25 posts categorized "foreign film"


'Hornet's Nest' stings, but runs out of petrol

More tedious than the first two editions of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" still manages to sting the senses at times with dramatic flair and imminent danger.

Swedish director Daniel Alfredson, who called the shots on the previous installment ("The Girl Who Played With Fire") but not the first ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), has a cinematic dilemma on his hands.

After a brief recap of the end of Episode 2, a violent confrontation with the heroine's estranged father and brute of a half-brother, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" launches with punk, tattooed computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) being rushed to, as they say in Europe, hospital.

Lisbeth took three slugs, including one to the head.  If she survives the operation to remove a bullet from her brain, the police are hovering to take her back to Stockholm to stand trial for triple murder.

If you've seen the first two dramatic-thrillers, you must be aware that the determined Ms. Salander will not only survive, but is very likely to kick some major hiney once the bandages are off and she has her mobility back.

The trouble is, not only for the audience but also for screenwriter Ulf Rydberg, the drama is bound to build slowly -- too slowly, in this case -- when your leading lady is confined to a hospital bed for a sizable chunk of screen time.  If you're going into this one expecting the usual show of action force by Rapace, just know that you have a long wait on your hands in a finale that runs just two minutes shy of two and a-half hours.

The other pieces of the puzzle are less confined, of course.    Veteran Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, who'll likely appear in the upcoming "Mission:  Impossible IV," returns for the hat trick as crusading magazine journalist Michael Blomkvist.  Partners with Lisbeth in crime-busting in the original film, Blomkvist spends the series stretch drive aiding Lisbeth's quest to prove her innocence from afar.

For those who haven't seen either previous installment, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" (in Swedish with subtitles) can stand on its own.  The satisfaction level, however, will be sort of like sipping a fine wine from a dirty paper cup.  Obviously it's quality stuff, but something's missing, or getting in the way of full enjoyment.

Larsson, who died suddenly in 2004 before even his books found impressive audience numbers, sculpted his characters with two-parts danger and equal parts daring.  To see them only in the final sprint of characterization, however, dilutes the dramatic impact that has come before.

This third episode is tedious and drawn out, especially during the late-arriving courtroom third act, perhaps because the characters and the story have.


Banned band-on-the-run fun in 'Concert'

Band-on-the-run foreign imports can be a hoot.

Granted, that's judging from an abbreviated sample.  Taking into consideration "The Concert," in local theaters this week, and "The Band's Visit," the acclaimed Israeli comic-drama of 2008, however, it's a niche that's yet to be fully explored.

In Russian and French with subtitles, "The Concert" takes the notion of banned Russian musicians impersonating the Bolshoi Orchestra for a Paris concert and runs with it.

No one's probably going to proclaim this comic romp with heartfelt asides the finest film of all time, or even this current film year.

What French co-writer/director Radu Mihaileanu (born in Romania) brings to the screen, though, is a bouncy, well-thought-out what if.

What if a once-celebrated conductor of the Bolshoi, banned years ago for refusing to dismiss his Jewish orchestra members, still worked at the Bolshoi, but as the janitor?

That's the morose plight of Andreï Filipov (played extremely well by Polish actor Aleksei Guskov) in "The Concert."  When the boss is off on vacation, Filipov intercepts a fax and makes the bold move to round up his old orchestra pals to pose as the Bolshoi Orchestra.

Mihaileanu's script, collaborated on by Alain-Michel Blanc, reveals its playful nature early.  When the disgruntled former maestro goes looking for his former musical cohorts, it's as if Cher has a hand in the script.  Why not build a world-class orchestra with -- among others -- gypsies, tramps and thieves when the gypsy fiddle player can segue into Tchaikovsky at the drop of a hat?

"The Concert" turns serious at times, especially when Mélanie Laurent (of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds") makes her entrance as Anne-Marie Jacquet, the violin soloist.

Even if the pieces fit together a little too conveniently, "The Concert" makes beautiful music as comedy with some dramatic moments to fiddle with your heart.


An eccentric junkyard comedy from France

Gadget-filled movies can be tricky to pull off.  Spend too much time showing the click-clack movements and the playful tone of even a merry little film can become lost.

That's not a problem for French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet.  Offbeat forms the center, not the edge, for most cinematic dazzlements from the writer-director of "Delicatessen" in 1991, "The City of Lost Children" in 1995 and the Oscar-nominated gem "Amélie" in 2001.

In French with subtitles, "Micmacs" beautifully blends Jeunet's love for the eccentric and the outrageous.  Dany Boon, the gifted French star of  "The Valet," hops in Jeunet's freakish rumble seat as gentle-but-vengeful Bazil and scores another winner.

Oddly, Boon wasn't even supposed to appear in "Micmacs."  Jeunet and writing partner Guillaume Laurant penned the role with Jamel Debbouze ("Indigènes") in mind.  Debbouze bowed out shortly before shooting was to begin.  Boon hesitated at first (turned down the role, actually), then was lured back in.

Thank goodness he did.  Boon turns in a flawless performance as a man who has been victimized twice by weapons of single destruction.  When he was a child, his father was taken from him by a land mine.  As an adult, Bazil takes a stray bullet to the head while minding a video store and watching Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in "The Big Sleep."

If you know Jeunet's refreshing, anything-goes style, it won't surprise you that doctors flip a coin in the operating room to decide Bazil's slim hope of survival.  For those unfamiliar with the filmmaker's playful nature of life's serious moments and those dealing with them, just go along with the absurdity and you're likely to quickly become a fan.

There's a little Charlie Chaplin and more than a little Buster Keaton in Boon's turn.  Bazil is a comic tragic figure.  Yet even though life keeps dealing him near-death blows, Bazil takes life one child-like wide-eyed moment at a time.

Fate brings him into a circle of junkyard dealing scavengers who take him in.  When Bazil happens upon the feuding weapons manufactures responsible for his unfortunate circumstances, the obscure skills of his foraging friends (Jean-Pierre Marielle as Slammer, Julie Ferrier as Elastic Girl, etc.) come into play as Jeunet rolls out the gadgets and shifts gear into a con man caper.

Leave it to the wonderfully creative Frenchman to come up with a way to involve a human cannonball in a comic sting operation.

The acting is inspired.  The story oozes creativity and a macabre comic tone.  Granted, the final reel may be a little too gimmicky for some at times.

That's merely a slight "Micmacs" nitpick.


Third time a charming 'Toy Story' too

Well, kids of all ages, there's still plenty of entertainment giddyup left in Woody's pull-string.

"Toy Story 3" defies the usual second-sequel doldrums with a rousing story and spirited, lovable characters, as well as a sweet-talking villain in the form of a cuddly teddy bear that smells like strawberries.

The 11-year gap between the second "Toy Story" and this one evaporates the instant a frolicsome blend of computer animated characters both familiar and new launch an emotional adventure that, believe it or not, pushes Woody, Buzz Lightyear and pals to the brink of fiery toy hell, a.k.a. the furnace at the city dump.

The first "Toy Story" arrived in 1995 with the impact of last year's "Avatar."  John Lasseter and his creative geniuses over at Pixar altered the animation universe with mind-boggling technology.  Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and the rest of a boy named Andy's pals rolled out of the cinematic toy box as the first full-length animated feature created entirely in a computer (CG) by artists.

The challenge this time for Lasseter and his Pixar staff, who now create under the Disney banner, was to tone done today's advanced computer technology.  The goal, achieved grandly, I might add, was for the 21st century versions of Andy's toy box pals to maintain the original tone of movement.

That accomplished, Lasseter (executive producer this time after directing the first two) and director Lee Unkrich (co-director of "Toy Story 2") sought to continue the exhilarating combination of action-adventure, comedy and heartfelt feelings.

The story, conceived by Lasseter, Unkrich and "WALL-E" writer-director Andrew Stanton, dips high and low on the emotional roller coaster.   Andy, once again voiced by John Morris, is 17 and packing for college.  What to do with his childhood pals?  Trash 'em or box them up for the attack his mom (Laurie Metcalf) dictates.

There's a mix-up and all the toys except Woody are set out with the trash.  This is the point where the latest "Toy Story" moves beyond quirky to something a little darker than you will expect from a PG rating.  Michael Arndt, an Academy Award winner for his edgy "Little Miss Sunshine" screenplay, sends Woody and the gang off to Sunnyside Daycare.

It appears perfect  at first.  Rex (Wallace Shawn), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest haven't been given playtime attention in years.  But Lotso (Ned Beatty), the deceivingly sweet-sounding teddy bear in charge, wants to throw the new arrivals in the path of what a battered Buzz Lightyear later refers to as "inappropriate age behavior."

Levity balances the weight of the adventure at times.  And never better than when Barbie (Jodi Benson) meets Ken (Michael Keaton) and falls head-over-high, high heels for a guy who appears to be nothing more than a Barbie fashion accessory. (And a light-in-the-loafers one at that.)

Know this, though, parents:  Arndt pushes this tale into dangerous plot turns.  In fact, he presses it into dark areas where probably almost any other scribe writing for kids would back off.

Thankfully, Lasseter and his computer gurus embrace the dangerous story curves and pepper them with delightful and frightful new toys.  My personal favorite is the ominous cymbal-clanging monkey in charge of Sunnyside security.

"Toy Story 3" may be a little too scary for very little kids.  Otherwise, the magic is back for an unprecedented third time.


Tallying up the 'Prophet' and loss statement

Malik, a bewildered 19-year-old Arab, doesn't know what to expect when he's processed into a French prison at the beginning of the French import "A Prophet."

Winner of the second place Grand Prix Award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "A Prophet" ("Un Prophète") was also up for an Foreign Film Academy Award Sunday night.  It lost out to  Argentina's "The Secret in Their Eyes."

"A Prophet," directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard, is a coming-of-awareness prison drama unlike anything I've seen before.  Malik (Tahar Rahim) cannot read or write when he's locked up.  Corsican prisoner elder César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), holding court on a prison yard stone bench, spots the young man's naiveté right away.

César, who wields more power than the guards and probably the warden himself, spots something else.  Another Arab arrived at the prison on the same day.  Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), only to be locked up for 10 days before he testifies against the Corsican mob, has been targeted for assassination.

Since Malik speaks Arabic and especially since Reyeb offers Malik hashish in exchange for sexual favors, César forces new, naive inmate Malik to attempt the hit.

"A Prophet," in French, Arabic and Corsican with subtitles, follows the transition of this young man as he morphs into a tool of the prison underworld, then as he blossoms into his own as perhaps someone more cunning and ruthless than even César could imagine.  Malik has visions; sometimes of ghosts  still burning as if just back from hell and sometimes of future events.

In only his fifth feature, Audiard ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped") wields power and confidence himself.  This is a drama of grand, if brutal style.  Malik is perplexed, intrigued and seduced by his steadily growing power base.  He gets advice to learn to read and write from a man he is about to brutally murder with a razor blade concealed between his cheek and gum (like chewing tobacco).

This is a sometimes mystical eruption of raw violence and self-empowerment that riveted my attention to the screen.  

Rahim, who has done some television work, is putty in the hands of his director in real life.  His character Malik, while being molded in similar amazing fashion by César on screen, solidifies into someone who reveals with a little sly smile during an act of extreme violence that no one is safe around him.

César creates a monster, and the transition is quite extraordinary in any language.  Audiard, through Rahim, majestically reveals the inner-torment and survival instinct it takes to propel a monster to an even scarier level:  intelligence.

Audiard clearly structures his ending as a "to be continued" wink at the audience.

In the case of "A Prophet," I'll look forward to it.  

A Romanian cop handcuffed, by definition

You've heard about entertainers so gifted that they could just read from the telephone book and entertain?

Well, in "Police, Adjective," an astonishingly daring offbeat drama from Romania, you might just be transfixed in your seat as the film's main character reads from a dictionary.  

If you appreciate quirky foreign films, don't be hasty to dismiss this drama (with slight hints of irony) as a classified bore.

Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu ("12:08 East of Bucharest") turns the deeply troubled cop genre on its ear with this little tale.  Here we have Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a rebel cop different than any rebel cop you've seen before.

Cristi isn't borderline psychotic like Mel Gibson in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise.  Nor is he an alcoholic (though he drinks at times), suicidal, a short timer or recently divorced.

This rebel with a cause simply doesn't want to arrest a local high school kid for smoking hash and sharing it with his friends.  Cristi is an undercover cop who's spent about a week trailing a local school kid whose experimentation with dope could, if he's not careful, send him to prison for about eight years.
Cristi's superiors sternly object to his notion that what the kid's doing may be against the letter of the law, but there's no real harm in it.  Besides, Cristi figures, the law will soon change anyway, so why ruin a young life?

A moral stand-off between a cop and his boss may be a simple premise, but it unfolds against a methodical, fascinating backdrop that's impossible to ignore.  In Romanian with subtitles and subtleties, "Police, Adjective" is a battle on two fronts:  words and wills.

When the film first lights up the screen, all we see for what seems like a near-eternity is a slumping man (Bucur as Cristi) walking, walking, walking through ordinary streets (the filmmaker's hometown of Vaslui in northeastern Romania).

If Porumboiu does nothing else with "Police, Adjective," he shows that an audience will sit still as his protagonist meticulously goes through an undercover cop's daily routine.  He prepares his file on the case and tries without much luck to get his co-workers to expedite the paperwork.  Cristi also does his best to avoid his superior officer, who's bringing increasing pressure to make Cristi stage his bust and close the case.

I can't think of another film that provides as much attention to detail.  When Cristi's home, for instance, we don't just see him share a meal with his wife.  Porumboiu's camera, and thus us as well, hang around for seconds on the goulash.

Ah, but that's nothing compared to the battle-of-wills showdown with the cynical police captain, performed superbly and with impeccable timing by Vlad Ivanov (the abortionist in "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days").

Quirky cinematic chestnuts can't be rushed.  "Police, Adjective" will stand as a prime example of that.


'District 13,' the French connection

Very few sequels hold my attention throughout.

"District 13:  Ultimatum" is one of them.

In French with subtitles, the follow-up to the 2006 French import  "District 13" moves the basic story along well enough.  That's a must for any successful sequel.

The real appeal, though, comes from reuniting two charismatic actors, Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle.  Chances are you've never heard of them.

Raffaelli and Belle are martial arts experts and stuntmen first and actors second.  In the "District 13" stylized action crime-thrillers, they combine all their skills in a manner that must make Jackie Chan proud and jealous at the same time.

Comedy arises out of the mayhem.  But director Patrick Alessandrin, calling the shots on his first action film, never lets it become overly silly (as Chan often did).

Elite French police officer Damien Tomasso (Raffaelli) and reformed vigilante Leito (Belle) went their separate ways at the end of the first "District 13" adventure.  The ultra-violent Paris ghetto District 13 was finally under control.  Government officials vowed to maintain the peace.

They lied.

When the sequel begins and quickly leaps a few years into the future, an unscrupulous businessman (Daniel Duval) who has the president's ear wants to destroy the walled den of killers, druggies and thieves and build a profitable towering skyscraper.   To speed things up, his goons frame ghetto residents as cop killers and even plant dope in Damien's kitchen to send him to the slammer (and presumably out of the way).

Fate throws Damien (seen first in drag) and free soul Leito together once again.  Frankly, you'll need to be a little patient at the beginning of this fast-paced actioner.  Director Alessandrin, working from a script by French filmmaker Luc Besson, gets carried away with speeding up jerky footage to set the mood of an unsettled Paris of the near-future.

The good news is that it's not necessary to have the original in your viewing past to enjoy this smorgasbord of martial arts majesty, sneering bad guys and gifted athlete-actors who perform most of their own stunts in a manner you might find quite amazing.

Raffaelli and Belle are masters of parkour, the art of basically running through objects (by finding openings others might not) rather than going around them when someone is in hot pursuit.  In fact, many credit Belle with inventing the discipline.

Outlandish and wildly paced, parkour fits perfectly into the "District 13" scenario.  Also, Raffaelli and Belle bring cool confidence to their characters; men of action but few words.  If you can conjure up a magical combination of a tough, young, tight-lipped Clint Eastwood and a young kung-fu fighting Jackie Chan, you pretty much have the picture of what transpires here.

This is a film that might not appeal to everyone.  If you thrive on inventive highly entertaining martial arts action and super-cool characters, however, look past the subtitles and pay a visit to "District 13:  Ultimatum."


Children of the fright

An epic shrouded in black-and-white photography and mystery, "The White Ribbon" chronicles a pre-World War I German village unraveling at the seams.

As imminent unease and danger hang heavy over the small village in North Germany, the stark, stoic influence of Ingmar Bergman, the late Swedish filmmaking master, hovers as well.

"The White Ribbon," in German, Italian, Polish and Latin with subtitles, is, unofficially at least, writer-director Michael Haneke's homage to the 1960 horror-mystery "Village of the Damned."  

The children here don't have eyes that glow, as the little demons' eyes did in "Village of the Damned" (and John Carpenter's remake).  These eyes do, however, provide a window to the tormented soul, or perhaps to a vapid place where the soul should be.

This is also not the kind of film that fills in all the blanks for the audience.  The children of the village seem oddly detached as a series of calamities occur.  Someone ties a trip wire in the path of the village doctor, who's on horseback.  The doctor  is horribly injured.  Also, a farmer's wife suffers a grisly death.

And so it goes, with a backdrop of a fire-and-damnation preacher (Burghart Klaussner) who ties his son to the bed at night in a desperate attempt to fend off oncoming puberty.

The schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who fights his own ongoing battle with the increasingly unruly students, is about as close to normalcy as Haneke allows.  After all, Haneke is the filmmaker who made the shocking home invasion horror-thriller "Funny Games" twice; in his native German in 1997, then in English and set in the U.S. in 2007.

Winner of the Palme d'Or (best film) at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "The White Ribbon" is also a Best Foreign Film nominee in the upcoming Academy Awards race.

While Haneke insists that a logical explanation for every bizarre act exists within the film if audience members use their imaginations, casual movie-goers may emerge back out into the theater lobby shaking their heads.

Haneke is extremely adept at setting a mood, however.  Thanks to his eerie, effective use of black-and-white photography, the blank expressions on the children and many of the adults combine with ominous shadows to blur perception.

Unlike in "Funny Games," where most of the violence erupted in plain sight, however, the camera usually arrives at the scene of baffling crimes after the fact.

Just what those facts are depends to some extent on the eyes of the beholder. 


'La Danse' to the music

"La Danse:  The Paris Opera Ballet" is the ultimate backstage pass to the fascinating world of tutus and pointe shoes.

A must-see and, in fact, euphoria for ballet aficionados, veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's study of gifted dancers preparing for seven ballets offers enticement for dance novices as well.

Mostly in French with subtitles, "La Danse" drops the audience backstage with absolutely no fanfare and no set-up.  Wiseman, taking a minimalist approach, offers no narration and no indication of who's who.

Instead, we're privy to every nook and cranny of the Palais Garnier, which has served as the renowned ballet company's home since 1875.  Wiseman and cinematographer John Davey have obviously set a lofty goal of celebrating what Wiseman has referred to as "the highest level of achievement in the conscious use of the body to express feeling and thought."

Noted choreographers put les étoiles (the stars) through sometimes grueling rehearsals, pointing out what appears to a novice as the tiniest flaw.  When dancers and choreographer are finally in sync, Wiseman ("Domestic Violence," 2001), who's been making documentaries for four decades,  moves on.

But not always to more rehearsals of a mixture of modern and classic ballets ranging from the old chestnut "The Nutcracker" to "Orpheus and Eurydyce" from avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch.  Wiseman's camera often wanders the storied halls.  He focuses for a while on a worker painting a door, then visits the lunch room (the fish looks good).  He even takes us up on the roof to see what a beekeeper is up to as he (or she, can't tell really in that protective suit) gathers honey.

Unless you're keenly familiar with ballet on the international level, chances are that company director Brigitte LeFevre is the only person you'll get to know well.  LeFevre offers an in-depth primer into what it takes to mount a world-class ballet.

She holds business meetings to decide just how close serious patrons (with donations of $25,000 and up) can get to the dancers during a hobnob luncheon.  In another meeting, LeFevre emotionally nurtures (but not too gently) one of the dancers one-on-one in her office.

The focus, of course, always returns to the sometimes breathtaking flow of body parts as some of the most gifted dancers in the world generate fluid motion in search of ballet perfection.

Those unfamiliar with ballet, or perhaps only mildly interested, might squirm a little in their seats before this exquisite backstage pass expires.  After all, "La Danse" occupies the screen for over two and a half hours.

If you love ballet, however, "La Danse" makes its intimate exclusive access pointe and then some.


Room and bored, but deeply loved

During the opening moments of "35 Shots of Rum," you may wonder, as I did, why it's taking so long for something of consequence to happen.

We see a train yard, which turns out to be in or near Paris, and a solemn man smoking a cigarette.  He's watching metro trains come and go.

"35 Shots of Rum," in French with subtitles, sets its own schedule, just like the trains.

Deliberate and quite revealing in its own quiet way, this character study co-written and directed by French filmmaker Claire Denis revolves around a small ensemble of lives coupling and uncoupling.

Denis, who directed the well-received drama "Chocolat" in 1988, worked as an assistant to filmmakers Jim Jarmush ("Broken Flowers") and Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas") earlier in her career.

It's no surprise, then, that the audience is asked to work a little to fully appreciate a story bursting with bridled emotions pulsating just below the surface.

The man at the train yard turns out to be Lionel (Alex Descas), a metro train conductor.  He's a widower of very few words, but also a man who transmits humility and dignity through his silence.  Lionel  has lived for a long time, it seems, with his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), who now attends college.

They're surrounded by long-time neighbors.  Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), a cab driver, longs for a closer relationship with Lionel, and, in fact, may have had one at one time.  Noé (Grégoire Collin) is a mystery man who lives alone with his fat cat.  He's trying to decide whether to move on with his life.

Denis manages to entwine these lives in an intriguing manner that's fascinating, to say the least.

Lionel and Jo, for instance, enjoy a special closeness; a loving bond brought to the surface with fascination rarely realized on a movie screen.

It's also time for Jo to uncouple from her dad and forge a life of her own.  One of the things I admire most about this screenplay co-written by the filmmaker and Jean-Pol Fargeau (they also collaborated on "Chocolat") is that Jo is in no hurry to abandon the special bond with her father.

"35 Shots of Rum" reminds me of "O'Horten," the Norwegian import of late July about a train operator wandering through life after forced retirement.  "O'Horten" was quiet and quirky, though.  

This one is quiet, intriguing and deeply moving.