26 Foreign Films – Week 8

Film: The House at the End of Time (2013)

Country of origin: Venezuela

image*Sneaks back in, hopes nobody noticed that she was gone.*

Ah yes. Now, where was I?

I’m a huge horror movie fan. But my preferences fall more towards the supernatural side of things, rather than the gorefests which unfortunately make up the majority of recent horror offerings. Personal favourites include¬†The Exorcist (which may not be “scary” any longer, given the countless parodies, but there’s no denying that it’s an unsettling movie), Rosemary’s Baby (the book is one of my favourites too), and the original Nigel Kneale Woman in Black (again, great book).

But anyway, this is beside the point. I was very excited to find a foreign horror movie to fulfil this week’s quota (and in the spookiest month of the year too. Despite the blazing California sunshine). However, The House at the End of Time isn’t exactly what I would consider a supernatural horror film. Throughout, the threat always feels human. And even though there was some scary moments, it’s ultimately a story about a struggling family.

At the start of the film, we meet Dulce (played by Ruddy Rodriguez), just before she finds her husband murdered in the basement. She also catches sight of her son, before he disappears into thin air. Dulce is charged with both of these murders, and is imprisoned. After severing thirty years, she is permitted to return to the house of her nightmares. She is convinced that the house itself is to blame for the murders, and enlists the help of a local priest to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The first thing that struck me about this film, was the baffling decision to not employ an older actress to portray the elderly Dulce, but rather apply questionable make-up to Rodriguez. Maybe with later plot developments, it kind of makes sense, but it just looks really terrible. Almost hysterically so.

Luckily, the plot of the film is very interesting, and undoubtedly original. You just have to stick with it for a while before the mist clears. On the surface, this is yet another haunted house movie, relying on jump scares and dark figures in the periphery. But it turns into so much more than that. Although, to be fair, the highlights of the first half of the film come from the connection the audience forms with this struggling family. The horror comes as much from real life tragedy as it does from spooks.

I really don’t want to give too much away, but this movie is certainly worth your time. It may not be immediately apparent, but it’s a very clever film. The performances are all great too; I’m always impressed when child actors manage to be likeable as well as dramatically convincing, and the young men who play sons Leopoldo and Rodrigo manage this with aplomb (kid from The Babadook, take note. Jeez). Ruddy Rodriguez is fantastic, even with unconvincing “old lady” make-up.

This is writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo’s first movie (according to IMDB anyway), and it’s an extraordinary achievement. And apparently, Venezuela’s first supernatural thriller! Please, give it a watch. By the end, I was genuinely shouting (at the screen, on my own, in an empty apartment), “Fuck, this film is amazing!” Next to “yes, mate”, that’s one of the highest honours a film can receive.


26 Foreign Films – Week 7

Film: Gloria (2013)

Country of origin: Chile

Oh yes, we’re still going. And I’m quite pleased I’ve been able to find such a wide variety of films so far. Well done, Netflix. This week, I watched Gloria, the story of a fiery divorcee.

Gloria isn’t incredibly happy with her life. She has failing eyesight, two children who don’t really consider her to be part of their lives, and a crazy neighbour who rants and raves until the early hours. She tries several things to try and improve her quality of life, such as awkward-looking laughter therapy, and attending dances. It is at one of these dances that a small glimpse of sunlight enters her life, in the form of Rodolfo. Rodolfo is also divorced, but his family are still heavily reliant on him. His mobile constantly rings with innocuous requests from his grown-up daughters.

Gloria, the eponymous character, portrayed by Paulina Garcia, is wonderful. Flawed, devilish, and ultimately fearless, she is incredibly appealing. Extremely watchable (with the exception of one pretty graphic sex scene), she exudes warmth. When Rodolfo begins to treat her with decreasing respect, it’s extremely frustrating for the viewer. But Gloria doesn’t take his shit. Why would she? She’s amazing. And the very final, liberating scene is very satisfying.

Some scenes feel quite voyeuristic. For example, when Gloria attends her son’s birthday, and she is reunited with her ex-husband after thirteen years. When Gloria comments in how beautiful her ex-husband’s new wife is, it perfectly displays how huge her heart is. However, when the alcohol starts flowing, and the old family photo album comes out, emotions run high, and things get extremely uncomfortable. It’s completely believable.

Gloria is a pretty simple film about a woman trying to get the most out of life. I read in a Stephen King short story the other day that when parents see their children grow up and become independent people, it’s almost like a divorce. And it’s a good point, perfectly illustrated in Gloria. The film feels extremely realistic and authentic. And I defy you not to fall in love with this incredible character.

26 Foreign Films – Week 6

Film: Force Majeure (2014)

Country of Origin: Sweden

I’ve wanted to see Force Majeure for a while. It was playing at HOME just before we left the UK, and we never really got time to see it. So I was pretty pleased when it popped up on Netflix, and I was counting down the weeks until I got to the letter F.

The concept of the film is somehow quite dramatic, but very simple. Workaholic Tomas takes his family on  a skiing holiday, to give himself a little break and spend some quality time with his family. However, the family experience a small, controlled avalanche while having lunch one day. Tomas grabs his phone and legs it, leaving his wife Ebba holding both their children. This brief, but pivotal moment has a huge impact on the family, and the rest of the film shows Ebba trying to come to terms with her husband’s cowardice.

Hollywood wouldn’t make a film like this. They would spend a huge amount of time trying to recreate a believable and frightening avalanche, rather than dealing with the real terror of a fractured family. There were points where it felt like I was watching a play. The audience is privy to some intimate and often awkward conversations, which form the bulk of the script. Our opinions of the central characters are allowed to frequently change, based on the things they say during these conversations.

Tomas is fundamentally unlikable. Even before the incident, it doesn’t really seem like he wants to be there. And his constant denial of what he has done is infuriating. Even when he does have a little breakdown, he is not upset that he has become a horrible person, but that he will have to make the effort to change his behaviour if he wants to keep his family.

Ebba, Tomas’ wife, is a complex character. My opinion of her switched quite a lot, which I suppose makes her very realistic. At times, she seemed very reasonable. But at other times, she was extremely conflicted, especially when talking to her friend about fidelity. Ebba was trying to argue that monogamy was better than an open marriage, while the memory of her husband’s betrayal was still fresh in her mind.

I’ve never been skiing. I’m sure it’s great if you know how to do it, but it seems like too much work to me. To me, if feels like those trips I went on in primary school to the Lake District, where we were forced to enjoy canoeing, orienteering and all sorts of other bollocks activities while enduring sub-zero temperatures. However, whichever ski resort they used for this film looked amazing, and there was some wonderful shots.

I loved this film, because the bulk of it was basically discussing the flaws of humans. At length. Very eloquently. It could have been a play. While the film looked beautiful, and was filmed in a breath-taking location, the real beauty was to be found in the raw, realistic script, and the fantastic performances.

Oh, but the little boy in it was super annoying. Not Babadook levels of annoying, but still pretty awful.

26 Foreign Films – Week 5

Film: Escape (2012)

Country of Origin: Norway

I’ll tell you what, it was bloody hard to find a film beginning with E. A friend had suggested Elite Squad, and I thought I’d found it on Netflix (and was enjoying the pre-title sequence), but it turned out I was watching the sequel. Well done.

Luckily, I stumbled on Escape, a Game of Thrones-esque mini-epic from Norway, which was a lot better than I expected it to be.

Escape is set around 1360, and most of the population of Norway have fallen victim to the Black Death. Teenage Signe and her family have miraculously survived, but within the first few minutes of the film, Signe’s brother and parents have been brutally murdered. Signe’s life is spared, but a worse fate may await her. The gang that murdered her family tie Signe up, and their leader, Dagmar, seems set on allowing the men of the group have their way with our young heroine.

Luckily, evil Dagmar has a plucky little daughter, the amusingly-named Frigg, who helps Signe escape. The two girls run off from the band of nutters, resulting in a brief but frantic chase.

In terms of dialogue, it’s pretty sparse, but it definitely works. It’s quite clear what’s going on, as are the various motivations of the characters, so there really isn’t any need for padding. Signe is a fantastic character, cunning and capable. Her weapon of choice is a bow and arrow, so the comparisons to Katniss Everdeen are inevitable. But the real badass of this film is Dagmar, played by Ingrid Bolso Berdal. It was wonderful to see a woman leading the gang of male miscreants. While she is undoubtedly visually striking, no real attempt has been made to sexualise this character. She’s evil, she’s bonkers, she’s not an object of desire. You know, like an actual villain.

Director Roar Uthaug has created a very strong look, with some fantastic use of color (blues and oranges are very strong). And at less and eighty minutes, the story doesn’t overstay its welcome. I personally found the ending extremely satisfying. And it was refreshing to watch a genuinely good action film where the women aren’t reduced to eye-candy, but pack one hell of a punch. Simple and swift. Give it a watch.

26 Foreign Films – Week 4

Film: Deficit (2007)

Country of Origin: Mexico

IMG_0103I’ll be honest. I was quite keen to watch Downfall, but it wasn’t on Netflix. I found an sub-par copy on YouTube, but it was quite difficult to immerse myself within the first twenty minutes. Perhaps because it’s yet another beautiful day in Livermore, and watching the dramatised demise of Hitler isn’t the most desirable way to spend one’s Friday. Maybe I’ll revisit it in winter, if it ever comes.

So instead, after trawling through Netflix’s extensive catalogue of films (they really do have a fantastic selection), I opted for Deficit. Because it has Gael Garcia Bernal in it.  Yes mate.

Deficit, in this instance, refers to the disparity between the social classes in Mexico. Bernal’s character, Cris, is the teenage son to wealthy parents. Cris and his sister and hosting a party at a gorgeous house for their friends. The proximity of the classes is instantly acknowledged, as Cris’ drive to the house is interrupted by visibly lower class citizens, protesting against a golf course. The protesters mutter phrases suggesting their dissatisfaction with Cris’ social status as he drives past. Oh, and when Cris arrives at the house, there is a large penis draw on the gate. It’s no “cock piss Partridge”, but it still gets the message across.

The aforementioned deficit is also apparent within the house itself, with general members of “the help” constantly on-hand. However, things don’t seem to be going well, as several small maintenance problems in the house have gone unrepaired, because Cris’ father has not provided any money.

Anyway, no time to worry about that now, as Cris friends have arrived, and brought a beautiful Argentinian lady with them, Dolores. The first meeting between Cris and Dolores is a little heavy-handed, with stereotypical awkward mumblings and eye contact that goes on a little too long, but, you know, we get it. But what about Cris’ girlfriend? Doesn’t matter, in an earlier scene, she had told Cris she was spending time with an ex boyfriend, so that relationship is basically over, innit? Plus, the bloody woman can’t even follow simple instructions to find the house anyway! I bet Dolores has got sat nav on her phone and everything. She’s definitely better.

So, we plod along, and this is all very nice, watching these gorgeous young people frolic around the pool, and juggle fire, and take ecstasy, while Adan, a member of “the help” looks on in wonder. But when Dolores starts talking to Adan as if he were a human being, Cris takes great exception to this, and ramps up his seduction, which will eventually climax in some truly awful rapping. I mean, really, it’s just so bad. So awkward. Poor Dolores. She didn’t leave Argentina to put up with this nonsense.

Deficit was quite an easy film to watch. It’s pretty short (less than ninety minutes), but there isn’t much in the way of resolution. It’s obvious from quite early on that Cris’ family is in some kind of financial trouble, and there’s a lot of rich boy “woe is me” lamenting from Cris. The film’s commentary on the Mexican system is not very subtle, and also not very intelligent. The film isn’t saying anything new.

But you know, it was fine. A bit chirpier than Downfall at least.

26 Foreign Films – Week 3

Film: The Conformist (1970)

Country of Origin: Italy

The Conformist frequently appears on lists such as “1000 Films to See Before You Die”, or “Best Foreign Films of the Last 50 Years”. While I can appreciate that it is a beautiful, thought-provoking film, I wouldn’t say it has joined the ranks of my favourites. If that makes me a philistine, then so be it.

Based on the book by Alberto Moravia, our titular conformist is Marcello (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant), a member of Mussolini’s secret police, who has been tasked with assassinating supposed political dissident Luca Quadri, who just happens to be one of Marcello’s former college professors. The films starts with Marcello beginning his pursuit of Quadri, alongside his driver Manganiello, and the story is told through a series of flashbacks. Notably, Marcello’s marriage to Giulia, his ever-so-slightly annoying wife; a particularly brutal incident that occurred during his childhood; and his midjudged dalliance with Quadri’s striking young wife, Anna.

Marcello is a despicable character, who essentially comes across as a total coward. In an early scene, he speaks about his wife, and then in the next breathe is discussing the size of his maid’s breasts. He even puts the moves on Anna while his wife is literally in the next room. But it’s not just these acts that make him unappealing. As the title of the film would suggest, he just wants to be “normal”. The traumatic event in his past has clearly messed him up, to the point where he will go to extraordinary lengths to gain approval. In this case, political approval. The character is terrifying in the way that he is capable of awful things, not out of desire, but some warped sense of duty.

Nevertheless, this film looks gorgeous. There is some wonderful use of silhouette, light and darkness, black and white (especially in Giulia’s gorgeous dresses). There are lots of strong images that included a bust of Mussolini’s head, which is particularly noticable towards the end of the film.

One particularly striking scene is when Marcello and his wife go dancing with the Quadris. An intoxicated Giulia starts some kind of extended conga line, which eventually ends up wrapping itself around Marcello, just after he’s given the final Judas kiss to his former professor.

I must admit, I don’t know too much about recent Italian history, otherwise I may have appreciated this film a little more. But it looks great, and the storyline is compelling. I just find films where the protagonist is so unappealing very hard to watch. There wasn’t anyone to root for, so my commitment was limited.

Has anyone else seen this? Did you enjoy it? And more importantly, do you have any recommendations for next week’s film?

26 Foreign Films – Week 2

imageFilm: Bliss (2007)

Country of Origin: Turkey

To my knowledge, this is the first Turkish film I’ve ever seen. It’s not a place that’s ever appealled to me for various reasons, including this one. However, Bliss went some way to address these concerns, and I ended up really enjoying this film.

Bliss begins with a young girl, Meryem, alone on a beach, clearly a victim of some kind of attack. She is found by a farmer, and carried back to her village, where it is concluded that Meryem has commited the unforgivable crime of being raped. As punishment for her gratuituous sin, she must be disposed of. Her second cousin, Cemal, fresh from his stint in the military, is tasked with taking Meryem to Instanbul and getting rid of her. Of course, Cemal isn’t a complete monster, and cannot go through with it, so Cemal and Meryem end up going on the run. When Cemal doesn’t return to his village, his father Ali Riza goes looking for him, angry as hell that this harlot has not been given what she deserves.

Meanwhile, Cemal and Meryem run into Irfan, an academic living on his boat in search of peace and solitude. Irfan believes they are a married couple, and offers them work aboard his ship. Irfan and Cemal begin a jovial relationship, but Cemal becomes angry when Irfan attempts to teach Meryem anything.

It’s a fantastically rich plot, with the constant tension of whether Ali Riza will find Cemal and Meryem, and what he will do if he finds them. The identity of Meryem’s rapist is also a mystery. And the complex three-way relationship between Irfan, Cemal, and Meryem is extremely interesting. The film itself looks absolutely beautiful. The opening especially has some incredibly lush shots of Turkey.

I saw the film as a commentary on the treatment of women as a whole in Turkey. “Old” Turkey is represented by characters such as Ali Riza and Cemal, who believe women have a certain role to fulfil, and must not aspire to anything further. Whereas academic Irfan, and Cemal’s brother who works in Istanbil, represent a more equal, progressive mindset, calling mysogynist ideals outdated, and ultimately come off as the more appealing characters.

Of course, Meryem herself is a representation of struggling women, portrayed by the talented Ozmu Namal. Meryem is strong from the outset, backing out of committing suicide when her evil step-mother literally gives her the rope. She is bright, agreeable, and the audience is completely on her side.

I throughly enjoyed Bliss, and given the constantly engaging plot, I wasn’t surprised by learn it was based on a novel. Not exactly upbeat and chirpy, but an important and ultimately rewarding film.