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Archive for the ‘Foreign Films’ Category

runA young woman has 20 minutes to save her boyfriend in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998), an exciting German thriller that explores themes of time, fate, and love.

Lola (Franka Potente) receives a call from her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). He’s worried and scared. Lola was supposed to help Manni deliver a bag containing 100,000 Deutsche Marks to Ronnie (Heino Ferch), a mobster; however, she failed to meet him, leaving Manni no choice but to take the subway. During the ride, Manni panics when he sees a police officer. He gets off the subway, leaving behind the bag of money. He has 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 Deutsche Marks or else Ronnie will kill him. Lola tells him not to worry; she will meet him and they’ll figure out a way to get the money. Desperate, Manni tells her that he’s prepared to rob a nearby supermarket if Lola doesn’t show up. Lola urges Manni to wait for her, and then she thinks about possible sources of money. After considering several possible options, she decides to ask her father, a bank manager, for the money. With no time to waste, Lola sprints out of her apartment and spends the next 20 minutes running through the city in a frantic attempt to get the money in enough time to save Manni.

Will Lola find 100,000 Deutsche Marks and save Manni’s life? Anything can happen in the course of 20 minutes, and Run Lola Run presents three possible outcomes to this scenario. The same basic sequence of events unfolds with each iteration of Lola’s run, but subtle differences and twists of fate alter the resolution to Lola and Manni’s dilemma.

A fast-paced and entertaining exercise in style, Run Lola Run takes a simple and straightforward premise and embellishes it with surreal animation sequences, rapid-fire editing, and a surprisingly tender love story. The movie is only 81 minutes long and Tykwer keeps the story tightly focused; there’s not a wasted scene in the film. Although the scope of the film is limited to Lola’s run, brief interludes between the scenarios establish how deeply Lola and Manni care for each other. In these scenes, they discuss their love and their fears of what might happen should one of them die. As Lola and Manni, Franka Potente and Moritz Bleibtreu bring a wonderful intensity to their roles that makes their characters’ predicament all the more urgent.

Run Lola Run is an energetic thriller and a clever meditation on the vagaries of fate.

Run Lola Run is in German with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Run Lola Run.

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ELEVATORLouis Malle’s 1958 crime thriller Elevator to the Gallows opens with a deceptively ordinary telephone conversation.

Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) appear to be a pair of lovers innocently planning a passionate rendezvous. Their ardor is palpable and their sentiments are almost poetic. “I won’t leave you, Julien,” Florence tells him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Without your voice, I’d be lost in a sea of silence,” Julien replies. Then the conversation takes an ominous turn. They make plans to meet later that evening at a café once Julien removes the one obstacle standing in the way of their happiness—Florence’s husband and Julien’s boss, Simon Carala (Jean Wall), a wealthy arms dealer.

Julien carries out his plan with calm and calculating efficiency. A former Foreign Legion parachutist, he uses his military training to secretly enter Simon’s office. The men have a brief confrontation before Julien shoots Simon, staging the scene to look like a suicide. Julien slips out of the building the same way he entered and conceals the evidence before getting in his car. As he prepares to leave the office, he glances up and discovers he’s left behind a critical piece of evidence. Julien races back into the building to retrieve the incriminating item; however, as he’s riding up in the elevator, a maintenance worker turns the power off, trapping him between floors. Shortly after Julien goes back to the office, his car is spotted by a young couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Véronique (Yori Bertin). Louis has a criminal record, but that doesn’t deter him from stealing Julien’s car, taking Véronique along for the ride. Later that evening, the couple drives past the café where Florence and Julien planned to meet. Florence sees the car speed past the café and believes that Julien has run off with another woman. While Julien struggles to find a way out of the elevator, a despondent Florence wanders the streets of Paris looking for him. Meanwhile, Louis and Véronique continue their crime spree in Julien’s car. They know Julien and his background, and in addition to stealing his car, they check into a hotel under the name Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier. This scheme sets in motion a series of events that could separate Florence and Julien forever.

Elevator to the Gallows is a well-constructed thriller that moves at a brisk and tense pace. Instead of relying on surprise plot twists to generate suspense, Malle effectively uses the consequences of the characters’ actions to heighten the tension. It is also a rather stylish and atmospheric film. Henri Decaë’s glorious black and white cinematography and Miles Davis’s distinctive and moody score bathe the action in an air of melancholy.

The mood of the film is also reflected in the performances. As the desperate Florence, Jeanne Moreau brings a heartbreaking vulnerability that’s echoed by Maurice Ronet as Julien, her equally besotted lover. Although their phone conversation sets the murder plot in motion, Moreau and Ronet do not share any scenes together; however, they are convincing as a couple willing to do whatever it takes to be together.

A classic example of French New Wave Cinema, Elevator to the Gallows is one of Louis Malle’s best films.

Elevator to the Gallows is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Elevator to the Gallows.

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postinoApril is National Poetry Month, and today’s review centers on a film that celebrates the beauty of poetry—Il Postino: The Postman, a whimsical tale of the friendship between a postman and a famous poet.

Based on Antonio Skármeta’s novel Ardiente Paciencia, the film is set in the early ‘50s in a remote Italian village. Lifelong resident Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi) lives with his father, a fisherman. One of the few literate people in the community, Mario’s a simple man whose knowledge of life outside the village comes from newsreels at the cinema and the occasional postcard from relatives in America.

Life passes uneventfully in the village until the day Mario sees a newsreel announcing the arrival of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret). Neruda has been exiled from his native country for political reasons and he plans to stay in the village until he can safely return to Chile. Mario’s unfamiliar with Neruda’s poetry, but he’s impressed by his celebrity status, especially his adoring female fans.

Neruda’s arrival provides Mario with an unexpected job opportunity. The local postmaster needs a temporary postman to deliver mail to Neruda. Eager to learn how he can impress women, Mario accepts the job and begins an awkward, but persistent, campaign to become friends with Neruda. Charmed by Mario’s earnest attempts to understand poetic conventions, Neruda becomes a friend and mentor to the shy postman. When Mario falls in love with Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the village’s café owner, he uses Neruda’s advice—and his poetry—to win her heart.

Il Postino is a charming film that gently and eloquently explores the transformative power of friendship and poetry. Mario has a great enthusiasm for life, but a limited frame of reference until he meets Neruda. He’s eager to understand Neruda’s work and his discussions with the poet introduce him to new ways of expressing his thoughts and feelings. As his friendship with Neruda blossoms, he demonstrates a newfound level of confidence in the way he speaks and carries himself. It’s a subtle change beautifully captured by Massimo Troisi’s elegant and understated performance. Philippe Noiret is delightful as Neruda, and under Michael Radford’s deft direction the friendship between Mario and Neruda never feels forced or gimmicky. Neruda’s poetry is an integral part of the plot, and the poems used in the film are a perfect fit for the central themes and storyline.

Il Postino was the final film of Massimo Troisi, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A case of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a serious heart condition and he needed a heart transplant. He postponed the surgery so he could finish the film. In June 1994, he died of a heart attack hours after completing the project. He received posthumous Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay; the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and Luis Bacalov won for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score.

The film received a new round of publicity several years ago when opera composer and librettist Daniel Catán developed an operatic version. The opera, featuring tenor Plácido Domingo as Pablo Neruda, opened in 2010 to positive reviews.

Il Postino: The Postman is in Italian with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Il Postino: The Postman

WRL has several collections of Neruda’s poetry, including The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

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raise_the_red_lanternZhang Yimou’s masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern opens with a young woman preparing to make a fateful decision. In 1920 China, Songlian (Gong Li), a 19-year-old university student, is forced to abandon her studies after her father’s death left the family destitute. With few options available, Songlian tearfully tells her mother that she’s decided to marry a wealthy man. When her mother advises her that as the wife of a rich man she will be little more than a concubine, Songlian stoically replies, “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that the fate of a woman?” It’s a powerful scene staged with stunning simplicity; Songlian is shown in close-up addressing her mother, who remains off-camera. At end of her speech, tears slowly roll down her cheeks belying sadness and resignation to her fate.

Songlian becomes the fourth wife (or, as she’s referred to throughout the film, the Fourth Mistress) of Master Chen (Ma Jingwu). He lives on a vast estate with three other Mistresses and a cadre of servants. Each Mistress has her own apartment in the compound; however, like birds in a gilded cage, their life of luxury comes at a steep price: their freedom.

At first, Songlian is treated well by the Mistresses and the servants. The first night in the estate, her apartment is festooned with red lanterns, she receives an elaborate foot massage, and Master Chen comes to visit. She soon learns, however, that this treatment is the exception rather than the rule. On a daily basis, the master decides which Mistress he will spend the night with, and the Mistress he selects will choose the menu for the evening, receive the red lanterns and the foot massage, and garner the most attention and respect from the servants. This ritual has fostered an environment of fierce competition, as the Mistresses vie daily for Master Chen’s affections.

As Songlian adjusts to life as Master Chen’s Fourth Mistress, she gets to know the other women on the estate: Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), the First Mistress and the mother of Chen’s son; Zhuoyan (Cao Cuifen), the Second Mistress, described as having the face of the Buddha but the heart of a scorpion; and Meishan (He Saifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer. There is also Yan’er (Kong Lin), a longtime servant who dreams of becoming a Mistress herself.

Songlian is savvy enough to understand the peculiar dynamics of the Chen household and implements a few schemes of her own to curry the Master’s favor. Despite her initial success, she soon finds herself double-crossed by one of the Mistresses. When Songlian eventually discovers that another Mistress is involved in an illicit affair, she unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that threaten the fragile structure of the Chen household.

Raise the Red Lantern is a visually stunning film that uses color and cinematography to great effect. The color red is a central motif that connects the key visuals. The red of the lanterns is reflected in the reds of the cheongsams worn by Songlian and the other mistresses. The impressive architecture of Master Chen’s estate is complemented by Yimou’s use of overhead shots. The setting’s beauty stands in stark contrast to the grim fates that await the mistresses. Gong Li, whose films with Yimou include To Live and Shanghai Triad, delivers one of her finest performances as Songlian.

Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and, in 2001, Yimou developed a ballet based on the film. In recent years, Yimou has directed a number of popular films, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Fans of Yimou’s later films may want to check out Raise the Red Lantern, one of the best films of the 1990s.

Raise the Red Lantern is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Raise the Red Lantern

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diabolique2My final film review this week is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, the French horror classic that influenced Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a run-down boarding school for boys. He’s a mean-spirited and petty man whose cruelty extends to his long-suffering wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot), and his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at the school.

After Michel beats her the night before a school break, Nicole decides to take action. She enlists Christina’s help in a plan to drug then murder Michel. Although she is initially reluctant, Christina agrees to help Nicole. The two women leave the school and travel to Nicole’s apartment, where Nicole laces a bottle of wine with a powerful sedative. Christina then calls Michel and tells him she is making plans for a divorce. Enraged, Michel goes to Nicole’s apartment to confront his wife. During the course of the argument, he drinks some of the wine and passes out. With Christina’s help, Nicole drowns Michel in the bathtub. The two women take Michel’s body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool. When his body rises to the surface, it will appear that his death was an accidental drowning.

Although the plan is seemingly foolproof, Christina becomes concerned the following day when Michel’s body does not surface. When the women finally have the pool drained, they make a shocking discovery: Michel’s corpse is not in the pool. Christina launches a search for her husband, following up on stories of unidentified bodies and hiring Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), a retired detective. At the same time, bizarre clues and sightings of the deceased Michel test Christina’s fragile health and her alliance with Nicole.

Les Diaboliques is a cunning thriller that relies on surprise twists and unusual clues to generate suspense. The pacing is particularly effective; Clouzot gradually builds the tension as Christina comes to realize she’s not sure if her husband is dead or alive. The acting is first-rate. Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret give strong, nuanced performances. I also enjoyed Charles Vanel’s supporting performance as Fichet. On the surface, Fichet appears to be a good-natured, if occasionally bumbling, detective; however, he has a sharp mind and keen insight that helps further the investigation.

Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, Les Diaboliques should appeal to fans of classic horror films and detective stories.

Les Diaboliques is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Les Diaboliques

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MerciThe films of French director Claude Chabrol are often compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and in his film Merci Pour le Chocolat (based on the 1948 novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong) there is a similar level of suspense and craftsmanship.

The film opens with the wedding of Marie-Claire “Mika” Muller (Isabelle Huppert) and André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). Mika runs her family’s successful chocolate company in Lausanne, Switzerland, and André is a famous concert pianist. This is the couple’s second chance at love. They were previously married and divorced years earlier, and reunited after the tragic death of André’s second wife, Lisbeth, a photographer. Mika’s relationship history with André is the subject of lively gossip at the wedding, with one guest telling another, “She hates losing.”

The couple lives in an elegant mansion in Lausanne with André and Lisbeth’s son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Shortly after the wedding, a young woman named Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis) pays the family a visit. Jeanne was born at the same hospital as Guillaume, and when André came to the hospital to see his wife and child, the nurse mistakenly brought Jeanne to him instead of Guillaume. Although Jeanne’s mother, Louise, insists that the error was immediately corrected, Jeanne is struck by the curious coincidence that she’s a pianist just like André. The purpose of her surprise visit is twofold: she would like additional coaching before an upcoming competition and she wants to see if it’s possible that she and Guillaume really were switched at birth.

André is impressed with Jeanne’s talent and offers to help her practice for the competition. He welcomes the chance to help an aspiring concert pianist since his son Guillaume is not musically inclined. Guillaume, however, is distant, suspicious of Jeanne’s motives for visiting his father. Mika is warm and welcoming, but an incident causes Jeanne to wonder if there’s more to Mika than meets the eye. While admiring some of Lisbeth’s photographs, Jeanne sees Mika deliberately spill a flask of hot chocolate she’s prepared for Guillaume. Jeanne asks her boyfriend Axel to help her investigate Mika and her reason for spilling the chocolate.

As Jeanne becomes more involved in the lives of André, Mika and Guillaume, long buried family secrets begin to emerge and Mika’s behavior grows increasingly unpredictable. Is Mika’s charm and elegance merely masking sinister intentions, and what is in the chocolate she always insists on preparing herself?

At the center of this gripping psychological thriller is a compelling performance by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert. On the surface, Mika appears to be generous and caring. She opened her home to André, Lisbeth and Guillaume when they needed a stable place to live and she uses the profits from the chocolate company to fund anti-pain clinics. Although her behavior appears to be good, she secretly delights in doing things to catch people off guard, like spilling a pot of boiling water on Guillaume’s foot. Huppert’s performance captures the enigmatic nature of Mika and the compulsions that drive her behavior throughout the film.

Chabrol establishes a strong tone that perfectly fits the plot and characters. The film moves at a steady and deliberate pace as the secrets are gradually revealed. Music also plays an important part in the story and Chabrol’s use of Liszt’s Funérailles is effectively quite chilling.

Hitchcock fans looking for other well-crafted suspense movies should consider trying the films of Claude Chabrol.

Merci pour le Chocolat is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Merci pour le Chocolat

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bad sleep wellA group of reporters gather in a lavish wedding hall, waiting for the bride and groom to arrive for the reception. Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyōko Kagawa), the daughter of Public Corporation Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), has married Kôichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), her father’s trusted secretary. Despite the happy occasion, there are a few signs that this is not the typical society wedding: Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), the master of ceremony, is arrested on bribery charges; the bride’s brother delivers a curious and threatening wedding toast; and an elaborate wedding cake hints at a sinister event. In some films, this scene might be the backdrop to a big and dramatic climax; however, in The Bad Sleep Well, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Hamlet-inspired film from 1960, the wedding is the prelude to a story of obsession and tragedy.

Nishi is a promising young businessman whose quick ascent through the ranks of Public Corporation is driven by the desire to avenge the death of his father, Furuya, five years earlier. At the time, Furuya was assistant chief at Public Corporation when Vice President Iwabuchi and two of his trusted associates – administrative officer Moriyama and contract officer Shirai – were implicated in a bribery and kickback scandal. Before charges could be filed, Furuya committed suicide by jumping out of a window on the seventh floor of an office building. Furuya’s death brought the investigation to a close, but the bribery and kickbacks continued. Nishi was Furuya’s illegitimate son, and before his death Furuya attempted to reconcile with him. Nishi wants revenge for his father’s death, but he also wants to expose the culture of corruption he believes led to his father’s suicide.

After switching identities with a childhood friend, Nishi secures a job at Public Corporation and eventually marries Yoshiko. Following their marriage, Nishi’s plan for revenge seems to fall into place. Wada and Miura, the company’s accountant, are questioned by police regarding the allegations of bribery. Like Furuya, Miura commits suicide after he’s released by the police; however, Nishi prevents Wada from jumping into a volcano by convincing him to help bring his superiors to justice. Working together, Nishi and Wada then set a trap to frame contract officer Shirai for theft. As his plans come to fruition, Nishi realizes he has fallen in love with Yoshiko, setting the stage for a series of events that put Nishi and Wada’s lives in danger.

The Bad Sleep Well is not the only Shakespeare-inspired film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Throne of Blood, a retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, was released in 1957, and in 1985 he directed the King Lear-inspired Ran, which won the Academy Award for costume design. Unlike Throne of Blood and Ran, which are epic in tone and scope, The Bad Sleep Well has a more intimate setting, taking place in the well-appointed homes and boardrooms of corporate leaders.

I especially enjoyed the pacing of the film and Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Nishi. The opening wedding sequence was a brilliant way to establish the film’s tone and introduce the major characters. The film proceeds at a methodical pace as Kurosawa gradually ratchets up the tension, building to a surprising and tragic turn of events. As Nishi, the great actor Toshiro Mifune brings the right amount of intensity and compassion; his drive for revenge tempered by his growing feelings for his wife.

The Bad Sleep Well is a dramatic, emotionally dynamic film that will appeal to fans of Shakespeare and Kurosawa. It is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bad Sleep Well

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