Movies – 3 (Drei) (Germany, 2010)

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Sophie Rois and Sebastian Schipper in “3.”

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

For such a contrived set-up, I have to admit that Tom Tykver’s 3 (Drei) (Germany, 2010) works admirably well as a thoughtful and intelligent look at fidelity, mutual need, and the ethics and emotions that lead people to more open arrangements. The basic plot outline involves Simon and Hanna, a longtime couple in their forties who never felt the need to marry, or have children. They’re content, and genuinely love each other, but each enters circumstances that cause them to move, together, past their present situation.

For Hanna (Sophie Rois), it’s just flat-out falling in love with Adam (Devid Striesow), a genetic researcher. Hanna’s occupation is hybridized (or, perhaps, just murky and badly explained); she’s a journalist for a very intellectual cultural TV discussion program, but she also seems to serve on a medical ethics panel, and obviously has an extensive medical research background. She meets Adam at a medical ethics panel briefing, and soon afterwards runs into him at a theater performance. A few days later, she’s filming a report on an outdoor installation performance artist when she happens across Adam once again, at an adjacent soccer field. The third meeting is just too fateful – she hangs at the soccer game, joins his friends to watch a pro match that night, and, after some initial awkwardness, acquiesces to their obvious mutual attraction.

Simon’s (Sebastian Schipper) life concerns a series of present turmoils; his mother (Angela Winkler), diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, attempts to take her own life, but only succeeds at turning herself nonresponsive, but still alive. Tending to her until her passing, Simon is informed that he himself has early-detected testicular cancer. And the day (and night) an offending testicle is surgically removed is the day (and night) he can’t get Hanna on the phone to tell her because she’s having her soccer day (and night) with Adam. She eventually joins him the following day, and there’s no question that she’ll love and support him through this, but where she might have been that night is never spoken of.

Weeks later, healed from the surgery and treatments, Simon works out to build himself back up from the hospital stay. Swimming at a local gym and natatorium, he meets Adam, who is curious about his surgery, and they glide into a physical intimacy that’s uncharacteristic of, but welcome to, Simon, who has a whole new perspective on his life and the kinds of emotional support he has or hasn’t felt, or has or hasn’t needed, up until now.

Simon and Hanna have no idea that they’re each having an affair with the same person. But Adam is a very quiet, likeable guy, and seems to be completely guileless, and a great match, with each of them.

How the rest of the movie develops (what I’ve described here is a little less than half), I won’t reveal, but Tykwer settles into a more linear storytelling style than at the start, where he employs overlying patchworks of split-screens, and more abrupt edits between episodes, to emulate the pace of their (inadvertently) overlapping lives. Tywker doesn’t follow all three of them throughout – it’s basically a two-person movie for the most part, with Adam consistently insinuating himself into those two threads. If there are issues here, I’d name two: Tywker works a little too hard to make Adam all-appealing to all-people – he’s a genetic researcher, he’s a swimmer, he’s into martial arts, he’s into soccer, he’s a sailor, he’s into drinkin’ with the boys, he sings in a modern-music choir…some aspects of Adam are just too cumulatively good to be true. And Tywker works a little too hard, as well, on telling us over and over that this is a Modern Story, Happening Right This Minute. Berlin is a very modern city by itself – he doesn’t need to surround every event within the most modern architecture, the most modern interiors, the most modern performances, the most modern art openings, the most modern dance or music concerts – it’s modern, Tom, we get it – we’re not going to mistake anyone for Miriam Hopkins or Frederic March, or, for that matter, Bob or Carol or Ted or Alice; please stop fussing and trust your very good writing.

If it’s at all possible, try to carve out some time for this appealing and agreeable drama; Tom Tywker’s film is smart and articulate, well-acted and uniquely presented. It doesn’t have to avoid clichés or mawkishness – it’s too busy with authentic passions and complexities to even bother working any of that in. Admirable.

Movies – 3 Iron (South Korea, 2004)

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Lee Seung-yeon and Hee Jae in “3 Iron.” credit: flickminute.com.

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

Kim Ki-Duk’s 3 Iron (Bin-jip, which I believe translates as ‘Empty Houses,’ but ‘3 Iron’ is equally appropriate for reasons I won’t spoil) (South Korea, 2004) is a very quiet but involving film that starts out as a light realist drama, progressing into a delicate love story, and concluding as a magical-realist fable. A young man (Hee Jae, who has done other films as Lee Hyun-kyoon) hangs restaurant menu flyers on people’s doors in a large Korean city. Flyers that are undisturbed for a few days let him know that the homes are empty for a short while, and enable him to use these homes as crash-pads. He sleeps, eats, showers, and invariably does something nice for the absent occupants – hand-washes their laundry, waters their plants, fixes broken bathroom scales or wall clocks. Watching a businessman leave his home one morning, he assumes the place is deserted for the day. But unbeknownst to him, the man’s wife is still there (Lee Seung-yeon), and she surreptitiously watches him go through his careful, tidy routine. When she finally allows herself to be discovered, he learns that her marriage to the man is miserably abusive. The husband comes home early to check on her, but the young man thwarts his attempts to start in on her again, and they flee together. She now accompanies the young man on his daily routine of hanging flyers and living in other people’s homes.

The young man will probably strike audiences as a little creepy at first, but Kim makes it clear very quickly that the young man is delicate and respectful. And the variety of the homes that the new, remarkably silent, couple visit becomes a little treatise on middle-class life in the Korean city: a married couple who keeps a small studio-garden with a beautiful and fragile tea service in their small living room; a photographer’s studio where, it turns out, the woman has posed for pictures herself; a boxer’s bachelor pad; an apartment belonging to a family’s grandfather. Eventually they are caught by the police; the woman must return to her husband, and the young man is incarcerated. But this episode, rather than being the end of things, propels the story into a far more abstracted, dreamlike and hopeful new beginning.

Kim makes gorgeous movies; he’s ably assisted here by cinematographer Jang Seong-back, but it’s clearly Kim’s vision. The only other film of his I’ve seen is ‘Breath (Soom),’ another modest but lovely effort with an intriguingly original story and a bold visual narrative. He’s apparently made a few films that run closer to the ‘new’ Korean genre traditions of dark psychology and explicit violence, but he’s best known for hypnotic, evocative and minimal gems like this.

 

The 2017 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 9

Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!

Part 7. Part 8.

 

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Romy Louise Lauwers and Aaron Roggeman in “My First Highway.” credit: Fobic Films

Kevin Meul’s feature film debut, My First Highway (Belgium, 2016) tells a seemingly typical coming-of-age story with some real tension and teeth. 16-year-old Benjamin (the impressively malleable Aaron Roggeman) is on a trailer-park beach holiday in sunny Spain with his family when he meets Annabel (Romy Louise Lauwers), the teen daughter of the owners of the local convenience store. The usual testing-the-waters flirtations ensue, but then things suddenly escalate, and we find ourselves in some pretty dark and thick film noir intrigue. On the surface, she’s quite manipulative, and he can be quite gullible, but Meul takes each of them to vaguer, and meaner, places. His script is surprisingly dialogue-free – he and cinematographer Menno Mans are quite good at using the visual narrative to express behavior, feeling and overall moods – showing us, rather than telling us, the story. There’s a shortcut here, a missed opportunity there and some dubious soundtrack choices, but overall this debut film leaves a strong impression. I liked it a lot.

“My First Highway” will be shown on Saturday, March 25th at 2:00 pm and Tuesday the 28th at 6:00 pm.

 

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Ksenija Marinković in “On The Other Side.” credit: interfilm.hr

Croatian star of stage, TV and film, the prolific character actress Ksenija Marinković has been featured in two films here at CEUFF. The first was the 2016 comedy All The Best (Sve Najbolje), a generally amusing but indifferently structured bit of Christmas fluff (that she was very good in). Her talents are put to far better use in the solemn but intriguing On The Other Side (S One Strane) (Croatia, 2016). Here Marinković portrays Vesna, a hard-working nurse-caregiver who receives a bolt from the blue one day; a phone call from her husband, Zarko (Lazar Ristovski). Zarko has been imprisoned for twenty years in The Hague for committing war crimes on the Serbian side of the Balkan civil wars, but is soon to be released. He’s eager to reconcile with the family, but that turns out to be a pretty tall order; they’d been shamed and devastated by his actions, and the now-adult children want nothing to do with him. Vesna is resistant as well at first, but a series of late-night phone conversations with him chip away at her empathy, and she considers a reunion. But the news of his release travels fast, and other agendas, both right-minded and sinister, start to emerge.

Veteran director Zrinko Ogresta, with co-writer Mate Matišić, tells an efficient story, only explaining snippets of the history while giving full expression to the emotional stakes for all involved. There’s a real contrast, scripted and visual, between Vesna’s work-driven days and the nights at home weighing her feelings and shared history with Zarko. It’s a well-measured, involving drama with a twisty and serious conclusion, quite well done, and highly recommended.

“On The Other Side” screens on Saturday, March 25th at 6:00 pm and Monday the 27th at 6:15 pm.

The 2017 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 8

Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!

Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

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Ventzislav Konstantinov and Irena Ivanova in “Godless.” credit: tiff.net

Godless (Bezbog) (Bulgaria, 2016) is a bleak but rewarding first feature from director Ralitza Petrova. The film follows Gana (Irena Ivanova), a sullen and stone-faced caregiver for the elderly who’s been drawn into the casual corruption that seems to be endemic in many a small Eastern-European city. As well as pilfering drugs for her own recreational self-medication, she steals the state ID cards of her more addled patients, which are then used to create phantom corporations for money laundering, an enterprise administered by the very police investigators who are assigned to prevent it. If things become bothersome, the marks are arrested. If there’s further trouble, “accidents” are arranged. Just another cog in a generational wheel of criminal self-interest, Gana starts to long for her own capacity to love and be loved, and, inspired by one of her clients, a cranky choir director who had spent time as a political prisoner years ago, she starts to construct a way to extract herself from her situation. The film is lifted by the search for self-esteem and the possibility for redemption, but Petrova knows there’s no happy ending here, or even a conclusive one. Cinematographers Krum Rodriguez and Chayse Irvin throw some real visual sophistication into the usual air of grainy gray glumness that many of these films fall into. It’s kind of a hard watch at times, but it’s well worth the trouble. Recommended.

“Godless” will be shown on Sunday, March 19th at 5:15 pm and Thursday, March 23rd at 8:15 pm.

The 2017 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 7

Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!

Part 4. Part 5. Part 6.

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Paul Hamy in “The Ornithologist.” credit: blackmaria.pt

João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo) (Portugal, 2016) is a gorgeous and heady experience. A lone naturalist, Fernando (Paul Hamy), is camped alone deep in the Portuguese woods, studying birds and looking for rare species. A kayaking accident, however, turns his peaceful scientific idyll into a series of ordeals as he strives to work his way back to civilization. Much of what transpires on Fernando’s trek parallels Saint Anthony of Padua, the Portuguese saint canonized in the 13th century as a moving orator (he’s famous for once preaching to fishes to shame a town of heretics), a devout friend of the poor and the patron saint of lost things. But Rodrigues intersperses many of his own historical, mythical and autobiographical concerns as well, sometimes humorously, sometimes blasphemously, sometimes frighteningly, and as the film progresses, our grasp on how real ‘real’ is in these woods becomes a slippery and abstract thing. The last film of his I saw was 2012’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, another dreamy travelogue of a different sort, but Rodrigues has a much firmer grip on the narrative this time, which allows his creative conceits to be far more involving. Many references will float past the ordinary viewer, but it’s all so well-constructed, and so appealingly surprising from episode-to-episode, that very little of this will bother you. It’ll get a regular theatrical run, but this is a great opportunity for an early peek. I highly recommend it.

“The Ornithologist” will screen again on Thursday, March 23rd at 6:00 pm.

The 2017 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 6

Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!

Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

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François Cluzet and Marianne Denicourt in “The Country Doctor.” credit: hallu-cine.net

The writer and film director Thomas Lilti is also a practicing doctor, a G.P., and he brings an authentic personal touch to his films. 2014’s Hippocrates was a fictionalized glimpse at his own internship experiences at a busy urban hospital, and was refreshingly contrivance-free. His most recent (third) feature is The Country Doctor (Médecin De Campagne) (France 2016), another admirably straightforward procedural concerning Dr. Jean-Pierre Werner (veteran François Cluzet), who has been driving to house calls and running his small provincial clinic, every day, for quite a few years. Recently diagnosed with a cancerous tumor, he’s advised by his doctor, Norès (Christophe Odent) to take it easier and perhaps get some help while receiving treatments, but, of course, he just throws himself into his work harder. When Dr. Nathalie Delezia (Marianne Denicourt), a comparatively inexperienced practitioner, appears to lighten his workload (at Norès behest), Jean-Pierre is accommodating but stern, begrudgingly content to let her learn things the hard way.

Between Dr. Werner and his relationship with his many patients, Dr. Werner and his new partnership with Dr. Delezia, and Dr. Werner and his own treatments with Norès, most directors would just plow through with TV plotting, arranging events with efficiency and expediency. But Lilti (with Baya Kasmi) has really crafted the screenplay to cover all of it: a lot happens over 99 minutes of screentime, but he refuses to short-change all of those small, character-revealing interactions and details that make it all resonate. Cluzet, Denicourt and the other actors are given room to stretch, and they’re all agile enough to make the most of what Lilti’s given them. Cinematographer Nicolas Gaurin does very nice, seamless work here as well, but there’s a strong hand on all of it. Love to watch pros work? Me, too. You’ll like this film, and I recommend it.

“The Country Doctor” will be shown on Friday, March 17th at 2:00 pm and Wednesday the 22nd at 6:00 pm.

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Cédric Kahn and Bérénice Bejo in “After Love.” credit: cinematographe.it

The French title of Belgian director Joachim Lafosse’s new film, After Love (Belgium, 2016) is L’Économie Du Couple, which gives a clearer idea of the self-imposed objectivity with which the unhappy couple here view themselves. Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Boris (Cédric Kahn) have loved each other for a while, but there’s little of it left when we join them at the film’s beginning. Marie is from a fairly well-off family, but has worked steadily as well and is the primary earner. Boris has always been a journeyman carpenter and builder, and Marie didn’t mind picking up some of the slack while they raised their twin daughters, Jade and Margaux. But now things are souring quickly; she’d like to separate, but he can’t afford to leave until the flat they live in has been sold. Boris wants half of those proceeds – his renovations increased the value of the home, and their profit, even if Marie covered a larger part of the mortgage payments. This practical dichotomy – does her possession represent more value than the product of his work? – is where their arguments inevitably return, where their emotions inevitably divert; in the meantime,  they chip away at each other passive-aggressively, playing their friends and families off of each other and competing for the affections of their two (admirably resilient) girls. At times the constant friction can be oppressive, but Lafosse gives us a peek or two at the vestiges of passion that they initially brought to each other, and their mutual love for the kids is clear. The film’s no ray of sunshine, but its pleasures are in the detailed accuracy of Lafosse’s script (co-written with Fanny Burdino, Mazarine Pingeot and Thomas van Zuylen) and the involving performances of Bejo and Kahn. Practically the entire film happens in that apartment, but Lafosse and regular cinematographer Jean-François Hensgens find lots of visual variety there without easing up on a certain necessary claustrophobia. These fairly intense family problem-dramas can be tough, but some real authenticity and empathy has been brought to the work here, and I liked this film a lot.

“After Love” screens Friday, March 17th at 6:00 pm and Monday the 20th at 6:00 pm.

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Josef Hader and Aenne Schwarz in “Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe.” credit: dor-film.com

I’d certainly like to be more familiar with the work of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer who inspired, among other things, much of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. He was one of the most widely read European authors of the 20th century, but his many detractors found his work glibly lightweight. Ah, the blessing and curse of popular tastes…   Fearful of the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, Zweig left his homeland for New York and South America. But Zweig made a practical point to never denounce Nazi Germany in public, much to the dismay of his fellow Jews in the world of arts and letters.  He nonetheless worked hard to help others escape Europe when he could, even as he grew to love his new home in Brazil. But eventually his, and his wife’s, despair over the state of Europe led to a tragic end.

I’d certainly like to be more familiar with the work of Maria Schrader; a really good German actress who works pretty consistently, she has also directed two other feature films besides today’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (Austria/Germany, 2016), and the other two are reportedly excellent as well. Collaborating with Jan Schomburg, her screenplay depicts six illustrative episodes in Zweig’s life, rather than following a rote chronology of strung-along events. It’s not a particularly novel approach, but it’s much harder to pull off, and Schrader’s film executes it superbly. An elaborate formal banquet, a politically-charged writer’s conference, a sugar-cane plantation, a New York apartment, a rural outdoor reception – Schrader’s command of the environments (Wolfgang Thaler’s camerawork is impressive), the characters and events within them and the larger meanings of each episode is unerring. She’s ably assisted by Josef Hader’s spot-on portrayal of the ferociously intellectual yet unfailingly gracious Zweig, as well as Aenne Schwarz as Zweig’s second wife Lotte and a consistently-led supporting cast. Another terrific film, and one of my favorites of the fest (with Slack Bay).

“Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe” will be shown on Friday, March 17th at 8:00 pm and Saturday, March 18th at 4:00 pm.

On Friday, director Maria Schrader, and tentatively actress Barbara Sukowa, will be present via Skype in an audience discussion moderated by Sara Hall, Associate Professor of Germanic Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago.

The 2017 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 5

Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

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“J: Beyond Flamenco.” credit: latidofilms.com

Flamenco, that southern Spanish art form incorporating dancing, singing and instrumental musicianship in culturally-crucial detail, has been masterfully presented, both as documentary and stylized fiction, by the great Spanish director Carlos Saura in a number of films over the last thirty-five years or so. His latest film, J: Beyond Flamenco (Jota) (Spain, 2016) returns him to the artistic styles of his more northern homeland, Aragon, following other explorations of Argentinean Tango, Portuguese Fado, and his Flamenco, Flamenco from 2010. Jota, as presented by Saura, seems to be a little freer in technique (there are specifics that define the style, though) – some Arabic Mediterranean and even ‘Oriental’ influences – but the movements seem more like folk dancing than urgent and rigorous expressions of Passion with a capital ‘P,’ and the style lends itself well to pairs, solos and groups. Saura sets all of the film’s short episodes on obvious studio soundstages, with simple visual backgrounds of color and image, projections and mirrors, and seamless camera movements that keep the focus on the superb performers. Also note the graciousness with which he treats the musicians here – it’s primarily a dance film, but the players are thrilling as well. This is a splendidly creative and engaging film, and, if you’re not already familiar with Saura’s dance films, this will be a great introduction. They’re unlike much else of what you’ve seen, and there’s an impressive back catalogue to pursue when, not if, you get hooked.

‘J: Beyond Flamenco) screens on Saturday, March 11th at 6:30 pm and Thursday, March 16th at 8:30.