Tag Archives: foreign films

Notes For My Son

When my dog Gertie started throwing clots in her lungs, we knew it was time to say goodbye. We held her in our arms, whispered in her ears about the lake at the cottage to inspire her dreams, and a shot given by her doctor send her off to a better place. We do for our dogs what many modern, advanced, and “civilized” countries still won’t do for its citizens.

Marie (Valeria Bertuccelli) is dying. Cancer sucks. There’s nothing the doctors can do, including giving her the compassionate end she and her husband have decided on. Or, they could give it to her, but they’re hesitating. It’s much easier to waffle when you’re not the one writhing in mind-altering pain. Of course, Marie’s got a reason to hang on as long as she can: her 3 year old son, Tomy. Whatever time she may have left, she’ll use it to write a journal so that her son may know her even when she’s gone. In it, she’s funny and witty, imparting bits of wisdom, tenderness, and personality, and a few wishes for what his life might be. Meanwhile, on Twitter, she’s nearly the opposite – sarcastic and bold, attracting a keen audience who appreciate her honesty during an impossible time.

Bertuccelli has a tall order to deliver from a hospital bed. With a son, a husband, a bouquet of friends, and a social media following, she’s the hub for grief and the receptacle of medical disappointments. This is her end of life, yet she’s still trying to be so many things to so many people. The book for her son gives her last days meaning and purpose, the perfect metaphor for the importance of time and using it well. The film isn’t sugarcoating death, nor is it dramatizing it. It’s ugly, messy, sometimes joyous, sometimes desperate. It’s not glamourous but it’s also not an excruciating sob-fest. Loosely based on a true story, Carlos Sorin’s film is about treasuring what you have while you have it.

Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight

Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight is a Polish horror film with a modern setting. Teens addicted to the screen are sent by their parents to detox in the woods in a kind of rehab camp. Julek (Michal Lupa) is a gamer whose parents don’t seem to appreciate the competition or the money making potential, Aniela (Wiktoria Gasiewska) is selfie-obsessed, and the others are also there so presumably over-consuming some kind of tech, including jock Daniel (Sebastian Dela), homophobic homosexual Bartek (Stanislaw Cywka), and our main protagonist, loner Zosia (Julia Wieniawa-Narkiewicz), though their particulars are apparently unimportant. Suffice to say: they’re addicted, and they’re being marched more or less against their will into the woods by Iza (Gabriela Muskala), a woman who probably wears camo in her off-time too. And this is precisely where the modern stops and this horror becomes a throwback to creature features of yore.

Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight isn’t content with your standard slasher bad guy; they’ve got something truly grotesque tromping through their forest and director Bartosz M. Kowalski capitalizes on the gruesome mystique.

Though Zosia is haunted by her past almost as much as by the monster, it’s Julek who is our true hero, even if he cuts an unlikely figure. He, at least, is bright enough to play by the horror rules, even stating them for everyone’s benefit, especially ours, we the audience who are yelling at least as loud as he is about not splitting up. Not under any circumstances.

This is by no means a classic among the genre, it’s not even a particular stand-out. But if you’re a fan of vintage slasher flicks, you’ll find this full of gore and guts, with an entertaining sprinkling of meta in-jokes. It’s a little familiar in places, a little surprising in others, and altogether not a terrible scary movie. It’s not rich in backstory or concerned with an overarching message, it’s just brutal and bloody and unforgiving.

Cadaver

Leonora’s family is starving. In the wake of a nuclear event, everyone is starving. Leonora (Gitte Witt) and husband Jacob (Thomas Gullestad) are doing their best to keep their young daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) safe in an increasingly violent and unsettled world, but they cannot put enough food in her belly. Leonora was an actress in the time before the apocalypse so she may not have needed much convincing to take in the new play being mounted in an abandoned hotel, but considering the pay-what-you-can tickets include dinner, it’s a done deal.

The dinner is real enough, but the play turns out to be more like interactive theatre, which is enough to spoil even a starved belly’s appetite. Mathias’ (Thorbjørn Harr) particular brand of dinner theatre requires patrons to wear masks as they discover the actors in different scenarios, macabre or shocking or enticing. But the show blurs the line between performance and reality; the masked guests grow increasingly weary as they pass from one dreadful scene to another. But when Alice goes missing, Leonora’s frantic search turns up some uncomfortable truths and the guests, transforming from spectators to spectacle, must confront the true cost of an evening’s entertainment.

Cadaver has an interesting premise and a disappointing follow-through. It cultivates an atmosphere of dread and tension capably but resolves them predictably. Writer-director Jarand Herdal sets his horror in a world I’d like to know more about but then all but shuts it out, locking down his subjects in an old hotel, the likes of which we’ve seen before, and seen better.

The guests’ desperation and Mathias’ instinct for survival are the most banal and expected conditions in this post-apocalyptic world. I suspect the more interesting stories were taking place out in the streets, just beyond the hotel’s doors.

Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder is a 2003 film by recent Oscar darling Bong Joon Ho. A remastered version is coming out this month, a perfect excuse to revisit this remarkable classic.

In 1986, Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha) are two humble detectives assigned to a double murder investigation in their small South Korean province, already an unusual occurrence. But when the murderer strikes several more times with the same pattern, the inexperienced detectives realize that they are chasing the country’s first documented serial killer. Their skills and gear are rudimentary, so it’s good old fashioned detecting for these two, piecing together the clues in an attempt to solve this important case.

Bong Joon Ho has a unique and inimitable cinematic voice. The film starts out almost bumbling, with a tendency toward slapstick. His signature satire is ever-present, nuanced and cleverly hidden in plain sight underneath broad comedy. Genres blend and tone veers wildly from the expected course, but neither undermines what is ultimately a serious theme. Bong Joon Ho is slowly building to some very real thrills not to mention one hell of a climax.

The detectives’ increasing desperation is well played by a talented cast, including BJH’s frequent collaborator, Song Kang Ho, reflecting tragedy, futility, and humanity. It’s a complex and gripping story about the people tortured by a case well after the victims’ suffering has ended, with consequences that leak beyond professional borders.

Bong Joon Ho takes the time to find beauty, even amid such a brutal emotional and political landscape. The way he juxtaposes images can be as startling as it is brilliant, the effect culminating in a truly unusual film that transcends genre and communicates a fragile and subtle sympathy.

Memories of Murder is a modern masterpiece; look for the remastered release in select theatres beginning this weekend.

Smog Town

If you think your job sucks, trying being an environmental protection official in China.

In some industrial centres, the smog is so thick you practically need a knife to cut through it. A spork at least. Serious harm is being done to the environment, not to mention to people’s health, but that’s not the main concern of an environmental protection officer. I mean, I’m sure that’s in the official job description, but unofficially, though very seriously, the officer’s job is to make sure their region’s numbers are not among the worst in the country. Beijing keeps a very careful watch on each city’s pollution levels, pitting each regional environmental protection office against the others, and the price of failure is shame. Which, in China at least, is a pretty steep price.

Director Meng Han hangs out with us in Langfang, one of China’s most polluted cities. The officials are fighting an uphill battle, an upmountain battle really, with both hands tied behind their backs, and no shoes, and walking pneumonia. Because the environmental protection office must somehow reduce their numbers significantly without being allowed to touch any of the biggest polluters. Instead, the officials play cat and mouse with small time operations run out of people’s driveways and carports. Their emissions are negligible compared to large industries pumping out noxious fumes and degrading the land and sulllying the water, but this is the only kind of change the regional offices are actually allowed to pursue.

Meng Han’s documentary is really a Trojan horse; on the outside it looks like it’s about environmental protection, but once you crack its shell, you’ll find it’s really a commentary on the futility of the job, the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, and the sham lip service our governments pay to our faces about concern for the environment while always valuing profit and efficiency over everything else.

Given these restrictions, these laughable micro targets, our fight against climate change is destined to be a losing one.

This and other titles are screening as part of the Planet In Focus Film Festival – check out their lineup and buy your tickets (and watch at home!) here.

The Binding (Il legame)

Emma (Mia Maestro) and young daughter Sofia (Giulia Patrignani) are visiting her fiancé’s mother in southern Italy, which sounds like a dream scenario, sun kissed summers with wine and pasta, but it turns out this particular corner of southern Italy is less romantic getaway and more death by curse.

Turns out, Emma’s fiancé Francesco (Riccardo Scarmarcio) hasn’t always been a stand up guy. In his youth he got a girl pregnant and instead of a) doing the right thing or b) breaking up with the woman and sending a monthly cheque or c) becoming a deadbeat dad, he opts for d) use some black magic on her to get rid of the problem.

Obviously her evil spirit has been lingering, waiting for the perfect moment, and its malevolent intentions have targeted young Sofia as its victim. It starts with a tarantula bite and gets oh so much worse. To make matters even worse, it’s unclear to Emma, who isn’t fluent in poultices and incantations, whether her in-laws can be trusted or whether the old women and their evil eye are actually the source of the curse.

Is that the actual plot? Probably not. I was only paying half attention because the movie was so dull and boring. It’s supposed to be a horror movie, but the specifics of the situation are so vague and the relationships between characters so unclear that it’s hard to invest in the story or the consequences. I don’t think Sean was faring much better because his only quibble was with the freshness of the tarantula blood. So….

Maybe something was lost in translation. That seems possible. Maybe. I’m not convinced. In fact, I’m still a little resentful that this movie tried to scare me but didn’t try to entertain me. That’s a terrible equation and I’m not impressed to be involved. If you’re willing to be a variable, you can insert yourself on Netflix. Just don’t blame me if The Binding adds up to a pretty generic horror movie.

Apples (Mila)

Any director lucky enough or prescient enough to be working on a movie about global pandemics just as one spread in the real world is probably going to have an automatic in this year, as we are greedy to see our own lives reflected in film, for both the drama and fear instilled by a rapidly spreading virus, and the stillness and isolation as the world shut down in response. These are strange times.

But not all pandemics are created equal. The one writer- (along with Stavros Raptis) director Christos Nikou imagines causes sudden amnesia. After a blinding pain in the head, the victim finds him- or herself void of memory. When Aris, a middle-aged man, wakes to the bus driver shaking him, his wallet is as empty as his head. Transported to hospital by ambulance, he can’t answer any questions, and after a few days on the ward, he is still unclaimed by friend or family. He’s not the only one. In response, a rehab program attempts to fill the void, a recovery method designed to help unclaimed patients build new identities and lives. Living in a sparse apartment and armed with a polaroid camera, he is given daily tasks on a cassette, meant to be performed and captured on film. It’s a strange life, and a lonely one, until he meets a woman on the same path (Sofia Georgovasili).

The treatment is unexpected, jarring, and increasingly bizarre. Just like Nikou’s film. As a feature film debut, it’s bold, and immediately establishes itself as a smoldering new entry among the Greek New Wave of weird cinema. And isn’t it glorious.

More than just memory, Apples is a meditation on nostalgia, reality, grief, and existential reminiscence. But between Nikou and the Disturbed Memory Department of the Neurological Hospital, what Apples really touches deep within its worldwide audience is our collective identity crisis. Sure it’s surreal and inevitably absurdist, but through its analog attempt at rediscovering personality, it’s a subtle condemnation of the hollowness and inauthenticity of the digital age, and it gives us all the space and permission to grieve.

TIFF20: Another Round (Druk)

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) has been burned out and running on autopilot for some time. There’s little time or reason for joy. His job has become dull and burdensome for both himself and his students. I’m not excusing the behaviour that’s to follow, but I am giving you the context in which Martin and friends/colleagues Peter (Lars Ranthe), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) agree to conduct a social experiment.

Under the guise of “research,” they agree to test the theory that people operate better with a constant 0.05 blood alcohol level. Drinking at work: what could go wrong? Certainly four professionals should know better than to fall for such pseudoscience and likely they do, but caught up in some major midlife malaise, any excuse to numb the drowning desperation sounds like a good one. Drinking all the time to maintain that certain level needs not only commitment but opportunity which does involve some risk. But soon their classrooms are enlivened, their home lives invigorated. Martin and his friends are relaxed, they’re enjoying life again, people notice they’re less inhibited.

You and I can spot the problems coming a mile away, but feeling cocky, and perhaps with slightly impaired judgment, they all agree that since 0.05 is good, more must be better. This is the inevitable folly of man. Soon Martin and his gang are dosing themselves at ever-increasing levels. It’s fun, at first. They’re completely stress-free at work and they’re spending loads of their free time in each other’s company, where everyone is similarly inebriated and having a good time. Everyone else seems so uptight in comparison, but together they mix drinks and dance. They dance! Four white middle aged men just dance around their living rooms unselfconsciously. And since more is so much more fun, even more must be even better right? So now they’re alienating their families and risking their jobs but they don’t care or notice because they’re so intoxicated.

No matter how low they go, director Thomas Vinterberg, who wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm, manages to keep the film quite dignified even when its characters are not. We are witnesses to a social experiment, it’s just not quite the one that Martin and friends set out to prove. It feels dangerously easy for such a film to veer off course into raunchy comedy mode but Vinterberg maintains a steady hand and a thoughtful introspection

Mads Mikkelsen is at his very best in the film, teetering on one ledge or another, giving a thrilling performance that is being constantly and expertly recalibrated. But at its heart, Another Round is an ensemble, and Mikkelsen is very ably supported by Ranthe, Larsen, and Millang. The script gives them each something to chew on, ensuring that the audience gets an impressive menu which ultimately ends in a very satisfying meal.

TIFF20: 76 Days

An unidentified and unidentifiable young man is crying, begging to see his father one last time. The mourner is indistinguishable from his comforters as they all wear the same fully encapsulated protective garments. His father is already being wheeled toward a temporary morgue, his corpse zipped up in a special HAZMAT body bag, his remains a possibly infectious hazard that will be cremated unceremoniously in the nearest facility. There will be no last embrace.

We are in a hospital in Wuhan, China, the capital of Hubei Province and home to 11 million people. This is where COVID-19, first known simply as the coronavirus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was first identified as a cluster of viral pneumonia in late December 2019. Wuhan entered lockdown on January 23 2020, with WHO declaring it a public health emergency of international concern a week later, and a pandemic by March. Wuhan’s lockdown was an unprecedented bit of grace that would allow the rest of the world to prepare; it would be followed by lockdowns in many other countries the world over.

Wuhan stayed in lockdown for 76 days, and many hospitals, including this one, were simply overwhelmed by 50 000 cases of a disease they didn’t yet know how to treat. The need quickly outstrips the capacity. Doctors and nurses in thrown-together, inadequate PPE are shouting at panicked crowds of sick people, trying to get them to come in only a few at a time, hardly equipped to handle both the people and their ailments. A special ward for COVID patients was quickly separated from the rest, where fear bubbled, and impatience, loneliness, sorrow – not just the patients, but the doctors and nurses who are also locked down, isolated from their families, risking their lives to treat an unknown, highly infectious disease with a higher than average rate of death.

Directors Weixi Chen and Hao Wu try their best to tease out a few narratives from the chaos, but the film is actually at its best when the scenes are random, the pace urgent, its subjects on edge. Loud speakers throughout the city announce lockdown rules to empty streets; “Don’t create or spread rumours,” they say, with no one there to hear them. A bin full of cell phones belonging to the dead sits on a nurse’s desk, some of them still ringing.

It’s incredible that the film makers were able to piece something together so quickly, something that may one day serve as a primary document of this historical event, and even though we are still very much fighting this war and don’t yet know how or if it will end, I was on the edge of my seat watching it unfold at ground zero, where it all began. It is raw, emotional, desperate. It is a human and humane portrait of these troubling times.

For more documentaries about our response to COVID-19, please join us here.

The Paramedic (El Practicante)

Angel (Mario Casas) is an ambulance paramedic who gives off major creep vibes as he snatches souvenirs from the accident scenes he works. He himself becomes the patient after an accident leaves him paralyzed, and angry. His accident has guilted girlfriend Vane (Déborah François) into staying longer than she’d like, caring for him even as he spirals out of control, suspicion raging, spyware engaged, but unsurprisingly his insane jealousy does not endear him to her and she leaves. Angel was an angry guy before the accident and he’s angrier now. Angrier still to discover that Vane has taken up with his old paramedic partner Rodrigo (Guillermo Pfening) and they are expecting a baby together. Rodrigo, who was driving at the time of their accident, has stolen his life.

The beautiful thing about this movie is that it’s basically peak diversity. Not only is the main character disabled, the script offers equal opportunity serial killing. Anyone can murder if you make it accessible enough. He can’t enjoy sex anymore but he can stab syringes into basically anyone, which disables them enough to be handled. It’s genius, really, to turn the tables this way.

The Paramedic is dark and menacing well before Angel transforms into a murderous stalker. His injury doesn’t make him this way, it merely gives him the opportunity to indulge his most sinister thoughts.

It’s a slow burn, a thriller of a certain type, one you’ll no doubt recognize because we’ve seen shades of it many times before. It’s competent and well-acted but doesn’t distinguish itself from peers. Even if the quality’s variable, the character is chilling enough to give it a chance, and the final act just about justifies the whole watch. If you’re in the mood for a thriller, this is a viable option from Netflix.