic circumstances.

Ove’s constant bungled attempts at suicide (he buys poor quality rope to hang himself, a visitor interrupts his attempt to breathe in toxic garage fumes, and he ends up saving a life when he intends to be hit by a train) are the comic turns that the film mixes perfectly with the heavy drama.

A perfect balance of drama, comedy, churning emotions, and heartbreaking honesty, A Man Called Ove is a pure treat in modern cinema and is highly recommended for those seeking a treasure with a full array of characteristics.

Fellini’s Roma-1972

Fellini’s Roma-1972

Director-Federico Fellini

Starring-Britta Barnes, Peter Gonzales

Reviewed June 5, 2017

Grade: A-

Fellini’s Roma is a trippy experience through Rome during two differing time periods. As with all Fellini films, the film is meant to be experienced rather than analyzed. One must nestle into the life that Fellini offers on screen- in this instance the fabulous city of Rome, Italy in both positives and negatives. The experience was very good for me, as both a world of odd characters and of ancient Rome oozed from the screen in appealing and absurd fashion.

From a plot narrative- there is really not one. In fact, arguably the only character portrayed is, in fact, Rome herself. The film takes place in both the 1930’s as well as the 1970’s, and is said to be an autobiographical tale of director Fellini’s experiences growing up in Rome.  We see little Fellini as a youngster, experiencing the vast city for the first time and as a teenager now living in the city. Interestingly, the film traverses from both sets of time periods back and forth with really no rhyme nor reason.

Throughout the film, we see both the beauty and the ugliness of Rome- the majestic Colosseum and the dirty entrails of the gloomy city. Scenes of seedy brothels, mainly in the 1930’s, and a myriad of strange and scantily clad females prance before the cameras looking for a lucky score amid the droves of men lusting after them. Another depicts a fashion show, of sorts, taking place at the Vatican, involving nuns and priests in bizarre costumes.

The 1930’s setting is my personal favorite. Gritty, cold, and harsh, the bleakness of Rome is depicted. Unsurprisingly, this has much to do with the historical time period. Since Mussolini was in power, and on the eve of World War II, the darkness is apparent. In a frightening scene, bomb sirens wail as a women shrieks in panic. The brothel scenes are downright creepy and the subsequent theatre scenes involving drunken, rowdy, young men leering and cursing at the entertainment, is a peculiar slice of life sequence.

In contrast, the 1970’s sequences are layered with more beautiful depictions of the city. Brighter colors are depicted, and there appear to be either scientists or explorers digging into ancient ruins and finding gorgeous art that is subsequently ruined by the blowing air. We also see hippy types basking in the sunlight. Again, much of this film is largely open to interpretation.

I adore Fellini’s Roma in terms of an expression of the city of Rome as an art form, but the film is highly unconventional- another plus for me. Sure, I may have desired to learn more about the bevy of creepy and potentially interesting characters, but I finished the film with an appreciation of Rome, unlike none I have ever known.

A startling final scene, in which legendary Italian film star, Anna Magnani, appears scantily clad, implied to be a prostitute, was filmed shortly before her untimely death at the age of sixty-five.

As a film, Fellini’s Roma is a wonderful history lesson, but also a lesson in interpretation and film appreciation. Most film goers are accustomed to a begin, middle, and an end, as well as some semblance of plot. Roma contains none of that, but rather, is mind opening and still fresh many years after its release, which is a true testament.

Spa Night-2016

Spa Night-2016

Director-Andrew Ahn

Starring-Joe Seo

Reviewed May 19, 2017

Grade: B+

On the surface, Spa Night may seem like a straight-ahead independent LGBT themed film (of which in recent years there is no shortage of), but the plot of the film is really twofold. Sure, it tells the coming of age story of a young man’s sexuality, but Spa Night is also a story of the boy’s Korean parents financial struggles and their desire to raise a son into a successful young man, sacrificing their own happiness in the process. The films tone is very subtle and the action moves slowly, but it is a sweet story and a relevant one.

David Cho is a shy Korean-American high school student on the cusp of going to college. His parents (who only speak Korean) have sadly recently lost their take-out restaurant in Los Angeles. The parents struggle to make ends meet (she by waitressing, he by doing odd moving jobs), while David takes SAT classes to ensure he get into a great college. David is also struggling with his sexuality and one night visits a local male spa with drunken friends. He gets a job there and begins to experience male on male shenanigans taking place on the sly in the spa, all the while developing his own blossoming sexual feelings.

David’s development in the story is key- he is resistant to coming out as gay because his parents are traditional Korean, constantly mentioning David finding a girlfriend and succeeding in school, becoming what they have failed to achieve. When, at one point, he fools around with another male in the spa, David insists on a no kissing policy. This reveals to the audience that he has issues with the intimacy with another male and in one compelling scene some self-loathing occurs. When he stares too long at a buddy in the bathroom, while both are inebriated, this clues in the friend, who is then distant towards David.

The film is enjoyable because there are two stories being told rather than one, which helps the film succeed. We also care a great deal about David’s parents, compassionately portrayed rather than the stereotypical “tiger mom” and a rigid father. Wanting only the best for him, and having no clue about his sexuality struggles, they trudge along with their own issues. The father drinks too much and the parents frequently squabble. This is a clue to the film because it explains why David is hesitant to mention anything to them, despite the fact that he is close to his parents.

I also enjoyed the slice of life and coming of age appeal that the film possesses. Several shots of day to day life in Los Angeles are shown, mainly as characters go about their daily routines. The budget allotted Spa Night must have certainly been minimal, but the lesson learned is that some really fantastic films are made for miniscule money, but as long as the characters are rich and the story humanistic, the film succeeds- this is the case in Spa Night.

Almost every single character is of Asian descent- I am guessing all Korean actors. This is another positive I give to Spa Night. In the cinematic world, where other cultures and races are woefully underutilized or still stereo-typically portrayed, how refreshing that Spa Night breaks some new ground with an LGBT centered film with Korean characters.

Spa Night was deservedly crowned the coveted John Cassavetes award at the 2016 Independent Spirit awards (for films made for under $500,000) and director Andrew Ahn is certainly a talented novice director to be on the watch for. He seems destined to tell good, interesting stories about people.

Elle-2016

Elle-2016

Director- Paul Verhoeven

Starring-Isabelle Huppert

Reviewed May 17, 2017

Grade: A-

Certain to evoke both disgust and intrigue from viewers brave enough to watch it all the way through, and hopefully ponder the character dynamics, Elle is a titillating French film that was showered with heaps of praise upon its release in 2016. Controversial without question, in large part by the films main character, Elle will undoubtedly divide film fans- some heralding the picture as greatness, others detesting it as too exploitive. Not an easy watch by any measure, one aspect is cemented in truth-Isabelle Huppert gives a fantastic performance in a complex and perverse role.

Unique even in its first scene, Michele Leblanc (Huppert) is a ruthless, alpha, business woman, who is raped and beaten by an intruder in her lavish Paris home. The violent act occurs in the very first scene immediately giving the film an “in your face” presence. When the rapist, who wears a ski mask, flees, Michele shakes off the incident with nary an emotional scar. Through backstory we learn that years ago Michele’s father brutally murdered many people and is imprisoned for life. Michele’s mother is an aging glamour girl who hires sexy male escorts. Michele’s son is engaged to a domineering pregnant woman, and her ex-husband is dating a younger woman. Michele lives a complicated life.

At first Michele, for all intents and purposes, seems like a sympathetic character and we feel her pain as she is taunted by a woman in a coffee shop for her fathers past deeds. To say nothing of her rape, we cringe when Michele hears noises and imagines the masked intruder returning to rape again, empathizing with the character. When Michele is harassed by the mystery man- he sends coy notes and leaves “gifts” in her home- we are scared for her. However, as the film goes along Michele’s obsession and other questionable actions, make the character tough to like. I also began to wonder if, perhaps, the entire film was being imagined or dreamed in Michele’s head!

As a fan of acclaimed film director, Claude Chabrol, Elle appears to be heavily influenced by him. Director Paul Verhoeven certainly must have studied his works. No slouch himself- female empowering sex films such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls that he directed, come to mind, he gives Elle a sleek and sexy feel. The fact that it is set in romantic Paris somehow helps and also makes the film glamorous and cultured. Verhoeven even weaves a whodunit into the story for much of the film until the rapist is revealed in shocking fashion.

If the film had ended with the big reveal, this would have made for a compelling, if not mainstream Lifetime television type film, but Elle really takes off from this point. Michele, already fancying her handsome rapist, actually begins a macabre relationship with the man, going so far as to act out the rape again- her fantasies coming true! This story turn may repel the average viewer, but to me, this turns the film into a completely left of center, layered, psychologically themed story. Elle is not a revenge tale or a film about a victimized woman, it is so much more.

What a dynamic performance Ruppert gives and here is why- she successfully makes Michele both sympathetic and reviled. Besides the aforementioned rape complexities, she despises her mother, sleeps with her best friends husband, and in a scene which arguably makes Michele cross the line in reprehensible behavior, she confesses her affair to best friend Anna, just when Anna is at her happiest moment- this is downright cruel! So, no, the audience does not completely sympathize with this character, but how layered does this make the character and what a treat for actress Ruppert to sink her teeth into a character like this one.

With a wounded yet cold central character-Elle-in large part thanks to exceptional direction by Verhoeven and a brilliant portrayal by Huppert, takes Elle into largely unchartered territory and brave waters to create a film that will make the viewer both think and loathe. Part nymphomaniac, wounded bird, and vicious shark, Elle contains a complex and memorable leading character.

Free Fall-2013

Free Fall-2013

Director-Stephan Lacant

Starring-Hanno Koffler, Max Riemelt

Reviewed May 3, 2017

Grade: A-

Free Fall is a 2013 German language film that is very reminiscent of the highly influential LGBT film, Brokeback Mountain, only set in Germany- during present times. The loneliness, struggles, and deceit that the characters face are similar in both films and both are arguably bleak as overall films. I, however, truly enjoyed this film and embraced the touching aspects and truthful writing.

In the case of Free Fall as compared with Brokeback Mountain, only one of the male characters is a family man- coming to terms with his sexuality in very bad timing, while the other male character is more comfortable in his own skin. A case could be made that a similar characterization is apparent in Brokeback. In both films, a love story develops between two men and outside forces thwart their happiness. The film is a very good watch and the love scenes particularly steamy and emotional.

Marc Borgmann is a young police officer, fresh out of the academy, living with his very pregnant girlfriend, Bettina. They are temporarily staying with Marc’s parents until the baby is born. Seemingly happy, Marc befriends a new recruit, Kay, and they begin a ritual of jogging together in the forest. Both men are young and handsome and very masculine- an aspect in a LGBT film that I personally find as a positive. Kay is much more brazen about his sexuality than Marc, and they eventually fall in love with the added pressure of their very macho surroundings, and Marc’s pregnant girlfriend to contend with.

Free Fall, as the title implies, is not a cheerful, romantic film, as a whole- nor is it completely bleak either. Yes, the love affair between Marc and Kay has some happy moments, but more often than not they face some sort of peril and do not get much time to relax and enjoy each other. As circumstances begin to unravel, Marc’s girlfriend slowly suspects something is going on with Marc, but when Kay is outed (the film suggests he purposely outs himself) during a gay nightclub raid, their lives spiral out of control.

The film itself is very realistic and does not come across as forced nor plot driven. The acting by both principal actors (Koffler and Riemelt) is quite strong and I buy their attraction instantly. The scenes where Marc questions whether the pair are buddies while internally fighting his attraction for Kay, are excellent and very passionate. The range of emotions on the face of actor, Koffler, is excellent. In fact, passion is felt during each and every scene the pair share together.

The way many of the supporting characters are portrayed, however, is disappointing,  yet also a brutal strength of the film. Marc’s parents are quite unsympathetic to either Marc or Kay and are written as stereotypical, anti-progressive and rigid. When Marc’s mother catches Marc and Kay kissing, she coldly chastises Marc for being “raised better than that”. In her mind being gay is bad- the father wholeheartedly sharing her beliefs. Another of the cops in the police academy is written as homophobic, but the film wisely writes Marc and Kay exceptionally well, proudly with none of the unfair effeminate qualities films and television still seem to cling to. The characters are not written for laughs, nor should they be. They are strong men.

The film wisely throws in a handful of supportive characters, like the police force as a whole- teaching and recognizing diversity and inclusion, and a fellow cop who is supportive of the situation with Marc and Kay, but most of the characters come across as harsh and unfeeling to same sex attraction.

The conclusion of the film is slightly disappointing as the story ends abruptly and in a rather unsatisfying way- rumors of a proposed sequel have circulated around the film. Certainly shot on a very small budget, the funding for a follow-up film must still be raised, which hopefully will occur. A nicer (and happier) ultimate resolution would be great.

American LGBT films, sometimes going too much the comical, or worse yet, the sappier route, can take a lesson from this treasure of a German language film. Free Fall is a humanistic, realistic, and brave film that I hope more people find themselves experiencing. The film will touch those who are either involved in or sympathetic towards the LGBT community.

The Visitor-2011

The Visitor-2011

Director-Tor Iben

Starring-Sinan Hancili, Engin Cert

Reviewed April 4, 2017

Grade: B-

The Visitor is a 2011 LGBT centered film that is set in Berlin, Germany, but features mainly Turkish characters. While the film tells a nice story and features some cool shots of the metropolitan city, it is rather amateurish in style,. The pieces of the film do not always come together or fit very well and there is no character development to speak of, but still, the film does have good intentions with a nice message and theme that deserves at least a few props.

The story involves a young male and female couple, Cibrial and Christine, who are dating. Cibrial works as a policeman and the pair seem to be in a happy relationship, enjoying walks and dinners together. One day, when Christine’s gay cousin, Stefan, comes to town, the relationship between Cibrail and Christine sours. The cousin is openly gay and comfortable with his own sexuality, while Cibrail secretly harbors feelings for the same sex, which he dares not tell Christine about, though she eventually catches on in dramatic fashion. Stefan is looking for action, cruising the city and parks for sex and companionship, while Cibrail is both lustful and jealous of Stefan.

Many scenes involve Cibrail looking longingly at Stefan and fantasizing about him. In that regard, the film teeters on being quite steamy and features more than one nude shower scene- this smoldering element helps the film avoid complete doldrums. Specifically, Cibrail showers alone during one scene, washing and presumably daydreaming about Stefan. But too many other scenes show a character jogging or walking around the park- too much like filler material.

The climax of the film is highly predictable as the two men find their way into each others arms, though the passion is not exactly evident to the audience. The lack of buildup is a negative aspect to the film because there is very little rooting value and too many questions. Is the film a love story? Is it supposed to be about Cibrail coming to terms with his own sexuality? Why do we not see more of a blowup scene between Cibrail and Christine? He simply moves out once she catches him in bed with Stefan and before we know it, Stefan and Cibrail passionately embrace and the film closes in celebration.

A side story involving a dead body found in the park- a park known for gay shenanigans- is included as Cibrail investigates the crime with his police partner, but this seems to have nothing to do with the main plot, unless we are to suspect one of the two men as the killer, but this is hardly focused on. Another shot of a gay pride parade in Berlin is included, but is this to make it known that The Visitor is a gay film? Apparently so. Additionally, a statue of two men is shown in several scenes for seemingly no other reason than to reinforce that the film is gay themed.

The Visitor is a simple story of two men finding each other, which is a nice message, but the film’s run time is a brief seventy minutes, hardly enough time for character development. A muted, videotaped look does not help the film seem very professional, and in fact, seems downright amateurish as an entire film, so much so that I would not be surprised if a film student might have made The Visitor.

The Stoning of Soraya M.-2008

The Stoning of Soraya M.-2008

Director-Cyrus Nowrasteh

Starring-Shohreh Aghdashloo

Top 10 Disturbing Films-#2

Reviewed February 18, 2017

Grade: A

The Stoning of Soraya M. is a brutal film, and one of the most disturbing films that I have ever seen. I have viewed the film a total of two times and that is enough for me. The terrifying aspect of the film is that the story is true and the events depicted not only have happened to the woman featured, but happen to women day in and day out in certain cultures. The film is a frightening reminder of the atrocities of human suffering.

The film is an American Persian language film made in 2008. Academy Award nominee, Shohreh Aghdashloo, stars as a woman living in a remote village in Iran- the time period is 1986. Interestingly, the film begins following the events that conclude the story and works in reverse. A reporter who has car trouble and is lost in the village is taken by the aunt of Soraya (Aghdashloo) who must tell the journalist the painful story of a tragedy that befell poor Soraya the day before. Soraya was brutally stoned to death, wrongfully accused of adultery, and the journalist wisely records the aunt’s tale with his tape recorder. The journalist must then escape the village alive in order for Soraya’s story to be told to the masses.

From this point the film transfers to several days earlier. Soraya’s abusive husband, Ali, wishes to divorce Soraya so that he can marry a fourteen year old girl from the village. When she refuses, Ali uses manipulation and blackmail to turn many in the village against Soraya, including her two teenage sons. Ali convinces everyone that Soraya has been unfaithful to him with a widower who Soraya innocently works for. Ali is then granted his divorce and Soraya is sentenced to be stoned, as an example, in front of the entire village. The message is clear- women are not equal to men and are not permitted to do the things that men can.

Throughout the film we get to know Soraya and she does have her loyal female friends and supporters. Aghdashloo portrays Soraya with gusto and bravery and the fact that we care for the character so much makes the inevitable stoning sequence heartbreaking and painful to watch.

When Soraya is chained to a short pole and buried up to her neck so that she cannot move, the scene of her victimization is almost unbearable to watch. Ali and her sons are the first to cast the stones that strike her square in the head. Director, Nowrasteh provides the stoning sequence with a dull, muted sound so that we almost experience the thuds of the rocks from Soraya’s perspective, making the scene all the more chilling. The scene also goes on for seemingly an eternity as it takes a long time for Soraya to succumb to her many wounds. Needless to say, she is a bloody mess and unrecognizable. This scene is not for the squeamish.

How disheartening to know that experiences like Soraya’s still occur to this day in Iran and many other countries and there is not much that is done to help. The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on a 1990 book, Le Femme Lapidee, written by Freidoune Sahebjam, who appears in the film as the journalist. The book has been banned in Iran.

The Stoning of Soraya M. is one of the most disturbing films that I have ever seen and as much as the message is tragic and painful, I never want to see this film again. The pain rings too real and the thought fills me with sadness.

I Am Love-2009

I Am Love-2009

Director-Luca Guadagnino

Starring-Tilda Swinton

Reviewed December 28, 2010

Grade: A

Tilda Swinton shines in I Am Love,  an amazing Italian film from 2009 that I wish received wider recognition, but alas, some of the best films do not receive their due.

Swinton stars as a matriarch of a wealthy Italian family, who owns a successful business. To make this film very authentic, it was shot in and around Milan, and contains a highly stylish and exquisite appearance. It is a grand film with high class set pieces and a great look. I do not hesitate to categorize it as an artistic, female version of The Godfather as it is that good.

It focuses on the family as a whole but more so on Swinton’s character, who is bored and unhappy with her life and yearns for passion and feeling. One day she meets a friend of her sons and drama ensues. Obviously, the boy is only half her age, but they share a passion that awakens her from her doldrums. The conflict in the film is how the affair looks to society and effects the family business- not to mention detrimental to her marriage.

A really great film that should be discovered by those looking for a gorgeous film with great drama.

Fellini Satyricon-1969

Fellini Satyricon-1969

Director-Federico Fellini

Starring-Martin Potter, Hiram Keller

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Reviewed January 19, 2011

Grade: A

Fellini Satyricon is a fascinating experience and is a great  film, but only for the very broad minded and patient viewer- it is more of an “experience” than watching a conventional start to finish type finish. It is nothing of that nature.

I both loved the trip and was fascinated by the creativity and depth of it- dreamlike is a word that immediately springs to mind. The story does not make perfect sense, nor does it need to. The fact that it is set some two thousand years ago is fantastic in itself as the sets are filled with decadent imagination.

The film is certainly not for everyone and is a fairy tale for adults. It tells of a journey through Ancient Rome and is divided into nine chapters. A scholar (Encolpius) and his friend (Ascyltus) traverse the land in the hopes of winning the heart of a young boy (Giton). They are both in love with him and the topics of bisexuality, public sex, slavery, and brothels are explored.

I love Fellini films as they are wild, dream-like, fantasy-like, with odd characters. Is Fellini Satyricon strange? Absolutely. But that is to its credit- this film is highly imaginative, wild, and will leave one pondering its beauty afterwards.

Embrace of the Serpent-2015

Embrace of the Serpent-2015

Director-Ciro Guerra

Starring-Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar

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Reviewed November 23, 2016

Grade: B+

Embrace of the Serpent is a cerebral experience in the art of complex storytelling, weaving two parallel stories set forty years apart from each other. It is an immensely creative film crafting a black and white cinematic expressionism into its lurid walls. Admittedly I found the stories tough to follow at times, and the film contains an impressionistic quality, but I knew I was watching something creative and brave and that is worthy of a hefty thumbs up.

The setting of the film is the Amazon jungle, along the vast Amazon river, deep in the heart of South America. The time periods are both 1909 and 1940, and both feature an Amazonian shaman who is the very last of his people and very resentful of white men. In 1909, he travels with a dying German scientist and in 1940, an American. Both are looking for a sacred healing plant, which contain magical powers.

The parallel stories both feature a Spanish Catholic Mission by the side of an Amazon tributary. In 1909, the leading priest is sadistic and abusive towards the young boys in his charge. Years later, the young boys are now hardened and grizzled. Both stories also feature the revelation of the plant, though in different ways and with vastly different outcomes.

Worth mentioning as the best part of the film, much better than the story-line, is the effective use of black and white visuals. This gives the film a mysterious, old world type of vibe that is tremendous, and really makes it feel like a film made in the 1940’s, if not earlier. In this way, it makes Embrace of the Serpent a visual spectacle, especially as countless scenes occur along the Amazon- we see the characters float, via canoe, and are treated to the beauty of the water and the surrounding luscious mountains. It appears other-worldly, a part of the remote continent that few must see or appreciate. This is my favorite aspect of the film.

The stories are, indeed, complex, sometimes not making complete sense, and I found myself a bit confused throughout, but this may have been due to the films clear art film persona, leading the film to be open to interpretation. Both white men have different experiences with the sought after plant. I was left with some questions that I still am not sure about even having read the synopsis of the film. One of the men has a dreamy, hallucinating experience with the magical plant, but what happens after this? The shaman is an interesting character as we see him as a young man and as an old man, throughout his life living as a lonely, resentful man.

Embrace of the Serpent is a perplexing, interpretative film, but contains a magical quality and, if the story is muddy, one can whisk away to a fantastic experience just watching and enjoying the cinematic treats being offered. A visual gem.

Son of Saul-2015

Son of Saul-2015

Director-Laszlo Nemes

Starring-Geza Rohrig

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Reviewed November 16, 2016

Grade: A

Son of Saul, arguably the deserving winner of the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a grim yet refreshing and inventive look at a subject matter that has been covered in great length in cinema. The topic is a heavy one and to describe the film as a downer is justified, but there is also something brave and even heartwarming about this film, and the central character’s desire to do something decent in the face of death and hatred.

The film is Hungarian, and takes place in 1944, where Saul is a prisoner in a Nazi extermination camp. He is given various duties- considered a “glorified” prisoner- as he takes valuables from the belongings of those gassed, and scrubs the floors after the gassing has occurred. He later must dump the dead bodies into a pit to be incinerated. One day, after a group of Jews are gassed, a young boy is miraculously still breathing. Soon after being discovered, the boy is suffocated. Convinced the boy is his son, Saul is determined to bury the boy properly for religious purposes.

I was immediately struck by two aspects of Son of Saul that really separates it from the pack; the camera work, and the coloring of the film.  The character of Saul is immediately shoved in our faces from scene one-allowing us to see things from his point of view. Extreme closeups of Hungarian actor Geza Rhorig overwhelm the viewer as the message of suffocation is apparent. When closeups are not used, we are treated to the camera following Saul around as he performs his duties without emotion- clearly having done them on multiple occasions. The point is we become Saul and experience activities solely as he sees or hears them. This is understated yet compelling.

Secondly, the film contains a rustic, beige color, mixed with sickly greens and yellows- muted almost, which is highly effective given the amount of death involved. Certainly not glossy in the least, the color scheme portrays a sense of ruin and discourse without overwhelming or going for total bleakness. The style is a dusty, smoky variety, nauseating at times. I found this to separate Son of Saul from a myriad of others with the same subject matter, making it quite distinctive.

Clearly not a happy film, neither is the piece a complete downer that will leave one entirely depressed. Saul’s intentions to give his son a decent burial (and it is unclear if the boy actually is Saul’s son or simply hoped to be) is admirable and a small glimmer of goodness in a world that contains evil. Other prisoners aide Saul in his efforts, telling us that their world is not entirely without hope.

Still, despite the goodness of some of the prisoners, a couple of scenes are tough to take. Early on, dozens of people are huddled-naked, into a small room. They are promised coffee and jobs and most importantly- hope. Sadly, the viewer quickly realizes that the intention is to exterminate them, though the film wisely does not visually show this. A brilliant distinction to Son of Saul is the background sound and what is happening in the vicinity of Saul- we hear the gasping, the pleading, and the screaming of the victims, while the camera stays entirely on the character of Saul and his stoic reactions. Sadly, we realize this is a typical day in his life.

Deserving of its accolades in a year of exceptional foreign language films, Son of Saul takes a familiar subject matter and gives new and unique elements to it. The film also departs on a bit of a cliffhanger involving a second young boy- a clever moment in an already superior film.

Dogtooth-2009

Dogtooth-2009

Director-Giorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley

Top 10 Disturbing Films-#9

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Reviewed February 11, 2011

Grade: A-

Dogtooth is a Greek drama nominated for the 2010 Best Foreign film academy award. The film is not for the weak at heart and is most bizarre and disturbing- troubling even. But upon digestion afterwards, I realized how much I appreciated its creativity.

It tells the story of three siblings who are homeschooled and shut out from the rest of the world by their overprotective parents. The teenage kids are curious, damaged, and sad. They know no other world besides the one their parents create for them. Certain words mean certain things to them- a language of their own. It challenges the art of parental control as the kids curiosity builds and builds.

The movie itself is very difficult to follow (non-linear) yet is mesmerizing and perverse. Warning: Some subject matters can be hard to take for some (incest, cruelty to animals, full frontal nudity).I thought it was a fascinating and bravely made film.

Kisses-2008

Kisses-2008

Director-Lance Daly

Starring-Kelly O’Neill, Shane Curry

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Reviewed February 28, 2011

Grade: B+

Kisses is an Irish film that tells the story of two pre-teenage kids (Dylan and Kylie), who run away to Dublin on Christmas to escape their dysfunctional families and their small town, morose life, instead being attracted to the “big city” and the hope of finding Dylan’s older brother, himself having run away to escape the oppressive environment.

At first Dylan and Kylie barely know each other, neighbors, but far from close. Gradually they become best friends and form an unbreakable bond. While in Dublin, they face terror and charming moments of wonderment as they traverse the city, mainly at nighttime.

Great acting and chemistry from the two leads, especially being untrained actors. Kylie- an extrovert and full of life, successfully brings out the best in Dylan, who is reserved and withdrawn, so the pair compliment each other as they experience their adventures.

The cinematography is fantastic as one gets to experience the hustle and bustle of Dublin, and the quiet countryside of a small Irish town, which is an immense treat, and a contradiction in lifestyles.

The Seventh Seal-1957

The Seventh Seal-1957

Director-Ingmar Bergman

Starring-Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand

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Reviewed October 23, 2016

Grade: A

The Seventh Seal is an Ingmar Bergman Swedish masterpiece that, after three mere viewings, I am just beginning to fully appreciate, and fall in love with. It is not that I did not “get” the dark, artsy theme to begin with- I did, but The Seventh Seal is a savory dish meant for repeated offerings and with each, I have loved it even more. The subject matter of the plague and of the Black Death are very heavy. It is a quiet,yet powerful, dark, art film about death.

The film is shot in black and white, which does nothing but enhance the cold, stark concepts of the film. Color would have certainly made the film more cheery or bright- if that can be said given the subject matter. Instead, the filming is cold, yet illuminating, and the whites seem very white- the blacks- very dark, which is symbolic of the films concepts.

In the story, a disillusioned medieval knight-Antonius Block (Max von Sydow)  returns home from war disenchanted with life. He has fought in the Crusades and has returned home to Sweden to find it plagued by the Black Death. He begins to play a game of chess-alone- and is visited by Death- a hideous pale creature shrouded in black. Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess- his fate left up in the air so long as the game continues. Throughout the film, Antonius is the only character who can see Death- the other characters cannot, making the film open to interpretations.

The other characters in the story are a troupe of actors that Antonius meets along the way to his castle and a young, fresh-faced girl who has been branded a witch and is fated to be burned at the stake is featured. Since she is close to death, Antonius takes particular fascination with her.

Throughout the film and the trials and tribulations of the characters, Death is continuously lurking around, watching these characters, which is a fascinating part of the film. They, obviously, cannot see him, so we can only assume their time in this world is limited.

What makes The Seventh Seal so powerful is its honesty- harsh as it is. The knowledge that death is coming for these people is fascinating and many of the characters discuss god in length, pray, as religion is an enormous aspect of the film. It almost contains a good vs. evil, god vs. devil component, and again, important to stress, is highly open to interpretation. Great art films are.

Numerous scenes reverberate and are major iconic moments in film history decades later. The scene of Antonius and Death playing chess on the beach is chilling and ghost-like. Death- his pale face and black cloak would frighten anyone. This scene has been referenced numerous times over the years.

The inevitable final shot- my favorite- is a long shot of peasants being led to their fate by Death as they are pulled begrudgingly by a rope held by Death is reminiscent of the Pied Piper and is entitled “dance of death”. The individuals are dressed in black and are atop a hill surrounded by sky, making the morbid scene highly effective. The Last Supper scene is also powerful as a last meal is enjoyed by the group- unsure of what fate has in store for them the next day.

I anticipate more viewings of this brilliant piece of film making.

Show Me Love-1998

Show Me Love-1998

Director-Lukas Moodysson

Starring-Alexandra Dahlstrom, Rebecca Liljeberg

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Reviewed October 22, 2016

Grade: B

Throughout the latter part of the 1990’s, films with more of an LGBT perspective (then simply referred to as the gay and lesbian genre) were being released more readily, though it was not until the 2000’s when mainstream offerings on the subject (Monster, Brokeback Mountain) hit the big screen to wide acclaim. Show Me Love is a Swedish coming of age story about two high school girls, polar opposites in social acceptance, who find love. Interestingly, the film was directed by a male- Lukas Moodysson.

Show Me Love originally had a different title, a crude reference to the town the film is set in, in western Sweden, but when the film was considered for Academy award contention (it did not make the cut), filmmakers were advised to modify the title for the film to have any shot. The film contains a grainy look- using hand held cameras in parts and, of course, is in the Swedish language.

Agnes is sullen, introverted, and brooding. Known throughout the high school hallways as the angry, weird lesbian, she has few friends, and the ones who are kind to her, she shuns away. Elin, by contrast, is popular, lively, and charming- everybody loves her. However, Elin is restless in the tiny Swedish town where she lives, and yearns for excitement. When Agnes develops a crush on Elin, she confesses all to her computer, but nobody else.

The film is nicely put together and given the time period of 1998, is quite brave. Today, many years having past and progress within the LGBT community made, a film like Show Me Love is a more common occurrence. Director, Moodysson, does not go for anything gratuitous or steamy in nature, but rather spins a sweet coming of age tale, not only of teen love and hormones, but of outcasts and feelings of loneliness. It’s a film that most can relate to in some way.

The actresses portraying the leads (Dahlstrom and Liljeberg) are fantastic in their roles and play the parts with conviction and believability. Despite being opposites, we buy their attraction and chemistry. Nothing is forced or dishonest.

Favorite scenes of mine are the awkward 16th birthday party for Agnes, thrown by her well meaning yet clueless parents. When nobody except a handicapped girl show up, Agnes viciously insults her, causing her to leave. The family sits in the living room eating the food that was planned for anticipated guests. It’s a poignant moment and rather sweet. Despite Agnes’s unpopularity at school, she has a very strong, loyal family unit- that is nice to see.

Later, Elin and her sister to attend the party, but more as an excuse to avoid another one. Finally, Elin and Agnes share a kiss, but is it a mean dare or is it authentic?

A clever aspect of the film is how Moodysson distinguishes both Elin and Agnes’s sexuality. Agnes is clearly gay and is open and out. Elin is very different in this way and has boys interested in her for days. The girls could not be more different and this adds a layer of complexity as each is in a different place in self discovery. This feature also makes Show Me Love very honest in its storytelling.

The film is not a masterpiece and certainly could have dared to venture into more controversial territory. Could they be harmed for being lesbians given the town they live in? Why is Agnes so sullen? This is a stereotype (the brooding lesbian) that needs to be changed- though given the time of the film, I will give a slight pass. Why not make Agnes a happy, cheerful girl who is gay? How will Elin’s sister deal with Elin’s sexuality or is it merely a phase for her? All sorts of darker issues might have been explored, but Show Me Love is tender, sweet, and lighter fare, but still an adventurous offering.

Belle De Jour-1967

Belle De Jour-1967

Director-Luis Bunuel

Starring-Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel

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Reviewed September 22, 2016

Grade: A

Belle De Jour, the title translated to “lady of the day”, a French pun for “lady of the night”, a kind phrase for prostitution, is a fantastic art film. Stylish, sophisticated, and open to interpretation (at least in my opinion), Belle De Jour is a late 1960’s journey into eroticism, social norms, and sexual freedom. Gorgeous star Catherine Deneuve has never looked better and does mental conflict in a calm way. The film is directed by Luis Bunuel.

Severine is a wealthy young newlywed, seemingly who has it all. She is showered with love and affection, not to mention material items, by her handsome hubby, Pierre, played by dashing Jean Sorel. She wants for nothing as her husband is a doctor of great wealth. Yet she is unhappy and refuses to have physical relations with Pierre. She begins a secret life as a prostitute in a posh home, only working in the afternoons, to avoid being found out. She has no regrets, but is apprehensive about the clients she meets. Throughout the film Severine has secret fantasies about being kept in bondage and enduring various other sexual humiliations. All the while, the question asked is “Is this all Severine’s fantasy or reality”?  Or perhaps merely a portion is. The audience wonders.

Do we feel sorry for the character of Severine? Absolutely not. In fact, one could make the argument she is spoiled and selfish, but she is not evil, but rather confused. She is quite polite, and Deneuve fills her with kindness and even an angelic spirit. One cannot despise her even though on the surface one might be tempted to. What right does this woman have to rebuff her husband in lieu of sleazy clients? One particularly volatile client becomes obsessed with Severine and stalks her, going so far as exacting violence against her husband. But wait, is this Severine’s fantasy or reality? Is she imagining everything and merely obediently waiting at home for her husband to return each day or is she living this life?

Many shots of gorgeous Paris are used by Bunuel, including the famed Arc de Triomphe and many other interesting streets and sights, which is a treat for fans of culture. The use of these exteriors goes a long way to ensure that the film is clearly “French” from a visual perspective.

Certainly, in 1967, the sexual revolution was in full swing and Belle De Jour epitomized the revolution of the times. Yet, it does not feel dated or reduced to a film “of its time”. I find it more a character study than a genre film as Severine is an interesting study.

Belle De Jour challenges the viewer with an intense yet subtle story of a woman conflicted with sexual desire and repression- a film open to much interpretation and discussion. It does what an art film is supposed to do- makes us think and ponder.

Theeb-2015

Theeb-2015

Director-Naji Abu Nowar

Starring-Jacir Eid

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Reviewed August 4 , 2016

Grade: B+

An Arabic spoken foreign language film that received a 2015 nomination for Best Foreign Language film, Theeb is an old world film set in 1916 during the time of the Ottoman empire. The event is  World War I as an Englishman battles Arabs and nobody can be trusted. The film is largely shot in the smoldering Arabian desert (in Jordan) and told from the perspective of a child- named Theeb. Despite the very slow pace of the film, it actually makes the moments of action even more important and the film has a grainy quality to it that makes it somewhat of a bizarre Arabian western.

Theeb lives in a small village run by his father and older brother, Hussein. One night a mysterious Arab man and an Englishman arrive in the village seeking a guide to take them to a Roman well, close to the Ottoman railway. The mission is feared a dangerous one, as the trail they must take is riddled with bandits, not to mention, the Englishman is in possession of a box containing gold, making him a vulnerable target. Theeb, left behind because he is so young, follows and joins them, much to the groups chagrin. Predictably, trouble ensues and Theeb must fend for himself.

What I enjoyed about this film is its unpredictability in what happens after the group faces danger. Sure, when the foursome sets out on a trail led by camels, we know bad stuff will happen. But, finally left to his own devices, I was intrigued as to how Theeb would face his new challenges, having up until now been protected by his family. In ways, Theeb reminded me of another adventure film, Life Of Pi, though Theeb is a much darker film. Both feature a young, non-American male of Indian or Middle Eastern background, forced to survive largely on his own.

The John Boorman classic, Deliverance, also came to mind during one dark scene, as Theeb and Hussein cower amongst rocky caves while their devilish pursuers taunt and whistle at them mockingly from below. The hunter vs. victim component is front and center and it is kill or be killed.

Later, an interesting bond develops between Theeb and one of the raiders (Hassan) as both are mistrustful of each other. Will they forge the bond or will one betray the other? The answer to this question emerges during the final moments of the film and the buildup is very compelling. I was aware of the father and son dynamic mixed in with the friend and enemy. When Theeb treats Hassan’s wounds there is a tenderness on the exterior, but is Theeb really fully kind to Hassan?

A slight negative for me existed in that I did not buy that the time period was the early 20th century, but rather, everyone looked and acted so modern, as if they were merely dressed up for their parts….as they were. Perhaps it had to do with the hairstyles or mannerisms.

Shot entirely in Wadi Rum, Jordan, a gorgeous part of the world, the desert and big sky lend much to the ambiance this creates. It was almost like being in the old, wild west and an ode to old western films, only set in the Arabic world.

The entire cast, save for the Englishman, are non-actors, an amazing achievement, and a measure that creates an obvious level of realism that rehearsed actors cannot always bring to the table.

Originally meant to be a short film only, Theeb emerged as a full length feature and I am glad it did, as it has enough meat to warrant a longer duration. The film is a cinematic wonder with a psychological edge.

A War-2015

A War-2015

Director-Tobias Lindholm

Starring-Pilou Asbaek, Tuva Novotny

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Reviewed July 29, 2016

Grade: B+

A War, a 2015 film, made in Denmark, is a thought provoking story that one might think is a standard “war film” on the surface, but as the film moves along, it turns into something much deeper and rather cerebral. A slow mover, but necessary to the nature of the films message,  the viewer questions what he or she might do in a similar predicament as the main character faces a moral dilemma.

The action begins in Afghanistan as we meet a company of Danish soldiers assigned to protect civilians from the evil Taliban. They are young, good-looking and of varying ethnic groups (a nice touch by the film).  One female soldier seems to be thrown in for good measure, though we never see her in combat. Their leader is Commander Claus Pedersen, a good, decent man, well liked by his troop. They have all seen death and destruction, and Pedersen frequents the middle of the action on the front lines. He is one of the guys.

When one of his men is wounded during an attack, Pedersen makes a controversial decision, resulting in the deaths of civilians, some children.  Pedersen is then charged with a war crime and sent home to Denmark to be tried. His wife and three small children are happy he is home, but distraught and opinionated on how he should testify.

The thing I found interesting about A War is how the film shifts gears around the mid-way point.  The camaraderie between the soldiers in the field, and their bond with Afghan civilians are mixed with dangerous threats from the Taliban. I kept waiting for an attack to occur and in these ways the film is a standard war film. Mixed in are snippets of “home life” involving Pedersen’s wife- she appears a typical military wife- struggling to raise her three kids, one of whom has recently developed behavioral problems. It is clear they miss Pedersen.

The latter half of the film is largely set inside a courtroom as Pedersen is interrogated by a female prosecutor. While she sympathizes with Pedersen’s anguish, she is looking for a conviction. After all, children were killed because of his actions. The filmmakers are on Pedersen’s side, but the entire conflict makes for great analysis. Should he be held accountable for deaths in a war zone? The viewer will ask him or herself- “would I lie to stay out of jail and with my family who needs me”? Interesting stuff to ponder.

A War, ironic to the title, is a calm, subdued film- very much impressive to me.  To compare, a film of this nature, targeted as a “blockbuster” would likely have technical enhancers- dramatic music, undoubtedly would play to cue action in the war zone. The climax of the film, when Pedersen’s verdict is read aloud in the courtroom, would contain some jarring camera shots, or an intense musical score. A War has none of those and that brings a certain reality to it- this could be everyday life. A decision is made and life quietly goes on.

Some complain of A War being a tad boring. I see their point, but it is an atypical war film. It is understated and character driven, rather than a shoot ’em up, overwrought with testosterone action, or laced with artillery or explosions. A War is not that mainstream a film- much to its credit. Rather it is methodical and fraught with interesting thinking points.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia-2011

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia-2011

Director-Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Starring-Muhammet Uzuner

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Reviewed March 24, 2013

Grade: B+

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a Turkish film that, circa 2011, has  received notice and recognition during awards season. The film is very slow moving and requires some patience, but it is worth the wait and I found myself savoring the experience by the end.

It is a cerebral, thoughtful experience about life and human nature and is philosophical in its message. The main characters reflect on their lives while searching for a mysterious dead body in the plains of Turkey in the middle of the night. The cinematography is wonderful and some of the camerawork is amazing. It’s quite a unique film.

The only drawback is its extremely slow pace, but upon its conclusion will leave you pondering for some time. No bombs, no car chases are involved- just honest, truthful dialogue.

Mustang-2015

Mustang-2015

Director-Deniz Gamze Erguven

Starring-Tugba Sunguroglu

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Reviewed June 18, 2016

Grade: A-

Mustang is a powerful, relevant, Turkish film released in 2015 and nominated for a slew of awards, including the Best Foreign Language film Oscar. I fully support the nomination as I feel it is a top notch piece. A coming of age story, of sorts, but with no clichés, and a real, true to life feel to it. It tells of various generational beliefs and how these beliefs conflict with other viewpoints and ideas. It also focuses on  blossoming life, and sadly, of tragic death.

The story tells of five beautiful young sisters living in a remote village in Turkey, a thousand long miles outside of Istanbul. The girls range in age from eight to eighteen and live with their Grandmother and Uncle Erol-the sisters own parents having died years earlier. The main protagonist of the film is Lale, the youngest of the siblings, who is wise well beyond her years as the plot unfolds. We first meet her as she bids an emotional farewell to her teacher, as she moves to Istanbul. The film is told largely from Lale’s point of view, but each of the girls plays an important role. As the girls play an innocent game in a lake with a group of boys, the game causes a scandal in their “old world” village, and the girls are banished inside the house by their Grandmother and Uncle, who fear their progressive ideas will hurt and shame them.

The obvious main crux of the story is the conflict that develops between different generations and the yearning of the girls to be free and independent, both sexually and intellectually. Their older relatives, and others in the town, prefer the old ways and are prudish.

The oldest daughter’s enter into arranged marriages, while the younger ones fear the same will soon happen to them. The film wisely does not portray these conflicts in a clichéd way or make them over-obvious. Rather, the film feels real, fresh, and like a slice of small town Turkish life. Istanbul is mentioned as a paradise of open minded thinkers and progressive ways, and “the place to be”. The girls fear a life in the doldrums, cooking and cleaning for their men, married off to older men without any love.

It is unclear if the Uncle is molesting any of the girls- the film alludes to it, but the point is not made obvious. What is clear, though, is the girls desire for sexual freedom, experimentation, and love. They are modern thinkers.

The young actress who plays Lale is a marvel. So natural, earnest, and clever, she befriends an older man who teaches her to drive and they embark on a sweet friendship. Much of the film is shown through Lale’s eyes and her reactions to situations. Knowing nothing of sex, she sneaks a peak at a sex education book, and is fascinated by her older sisters sex discussions.

The ending of the film leaves things open to interpretation, and I choose to believe happiness awaits those featured at the conclusion. Mustang is a wonderful film, filled with truth, conflict, great acting, and food for thought. A must see for foreign language film lovers.

The Kid with a Bike-2011

The Kid With A Bike-2011

Director-Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Starring-Thomas Doret

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Reviewed June 14, 2013

Grade: B

The Kid with a Bike is a small French film from 2011 that has received acclaim and recognition worldwide.

The film tells the story of a troublesome young boy abandoned by his struggling father and various dramas that unfold. I found the film somewhat disappointing as I expected a bit more than I was given. Throughout the very short 1 hour and 27 minute run-time the young boy broods and defies either authority or his caregivers, or fights with various people he encounters as he attempts to find his father.

The boys bond with a local hairdresser who takes him in is nice, but her motivations are not made clear other than being kind. Why would she take in a strange kid? We do not learn all that much about this character and this is a shame.

There is one element towards the end of the film that was shocking and well done, but overall I expected something a bit deeper from this movie given all of the praise surrounding it.

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem-2014

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem-2014

Director-Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Starring-Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian

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Reviewed June 9, 2016

Grade: B+

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem is the third in a trilogy of films focusing on the title character of Vivian Amsalem and her unhappy marriage to husband, Elisha. To be clear, the unhappiness is hers and he sees no reason to end the marriage. It is a film about culture, religion, and modern views versus traditional ones. I was unaware the film was a trilogy until after I finished watching and began conducting some research as I prepared to review it. It is not a necessity to view the first two films  (To Take A Wife and Shiva) in order to enjoy this film as I suspect they are each chapters as opposed to continuations.

Vivian is a tall, strikingly beautiful woman, though she is clearly weary and haggard when we first lay eyes on her in the stifling courtroom, where she sits and clearly spends much of her time. She has long dark hair and intense eyes- she appears driven and quite modern and of liberal thinking, a feminist perhaps. A determined woman frustrated because her yearning for an independent life has been thwarted by her husband. She would like a divorce from her husband of over twenty years. Having met him at age fifteen, his is the only life she has known. Since he will not agree to the divorce, the courts will not grant her the decision she wants. Since he has not abused her and gives her everything she desires, the judges have no grounds to grant her the divorce. This is the conflict of the film.

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem has a clear religious message, which is an interesting component for an American viewer. How simple it is to divorce somebody in western civilization and how different the measure is in Israel. Jewish religious law is quite restrictive. Vivian faces an enormous ordeal. She does not love her husband, yet she is unable to end her loveless marriage. The film is fraught with a clear conflict and ones interpretation of right and wrong.

Almost set as a play since the film has merely one set- the courtroom- this aspect is very effective in showing frustration, exasperation, and even rage. All the while, Gett, has a sly sense of humour, and I could not help but smirk at a few of the supporting character portrayals. I sensed a Pedro Almodovar (a famous Spanish director) influence in the quirky, sly writing, and his themes of political freedom.

Character after character are called into the courtroom to testify as witness to Vivian and Elisha’s happy marriage- each attorney looking for evidence to cement their clients point of view. To contrast Vivian’s fierce independence, a mature neighbor couple of Vivian and Elisha heralds them as the perfect couple. Soon, the wife is grilled revealing that she is submissive to her husband and lives in an entirely different world than Vivian.

To be critical, the film does drag at times, but I wonder if this is the director’s intent. Clearly, the tone of the film is a suffocating one- Vivian and her attorney languish in the same courtroom for five long years as delay after delay occurs.

Throughout the numerous testimonies, an accusation is raised that is an interesting component of the film and an aspect I wondered about very early on- was an affair brewing between Vivian and her attorney? It is alluded to, but never confirmed, rather shrouded in mystery. One wonders.

From an acting perspective, Ronit Elkabetz is fantastic, and I am saddened she did not receive an Oscar nomination, but I do recall some buzz about this fantastic actress being expressed at the time the film was released. Her scene of pure rage towards the end of the film is brilliant. All the years of bottled up emotions come flowing out in one great performance.

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem is an intense experience in tedium, frustration, and ultimately rage, but is never stuffy or too serious as evidenced by humorous supporting characters. It is for patient film fans seeking an emotional, human experience.