Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)


Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

(1988) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, J. Robert Spencer (English version), Corinne Orr (English version), Amy Jones (English version), Veronica Taylor (English version), Crispin Freeman (English version), Nick Sullivan (English version), Dan Green (English version), George Leaver (English version), Shannon Conley (English version). Directed by Isao Takahata

Offshoring

The horrors of war don’t begin and end on the battlefield. War effects everyone, not just the combatants. Sometimes the worst aspects of war are felt at home.

In the waning days of World War II Seita (Tatsumi/Spencer), a teenage boy and his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Shiraishi/Orr) live in the port town of Kobe in Japan. American bombers are a common sight and when they come to Kobe, they come bearing napalm. The city, mostly built of paper and timber, burns like a firecracker. Their mother (Shinohara/Taylor) is badly burned and eventually succumbs to her grievous injuries. They go to live with their aunt (Yamaguchi/Jones).

However, as food shortages become acute, their aunt becomes more and more indifferent to their plight, raging against their inability to “earn” what she cooks and after they sell their mother’s kimono and buy rice with it, keeps the lion’s share of the rice for herself. Seita and Setsuko decide to strike out on their own and find a nice hillside cave to take shelter in.

Although Seita has some money from his mother, enough to buy food, there is no food to be bought and he is reduced to thieving and scrounging. As the children slowly starve however, they manage to find moments of delight – a gaggle of fireflies that light up the cave one night, or playing with air bubbles in a local river. But the need for food to survive trumps all and the children are in dire straits. Can Seita find a way to keep them both alive?

The answer to that question comes at the very beginning of the movie. I won’t spoil it for you here but most of the movie takes place as an extended flashback, and the viewer’s knowledge of the fate of the children colors the entire film. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that has ever been committed to celluloid, something that stays with you and haunts you long after the film ends. Many critics, as jaded moviegoers as can possibly be, who see the movie speak of being moved to tears and being unable to watch it a second time, although they are near universal with their praise.

The animation here is beautiful and occasionally delightful even though the subject is grim (having a child watch his mother’s burned, maggoty corpse being carted away is something Pixar is unlikely to ever display) it is startlingly breathtaking looking at the bombs, flying down from the sky trailing cloth streamers, or the fireflies dancing in the cave, or the children making play food out of mud.

It has been described as maybe the ultimate anti-war movie and while the director has objected strenuously to that depiction, referring to it as more of a relationship film between the brother and sister, the effect is nonetheless very much about the stark and brutal realities of war regardless of the director’s intentions. You cannot watch the plight of these children and be unmoved.

The reason for that is because both Seita and Setsuko are more than just cartoon characters in a literal sense; they are given personalities that make the tragedy all the more awful. While some complain about Japanese anime as being too cutesy (a charge that isn’t without merit), despite the gigantic eyes and tiny mouths that is characteristic of the art form, these children remain unforgettable, indelible images that will haunt you weeks after you see it.

Some may be hesitant to see this movie because I’m making it sound like an endurance test in watching it and that’s not the case, not really. Certainly it will tap into powerful emotions and some may find that to be uncomfortable. However, it is certainly a film that is experienced rather than watched; you cannot simply passively sit on your couch and dismiss the movie half an hour after it’s over. It demands your immediate and intimate involvement and no matter who you are, it draws you in and forces you to feel. The catharsis of a movie like this is incalculable.

Some movies simply transcend the genres that are ascribed to them and become something different, something more – a human movie. Possibly because this was based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki whose sister did die of starvation during the war, and whose death has haunted him the rest of his life. His anguish is palpable in the novel and Takahata has managed to transcribe that anguish to the screen. This is a movie everyone should experience at some time in their lives.

NOTE: It should be noted that the movie is currently out of print on both DVD editions although it is still available for sale on Amazon both in new and used formats. While the Blu-Ray was out of stock as of this writing, hopefully it will soon be back on the shelves and available for purchase.

WHY RENT THIS: Will create an emotional response in everyone. Beautifully crafted and animated. Powerful themes and thought-provoking concepts.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark themes may be too intense for some children.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes; may be too dark and intense for some children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes an interview with the late Roger Ebert on how the film succeeds where other films fail, as well as a round table discussion of the historical perspective of the war in 1945, the portrayal of the war in the film and how it reflected the facts of the times, and a look at the locations portrayed in the film and how they looked both then and now. The more remastered DVD edition doesn’t include these features but the overall look of the film is far superior, so make your choice accordingly.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Not currently available but will shortly be re-released), Amazon (not available), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wind Rises
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Far From the Madding Crowd

The Snowtown Murders (Snowtown)


What's a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

What’s a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

(2011) True Life Crime Drama (IFC) Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Keiran Schwerdt, Bob Adriaens, Richard Green, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Beau Gosling, Aasta Brown, Craig Coyne, Kathryn Wissell, Krystie Flaherty, Andrew Mayers, Robert Deeble. Directed by Justin Kurzel

Offshoring

The United States is the world capital for serial killers, but they are not merely endemic to American shores. They appear all over the world. Australia’s most notorious as of this writing is named John Bunting.

In the suburbs of North Adelaide lives Elizabeth Harvey (Harris) and her sons Jamie (Pittaway) and Troy (Groves), both by different fathers, as well as her boyfriend Jeffrey (Cwiertniak). They live an empty, desensitized existence, shuffling around like zombies in a hopeless environment where nothing will ever get better. Elizabeth doesn’t really care about much of anything as Jeffrey molests her sons with impunity and Troy molests Jamie. Jamie seems to accept all of this as his lot in life.

New neighbor John Bunting (Henshall) shows up almost like a knight on a charging stallion. He drives Jeffrey off and brings stability and a father figure to the family. Jamie becomes very attached to John who is mentoring him in the game of life.

That is, until John turns out to be a monster hiding beneath easygoing smiles. Oh, there are signs – the aggressive ways he questions people about their thoughts, following up with those irritating questions “Do you?” and “Really?” that tend to put people off. He punctuates his own declarative statements with a “Right?” forestalling disagreement.

And John has a particular hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals which he essentially equates. He uses a lot of anti-gay slurs in a hateful manner. Suddenly the mask comes off and we get a glimpse of the true man beneath, and that man isn’t a very nice one.

The thing is, John isn’t a man content to complain about the people he despises; he means to do something about it. However, being a good father figure, he intends to drag Jamie into his murderous activities – after all, fathers and sons are meant to go hunting, right?

With other easily manipulated neighborhood boys in tow, John would go on a killing spree that would take eleven lives. The dismembered, rotting corpses of their victims would be discovered in the vault of a closed bank in Snowtown (the murders actually occurred elsewhere but the perception that they happened in Snowtown because of the gruesome discovery persists today). While not all of the murders are depicted onscreen, the ones that are definitely aren’t for the squeamish – and they are said to be much more tame than what the court documents describe.

First time feature director Kurzel shoots most of this movie almost overexposed, leaving everything looking washed out and hopeless. While on the surface a working class neighborhood, there is literal despair here; nobody expects to rise above their current station. If anything, they expect things to get worse. They spend their days drinking, talking about how crappy things are, and smoking like chimneys. I think if they saved what they were spending on cigarettes alone they’d probably be able to afford to live in a better neighborhood, but y’know, that’s just me talking.

Henshall has an engaging screen presence. He’s not matinee handsome like other Aussie exports that have become Hollywood staples but he gobbles up your attention whenever he’s onscreen. He manages to portray what seems to be a genuinely nice guy but with sinister undertones, all of which are visible at once. One gets the sense that he doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong; that he’s taking out the trash so to speak and storing it where it will bother nobody. I don’t know if he thinks he’s genuinely doing the world a service, but he might well do.

The issues here are that there are an awful lot of speaking parts (mostly with the exception of Henshall played by local amateurs) who aren’t well-developed and are literally indistinguishable from one another, all speaking in the local dialect; we Americans don’t just need subtitles, we need a program. The action is often disjointed, as if crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I do think that was done intentionally to keep the audience feeling off balance however.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, particularly for those sensitive to blood and brutality. It does take you somewhat not so much into the mind of a serial killer but into the mind of somebody who has been mesmerized by one. While I admire some of the techniques Kurzel employs – he is impressive with some of his ingenuity – he sometimes sacrifices substance for style, never a good thing. There is a great story here; we didn’t need to be reminded that there was someone behind the camera directing it. He is definitely a talent to keep an eye out for in the future; I have no doubt we’ll be seeing much more of him not just on the indie circuit but eventually for big Hollywood films as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Henshall has a great deal of charisma. Portrays Aussie working class life with a certain amount of affection.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many interchangeable and/or extraneous characters. Takes awhile to get going and is somewhat jumbled throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, scenes of torture, murder and animal cruelty, a ton of foul language and homophobic slurs and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henshall lived in a hotel in the Snowtown area for six weeks, chatting with locals and trying to develop his character further.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are cast interviews. Surprisingly, no feature on the real Snowtown murders.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,452 (North America) on an unknown production budget; the movie made substantially more in Australia.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Badlands
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring concludes!

The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème)


Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

(2011) Drama (ATO) Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte, Mohamed Aroussi, Jean-Louis Cassarino, Judith Bennett, Marcela Iacub, Wilfred Benaiche, Pierre Marcoux, Rosine Favey, Anne Benoit, Gregory Gadebois, Donel Jacksman, Laurent Levy, Doug Rand, Tercelin Kirtley. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

The things that inspire us sometimes conflict with our baser natures. Sometimes they come from that aspect of our personalities. Regardless of our best intentions, that conflict can save us – or destroy us.

Tom Ricks (Hawke) was a young Turk in literature once upon a time. Having written a very well received book, he seemed poised to become a big success – but that was long ago and far away. So too was his wife Nathalie (Chuillot) and daughter Chloe (Papillon) who in the case of the former had divorced her husband and in the case of the latter moved with her mommy back to mom’s native Paris. Tom has followed them to the City of Lights after a brief incarceration and hopes to reconcile.

However Tom imagined that first meeting would go, it went badly with the police being called and Tom having to flee. Exhausted and with nowhere to stay, he boards a bus and falls asleep whereupon things go from bad to worse – all of Tom’s belongings and documents are stolen. Now he’s really in a pickle.

Near the bus terminus he finds a bar where he purchases a cup of coffee for the last remaining coins he has in his pocket. The barmaid, Ania (Kulig) takes pity on his plight and points him to the bar owner (Guesmi) who has a crummy apartment Tom can use and a job that Tom can do – a kind of a night watchman who sits in a cubicle with closed circuit television monitors and when people come to a door and give the right password, he buzzes them in. Tom has no idea what goes on behind the door and doesn’t much care; he’s busy writing his next novel but before that, writing long letters to Chloe.

He’s also carrying on with the barmaid who it turns out is the girlfriend of a local mobster which is liable to make things go from worse to desperate. Still, things are actually  looking up; Tom is recognized while browsing through a bookstore and invited to an event for authors. While there he meets Margit (Scott Thomas), a beautiful and elegant woman with an interest in the arts. She and he end up getting intimate and begin an affair but with strict (and strange) guidelines;  he must meet her only at her apartment in the 5th arrondissement at 5pm sharp on two specific days of the week. He is not to ask her any questions about what she does for a living or her past. All she’ll tell him is that she’s a widow but Tom seems fine with the rules; after all, she’s beautiful and willing.

Tom’s unsavory neighbor finds out about Tom and the barmaid and threatens to tell her boyfriend. Tom is devastated but as luck would have it, the neighbor ends up murdered. As Tom’s luck would have it, he comes under suspicion of committing the crime. Tom though has an alibi – he was with Margit at the time. However, when it turns out that Margit isn’t what she appears to be and his trysts with her aren’t what they seemed either, Tom’s problems have gone from desperate to impossible.

Pawlikowski’s next film (Ida) would go on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and you can see a few of the markers that connect that film with this one. For one thing, you don’t always know what the characters are thinking and they sometimes do things that are out of character for them but perfectly logical to us as the audience. Like that film, The Woman in the Fifth is filmed with an eye towards the austere; the side of Paris the tourists don’t see. The hallway lit by the pallid fluorescent lamp that makes skin tones look green, the squalor of Tom’s apartment have a severe tone. Even Margit’s lovely apartment in the Fifth has a sterile quality to it.

Hawke, who also was involved in the Oscar festivities this year for Boyhood, has been on a roll for awhile. He seems incapable of choosing an uninteresting project or delivering a subpar performace at this stage of his career. He carries the movie as a man who has been kicked around by life, many of the kicks delivered by his own foot to his own behind. Tom is unpredictable, capable of violence and yet he is almost obsessively devoted to his daughter. At first his situation seems to be that he is being punished by a vindictive bitch of a wife; as the film goes on, we are less sure that she isn’t absolutely right in trying to keep Chloe’s father away from her.

Scott Thomas is a marvelous actress who has found a lucrative career in France, rarely doing films outside her borders. The French have known, unlike Hollywood, the allure of the “older women” and write parts for actresses in their forties and beyond that are both sexy and intelligent. Hollywood tends to want to put the spotlight on actresses who are younger and with few exceptions, rarely creates roles for women of that age group that have any sort of sexuality, preferring to restrict them to mommy roles or at a certain point, grandmommy roles. It’s as if that women once they turn 40 are expected by Americans to set aside everything but their nurturing side. I suppose that is part of our Puritan heritage, but fortunately the French see things differently and actresses like Scott Thomas are regularly employed there.

As the movie goes on, there are twists to the plot that come from nowhere and are unexpected to say the least. Not wanting to give anything away, I won’t say more than that but those twists are a bit complicated and those who aren’t patient with such things may find this film to be rather more frustrating than they might find comfortable. From my point of view, these types of things are challenging; you can believe what you choose to believe in terms of what you think is going on but I guarantee you, you won’t be right – nor will you be wrong. It really is up to your interpretation.

This is truly an international film, with a Polish director who is based in England but makes a film set in France (backed by French, English and Polish producers) and based on a novel by an Irish-American author. In that sense, there is an Eastern European austerity and a French sensuality, along with an American type of thriller merged with an English style suspense. Something for everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Hawke is always interesting. Scott Thomas is right in her wheelhouse here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May get too convoluted for some. Can be frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality (and plenty of it), some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Pawlikowski is a noted Polish director, this was filmed in France and mostly financed by French sources (along with British and Polish as well).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113,800 on an unknown  production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ghost Writer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre)


Beauty and the geek.

Beauty and the geek.

(2011) Sci-Fi Comedy (Focus) Julian Villagran, Michelle Jenner, Carlos Areces, Raul Cimas, Miguel Noguera. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Offshoring

You wake up after a night of partying and drinking. You’re in a strange bedroom. You don’t remember very much from the night before. The electricity is off. Giant spacecraft are hovering over the city. Don’t you hate when that happens?

Julio (Villagran) is in exactly this predicament. He finds himself in the apartment of Julia (Jenner), a woman so blindingly beautiful that he knows he has no right to score with this kind of woman. Neither of them can remember sealing the deal however, although there is evidence that they did – clothing scattered all over the room, that sort of thing.

While they’re trying to get their heads around the situation, with the city deserted and apparently evacuated while they slept off their epic bender, there’s a knock on the door; it’s Angel (Areces), a nosy neighbor who as it turns out has a crush on Julia. Further complicating things is the arrival of Carlos (Cimas) who is Julia’s ex – but maybe not so ex as she is leading the other two men to believe. He’s a survivalist and has plans on how to ride this situation out.

However, even Carlos didn’t come up with the scenario that all three men, incredibly jealous of the other two, would try to one-up each other to impress the girl, getting them pushed out of the apartment on the premise that maybe they are aliens in disguise. No doubt Julia will be taking eye-rolling to a new art form.

This is Vigalondo’s follow-up to the excellent Timecrimes which was his first feature. Like in that film, Vigalondo  takes genre tropes and turns them on their ear somewhat. In this film, we never see the aliens or learn why they are here. The action instead focuses on the three men trying to win the one woman. The alien invasion is more background noise than raison d’être.

Jenner is a nice find, remarkably beautiful and able to play both shallow and smart. She’s not mere eye candy here although the other men treat her character that way somewhat and her character is not above manipulating the other men. Villagran makes a fine non-heroic sort, a good guy who is in over his head.

There aren’t a lot of effects other than the magnificent alien ships which hover soundlessly in the Spanish sky. Vigalondo keeps the pace moving quickly and has a deft touch with the comedic aspects; for example, one of the men, locked out of the apartment, throws tennis balls in frustration at the open window which is a lot funnier than it sounds.

Keep in mind that the movie isn’t about the alien invasion so much, although there is kind of a Twilight Zone feel to the movie – or to be more accurate, an Outer Limits feel. It’s not about survival of the fittest. It’s a bit of a comedy, a bit sci-fi, a bit romance and a bit farce. Mostly, the movie is about what lengths men will go to in order to win a beautiful woman, and everyone knows the answer to that one – whatever it takes.

WHY RENT THIS: Uses a lot of genre cliches in unexpected ways. Jenner makes a wonderful lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Cantabria, a city in northern Spain.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Currently unavailable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

The Farewell Party (Mita Tova)


You're never too old to multitask!

You’re never too old to multitask!

(2014) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkleshtein, Aliza Rosen, Ilan Dar, Raffi Tabor, Josef Carmon, Hilla Surjon, Assaf Ben Shimon, Illanit Dado Lansky, Ruth Farhi, Ruth Geller, May Katan, Orly Katan, Jameel Khoury, Itzik Konfino, Michael Koresh, Kobi Maymon, Aviva Paz, Hanna Rieber, Hezi Saddik, Sigal Shimoni, Idit Teperson, Samuel Wolf, Annabella Yaacov. Directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon

Florida Film Festival 2015

Offshoring

Euthanasia remains a controversial subject around the world. Those who face terminal illnesses, excruciating pain and the loss of their own identity through diseases like Alzheimer’s are not legally given the opportunity to end their lives with dignity, something that we afford to animals but not humans. There are few societies enlightened enough to allow it; most take the religious view that suicide is a crime against God.

Yehekzel (Revach) is a tinkerer, and a good one. He also has a bit of a puckish sense of humor; he calls a friend and using an electronic voice distortion device pretends that he is God, telling her to hang in there. His wife Levana (Finkleshtein) puts up with his nonsense affectionately.

But one of his friends at the retirement home in which he lives wants to die. He is in the throes of a painful and terminal illness. The patient’s wife Yana (Rosen) desperately wants her husband to be put out of his misery, but of course such things are illegal. Yehekzel comes up with a plan; he can build a machine that will administer drugs; the first a sedative, the second something to stop his heart. Yana and Yehekzel enlist the help of Dr. Daniel (Dar) to help come up with the right drugs and the right dosages. Yehekzel even makes it easy for the patient to actually control when he or she wants the injection. Dr. Kevorkian would be proud.

But word spreads about the machine. Levana is horrified; she sees it as murder, plain and simple, even though the patients themselves want to die. Soon Yehekzel and his little crew are getting plenty of requests for the use of the machine. Yehekzel feels like he’s providing a much-needed service and despite his wife’s objections is pretty proud of what he’s doing.

Then Levana begins to show signs of Alzheimer’s and is truly terrified that in a short time she will be in the grip of that horrible disease. Now that her viewpoint has changed, she wants Yehekzel to use the machine on her. This is a horse of a different color for Yehekzel; can he use the machine on someone he loves?

Euthanasia doesn’t get much play in movies and with good reason; it’s a hideously depressing subject. Here, however, it is handled with a good deal of sensitivity and humor; not that the filmmakers and actors don’t take the subject seriously but they don’t make it a grim death march either.

The cast is made up of some of Israel’s most respected actors, in a large sense an all-star gathering although most are largely not well-known in America. They all do crackerjack jobs; there’s not a false note in the bunch. Each character fits into the puzzle nicely and you get the sense that these are all old friends. The cast meshes together well.

The only quibble I have here is a musical number that doesn’t quite fit in. It comes off as something that they grabbed from a production of Fiddler on the Roof and even though the singing is fine, I found the scene a bit jarring considering the rest of the movie. It’s somber and while I get it is there to tell us what’s going on internally with the characters, it was unsuccessful at least in my case.

This is a gem of a movie that is likely going to appeal more to older audiences than to younger other than those who are in to good movies and different viewpoints. It likely won’t convert those who are against euthanasia to the cause, but it certainly offers a point of view that is at least respectful. Definitely one to keep an eye out for when Goldwyn releases this in a limited run throughout the U.S. in late May.

REASONS TO GO: Tackles old age, death and euthanasia sensitively. Moving in places, beautiful in places, sweet in places.
REASONS TO STAY: Musical number hits the wrong notes.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was nominated for Best Picture at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars but lost to Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocoon
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Offshoring 2015


Offshoring

Every year at about this time, shortly after the Florida Film Festival has ended, we like to present a collection of reviews for films that come to us from beyond America. We call it Offshoring and it’s one of our favorite mini-festivals of the year.

The variety and quality of films that come from around the world is improving rapidly with the cost of good quality equipment also coming down in price, becoming more affordable. These days you can see films that are absolutely riveting from every continent on Earth save Antarctica.

This year we have one of the movies that played this year’s Florida Film Festival among the five that we’re presenting. The movies that we’re reviewing come from Israel, Spain, France, Australia and Japan. The diversity of viewpoints that these films give us enriches us and helps us see things with a different perspective. Things including ourselves.

A lot of people dislike foreign movies because of subtitles and, in the case of English language films from foreign countries, accents that can be hard for Americans to decipher. That being the case, you should really rethink your prejudices because you’re cheating yourself out of some of the best movies you’re likely to see in your life. One of the films we’re reviewing this time out is one of the best animated features ever made and quite frankly one of the best movies ever made period.

So if you’re in an adventurous mood, you might give these movies a try. Not all of them are instant classics; some of them may have to grow on you a little. But I think that each of these movies gives you a glimpse not only of different ways of thinking, but at all the things that unite us as well. So hope to see you right here tomorrow when our mini-festival begins.

Ida


I say a little prayer for you.

I say a little prayer for you.

(2014) Drama (Music Box) Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Natalia Lagiewczyk, Afrodyta Weselek, Mariusz Jakus, Izabela Dabrowska, Artur Janusiak, Anna Grzeszczak, Jan Wociech Poradowski, Konstanty Szwemberg, Pawel Burczyk. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

Most of us have a handle on who we are mainly because we know with confidence who we were and where we come from. Not everyone has that luxury however.

Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a teenage novitiate getting ready to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun in communist Poland in 1962. She knew no other life but the nunnery; she had been orphaned as a baby during World War II and brought there to be raised. Shortly before the ceremony is to take place, the mother superior of her order (Skoczynska) summons her to her office and informs Anna that a relative of hers has been located. She strongly suggests that Anna go and spend some time with her aunt before the ceremony. Anna is reluctant but does so obediently.

Her Aunt Wanda (Kulesza) is different than any other woman Anna has known; a chain smoker and borderline alcoholic, Wanda lives hard and plays hard with a succession of men. However, the most startling revelation is about Anna herself.

Wanda informs her that her birth name wasn’t Anna at all but Ida – Ida Lebenstern. Her parents and siblings were all killed during the Nazi occupation. Anna, or Ida as she’s now known, decides to go with Wanda to the village where she was born and where her family died. She wants to know what happened, so Wanda and her set out in their broken down little Wartburg (an Eastern European vehicle) to the hinterlands of Poland. On the way they meet Lis (Ogrodnik), a saxophone player heading to a gig in the hotel they’ll be staying at.

It is not just her family that Ida will discover the truth about, but as she allows her sexual side to open up, she finds Lis to be very interesting indeed. And her Aunt, once a Stalinist prosecutor for the state whose many death sentences merited the nickname Red Wanda, is not nearly as strong as she seems. How can Ida go back to being Anna the nun when she’s discovered so much?

Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland and emigrated to Western Europe when he was 14, has based his entire career in England. This is his first film in his native Poland and he chose to film it in black and white which turns out to be a brilliant decision and not just because it captures the era so perfectly, but also it sets a mood that is often bleak and colorless.

Trzebuchowska is a real find. She’s not an actress nor does she intend from all reports to pursue that as a career, but she is perfect for this role. Wide, gamine eyes and a pretty triangular face, she is both innocent and worldly. There is almost a saintly quality to her in some ways, the way she clings to her faith in a world which has grown cynical and cold. She has largely been untouched by it but as the movie progresses and she becomes exposed to the world that innocence wavers but something new and extraordinary emerges.

Kulesza is one of Poland’s most decorated actresses and she turns in a fine performance here. On the surface Wanda is strong and self-confident, a pillar of strength and secure in her knowledge that she has been a good servant of the state. Now, she’s not so sure and the more she finds out about the fate of Anna’s family, the more she realizes that she is no different than those who so cruelly orphaned her niece. It’s a subtle but powerful realization that leads to one of the movie’s most shocking scenes.

The movie is gorgeously shot from the wintery countryside, the dingy interior of the farmhouse where Anna was born, the hotel lounge where the band is playing, the convent and Wanda’s elegant apartment. While some might discriminate against the film due to its lack of color, those folks are missing out – it’s beautiful in its spare atmosphere.

This is a haunting film and not just because the nuns look like ghosts from another time, well before when this film is set. You will be caught in Ida’s story and as her journey continues, you won’t be able to help wanting to see where it leads. It doesn’t always go where you might expect it to go, but then again, whose journey does?

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Kulesza and Trzebuchowska. Gorgeous black and white cinematography. Compelling story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwhelmingly bleak and austere.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult and there is some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original cinematographer had to withdraw from the film after ten days of shooting due to illness. He was replaced by Lukasz Zal who completed the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aftermath

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Bears

My Afternoons with Margueritte (La tête en friche)


A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c'est magnifique!

A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c’est magnifique!

(2010) Dramedy (Cohen Media Group) Gerard Depardieu, Gisele Casadesus, Maurane, Patrick Bouchitey, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Claire Maurier, Sophie Guillermin, Melanie Bernier, Matthieu Dahan, Jerome Deschamps, Gilles Detroit, Regis Laspales, Anne Le Guernec, Jean-Luc Porraz, Bruno Ricci, Lyes Salem, Sylvia Allegre. Directed by Jean Becker

Offshoring

You can never tell who will come into your life and change it forever. Sometimes it’s someone you’d expect – a teacher, a preacher, a parent, a lover – but sometimes it is quite someone else entirely.

Germain (Depardieu) is a middle-aged mostly illiterate handyman living in a small, bucolic French village. He lives in a trailer next to his mother (Maurier) who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and isn’t well. When she was a young woman (Le Guernec) she was an absolute terror. Germain had been the result of an accidental pregnancy and Mommy dearest made sure that Germain knew at every possible turn that she never wanted him. In fact, she never refers to Germain by name or even as a he – to his mom, Germain is an “it.”

You would think that would make Germain a bitter, mean man but he has proven to be stronger. His is a gentle soul, and most people like him personally – although plenty make fun of him behind his back. He has a beautiful young girlfriend, Annette (Guillermin) who drives the local bus and he sells vegetables from his garden. Between that and his handyman work he squeaks by but in a village like this, life – even just squeaking by – is good.

One afternoon as he sits on a park bench to eat his lunch, he meets by chance Margueritte (Casadesus). She is everything he is not; worldly, well-read, intelligent and tiny. At 95 years old, she is still full of life and joy. They pass a pleasant conversation and Margueritte begins reading The Plague by the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Germain finds himself falling for the power of the words and Margueritte lends him a dictionary to help him learn to read.

That goes very poorly as Germain quickly realizes that he is slogging through mud and feeling humiliated, gives up quickly. However, as it turns out, Margueritte has macular degeneration and won’t be able to read much longer. To be separated from books – now that is a living hell as far as Margueritte is concerned. Germain determines to finally learn how to read once and for all – not for himself but for his new friend.

Becker, a second-generation filmmaker, is extraordinary in his brevity. There are no wasted scenes, no unnecessary shots. Vis a vis the story, he simply gets on with it, displaying the salient points and when the story is over, so is the film. There are plenty of filmmakers who can learn from his technique including some who have won Oscars.

Much has been made of Depardieu’s weight in the movie and the “unlikelihood” of a beautiful young woman like Annette falling in love with him and maintaining a romantic and sexual relationship with him. Critics who have written such things need to be given a year off from their jobs so they can actually live in the real world – people fall for people regardless of how they look or weigh. It is only shallow people to whom looks are important and those are generally the people who complain they can’t find anyone to stick around.

This isn’t a movie that bowls you over. Rather, it is one you fall in love with slowly, gradually, until by the end credits you realize that you feel genuine affection for the film. Depardieu has a lot to do with that. One of the world’s best actors in his heyday and still as engaging as he ever was, he imbues the soul of Germain with a kind of sweetness so genuine it is hard not to like the oaf. His chemistry with Casadesus is also genuine which is a relief because the movie revolves around it; in fact, must have that chemistry in order to succeed. Not to worry; you don’t for a second doubt that they have become deep, close friends.

Some people may find the comedy too subtle and low-key and I can understand that. This is going to appeal more to people who have more of a European sensibility and perspective than American; you will either like this or not depending on your tolerance for subtlety. It may not be loud enough for you, but those who prefer movies that don’t have to shout will be drawn to this like moths to a warm, comforting flame.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Depardieu and Casadesus is delightful. Very charming and sweet.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Occasional foul language, a few sexual references and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although uncredited as such on the final print, Depardieu served as executive producer for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.3M on an unreported production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Offshoring 2014 concludes!

Oranges and Sunshine


Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

(2010) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, Aisling Loftus, David Wenham, Stuart Wolfenden, Lorraine Ashbourne, Federay Holmes, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Harvey Scrimshaw, Alastair Cummings, Tammy Wakefield, Kate Rutter, Marg Downey, Geoff Revell, Greg Stone, Neil Melville, Tara Morice, Mandahla Rose. Directed by Jim Loach

Offshoring

Sometimes things are done with the best of intentions but upon further reflection are nothing short of evil. This propensity for doing horrible things for the best of reasons is true of governments as well as individual people.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) ran a support group for orphans in Nottingham, England – home of the Sheriff.  While in the course of her duties, she discovers something monstrous, so much so that at first she is in disbelief.

Children of poor mothers – single moms, drug addicts, prostitutes – were routinely taken from their mothers, told their parents were dead and shipped out of England to points elsewhere in the Empire but mainly Australia. They were told that they would have oranges for the picking from trees and non-stop sunshine. The reality was that these children would be used as forced labor, many of them at Catholic-run facilities.

Humphreys would dig further and find out that there were literally tens of thousands of children who were affected since World War 2 (and in fact the practice had been going on since the mid-19th century). Approached by Charlotte (Holmes) begging her to help her find her mother, she ends up discovering that Charlotte has a brother, the suicidal and messed-up Jack (Weaving). She also helps the angry Len (Wenham) whom she eventually becomes friends with although at first he’s quite rotten to her.

She would start a foundation to help these kids which at times was funded but at others not. Because so many of the abuses took place in Catholic facilities, Roman Catholics particularly in Australia were downright hostile to her. The long hours and trips across the planet from Nottingham to Australia took a toll on her family life, with a husband (Dillane) who should have been nominated for sainthood holding down the fort at home. But in the face of governments who would be more than happy to forget about this practice (which continued until 1967) and the hostility of those who felt she was persecuting Catholics as well as her own yearning to be with her own family, could she possibly help all those who are in need of it?

This is a very powerful subject that should well provoke a deep emotional response in the viewer, but director Loach (son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach) opts not to be too manipulative here. He could easily have demonized the government officials who mandated these decisions and the Catholic societies who behaved badly towards the children but he chooses not to make any villains here other than the policy itself.

Without a villain, there really isn’t the kind of conflict that would bring out that emotional response so instead the pressure goes on the shoulders of Watson as Humphreys to give a human face to the struggle and Watson delivers. One of the world’s most underrated actresses, she gives Humphreys a presentation as a flawed but compassionate woman, dogged in her determination to see justice done and these kids – now adults – be restored somewhat through reunions with their parents, or a vehicle for reparations for the wrongs done them. Weaving and Wenham both deliver memorable performances as well, as two men victimized in the same way but coping with it in very different ways.

The pacing is deliberately slow, maybe too much so. For the most part, Humphreys’ conflict is with apathy and that never makes for cinematic gold. Watson manages to overcome the film’s lack of inertia with a role that not only does justice to the real life Humphreys (who continues to work for these kids to this day) but also makes an unforgettable cinematic portrait of a real life unsung hero whose name is little known outside of England but really should be.

WHY RENT THIS: A tour de force for Watson. Weaving and Wenham are strong as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a ponderous pace.

FAMILY VALUES: Some strong language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scandal was portrayed in the documentary film The Lost Children of the Empire in which the real Humphreys appears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with the cast and production team.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on a $4.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

Empire of Silver (Baiyin diguo)


Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman - stereotypes anyone?

Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman – stereotypes anyone?

(2009) Drama (NeoClassic) Aaron Kwok, Tie Lin Zhang, Hao Lei, Jennifer Tilly, Lan Tian Chang, Zhi Cheng Ding, Jonathan Kos-Read, Zhen Yu Lei, Zhong Lu, John Paisley, Shih Chieh King, Niu Tien, Deshun Wang. Directed by Christina Yao

Offshoring

 

Money is a great corrupter. As China entered the 20th century and looked to enter the world as well after centuries of isolationism, the Shangxi province became a financial center since there was no central currency at the time. Merchants in Shangxi and banks, hoarding silver, became the economic power in China.

Third Master (Kwok) has distanced himself from his family. His father (Zhang) is aging and wants to hand off his banking empire to one of his sons, but his two other sons are clearly unsuitable. Third Master is the brightest and most promising of the lot, but he has had a huge rift with his father since dear old dad married the love of his life – that is the love of Third Master’s life.

He still has feelings for Madame Kang (Lei) which she secretly returns. She has developed a close friendship – a kind of sisterhood in fact – with Mrs. Landdeck (Tilly), the wife of the pastor (Kos-Read) who has a similarly troubled marriage.

As Third Master prepares to take the reins of his father’s bank, he has to fight off the wolves of China’s Wall Street as well as actual wolves. If China is ever to become a world power, it must first enter the world century and the feudalistic culture both politically and economically isn’t disposed towards the radical changes necessary. Something has to give.

Yao is a first-time director who has a visionary eye. She also has a sprawling, epic story to tell and while there are elements of Wall Street as well as Hero in it, there are times that I get the sense that she isn’t sure exactly what kind of film she intends to make. My best guess is that she’s trying to do something unique which is bloody ambitious for a first time out.

Kwok, not terribly well-known in the US although he’s a big pop star and actor in China, is a compelling lead. Brooding and grave at times, you get the sense of Third Master’s inner conflict even if you don’t understand the language. There’s some impressive acting and screen presence going on here.

Considering the world’s economic problems and China’s own position in the world these days, this is one of those rare occasions where a period piece is timely viewing. I can forgive the script’s occasional forays into confusion particularly since the images we’re shown are so compelling. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures are worth millions.

WHY RENT THIS: Kwok is a terrific lead. Explores a lot of different elements. Gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit plot-wise. May be trying to do too much.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, brief nudity and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the historical novel Valley of Silver by Cheng Yi, who is himself descended from actual Shangxi merchants as seen in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19,036 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: House of Flying Daggers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!