Tag Archives: Foreign

Undertow (2009)

Not to be confused with the 2004 Josh Lucas Dermot Mulroney rural thriller, 2009’s “Undertow” is quite simply a delight. It stands as the debut feature of Latin filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León, but luckily his newness to the craft doesn’t show. Well-acted, made, and written, “Undertow” takes to the concept of ghostly unrest with a warm, offbeat spirituality.


   The film takes place in a small Peruvian village where everybody is up everybody else’s butt by habit. Not a good place to be gay. So local fisherman Miguel (Cristian Mercado) retreats deeply into the closet, complete with wife and unborn child, while he carries on a steamy but loving affair with the village outcast and artist, Santiago (Manolo Cardona.)

   Miguel’s wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) is a nice person, and she performs her wifely duties. Why is this happening to her, she laments as she becomes aware of Miguel’s unfaithfulness. When Santiago unexpectedly dies, his spirit stays bound to earth and remains with Miguel. Together they are happy, but Santiago’s ghost longs to move on.

   There are no scares in this film, and no villains. Even the town gossip Isaura (Cindy Díaz) turns out not to be so bad. There are myriad differences between this and an American movie. First is Miguel’s lack of disbelief at his lover’s ghostly return. The body is missing, and Santiago looks the same. In a US film there would be lots of frantic, maybe comedic attempts to prove that Santiago is in fact dead.

   Maybe there would be gags involving ghosts popping up at inopportune moments, and people walking right through ghostly entities. And maybe there’s a bit of that, but the whole thing is taken much more naturally than one might expect. Santiago is dead. He has come back as a ghost. Miguel almost immediately believes him because, honestly, who would make up a thing like that? He needs no proof. He goes on faith.

   It takes a very spiritual society to do something like that with a ghost story. What proceeds is the touching examination of the men’s love from beyond the grave, and Mariala’s increasing grief and disenchantment. The men of the village are fairly homophobic, but they’re never portrayed as meaner than the plot requires them to be. The acting is great from Mercado (Miguel,) Cardona (Santiago,) and Astengo (Mariela.) All three are thoroughly believable in their roles.

   If you’re looking for a scary, fright-filled horror movie this is not for you. If you’re looking for straight-out gay erotica this is not your movie either; the sex scenes are brief and non-explicit. But if you want to see a touching picture that will make you think and, perhaps, put a tear in your eye, this is for you. The supernatural element is pulled off gracefully, as is the human interest element. You will care about these characters, and you might even find yourself thinking about them when the movie is over.

Them (Ils) (2006)

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Horror filmmaking, a visualization of things no one wants to happen to them, can be morbidly fascinating, or even lyrical. Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, particularly, told its story brilliantly and in some ways transcended the vampire genre. Them, a slight trip into depravity  advertised as “the movie that terrified the French,” is not. It is tripe. The film doesn’t stand as much as a worthy story with characters as a gaudy set-designed ego trip, with meticulously designed dark corners, piercing screams, and convenient pitfalls.

When the heroine, schoolteacher Clementine, chose a place in the attic of her sprawling isolated home to escape from the home invaders of the film, of course it is an otherwise empty section with cellophane hanging in clumps from the ceiling, each one vaguely looking like a cloaked face. Of course Clementine and her boyfriend Lucas live in an isolated manor. And finally ,of course the isolation is broken by a “annoying” dog, who barks to warn them too late.

I was warned. When a teenage girl feuding with her mother gets run off the road by a unknown being, I heard her, just as it began to rain, segueing from a irate calls to screams, more and more desperate “Maman! Maman! Maman!!!” The car? It doesn’t start. The rain obscures anyone from view, as does the trunk her mother ignorantly poked around in. The cell phone shakes in her hand, and she can barely release a squeak, much less a “help.”

After the inevitable death, the film focuses on Lucas, a writer who does his best work playing arcade games, and Clementine, a frustrated primary school teacher. For a period of about fifteen minutes, the two exchange a stream of smooth and natural dialogue, in such a way I mistakenly started hoping that I would care what happened to them. After that, the script runs out of such dialogue, and settles on standard horror talk. I started laughing out loud at the banality of it, a bad sign with a film that wants to be taken this seriously.

“______!” (insert name, repeat 20-30 times.)
“I’ll go check.”
“What was that sound?”
“Don’t leave!”

The acting in the film is decent, the performers pounding on the one note the director brings to the table, mostly comprised of frightened shrieks and tear stained faces. The plot is a series of grotesque occurrences, putting the characters through horror and trauma. It’s plotlessness is “compensated” for with a couple of jumps (it barely succeeds). The slashers are barely frightening and completely nonsensical.

Simply put, it is a series of close escapes and killings, too premeditated and shallow to provoke much reaction.  I learned something, though. Nothing about safety, nothing about human nature. I learned that a film’s cool cover art, cinematic pedigree (foreign), and being spoken in a pretty language (French), does not make it very much superior to American money mongerers. Nor does it classify it as high film-making. That is all.

Ben X (2007)

Ben X, Belgian director Nic Balthazar’s film debut, is an ambitious drama exploring the autistic mind and how far harassment can go before the victim loses control.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Ben (superbly played by Greg Timmermans), a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who lives with his well-meaning mother and younger brother. Ben spends all his free time playing Archlord, a fantasy role-playing game where he becomes Ben X and plays alongside Scarlitte, a teenage girl who is impressed by his gaming skills. The game gives him a sense of purpose in a world that becomes increasingly out of control.

Ben’s life at school, quite simply, is hell. He is relentlessly tormented by two repugnant teenage boys. His teachers try to help him but are ineffectual. The situation worsens when an embarrassing prank perpetrated on him is videotaped and posted all over the internet.

Feeling that he has no where to turn, he hides what happened from his family and teachers and becomes increasingly disturbed and suicidal. Finally, close to breaking point, Ben decides to meet with Scarlitte, who is interested in visiting him in real life. Together with Scarlitte, his divorced father, and his desperate mother, he comes up with a bizarre plan to get back at his tormenters.

I waited a long time for this movie, and as it generally is in this case, was disappointed. Which isn’t to say thatBen X is a bad film. On the contrary, it has many good qualities. The main thing that struck me was that this is one of the first times a character on the autistic spectrum takes center stage and is treated as a person, not a plot device. Often, the character with autism is used to evoke feelings from the other people in the movie or to teach them what is really important in life.

This film, without avoiding the family’s perception of the situation, concentrates on Ben and his reactions to what’s happening around him. Secondly, the acting in Ben X is top-notch, especially from Greg Timmermans and Marijke Pinoy, as Ben’s mother. Greg Timmermans has excellent facial expressions and mannerisms, and in his and the directors hands, the main character becomes a real person.

Many scenes and situations in Ben X, however, are very melodramatic and over-the-top, but the ending is its greatest weakness. Alternately bizarre and unrealistic, it detracts from an otherwise good movie. The director seems to think that neatly tying things up is more important than realism, and it shows.

The film builds up a great deal of suspense and a foreboding that something terrible will happen, but seems to wimp out toward the end. I don’t enjoy depressing endings, but I felt that the conclusion wasn’t believable at all. I am bound to cut this film some slack, because there are so few movies about high-functioning autism and because I waited a long time to watch it. Although I think it was ultimately disappointing, it also did many things right and tried to do what most directors haven’t done effectively before.

Let the Right One In (2008)


It’s no secret that “Let the Right One In” is my second favorite movie of all time, and was, in my opinion, in no need of a remake. The experience of watching this movie is akin to that of reading a great book — afterwards you want to recommend it to everyone, in hopes that they will feel the way you did watching it for the first time.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), an unhappy twelve-year-old boy, is bullied by his peers and fantasizes about making them pay, though for the time being the violence stays within the confines of his imagination. While outside his apartment complex at night, he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a strange twelve-year-old who offers him, for the first time, a chance to dream of a different life.

Eli is not like other girls. She goes outside into the bitter Swedish winter wearing no shoes. Occasionally she smells like a putrid corpse. Animalistic growls emanate from her gut. But she floors Oskar with her concern for him and her insistence that he must fight back, no matter what the cost.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, Eli is a vampire, which doesn’t stand by itself as a big spoiler, as it is alluded to in the first twenty-or-so minutes. Eli is not twelve, but rather thousands of years old, and her intentions toward lovelorn, nerdy Oskar are ambiguous throughout.

This is a extraordinarily well-shot film — the snowy, coldly beautiful backdrop is the perfect setting to tell this story, and the cinematography is gorgeous without being showy or pretentious. It is the kind of story that makes you fall in love with its characters. It doesn’t matter if Eli is a vampire or a zombie or even a robot — she is an undeniably real presence, and you root for her as she carries out what must be done.

Lina Leandersson is surprisingly good and carries most of the acting duties on her small, vampiric shoulders. Kåre Hedebrant is a little underwhelming at times but still makes a decent effort, and acts much better than Daniel Buttcliffe is the early HP years. He pulls off the mix of darkness and pain in Oskar’s heart combined with his ultimate naivete.

There’s a lot of symbolism in the second half of the movie (Oskar closing the doors of his toy cars, anybody?) which you may not catch if you are overly literal-minded or are not paying attention. The film never lets us forget the suffering of Eli’s victims, including Lacke, a local drunk she ensnares with a nasty trick and makes a snack out of.

The strength of “Let the Right One In” is that it cares as much about its characters as its blood and special effects. The small bit of controversy it earned with its content involving children is unfounded, and should not deter you from watching what is most certainly one of the all-time greats in modern horror.

Sister (2012)

Set primarily in Swiss ski resort and nominated for a foreign language Oscar, “Sister” is an emotional and mature work that is engaging from start to finish. All the actors are effective, but fifteen-year-old Kacey Mottet Klein steals the show as Simon, a youthful twelve-year-old dealing with responsibilities and problems way beyond his age level. Simon lives in a low-rent apartment with his immature older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux of “Blue is the Warmest Color.”You might remember her as one of the LaPadite sisters at the beginning of “Inglourious Basterds.)

While Simon makes money stealing equipment and luggage from a nearby ski resort and selling the philfered items, Louise shirks any kind of responsibility, mooching off the spoils of her brother’s thievery and having sex with different guys. Although Simon takes from tourists with a cold and calculated  efficiency, you can’t help but feel for the little guy as he does what he has to to survive.

There is definitely a weird incestuous subtext between Simon and Louise. You don’t feel that they are aware of this  or that they would even act on it, but their relationship is marked by an odd co-dependence and half-formed, burgeoning sexual interest on Simon’s part, and maybe even on Louise’s too. There’s a very strange scene partway through (which I love and I think speaks volumes about this pair of outcasts) where Simon pays the angry Louise over a hundred dollars to sleep next to her.

He craves human contact, but Louise is selfish and exploits his vulnerability in a weird way, and is only able to offer comfort in the most basic manner. The cinematography is great and in it’s own way, powerful, while the ending leaves you to draw your own conclusion. Scotsman Martin Compston (who caught my attention playing a sympathetic criminal in Ken Loach’s social realism drama “Sweet Sixteen) has a role as a employee at the resort who gets in on Simon’s thieving.

“Sister” is special in that it is pensive and character-based without being ever boring and it evokes deep emotions, yet is subjective and stays away from gooey sentimentality or blatant attempts at audience manipulation. There are no ‘villains,’ just despair and dead ends. Kacey Mottet Klein is just perfect as a kid who has many foils and has run into trouble trying to live a halfway normal life.

Don’t let the incestuous vibe I get from this picture deter you from watching a great foreign film. This is not a movie about pedophilia. It is a movie about secrets, responsibility, and what it means to be an adult. Léa Seydoux is practically his equal as a character you probably should hate, but you end up feeling kind of sorry for.

“Sister” proves that ‘art film’ doesn’t have to mean being bored out of your mind. If you don’t mind subtitles, you’ll surely find value in this fascinating film about a troubled girl and a little boy who is forced to take up responsibility for the two of them. I liked this almost but not quite as much as “The Intouchables,” the French submission for best foreign film of 2012. While “The Intouchables” is heartwarming and funny “Sister” is quieter, sadder, and maybe a little truer. Do. Not. Miss.

Set Me Free (Emporte-Moi) (1999)

I’ll go ahead and admit as a bad filmgoer and reviewer that I have never seen “Vivre Sa Vie” (“My Life to Live”) by Jean-Luc Godard, and I considered watching it to get some perspective before reviewing “Set Me Free.” “Set Me Free,” though not directly related to “Vivre Sa Vie” thematically, is the story of a frustrated young girl who becomes fascinated with the prostitute character, Nana, in Godard’s classic.

It’s also about growing up. And sexual awakening. And youthful confusion. And the moment as a child when you realize that you can’t save the grown-ups in your life; sometimes, you can only help them along while they choose to sink or swim, to fight against the current, or drown. It’s about the way movies influence young people, and how it’s often the one’s you wouldn’t expect that change their ideology, for better or worse.

Hanna (Katrine Vanasse) is a knowing yet naive 13-year-old who lives with her thief brother, Holocaust survivor father, and suicidally depressed mother in France. The year is 1963. Her father (Predrag Manjlovic) has a iron grip on the household. On the other hand her mother (Pascale Bussières) is as submissive and weak as her father is dominating. In an opening scene, Hanna gets her first period near her grandparent’s house, and shortly after goes back home to her parent’s.

While she was hardly happy at her grandma and grandad’s, things go from bad to worse at home. Her dad is a pretentious, lofty, and generally bad writer who fancies himself a great artist, and her mom is one twitch away from a complete nervous breakdown. Her brother Paul is a petty thief. In an opening act of general assholery, Hanna’s father spits at her mother that her’s is ‘mongoloid family’ because her brother (Hanna’s Uncle Martin) has Down Syndrome (I told myself that ‘Mongoloid’ was not such an offensive term back in the 60’s, but nah, it’s still not excusable.)

When Hanna goes to the theater and sees “Vivre Sa Vie” for the first time, she falls in love- with the movies, Anna Karina, and with Karina’s ‘glamorous’ character. From what I saw of the film within this film she is totally misreading the message of the movie, as her teacher tries to point out. But as a confused kid (sexually and in life) looking for a role model, it makes sense.

Boy, did the child actor knock it out of the park here! Hanna was a sweetheart. From what I understand, the child actress was sixteen when she did this movie, and in fact, she looks childlike in some shots and more womanly in others, probably a intentional decision on the part of the director. Hanna’s father insists on masculinizing his daughter, cropping her hair down to boy length (the hair-cutting scene reminds me of the one in “Ma Vie En Rose.”) As Dad cuts, a silent tear runs down Hanna’s cheek, and she gradually is made to feel a little more helpless.

Hanna propositions a man, maybe in hopes for a normal life or because it is the ‘thing to do’ as a girl, but exchanges intimate kisses with a female friend (Charlotte Christeler.) Does that mean she is bi, simply confused, or something else. Fed up with her family, Hanna runs away, but will a life on the streets be easier or harder than she was looking for?

The acting was fabulous, but I wished the ending had offered a little more. There seemed to be a real lack of realization, and everything get’s better quite abruptly. What was learned, except that being a ho’ isn’t all it’s cut out to be? It’s nice to have a happy ending for such a lovely character, but the story doesn’t seem to have the most logical conclusion.

“Set Me Free” is well made and most of all bittersweet and sad. It’s is based on the director Lea Pool’s life, so that makes it this much more authentic. I would love to know if filmmaker Lea Pool is gay, because that would shine a light to better understand the sexual elements of this movie. Note- You can watch this on Huluplus. Otherwise it is not available on DVD as far as I know. I hope you get the chance to watch this powerful film. Thank you.
                                                                             

Movie Review- Martyrs (2008)

ImageThere are no words to describe how fucked-up this movie is. I have not seen “A Serbian Film,” which is supposed to make “Martyrs” look tame in comparison, but I truly do not know how it’s going to top this. I’ve seen “Antichrist,” “The Human Centipede II,” “American Mary,” but nothing like this. This movie is spirtually and physically sickening, which is exactly how the filmmaker,Pascal Laugier, intended it.

Okay, I’m probably just riling up you gorehounds, so I’ll cut to the chase. To say that this movie is nauseating is not to say it’s bad. It’s actually very well-made and well-acted from start to finish. Actress Mylène Jampanoï does a great job as the frightened victim turned infuriated perpetrator, and Morjana Alaoui is also terrific as her enamored friend.

Although Anna (Alaoui) harbors a lesbian crush on Lucie (Jampanoï,) her sexuality isn’t a huge part of the plot. Instead, the movie is about the giving and receiving of physical punishment (not the least bit pleasurable; sorry, BDSM enthusiasts,) and just how far the rich and selfish will go to secure their own peace of mind, with no regard to the people they hurt.

Maybe comparing the premise of this movie with current class issues is a long shot, but damn it, it sounded smart to me at the time. Lucie is inexplicably held prisoner as a child and subjected to physical pain. Young Lucie (Jessie Pham, in a performance worthy of her grown-up counterpart,) runs away and ends up in an orphanage, where she meets Anna (played as a child by Erika Scott) and forges a close bond.

Anna seems determined to help Lucie no matter what squirrels reside in her attic and continues to be a faithful friend and companion when Lucie grows up and, P.O.-ed and dangerous, takes a shotgun to a couple she believes participated in her torture and their teenaged children.

This movie is super brutal and fairly realistic, and establishes itself as such in the home invasion scene. Unlike a American movie, Lucie runs out of shotgun shells and needs to reload, and the reaction of the family radiates terror, but perhaps, not surprise. The movie a sick (let me rephrase that- sicker) turn after Anna is captured by Lucie’s tormenters.

The ending is a ‘What the Hell?’ moment and will leave you thinking about what it all means. The cinematography is very professional and overall well-done. The scenes involving Anna’s entrapment last a little too long, frankly. How many times can we watch a woman be smacked around and degraded when it doesn’t advance the plot?

The movie makes the decision to focus on young Lucie rather than her captors in the flashbacks, which is a good cinematic choice considering Lucie is traumatized by the experiences and initially doesn’t remember her victimizers. In many of the later scenes with Anna, we see her abusers very clearly, constrasting with with the earlier scenes with Lucie.

I thought this was a very well-made movie, but only watchable for people with very strong stomachs. It’s not a popcorn movie, and neither does it intend to be. I liked it, but I don’t think I could watch it again anytime soon.

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