Tag Archives: foreign films

The Edge of Democracy

Brazilian film-maker Petra Costa is in her 30s, and just a little older than democracy itself in her country. Her parents were activists and briefly jailed for their convictions when military regimes still governed the country. This film blends political documentary with personal memoir as she recounts her family’s political and social entanglements while studying the dramatic collision between two Brazilian presidencies.

Costa voted for Lula da Silva but watches in dismay as scandal and corruption engulf his presidency and he scrambles to compromise and resort to alliances with the oligarchy that he’d always railed against. And yet Brazil prospers: the economy thrives, the poor are lifted up. When he leaves office two terms later, his approval rate is at an all-time high. He anoints a predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, and she is elected thanks to an even stronger alliance with PMDB, who appoints her vice president. She starts her presidency strong but the socio-political climate of Brazil is changing, as it is in many of the world’s democracies. The people are waking up, and Rousseff scrambles to regain credibility by initiating a sweeping investigation into corruption.

As one president is impeached and another imprisoned, the country is further destabilized. It is clear as Costa narrates this film in the first-person that she is watching her country descend into turmoil and worries that democracy itself is crumbling. When you witness some of the illogical but fervent rhetoric being flung around in its media, it reminds us rather alarmingly of Trump’s disregard for the rules of democracy and the parameters of the presidency.

Brazil is on the edge of democracy, perhaps teetering back toward dictatorship. Costa narrates an angry and intimate portrait of this tumultuous time; it is one-sided to be sure, personal and impassioned. And yet the country’s split into two seemingly irreconcilable factions feels all-too familiar and if nothing else, The Edge of Democracy should be viewed by Americans as a warning shot against the increasing polarization of their own country. This documentary is a portrait of democracy’s demise, but Brazil isn’t the only country in danger of rolling down this hill.

The Edge of Democracy is nominated for an Oscar in the documentary (feature) category, alongside American Factory, The Cave, For Sama, and Honeyland. Which do you think will win?

I Lost My Body (J’ai perdu mon corps)

I forget sometimes that I speak French. Well, maybe not forget so much as don’t think about it. Much like I don’t specifically think about speaking English. I just do. If I hear or see French, my brain understands without me having to engage anything in particular. It’s just effortless. Growing up we spoke both at home, both at the same time, every sentence seasoned with both languages, choosing whichever words or expressions suited us most. So when I started watching this French film on Netflix, I listened without thinking, and since I was also doing work on my laptop, I didn’t even realize there were subtitles, and may not have consciously realized it was French until I glanced up and my brain shuddered: the subtitle had a mother calling her son “sweet pea” when in fact what she called him was a “soft caramel.” Soft caramel isn’t really a thing in English. I mean, it’s a thing you can eat, but it’s not a term of endearment. So the subtitles substituted for something that made more sense but wasn’t a direct translation. This happens all the time of course, sometimes with hilarious results, but when you’re understanding both at the same time, it can be a little jarring. I’m positive Netflix must have an option for turning off the captions but I’m also positive that about 4 minutes of bumbling through buttons netted no results.

So here I am, watching an animated movie with two tracks, basically: spoken French and written English, and the two are in basic agreement. It’s about a little boy named Naoufel who dreams of becoming a concert pianist and an astronaut. And about the same young man, grown up, who is a pizza delivery guy. Which I feel is supposed to be some sort of humbling come down, but what has an astronaut ever done for me? And yet the pizza guy routine brings joy, hot and cheesy, to my front door. My life would be worse without him. Anyway, Naoufel isn’t exactly the most exemplary of deliverymen, and one night when he’s struggling even more than usual, he just gives up, gives in, sits down in an apartment lobby talking to a woman on the intercom while he eats her undeliverable pizza. He falls in love and devises an elaborate scheme for stalking/wooing her.

Meanwhile, across town, a disembodied hand escapes from a laboratory fridge. The hand goes on an epic Parisian journey through the city’s gutters, fending off pigeons and rats. The hand is sad, I think.

Yeah, it’s weird. That might be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written here. It’s damn weird to have a stalker love story be intercut by a dirty roaming hand. And all the dirty, greedy flies who follow it. And yet it is strangely beautiful, poetic, almost hypnotizing. The animation is soft, subtle. The story is intimate and sad, truly something unique and unforgettable.

TIFF19: The Sleepwalkers

The Sleepwalkers is about 3 generations of a family spending a holiday at their summer home. The matriarch is contemplating the house, which angers at least one son and pits the siblings against each other. But it is a daughter-in-law, Luisa (Érica Rivas) who has it worst.

Luisa doesn’t want to be there. Unhappy in her marriage, she vents her frustrations to a brother-in-law rather than her husband. There is not enough space in the house for a relationship that’s falling apart. But most of all she’s worried about her daughter, Ana (Ornella D’elía), who is young enough to be getting her first blood, but looks considerably older. She’s already caught the attention of an estranged cousin, Alejo (Rafael Federman), recently resurfaced and apparently without boundaries. Even more concerning, Ana is a sleepwalker like her father. She has recently been discovered sleepwalking nude in her own home, and her mother is understandably concerned about what this may mean in a strange house full of people. But Ana doesn’t take kindly to restrictions, and her moody temperament causes her to lash out at her protective mother, and question just which one of them is truly sleepwalking through her life.

Director Paula Hernández has something to say about the pressure and position of women in the family, but for me it was obscured by camera work that literally made me sick. Almost always, only one main character would be in focus, while everyone else had constant blur. At first it was merely frustrating but after 107 minutes it made me physically uncomfortable – sick. And that’s unfortunate because there were some good bits, some very interesting stuff to be examined, but I felt unable to truly concentrate on it. Perhaps, by taking away my choice in what to look at or concentrate on, Hernández wants to put me in the shoes of a young, stymied woman. But that just makes me feel like she doesn’t trust enough in her script. It left me feeling angry and frustrated and ready to bolt. The two lead female characters keep looking for safe space to unleash, to vent, but I felt denied that myself. I never had the space to orient myself or digest what was happening. I felt like a horse with blinders on.

Luisa and Ana are going through some tense and important times. Their performances are good, restrained, even. Hernández makes their inner turmoil obvious without being obvious. I just wish she could do it without creating so much in me.

TIFF19: Parasite

The Kim family squats in their dank basement apartment, assembling cardboard pizza boxes and trying not to breathe too deeply as fumes from the street extermination waft in from the open window.  The piece work doesn’t pay well, but since the whole family is out of work, they can’t afford to pass up an opportunity.

And then, a stroke of luck: the Kims’ son is offered a job tutoring a young girl from a rich family.  With some forged credentials, he’s in.  Recognizing an open door when he sees one, the son soon proposes his sister (posparasiteing as a mere acquaintance) as an art tutor.  A few more forgeries later, the Kims have secured two high-paying jobs from a family they increasingly see as gullible.  Do they quit while they are ahead?  They do not.  Mom and Dad are found jobs as well, though by “found”,  I mean they set up other employees to be fired, thus “creating” positions for each other.

Their pursuit is so ruthless, you start to question who, if anyone, you should be rooting for.  Bong Joon-ho, the visionary director of Snowpiercer, has once again presented us with a treatise on class systems; indeed, class warfare.

A parasite is an organism that needs to leech off something else in order to live.  Of course, our impoverished protagonists rely on jobs from their privileged employers, but Bong makes it clear that it works both ways: the rich, unable or unwilling to care for their homes or their children, rely on workers who must do much for little pay.  The degree to which the rich allow virtual strangers into their homes and lives is ripe for abuse, and this posh, architectural marvel of a house soon becomes an upstairs/downstairs rebellion with deadly consequences.

As we’ve come to expect, Bong is a master at ratcheting up the tension.  The film could stand to be a little shorter, but with so many parts working so well to stun and enthrall, it would be a shame to see any of it go. Once it hooks you, it is relentless. Filled with dread and hardly daring to breathe, we await the inevitable, the walls of the house closing in. No matter how many possibilities you anticipate with increasingly sharp fear, Joon-ho has thought of more. Parasite continues to surprise, never allowing the viewer any footing, the camera work placing us among the Kim family in a heady rush of hubris and anxiety. The film is never less than two things at once; your gut reacts to the horror elements but your head identifies the piercing social satire. The film has darkness in its soul but often makes us laugh as well. It defies classification, a cinematic roller coaster ride that feels brutal and dangerous and necessary and fun.

The Guilty

How many times in your life have you called 911? I hope the answer is none, but for some of you it will be higher than that, and chances are, it wasn’t exactly a happy occasion. Even if you’re calling on behalf of a stranger, you must believe that it’s an emergency situation, and those tend to be adrenaline-filled and on the harrowing side. I call 911 on a very regular basis, and I’m always grateful for the patient expediency of the person on the other end. Mining someone’s abject panic for important, potentially life-saving information, is not an easy thing to do. Distilling that information into its most salient components while managing someone’s fear and distress takes precision and control. Dispatchers will sound cool and confident on the phone, but that doesn’t mean their job isn’t getting to them. They assist people through the darkest of circumstances. They experience vicarious trauma. The Guilty is one of their stories.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is working what seems like a normal shift when he gets a call from what seems like a wrong number. A woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) is calling, pretending to be on with her young daughter. Because of his training, Asger manages to ask the right questions in the right way. Iben is making this phone call in front of her abductor, and trying to do it stealthily.

Asger gets more and more attached to the case as he speaks to Iben, to her abductor, to her daughter Mathilde who is not even 7 but home alone covered in someone else’s blood after having seen her mother be dragged violently away. He goes beyond the bounds of his position in order to fulfill a promise to Mathilde to get her mother home safely.

How do you think you’d stack up as a 911 dispatcher? They test for inductive (using specific observations to make broader generalizations) and deductive (using the info you’ve collected to come to a logical conclusion) reasoning, plus memory recall and the ability to read maps and a good old fashioned psych evaluation. And then there’s just necessarily personality quirks like the ability to be still in the face of chaos.

Asger is a flawed hero and not necessarily the best at his job. But he cares about this woman. Tonight, his job goes from hard to nearly impossible. It’s disturbing. The movie will break your heart in a million ways. But if you think it’s hard to watch, imagine how hard it is to live, to take these calls for 12 hours or even 24 hours at a time, day after day, weekends and holidays. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, and Asger is pure proof of the toll this job can take.

Jakob Cedergren is excellent, as he must be, acting almost exclusively against voices over the phone. Through the arc of one telephone call, he experiences a major shift, and almost every high and low on the human spectrum. Director Gustav Moller keeps things very simple and straight-forward, allowing the story’s natural tension to take centre stage.

Despite Everything

Four very different sisters reunite in Madrid for the first time in years upon their mother’s death. A series of profusely weeping men make displays of themselves at her funeral. The next day, at the reading of the will, the four sisters learn that the man who raised them is not their biological father, and that their fathers may be four different men, any or none of the weeping funeral goers. In order to obtain their inheritance, they have to go on a wild goose chase to find their parentage.

The premise is wacky but they play is straight. Or, as straight as possible when the characters are all ridiculous caricatures. Well, the lucky ones anyway. Some of them don’t even get drawn with wild but general cliches. There’s the French artist, the blind priest, and perhaps worst of all, the man with dementia.

The sisters, meanwhile, get an even worse treatment. Claudia (Belen Cuesta) is uptight, MV5BNDdlZDIzZTctZmIwZS00MTljLTg5Y2UtYjc1ODliYWExNDM2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTM2Mzg4MA@@._V1_and her marriage is failing. Sara (Blanca Suarez) is an important New York City businesswoman who left behind her true love, Sofia (Amaia Salamanca) is a lesbian with commitment issues, Lucia (Macarena García) is the baby.

So it’s like Mama Mia, except it’s a funeral, not a wedding, and there’s no singing or dancing or Meryl Streep or reasons to watch. Did I enjoy this movie? Evidently not. I veered from bored to skeptical to mildly offended. Plus there’s the issue of dubbing, which unfortunately is always an issue, one I should probably stop complaining about since it saves me reading subtitles. I don’t mind a subtitled movie at the theatre, in fact my ADD probably embraces it, but at home I’m never just watching a movie – I’m watching a movie and and and and. Which keeps my energy in check and my mind focused enough to absorb things and not get bored. Subtitles make it hard to multi-task. But dubbing makes it hard to take a movie seriously. The lips don’t match! They never match! Still, I can’t help but admire the people who work on these translations – you have not to just turn Spanish into English, but distill the essence of what’s being said into the same amount of syllables, which many languages would make very challenging. Of course it’s a bad sign for a movie when I’m mostly just thinking about how hard it would be to fit all those words and meanings into a set cadence. And from what I’ve seen, Netflix is springing for real professionals, not those TV movie of the week people who keep speaking long after lips stop moving. But back to the movie: should you watch it? No. There are roughly 5500 titles on Netflix – Canada’s Netflix catalogue is third largest in the world, behind Japan and America. So there’s really no excuse. You’re not that desperate.

Who Would YOU Take To A Deserted Island?

Four friends have shared a flat in Madrid for 8 freaking years and have managed not to go insane or kill each other. Now, near the end of the summer, they are celebrating their last day together in the home they’ve shared since they were kids. Life is about to change.

Celeste and Eze are friends who share a passion: Eze’s about to go off to London on a scholarship to study film while Celeste grapples with the fact that nothing is really happening with her life; she’s an actress considering working fast food to get by.

Marta and Marcos seem more solid, relationship-wise if not sex-wise. Marcos is off to med school, and Marta’s planning on following him, to teach ballet rather than dance herself.

Their aim for the night is to get drunk and act out their old tradition of singing loudly from their rooftop.

This is a Spanish movie, and Netflix offers a dubbed version, which has all the pitfalls of a dubbed version. The dialogue often feels a bit stilted and forced. Maybe that’s why the characters never felt accessible to me. I had trouble connecting to any of them.

Anyway, the movie is fully half way over before it gets to the point, ie, the title. Drunk, the 4 friends play a dicey game of Who Would You Take To A Deserted Island? Each of them gets to pick 2 friends, which is just another way of saying NOT choosing one, so the friend who gets left out feels like a piece of shit. Which sounds like a fun party game, no?

Not content to have things just be unbearably tense, they up the ante by making the game even funner. Now you can only choose one friend to take to the deserted island.

I think the premise is kind of interesting but the characters were just too annoying for anything to matter. Secrets are spilled, resentments become painfully clear, sure. Sure. But I just didn’t give a shit. I would 110% rather die alone on a deserted island than spend 10 minutes in the company of any of these people.