Archive for the ‘Foreign Films’ Category

certifiedA chance encounter between a British writer and a French antiques dealer leads to an exploration of authenticity in both art and relationships in Iranian director and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami’s marvelous 2010 film Certified Copy.

James Miller (William Shimell) is a British author who is visiting Tuscany as part of a promotional tour for his latest book, Certified Copy. In his book, Miller argues that, in art, reproductions are just as valid as the original work because it “leads us to the original and in this way certifies its value.” He believes this approach could lead to an understanding of life as well as art.

Shortly after the lecture begins, an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) arrives accompanied by her teenage son. Her son is restless and keeps distracting her until she finally decides to leave, but not before giving her number and address to Miller’s translator. Although the dealer disagrees with many of the points Miller makes in his book, she is eager to meet him and has purchased several copies of the book for him to sign.

The next day, Miller visits the dealer at her shop and they spend the afternoon driving through the countryside, visiting museums and debating the importance of authenticity in art. At a local café, Miller steps out to take a call, and the café’s owner mistakes Miller for the dealer’s husband. The dealer doesn’t correct the owner, and tells her that they’ve been married for 15 years. When Miller returns to the café, the dealer tells him the café owner thinks they’re married and at this point the nature of their conversation shifts. Miller and the dealer begin to relate to each other as if they have truly been married for 15 years: they discuss her son as if he is their son, and they begin to share memories and grievances. He even begins conversing with her in French instead of English. The reality of their relationship gradually becomes ambiguous, and the viewer is left to wonder if they really are a couple or simply two people copying the behavior of a long-married couple.

Certified Copy reminded me of director Richard Linklater’s series of films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. In Linklater’s films as well as Certified Copy, you’re following the development of a relationship, and all of the action and dialogue serves to move the relationship forward. Unlike the relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) in the Linklater films, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing an authentic relationship unfold or one that was a reproduction of a 15-year marriage, but the ambiguity was quite effective in that it mirrors the philosophy of life and art Miller discusses in his lecture. Juliette Binoche’s character is also somewhat ambiguous; although her profession is discussed at length, her character’s name is never mentioned.

The film is beautifully acted. Shimell is a British opera singer in his first film role and he’s a terrific foil for Binoche, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1996 film The English Patient. They’re together in nearly every scene, and their chemistry makes the relationship between their characters engaging and convincing.

Playful and thoughtful, Certified Copy is a clever mediation on the nature of art and relationships. The film is in English, French, and Italian with English subtitles.

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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi brings us a deliciously complex domestic drama. Set in contemporary Iran, A Separation explores the dissolution of a marriage against the backdrop of a mystery.

Simin is seeking a divorce from her husband Nader because he refuses to leave Iran with her. Nader also won’t allow Simin to take their daughter Termeh out of the country. Nader wants to stay in Iran to take care of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. A judge refuses to grant the divorce, and Simin immediately packs up and leaves for her mother’s house. Termeh decides to stay with her father Nader. Simin’s absence from the home leaves Nader with no choice but to hire a daily caretaker for his father for the hours when he, Nader, is away at work. Nader hires Razieh, a financially-strapped married woman with a young daughter and a child on the way. Nader comes home from work one day to discover Razieh gone and his father on the bedroom floor, his wrist tied to his bed. Additionally, some money is missing from a drawer, and Nader believes that Razieh has taken it. When Razieh returns to Nader’s home, tensions erupt and a physical encounter results in Razieh accusing Nader of a crime against her.

So did he or didn’t he commit the crime Razieh accuses him of? In the ensuing legal drama, the characters struggle with questions of morality, informed by societal dictates of religious and gender roles, and what it means to tell the truth. A Separation prompts us to ask: In desperate circumstances, when our backs are up against the proverbial wall, are we more likely to transgress our moral and ethical boundaries?

American viewers unfamiliar with the Iranian justice system will undoubtedly make some interesting comparisons between the American justice system and the Iranian system of justice as depicted in A Separation. Lawyers are non-existent in the film as the accuser, the accused, and witnesses battle it out with each other in front of a judge.

Simply put, A Separation is an extraordinary film, one of the best films I have ever seen. The top-rate performances alone make the film worth viewing. Particular stand-outs include Peyman Moadi as Nader; Sareh Bayat as Razieh; and Kimia Hosseini, who steals every scene she is in, as Somayeh, Razieh’s inquisitive, mischievous, and adorable daughter.

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berberianA mild-mannered sound engineer’s latest project blurs the line between fantasy and reality in Berberian Sound Studio, writer/director Peter Strickland’s homage to ‘70s Italian horror films.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who specializes in nature films, travels to Italy to work on the sound editing for what he thinks is a film about horses. He’s right about the horses, but it’s not a nature film.  Upon viewing the opening credits, he discovers that he’s actually been commissioned to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror film about witchcraft and murder at an all-girls riding academy.  To make matters worse, he barely speaks Italian, the cast hates the film, and the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) won’t even acknowledge that he’s even making a horror film, insisting instead “It’s not a ‘horror’ film.  It’s a Santini film.”

Homesick, but unable to get his travel expenses reimbursed so he can return home, Gilderoy stays in Italy to work on the film.  As the sound editing progresses, he not only becomes more entrenched in the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, to the point of speaking Italian fluently, but he is unable to separate his life from his art.

Berberian Sound Studio is an inventive homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s.  Giallo is a genre of horror that typically, but not always, combines elements found in mysteries and police procedurals with common horror tropes.  Giallo films are also distinguished by their distinctive production design and sound, and a hypnotic, but incredibly creepy, score.  Notable Giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci.  Viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find additional background and context if they watch the special features included on the Berberian Sound Studio DVD.

Berberian Sound Studio is all about sound, and Peter Strickland keeps the focus on sound by not showing any scenes from The Equestrian Vortex aside from the opening credits.  The viewer experiences The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy does, through dialogue, music, sound effects, and, of course, lots of screaming.  Berberian Sound Studio is a meta horror film without many of the elements commonly found in horror films.  Through the use of sound, Strickland manages to create moments of real tension without relying on violence to generate scares.  Strickland also succeeds in crafting an impressive tribute to the art of foley, the creation of background sounds using common objects.

In addition to the use of sound, I really enjoyed the acting, particularly Toby Jones’ performance.  At the beginning of the film, Gilderoy is meek and polite, in sharp contrast to the brash rudeness of Santini and his producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco).  As work on The Equestrian Vortex progresses, Gilderoy’s personality begins to subtly change to match his surroundings, much to his chagrin.  Toby Jones gives a fine performance that works well with the tone of the film.

At the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is told, “A brave new world of sound awaits you.”  Strickland’s film is a clever and absorbing look at how this “brave new world” of sound is created and how it changes Gilderoy’s life.

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returnedA fifteen-year-old girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz) is on school trip.  As the bus reaches a sharp curve in the road, it suddenly careens down a steep embankment, killing all aboard the bus.

A young man named Simon (Pierre Perrier) dies on the eve of his wedding to Adèle (Clotilde Hesme).  He had just found out that she was pregnant with their first child.

Years later, Camille and Simon, along with several other people who died years before, suddenly and inexplicably return to their homes and families in a remote mountain town in the first season of the beautifully eerie French series, The Returned.

The first episodes focus on the characters of Camille and Simon, who are unaware they are dead, as they return to their homes.  Both soon discover that everything has changed.  In the years since their deaths, Camille’s parents Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot) have separated, and her twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is now an adult.  Adèle has moved on as well.  She is now engaged to a Gendarmerie captain named Thomas (Samir Guesmi), who is helping her raise Simon’s daughter Chloé (Brune Martin).

For Claire, still struggling to come to terms with Camille’s death, the return of her daughter is a miracle; one she hopes will bring her fractured family back together.  Jérôme and Léna are a bit more skeptical, but accept Camille’s return for Claire’s sake.  Adèle’s feelings about Simon’s return are more complex.  Like Claire, Adèle still grieves the loss of Simon, but she has found love and security with Thomas.  Adèle is soon faced with a choice that will have an effect on the life she has built with Thomas and Chloé.

While Camille and Simon attempt to reintegrate with their families, several other mysteries unfold.  A waitress is attacked in a tunnel and left for dead.  Her attack bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who terrorized the town years ago.  A respected teacher burns down his house then jumps to his death from the local dam.  A nurse whose brutal attack seven years ago was linked to the serial killer, is followed home by an enigmatic boy whom she decides to call Victor.  Then there is the matter of the dam. Water levels in the reservoir unexpectedly drop, wreaking havoc on the town’s water supply.  Are these seemingly random events linked to Camille and Simon’s return?

Over the course of eight episodes, the first season of The Returned weaves together several seemingly disparate storylines into a compelling and creepy mystery.  I think the key to the show’s success is the setting.  On the surface, the town looks quiet and peaceful with its pristine mountains and tranquil lakes; however, the only access to the rest of civilization is a road that goes over the dam.  If the residents can’t cross the dam, then they are unable to leave the town.  The town’s isolation enhances the tension as the mystery deepens.

The Returned is an adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back.  Although both share the same basic premise of the dead returning to their families, the film is a drama with supernatural elements while the series is a supernatural mystery.  Fans of The Returned should check out They Came Back if they haven’t already seen the film, but they should not expect the film to have the same characters and storyline.  Both are in French with English subtitles.

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Thrillers rarely come along that are created with as much verve as Headhunters, a standalone novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, who also writes the Harry Hole series. The crafty, intelligent plot has a bit of noir as well as some jaw-dropping comic moments; you won’t believe the literally sticky situations that come up amid Hitchcockian twists and turns. You’ll also find well-developed characters despite the book’s brevity (less than 300 pages), which I always appreciate.

Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief to maintain a lavish lifestyle for his wife. He is also clearly trying to compensate for his short height and his insecurity about having such a gorgeous wife, terrified that she’ll discover his true colors. In Roger’s misguided drive to supplement his already lucrative work and preserve his marriage, he suddenly finds himself caught in a web of unclear motives and loyalties, with no one to trust. He wonders just how long he’s been the target in someone’s larger scheme rather than solely the mastermind of his own crimes.

Clas Greve is not only a brilliant and devilishly handsome corporate icon, he’s also a tried and tested covert special forces operative skilled as another type of “head hunter.” His history with GPS tracking technology landed him the CEO position with a major corporation rumored to have lost him following a takeover. Roger Brown’s wife Diana, who meets Greve through her art gallery, tips Roger off to Greve’s availability as a potential CEO candidate, and Roger thinks he is perfect to head a competing GPS technology firm. Diana also tells the tale of a missing masterpiece by Rubens that was found in Clas Greve’s grandmother’s apartment in Oslo. Not only does Roger think he has found the perfect executive for his client, he plots to steal the work of art that might set him up in luxury for life.

Pampered, polished Roger, a sophisticated businessman and very classy thief, may be in over his head, but in the course of an adventurous and outrageous series of circumstances, he reveals his true grit. The reader will end up rooting for this undeserving hero. Fans of Stieg Larsson, Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen are likely to be enraptured.

“MPAA rating: R; for bloody violence including some grisly images, strong sexual content and nudity.” If you are over 17, and know that you could at least stomach Pulp Fiction or Fight Club, don’t let this intimidating film rating prevent you from viewing the riveting Norwegian film version of the novel. Despite the rating, I found it less disturbing than expected, not as violent or brutal as your average Tarantino flick—the murders in Headhunters come across as rather accidental, not cold-blooded or ultra-disturbingly violent. Yes, there are some graphic scenes, but you’ll be so caught up in the unexpected plot twists that I doubt you’ll find them too extreme—well, except for one scene reminiscent of the unforgettable outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed suspense this much since Fargo. What you should know is that the details in some scenes are so much more graphic in the book that you’ll be glad that the director chose to leave them out!

The DVD has settings for viewing in Norwegian with subtitles or with English dubbing. I enjoyed it in Norwegian more because the English was dubbed with American accents. Roger Brown’s character is British and all the other characters are either Norwegian or Dutch, so it just made more sense to use the English subtitles.

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Ferragosto: a major Italian holiday, celebrated August 15, that involves an elaborate meal. The majority of the population goes out of town for a few days. (Americans, think “Thanksgiving weekend”)

Pranzo:  lunch or dinner

lunchYouth, beauty, materialism, and other facets of contemporary culture permeate the cinema landscape today.  Mid-August Lunch (2008), a gem of a movie, is the antithesis of these themes and should not be missed.  The storyline is gentle, uncomplicated but rich, and leaves the viewer with considerable substance on which to ponder long after the film is over.

The movie begins with Gianni, a middle-aged man who lives with and cares for his elderly mother in her small apartment in Rome.  Gianni inadvertently finds himself providing respite care for three additional elderly women, whose families have gone away on holiday to celebrate Ferragosto.  Initially displeased with their disposition, after being dismissed to the care of a complete stranger, the women and Gianni try to make the best of this rather awkward situation.  Liberated from the confines of their prescribed roles within their families, the women’s more youthful, true personalities begin to emerge as the afternoon evolves.  Later that evening, one of the women confides to Gianni, “We live on memories. Without memories what would you do?”  The following day the women and Gianni prepare their own Pranzo di Ferragosto celebration meal, creating new memories for each of these new friends.

 Mid-August Lunch is a directorial debut for Italian actor and screenwriter Gianni Di Gregorio who also plays the central character of this film.  The calculated simplicity of this story and the cinematography, which features close-ups of the actors, images of the delicious meals prepared, and quintessential scenes of Rome work together to create a rich story.  The viewer readily connects with the characters, seeing the individual within each of the women, as well as the caring and generous Gianni.  Foreign language film viewers who oppose subtitles should not dismiss this movie.  The dialogue is not complex and moves at a comfortable pace; the viewer quickly forgets she is reading subtitles.  Charming scenes of the story unfold during the final credits… do not shut the DVD player off too quickly.  I urge you to see Mid-August Lunch, and, if you are like me, you will tell your friends and family to do the same.

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SpiritedAwayI don’t usually watch Anime, but my daughter enthused about Spirited Away, so we sat down on the couch to watch it together on her laptop. That became a nudging, pushing, “Turn the screen this way” experience for  both of us, so I was very pleased to discover that my library owns it on DVD. The library copy usually has several holds, so I had to wait. But it was worth it! This movie proves that a great story is a great story, no matter its format.

Ten-year-old Jahiro is unhappy about moving to a new house in a new town with a new school. As they are driving to their new home her father decides to take a short cut and the road ends at a strange, abandoned building. Jahiro doesn’t want to enter, but her parents seem strangely compelled. A short while later, without realizing it, they have entered a new world, peopled with odd, grotesque spirits. Jahiro is terrified, but her parents are unaware that anything is wrong and are soon trapped. From here the story gets compelling and creepier and creepier. Jahiro will need help to navigate this world and save her parents. But who is really her friend, and who is pretending to help her for their own ends?

I enjoyed the snippets of Japanese culture, that may have been so ingrained in the creators’ minds that they didn’t realize that they were showing something that might be different in other places. For example, on several occasions I noticed that in the midst of drama and action and danger, the characters stop to take off their shoes before going inside. Even in an emergency they can’t imagine running into a bathhouse with their shoes on.  Other details were also intriguing, such as the night clothes and driving on the left.  To me this shows that the creators were portraying what they saw around them, and not what an outsider might think a place is like.

This movie was animated the old-fashioned way with drawings, rather than being computer generated. I found the animation painterly, rather than the gaudy, flashing, flatness of some Disney movies. I loved the details – I could even recognize the bushes in the background and name hydrangeas, daphne, camellias and rhododendrons (not a quality appreciated by my family in the middle of a movie!).

My library’s double disk set included a Japanese documentary about the making of the movie. At the time the documentary was made in 2001 Spirited Away was the highest grossing film in Japanese history. It was dubbed into English without changing the original animation at all, which is unusual.  The English language version won the Academy Award for an animated feature in 2003. The director, Hayao Miyazaki had his sixtieth birthday while Spirited Away was being made, but he still wrote,  drew and directed for it. The documentary shows a meeting when they are working on a scene where Jahiro needs to give a pill to a dragon to save it. Miyazaki asks, “Has no one given a pill to a dog?” When it turns out only one person has even owned a dog, he mutters, “Pathetic!” and takes them all to a veterinary hospital to see all sorts of dogs dosed. I think this attention to detail shows all the way through this gripping, exciting and usual movie.

I recommend Spirited Away for everyone! It is suitable for children, but the gripping story, creepy events, great art and wonderful music will entertain young and old, even those who never watch this sort of thing.

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I first watched this film not long after its release in 2007 and I come back to it time and again. Like many people my age, I was only familiar with a couple of Édith Piaf’s songs prior to watching La Vie En Rose.  But I was immediately fascinated by this portrayal of the famous French singer, whose voice was often described as the “soul of Paris.”

We first see Édith as a young child on the streets of Paris and then as a frail invalid nearing the end of her life in 1963.  La Vie En Rose is told in a non-linear format and follows two general timelines.  The first follows Édith as she grows up and attains great international fame as a singer, and in the second we see her attempt to recover from two bad car accidents, which left her with an addiction to painkillers, in order to perform one last time.

Abandoned by her mother and father as a very young child, Édith is left to grow up in her grandmother’s brothel and is cared for tenderly by one of the prostitutes, Titine.  But a few years later, her father, a contortionist in a traveling circus, returns to claim her and forces her to join his itinerant lifestyle.  We then meet her again, a few years later, living on the streets of Paris with her friend, Simone, singing for her supper. It is while singing on a street corner that she comes to the attention of Louis Laplée, a cabaret owner.  From this point, the movie charts Édith’s rise to fame under his patronage through the time she spent in New York and California, until her premature death at the age of 47 in the French Riviera.

Piaf’s life had its fair share of trials and triumphs, just as you would expect in any musical biopic, but it is Marion Cotillard’s performance that is the real revelation here.  Marion Cotillard gives the performance of a lifetime as the La Môme Piaf and in fact she won a Best Actress Oscar for the role (the first time an Oscar has been given for a French-language role). But by no means is the character of Édith always sympathetic–her fame and sycophantic hangers-on turn her into something of a monster, spoiled and prone to tantrums.  But at the end, it is the gift of her voice that triumphs.

And what would a film about Edith Piaf be without the music?  It features a long list of classics including “La Vie En Rose” and, of course, her swan song “Non, je ne regrette rien.”  La Vie En Rose is a marvelous film about the remarkable life of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest stars and I highly recommend it.

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 Jef Costello (Alain Delon), an observant, somewhat taciturn, man, conducts his business with cool, brisk efficiency. His mission is clearly defined, all contingencies are considered, and nothing is left to chance. As a contract killer, this method of working is central to his success—and his survival. However, as Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 masterpiece Le Samouraï reveals, a meticulously crafted plan doesn’t always prevent unexpected complications.

As the film opens, Jef is in the final stages of preparing for his latest contract killing. The target is a nightclub owner named Martey, and Jef relies on his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) for his alibi. While Martey’s murder goes according to plan, Jef’s exit is witnessed by several people, including Valerie (Cathy Rosier), the pianist at the club. The local police conduct a sweeping dragnet in their search for Martey’s killer, and Jef is brought in for questioning. He doesn’t remain in police custody for long; the uncertainty of the eyewitnesses coupled with Jef’s seemingly airtight alibi prompt police to release him. However, the police superintendent (François Périer) believes he is a viable suspect and begins extensive surveillance of Jef’s movements. Meanwhile, Jef faces an additional complication when the man who ordered the hit on Martey learns of the investigation and has him followed as well. Then there is the question of Valerie; she had a clear view of Jef, yet she failed to identify him in the police lineup. Could she have a secret agenda?

Le Samouraï is a well-crafted film whose chief strengths are its tone and pacing. It is a somber and contemplative film, and the setting and color palette of the opening sequence establish this tone. At the beginning of the film, Jef, clad in his trademark dark suit, is in his apartment: an austere space with thick grey walls. He is silently watching a lone bird fly around in a similarly spartan cage. The pacing is slow in comparison to today’s films, but I think that heightens the tension as Jef slowly begins to realize he has become like a caged bird. The performances are strong, with Delon’s stylish and coolly calculating Jef Costello meeting his foil in François Périer’s exuberant and obsessive police superintendent. Le Samouraï is in French, but the subtitles are formatted so they are easy to follow.

Since its release in 1967, Le Samouraï has inspired a number of filmmakers, including John Woo and Jim Jarmusch. Fans of Woo and Jarmusch, as well as those who like crime dramas, may want to check out this sleek and stylish classic.

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A few years ago, I saw Japanese director Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 film Revenge of a Kabuki Actor, and really enjoyed it, but I never got around to seeing any of his other films. Recently, however, the library added to its collection his 1983 adaptation of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s novel The Makioka Sisters and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to explore some of Ichikawa’s later work. The film did not disappoint; The Makioka Sisters is a poetic look at four sisters who are on the brink of life-altering changes in a society that is rapidly changing. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Set in Osaka in the late ‘30s, the central characters are the four Makioka sisters, whose family once ran a thriving kimono manufacturing business. Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) is the oldest and the most concerned with the prestige of the family name, even though the business has been sold; Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) is even-tempered and takes care of her youngest sisters; Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) is kind and gentle, but her extreme shyness makes it difficult for her family to find a husband for her; and Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa) is young, rebellious and occasionally resentful of the attention paid to Yukiko and her marital prospects.

The story primarily centers on the attempts made by the eldest sisters to find a suitable husband for Yukiko. Most of the matches are complete disasters, culminating in one awkward meeting where the family’s habit of investigating potential suitors comes back to haunt them in a major way.  Tsuruko in particular is clinging to traditions that have lost their relevance. As a result, during the course of the film the sisters face many conflicts arising from changing societal norms. Most of the conflicts revolve around the character of Taeko, who, at the beginning of the film, hopes to support herself by opening a doll factory, much to the chagrin of her oldest sister. The sisters’ resolutions to these conflicts forms the basis of the film’s poignant denouement.

The Makioka Sisters is beautifully filmed (the scenes involving the opulent kimonos are stunning), and I also really liked how Ichikawa developed the relationships between the sisters and how this sisterly bond helps them adapt to a changing society. This film turned out to be a good starting point to learning more about the work of this highly regarded director.

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Mandy from Circulation Services shares a review.

For Juan and Marcos, it seemed like a simple, but potentially lucrative, con: sell a sheet of counterfeit stamps to a wealthy stamp collector, then split the profit. However, nothing–and no one–are what they appear to be in Nine Queens, an excellent suspense thriller from Argentina, written and directed by Fabián Bielinsky.

The film opens in a gas station where veteran grifter Marcos (Ricardo Darín) observes Juan (Gastón Pauls) attempting to pull the same con on two unsuspecting cashiers.  When Juan’s scheme is exposed, Marcos steps in and rescues Juan from an angry store manager.  Marcos is impressed with the quick thinking, but seemingly naïve, Juan, and offers to show him how a skilled con artist operates.  As soon as Juan accepts the offer, they are presented with the ideal opportunity to make a quick score.  One of Marcos’s former partners needs to sell a sheet of counterfeit stamps called the Nine Queens, and a potential buyer just happens to be staying at the luxury hotel where Marcos’s sister Valeria (Leticia Brédice) is employed. Juan and Marcos have less than 24 hours to make the sale; the buyer is eager to purchase the stamps, but he will be deported the following day. A complex transaction leads all the central characters down unpredictable paths as they try to sell the Nine Queens.

Nine Queens is a well-written and entertaining film that would appeal to fans of David Mamet and the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. One of my favorite elements of Nine Queens is its pacing. It is fast-paced, but that works well with the plot since Juan and Marcos have a limited window of time to successfully complete the con. I watched Nine Queens for a third time as I was preparing to write this review, and since I knew how the film would end I could focus instead on how Bielinsky constructed the film. I was impressed with the interaction between the characters, and I think a lot of credit should go to the actors, particularly Ricardo Darín and Gastón Pauls.  I also felt that Bielinsky did a skillful job of obscuring the true nature of the con until the very end of the film. It is definitely a film that holds up on repeated viewings. The film is in Spanish, but the subtitles are formatted so they are easy to read.

Fabián Bielinsky died suddenly in 2006, but Nine Queens proved so influential it was remade in several countries, including the United States. In 2004, director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney produced the U.S. remake Criminal, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and John C. Reilly.

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OK, so zombies are big these days. Huge, in fact. Fictional and historical characters have taken up the eternal battle against the undead with great success. But what if you were a 20-something slacker and the Day dawned?

Shaun is the classic underachiever. In fact, the greatest triumph of his life is probably living away from his mom and despised stepfather. He’s in a dead-end job (and all his younger co-workers openly laugh at him), he’s drifting through a relationship with girlfriend Liz, and he’s stuck between his hard-charging roommate Pete and doper/gamer Ed, his best friend and the third roomie in the flat. When Liz dumps him, Shaun decides to change his ways. Unfortunately (fortunately?), the zombie outbreak has preceded Shaun’s resolution, and Shaun is forced to make more drastic changes than even he had imagined.

The script does a great job balancing the horror of increasing zombie attacks and the humor of Shaun’s attempts to be a hero. The funniest part of the film (to me) was a scene in which Shaun goes out to run an errand and blithely walks past scenes of mayhem. But he quickly comes to understand that he’s surrounded by a catastrophe and begins to improvise weapons in the face of zombie attacks. (Another funny scene has Ed and Shaun arguing over which sentimental objects are OK to use in their battles.) But that humor is underlined with background images that leave the viewer uncertain and off-balance—is that a couple kissing in the shadows of a phone booth, or a hickey going drastically wrong? Are those kids playing tag or is It one of Them?

Shaun of the Dead occupies an enviably unique spot in the movie realm: a horror film that is truly comic, a comic film that is truly horrific. There are moments of revelation as well, including impossible decisions that Shaun and his friends must make to survive. I don’t know that you could truly say that Shaun grows up, but at least he finds his niche, no matter how bizarre that niche may be.

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A samurai and his wife find their travel violently interrupted when they encounter a bandit in an isolated grove. The bandit assaults the wife, murders the samurai, then flees the scene with the samurai’s horse and possessions. Later, the bandit is thrown from the horse and arrested by a passing policeman who discovers him with the stolen property.

The bandit’s guilt seems obvious, right? Think again. Truth isn’t easily discernible in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon. Kurosawa uses this basic premise as a springboard to explore the fluid nature of truth and justice, creating in the process a movie that combines philosophical inquiry with expert acting and filmmaking.

Based on the short story “In the Grove” by Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Kurosawa’s film is framed by a discussion between a woodcutter, a Buddhist priest, and a wandering commoner who are seeking shelter from a thunderstorm. While the storm rages around them, the woodcutter and priest begin discussing a recent court case in which the priest was a key witness. The priest encountered the samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyō) shortly before a bandit (Toshirō Mifune) saw the couple and decided he must have the wife for himself. As the film progresses, multiple stories of the couple’s fateful encounter with the bandit emerge, told from the perspective of the bandit, the wife, the samurai (related through a medium), and, finally, the woodcutter who has his own involvement in the events of that day. None of the stories match, leaving it up to the viewer to decide who is telling the truth.

Rashomon is a film that can be enjoyed on many levels. The narrative is engaging and thought-provoking, and skillfully incorporates flashbacks to tell the differing versions of what happened in the grove. The actors are convincing, particularly Toshirō Mifune, who appeared in a number of Kurosawa’s films. Finally, the film itself is expertly crafted and features stunning cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa. Nearly 60 years after its release, Rashomon stands out as excellent example of the work of Akira Kurosawa and is well worth discovering or rediscovering.

On a side note, I’d like to comment on the DVD presentation. Rashomon is in Japanese with English subtitles; however, there is an optional English dub track for those who would prefer to skip the subtitles. The subtitles themselves are white lettering against a black and white picture, and I’d recommend the dub track if you find the subtitles are difficult to read.

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This week’s posts feature four novels written by Chinese- and Korean-American authors. The first is a romance written by Sherry Thomas, a Chinese author who learned English by reading romances with the help of her dictionary. The second is a young adult story of one girl’s immigration to America from Korea, a land just “A Step From Heaven.” Kimberly Chang is a “Girl in Translation” as she works day and night to get herself and her mother out of the sweatshops of New York. Closing out the week, Korean adoptee Sarah Thorson journeys to find her identity, knowing she is “Somebody’s Daughter.” But to kick the week off is a Korean film featuring one boy’s quest to find “The Way Home.”

Featuring a selfish, confrontational little boy out to get his own way, The Way Home has the potential to be a recipe for disaster.  Instead it is a story about love that is funny, poignant, and heartwarming.  Although this is a Korean film with English subtitles, there is little need for the spoken word.  The story is told through music and the actions of the characters, not words.

The opening frames of The Way Home show a weary mother and her combative son making their way from the city into the rural countryside.  On the long journey Sang-woo badgers his mother with questions about his grandmother, a woman he has never met. Sang-Woo will soon be living with his halmoni (grandmother) for a few months until his mother can get back on her feet after losing her job.  But as mother and son get further from Seoul and closer to their destination, Sang-Woo’s anxiety grows.  Sang-Woo is good at being alone and taking care of himself, living on canned food, drinking sodas, and playing tirelessly on his handheld videogame, but he is a city boy, not a country one.  How is he going to survive with a peasant woman who is elderly and mute? To add to it all, the shock of using a chamber pot, lack of television, and no access to Kentucky Fried Chicken may just send this seven-year-old over the edge.

The gentle acts of kindness, patience, and silent acceptance of Sang-Woo by his grandmother slowly win him over until he begins to understand and love this wordless woman.  Her quiet acceptance allows Sang-Woo to come out of his shallow, materialistic shell and explore the world around him, moving beyond his childish animosity.  This is a lovely story that illustrates the power of simple acts of kindness.

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Have you ever wished you could shed your life and do something completely out of character?  If so, take a look at this marvelous Italian film (English title Bread and Tulips), and see how that impulse affects Rosalba Barletta and the people around her.  You might not catch the bus home tonight.

Rosalba is married to the plumbing king of Pescara, a man devoted to his business and his mistress—who happens to be his sister-in-law.  Rosalba is the wallpaper of his life, pleasant enough but strictly background.  She has served her purpose: bearing sons, preparing his meals, and keeping his house.  What she thinks and feels make no difference to him.

Then a funny little accident changes everything.  Rosalba finds herself stranded when their bus tour stops for a restroom break.  Uncharacteristically, she decides to hitchhike her way home, but chooses the exit to Venice, intending to have a solo evening before resuming her staid existence. Time after time, though, when presented with the opportunity to go home, she chooses instead to continue her adventure. Of course, it doesn’t help that her husband shouts at her over the phone every chance he gets.

Rosalba finds a job in a florist’s shop and a temporary place to sleep.  That temporary place gradually becomes more homelike, and before she knows it she has friends and newfound opportunities to express herself.  She also serves as the ‘normal’ character, the foil to oddballs who begin to collect around her.  Her nominal landlord is a sorrowful waiter from Iceland concealing a great secret.  The neighbor girl is a holistic masseuse, daffy but friendly, and the 0wner of the florist shop spends his days yelling at the customers and plotting revolution.

The best of these oddballs is an unemployed plumber who accepts Barletta’s assignment to find Rosalba on the promise of a job.  An enthusiastic reader of mystery novels, he may fancy himself Inspector Montalbano, but is closer to Inspector Clouseau, and the scenes featuring him bumbling his way through Venice wearing his raincoat and carrying the suitcase his mama packed for him are masterpieces of understated comedy.  As all these people cross paths, each is confronted by a decision: whether to continue their old lives or risk everything on an uncertain future.

Venice is as much a character in this film as any of the human actors, and director Silvio Soldini takes us exploring down the backstreets tourists will  never see.  Actress Licia Maglietta does a terrific job of taking Rosalba from the weary housewife to a woman blossoming thanks to a vision of what life can be.  That makes Pane e Tulipani a visual treat as well as a charming comedy.

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Mandy of WRL’s Circulation Services reviews an award-winning Japanese movie.—Editor

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a young cellist who has achieved his dream of playing in an orchestra despite a traumatic childhood, which includes his parents’ divorce and his subsequent abandonment by his father. Then a series of events occur which send him on the path towards a reconciliation with his past and an understanding of his future. This is the basic premise of the Japanese film Departures, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars. What’s not so conventional about the film is the career choice that serves as the vehicle for Kobayashi’s self-discovery.

As the film opens, Kobayashi is living in Tokyo and working with a small orchestra. He is enthusiastic about his job, even though the orchestra is having a difficult time attracting an audience. Following the performance, the owner of the orchestra calmly informs the musicians that the orchestra is broke and will be disbanded immediately. Unemployed and faced with the payments on an expensive new cello, Kobayashi decides the best course of action is to sell the cello and move back to his hometown, where he still has the house his late mother left him. His wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) readily agrees, and once they have relocated Kobayashi begins scouring the help wanted ads looking for a job—any job. The most promising lead comes in the form of an “NK Agency” looking for someone who will assist with “departures.” He doesn’t know what an “NK Agency” is, but assumes it must be a travel agency since the word “departures” is in the advertisement. Upon meeting with the owner of the agency, he is surprised to learn that “NK” is an abbreviation for nokan or “encoffinment” and that the job entails ceremonially preparing the deceased in the presence of mourners before they are placed in the coffin. He’s also informed that the ad should have read “the departed” instead of “departures.“ He’s skeptical about the job but desperate for work, and the agency’s owner convinces him to give it a chance, believing that fate has led Kobayashi to the agency.

An awkward start with the agency causes Kobayashi to wonder if he’s really suited to this line of work; however, he gradually comes to take great pride and care in what he does, moved by the profound effect the encoffinment ritual has on families in mourning. At the same time, he has to deal with the scorn of his wife and close friends who believe he should have a “proper” job. As the film progresses, joyous news from Mika followed by tragic news about his long absent father forces Kobayashi to make peace with his past in order to move toward his future.

I thought Departures was a gentle and involving film that treats its subject matter with a high degree of grace and dignity. Director Yojiro Takita keeps the action at a steady pace which fits with the contemplative nature of the material. The performances are strong and nuanced, particularly that of the lead, Masahiro Motoki, whose range of facial expressions really brings a lot of depth to the character of Kobayashi. Another strength of the film is the way in which the screenwriter, Kundo Koyama, incorporates the backstory of the supporting characters as well as the stories of the families the agency serves. The film is subtitled, but the subtitles are clear and easy to follow.

Departures could be an ideal choice for viewers looking for a meditation on the curious nature of life, fate, and, yes, death.

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Some people have no sense of humor. Thankfully, others more than make up for them. Charlie Todd is one person who redeems hundreds of the humorless, and in Causing a Scene he shows why he is probably one of the funniest people you’ve never heard of.

Charlie is the founder of Improv Everywhere, a loose-knit group of fun-loving and risk-taking “agents” who meet in places around New York City to perform brief sketches.  These are not pranks (although several unhappy police officers and store managers would beg to differ), since pranks are meant to cause discomfort to specific targets.  Instead, Charlie and his friends create unique situations that are purposefully absurd, recording the reactions of the witnesses who have innocently crossed their path.  For those witnesses, you could call it a case of being in the right place at the right time; they’ll be telling these stories for years to come.  Some of my favorites: the Olympic synchronized swimming tryouts in the fountain at Washington Square Park, the Rob! mission, in which an entire section at a sporting event is involved in calling a wayward fan back to his friends, and, of course, the booksigning by Anton Chekhov in the Union Square Barnes and Noble.

Charlie Todd and co-author Alex Scordelis have captured the planning, setup, and execution of these scenes with the same sense of fun.  Approaching each event as if it were a case file, they lay out the details of the mission’s intent, methods of recruiting “agents,” the mission itself (and the priceless reactions of the witnesses), and they  debrief a participant who shares his or her insights about their experience.  They aren’t meant as instructions—oh, no, you might get into hot water doing these (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)— but as reports from the front lines of public performance.  Technically, these aren’t improvisational, since Charlie scouts locations,  plans the scenes, and briefs the participants, but to onlookers it can seem like a trip into the bizarre.   Those forays into the land of weirdness are the best part of improv theater.

Although the setups varied widely, one of the constant reactions surprised me—in almost every mission, someone would ask whether the event was some form of protest.  In an odd way, it could be considered a protest against canned entertainment, but I don’t believe Charlie and his agents care about anything but creating and spreading fun whenever they can.  Causing a Scene does that on its own—several times I found myself chortling in public—but even better, I started thinking, “what if…?”  Keep your eyes open.

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Today we hear from Ceilidh Mapes on England’s top football team.

First things first – in England soccer is known as “football;” and secondly, I am NOT a fan. I just do not get it and, despite numerous attempts by my brother, I still do not understand the offside rule. So imagine my surprise when I found myself actually enjoying a film about soccer, so much so that I could not wait to recommend it.

The Damned United of the title is Leeds United – the best English football team of the 1970s. They dominated the First Division, but were notorious for their dirty tactics. Brian Clough – arguably the most controversial manager of his day – has just taken over and makes it quite clear the days of playing dirty are over. Understandably, this does not go down well with the players or the owners, and so begins Brian Clough’s tumultuous 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United. Michael Sheen stars as the cocky, self-assured Clough, who was famous for his brash and abrasive approach, with lines such as “I wouldn’t say I’m the best manager in the country – but I’m in the top 1.” Sheen has a talent for portraying real people (as he does in The Queen and Frost/Nixon), especially when he works in conjunction with a screenplay written by Peter Morgan, and in my opinion, this is Sheen at his very, very best.

The film documents the journey that leads him to this turning-point in his career, his rise to the top of the English football league, and his friendship with assistant manager Peter Taylor (played by Timothy Spall), which is put under extreme pressure by Clough’s “mad ambition” and obsession with defeating his rival Don Revie – the former manager of Leeds United. The quarrel begins six years earlier, during an FA Cup match between Derby County and Leeds United, when Revie fails to shake Clough’s hand. Feeling slighted and overlooked, Clough vows to beat his rival, if it’s the last thing he does. But in order to achieve this, Clough’s team has to get into the same division first. Clough’s hatred of Revie lights a fire in him, and, together with Taylor they begin recruiting new players, which leads to a speedy rise to the First Division for Derby County. The suspense builds as the two managers and the two teams go head to head, and we wonder whether Clough and Taylor can build a team strong enough to defeat the mighty Leeds.

This film is shot in such in a way, with clips from actual interviews and footage from matches, that it both looks and feels like a documentary. One of the film’s greatest strengths is this feeling of authenticity – the hairstyles, the clothes, the wallpaper, the vintage cars, the dark, dank feeling of the changing rooms and the shabby, rundown stadiums all add up to create a potent sense of atmosphere – this is football before the money took over.

So, yes, The Damned United is about football, but more importantly this film is about friendship, and its ability to survive the pressures of ambition and ego, pride and selfishness. Clough was undoubtedly “the greatest manager the England team never had,” but he was nothing without Taylor.

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