Movie Review: Gloomy Sunday

Title:  Gloomy Sunday (German title: Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod) – 1999

Director: Rolf Schübel

Writers: Rolf Schübel (screenplay); Nick Barkow (novel)

This movie has a lot going for it just from the start where I’m concerned: (a) it’s based on an urban legend, and who doesn’t like those, right?  (b) it’s set in Budapest, a city I fell in love with on my short business trip visit and which I plan to visit again someday (c) it’s in German, which I love because it’s not easy to find German language media to bolster mein Deutsch.  All this makes me pre-disposed to like this film (certainly more than if it were not based on a urban legend, set in Cleveland and in French).

The film is adapted from a novel that I think I need to get my hands on.  The story is loosely based on the urban legend surrounding “Gloomy Sunday” a song by a Hungarian composer that allegedly drove multiple people in Europe and America to commit suicide in the 1930s.  It focuses in particular on the love triangle between the composer, a restaurant owner and a beautiful hostess.  And because this is a 1930s period piece in Europe, you can bet your ass that it involves Nazis.

The love triangle is, well, odd.  Not really ménage à trois, but definitely not conventional.  I can’t say the relationship gives me warm and fuzzies, but it’s well done enough that I also don’t feel like bleaching my brain (a common problem when European film romances get weird).  It’s well done for what it is.  And, because this isn’t your typical mainstream Hollywood BS, one of the two male leads is, well, not much to look at.  I appreciate that about a lot of foreign cinema, but in this case, being a German film, you see Mr. Mediocre-Looks’s bare ass which I, personally, could have done without (not so much because of my prudish American tendencies as because, well, it’s not a hot ass, so what’s the point?).  For male viewers, you also get plenty of bare-breasted shots of the female lead (who is good looking).  I was neither offended (meh, I have my own.  Whatever) nor impressed (meh, I have my own. Whatever).

The scenery, is, of course, fantastic.  I really do love Budapest.  Seeing the movie meant I got to spend a lot of time squeeing and going “The Széchenyi  bridge!” and “OMG, I WALKED THERE!”  And it’s not unfounded squeeing because the city is beautiful (except in those places where the hideous Cold War construction crept in….thankfully the eye-sore of a Marriot I stayed in was skillfully avoided by the cameras).  There are plenty of good establishing shots to feast your eyes upon.  On a more interior note, Lazlo’s restaurant in which much of the action takes place is VERY similar to two of the restaurant’s I dined in while there.  And the focus on the Hungarian rouladen, was nice because I had some of that….and a lot of other really friggin’ delicious dishes in that city (it’s entirely possible to gain weight just thinking about the food in Budapest).

Of course, since the movie is named after music, the music in the film is wonderful.  Very classical.  The theme is a truly beautiful piece.  Piano is the primary mode of transmission, but there are some excellent incidences of violin as well (which actually fits more with the music I heard in Budapest).  I’m strongly considering picking up the soundtrack to this one.

One of the downsides to the film is, well, inevitable.  As I mentioned, it’s set in 1930s Europe.  This means you will NOT avoid Nazis and Jews.  It’s that damn elephant in the room you can’t avoid.  But….at this point in time, even though it’s real and it’s true, it’s almost become cliche.  Particularly because the German officer featured in this film is completely stereotypical in terms of his appearance: blonde, fair, etc.  I can’t help rolling my eyes at that visual because the most-recently-off-the-boat Germans in my family are NOT blonde, blue eyed or fair.  In fact, they literally “pass” for Mexicans (the Hungarians and Jews in the film look way more like many of my family than the German characters).  I’m not saying I like the idea of my homies being associated with Nazis, but if we’re going to embrace the reality of Nazis being in every film about that era, we may as well embrace that not all Germans are fair and blue eyed.

Of course, the war and the Nazis are integral to the plot and you see that part coming a mile out.  The relationship complexity adds the real flavor, though the plot still seems to drag a bit at times while you’re watching.  I know this because I make notes.  And because it’s a European film.  I also know that the ending to this one makes me forget the drag every time I watch.  It’s a more awesome ending that you get in a lot of European films, so double bonus on that one.

All told, I’ll give it 3 and ¾ jars of peanut butter.  Deductions for the buttshots, the occasional plot drag and for the cliche German.


Movie Review: The Girl

Title: The Girl (Original Swedish Title: Flickan) (2009)

Director: Fredrik Edfeldt

Writer: Karin Apphenius

Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytrma

I stumbled across this one at my local library.  Having not watched a foreign film in a while, I decided to give it a whirl.  I didn’t really expect much more than a little variety to shake up the string of BBC offerings I’ve been checking out from the library’s DVD section lately.  What I got was a visually beautiful, moving film.

You might notice that I noted the cinematographer above.  That’s because the way this film was beautiful visually.  That’s not to say it was full of sweeping vistas or shiny dance numbers or incredible costumes.  It was the composition of the shots, the way light was captured.  If had a greater experience with visual art, I’d be better at describing it, but the long and short of it is that reading the English subtitles is not the only reason I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen.

The story follows The Girl (never named), whose parents and brother leave for an African aid mission.  She was supposed to travel with them, but a last minute notification of restrictions due to age (she is 9 and a half) results in The Girl being left at home in the care of a somewhat unstable Aunt Anna.  Singularly unimpressed with this woman-child that she barely knows, The Girl is more than happy when Aunt Anna leaves her alone to go off sailing with a boyfriend.  The Girl begins a summer of freedom.

But, before you start to think this is a summery, Swedish version of Home Alone, be assured, it’s not.  The Girl’s freedom devolves into a loneliness and isolation that comes right up to the borders of madness before a meeting with a stranger pulls her back into society and reality.

And The Girl herself is remarkable.  Little Blanca Engström does a very impressive job of conveying the complex emotions involved in The Girl’s isolation.  She has a unique look with her red hair and skinny form–she stands out in every shot she appears in.  And for such a little girl, she can be intense with just one glance, almost to the point of creepiness.  You really don’t need the subtitles to pick up on the emotions and follow the path of this story.  If this young actress doesn’t do any more movies, we are all losing out, I’m telling you.

By the end of this movie, I had the same kind of feeling I have after reading a really excellent book that I know I’ll never forget even if I never manage to read it again.  Usually I withdraw from foreign films that are too “arty” but in this case, it struck the right chord–stable plot, deep emotion and beautiful shots.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 jars of peanut-butter.


Movie Review: The Official Story (La historia oficial)

The Official Story (La historia oficial) (1985)

Director: Luis Puenzo

Writers: Aida Bortnik and Luis Puenzo

As I’m trying to clear out my Netflix queue before I cancel service this week, I’m zipping through the large quantity of foreign films I had added.  With time running out, I no longer slog through a movie that’s not worth it.  If it’s a dud, I kill it when I’ve had enough, ditch it from the queue and move on.

The Official Story?  Very much NOT a dud.

The film–made in 1985–revolves around the aftermath of the Dirty War.  The fairly affluent high school history teacher Alicia begins to suspect that her (adorable) adopted daughter Gaby may have been stolen from one of the thousands of “desaparacidos“–political dissidents who were “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983 by a repressive military junta in Argentina (estimates vary from 9000 to 30,000).  Her suspicions begin with the dissatisfied grumblings of the students she’s teaching, unhappy with the sanitized history in the text books, and only grows when her class reunion brings a long-absent friend, Ana back into her life.  In a wine-soaked evening of girl-talk and catching up, Ana reveals that her disappearance years ago was not at all voluntary.  As Ana recounts the stories of kidnapping, torture and prisoners whose infant children were taken, Alicia begins to wonder exactly what the circumstances were under which her suspiciously well-connected husband obtained their now 5 year old daughter.  She meets Sara, a woman whose daughter was among the disappeared, and who wonders about the whereabouts of Sara’s child.  As Alicia presses to learn more, her husband Roberto’s connections are collapsing and the entire situation blows up in a violent confrontation prompted by Gaby’s absence and Alicia’s accusing question “how does it feel not knowing where your child is?”

It helped that I was familiar with some of the history of the Dirty War, but it’s not necessary.  Alicia–like many Argentinians at the time–didn’t really know the depth of what had happened during those years.  If you walk in ignorant of the history, it’s okay, because the whole movie allows you to learn right along with Alicia.

And even if you want to set aside the value of the subject matter, it’s just a well put together movie.  Norma Aleandro (who, incidentally, I learned was exiled from Argentina during the military junta period for her left wing views, and only returned in 1982 when the junta fell), gives an absolutely fantastic performance as Alicia.  You don’t need any Spanish vocabulary at all to get the weight of what this woman is going through.  And some of the well-played parallels (Ana’s story, followed by what happens on Gaby’s birthday;  the story with which Alicia opens the movie, coupled with the ending with Gaby in the rocker….).

Even the things that initially had me giggling–the painfully 1980s look (honestly, I kept thinking I was going to see Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard cruising in the BMW blasting “Beat It” with MacGyver clinging to the roof)–turned to something more sobering.  The kid in question, Gaby, is my age.  The desaparecidos (including ones like Sara’s daughter) are my parents’ age.  It’s not that I didn’t know this logically from reading articles and that one Latin American history class I took, but the nostalgia I felt at seeing the fashion and decor added a whole new level of concreteness to the situation.  It also brings home that this movie was made so incredibly close to what happened.  The junta fell in 1982.  This film came out in 1985.  You can’t tell me that wasn’t a raw wound at the time.

All in all, I give this five full jars of peanut butter.  Highly recommend this one, and I will definitely watch it again (and special note to Kristy and Mary–you should watch this one if you haven’t already).

Review: Sex and Lucia

Sex and Lucía (2001)

Directed by: Julio Medem

Written by:  Julio Medem

I put this film on my Netflix cue because my crazy ex-roommate was moderately obsessed with it.  I didn’t really know what to expect because sometimes her tastes and mine align perfectly and sometimes they don’t intersect at all.  Warning:  This review contains massive spoilers, in as much as I understand what the hell happened in this movie, which is to be honest, kind of minor.

Things I didn’t like: Some of the close ups of the moon are a little cheesy and cliché as are a couple of close ups of Lorenzo and Lucía running.  Perhaps in 2001 these were cooler than they are now.  It’s likely more of a symptom of my lack of a romantic streak than anything, but I have a hard time buying the whole premise of Lorenzo and Lucía’s relationship.  If I was a famous writer and some waitress showed up, admitted to stalking me and asked to move in, I’d call the cops, not go out drinking with her.  Luna’s adorable, but there is no way I buy that kid as four years old.  There are a lot of boobs.  Mostly those of Paz Vega.  And they’re very nice, but that’s not my actual complaint.  My complaint is Paz Vega’s hip bones—girl is disturbingly skinny from the waist down and that kind of freaked me out.  I’m going to suggest you not watch this one with the parents or the children (if the name didn’t clue you in to the fact that there’s a lot of sex in this movie, I don’t know what I can do to help you.)  The subtitles aren’t great.  I speak Spanish fluently, but I speak Latin American Spanish, not Spanish Spanish.  So I generally didn’t need the subtitles but glanced down at them to help with accent issues only to discover in a lot of places they aren’t really good translations.

Things I did like: Other than the exceptions mentioned above the camera work is very nice.  There’s some cool use of mirrors in Lorenzo and Lucía’s apartment.  The image of Luna pulling on Lorenzo’s hand as he makes out with Belen is disturbing, but I’m guessing that’s intentional and it did what it was supposed to.  The bleached out appearance of the scenes on the island is a little cliché, but it works.  And in this film it’s nice to have all the cues possible to delineate time and space.  I like the gratuitous use of really wide shots in the island scenes because it kind of captures the way I often feel at the beach—tiny, insignificant, dwarfed by nature.  I like the score, especially the use of simple piano music—it’s moody without being obtrusively so.  I’m really glad that the mauling is suggested and not actually shown.  I was genuinely surprised by Lorenzo being alive, and as a soap/sci-fi fan I almost never believe that anyone’s dead unless I see the body.  So either I’m losing it or the film did a good job.  As I’ve said, I have no clue what this movie was about, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me like it usually does.  I like the way the ambiguity of the whole thing—it’s dream like without being overly pretentious and does a good job capturing the experience of writing.  When you create your own world it is sometimes difficult to tell where it ends.

Rating:  Three and a half out of five jars of peanut butter

Belated Film Review Italian Style

Malèna (2000)

Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore

Writers: Giuseppe Tornatore and Luciano Vincenzoni (story)

Summary: [warning, full of spoilers; highlight to view all the details] As seen through the eyes of Renato, an adolescent boy, we watch a beautiful woman named Malèna experience the hardships of World War II in a Sicilian town.  Malèna’s husband is away fighting and Malèna has several disadvantages:  she’s a woman lacking the protection of a husband, she’s also an outsider, and more significantly she’s beautiful.  This causes a lot of gossip:  she’s beautiful, and she’s not with her husband, so she must be a slut.  The truth is Malèna is innocent, but Renato seems to be the only one who notices.  He silently wages a guerrilla war against those who gossip about her.  Things get worse for Malèna when first her husband and then her father are killed.  Left with no job and no means of support, Malèna does finally turn to the only resource she has left—her body.  When the war ends the women of the town drag her into the street and beat the hell out of her for servicing German soldiers.  Her hair is cut off and she is run out of town.  Then suddenly her husband Nino returns—turns out he was imprisoned, not killed—and he comes home to find his wife missing and strangers living in his house.  No one will tell him what happens until Renato, the only one who knows the truth anyway, writes him a letter explaining the whole story.  The film has a happy ending, after a fashion, as Nino finds Malèna and brings her back to town.  The women who were so awful to her before suddenly find themselves making it up to her by greeting her like a respectable woman and offering her bargains in the market.

Things I liked: My interest in the film actually started with the soundtrack—I love Ennio Morricone and the score for this film is absolutely perfect.  It doesn’t make me cry on its own like the score for The Mission, but it’s close.  The acting, particularly from Monica Bellucci (Malèna) and Giuseppe Sulfaro (Renato) is fantastic, but it almost didn’t have to be.  The direction, editing and cinematography are so well done, that they almost tell the story on their own.  The film does a great job of both capturing a particular moment in time, and addressing universal problems.  In particular the way that women are so much crueler to each other than men ever are to us; this comes across in the film so vividly in nearly made me ill.  Also true and disturbing is the tendency to stand by and watch as injustice happens.  There are clearly people, not just Renato, who are bothered by the savage beating Malèna receives, but no one makes an attempt to stop it.  That scene is particularly well done in its absolute ugly brutality.  It’s uncomfortable to watch, but it should be.  Well done on the filmmaker’s part to actually let Malena look awful at the end of it rather than just ripping her clothes a little and giving her a pretty little bruise on her cheekbone.  I’m not normally one for coming of age movies, but this one captures the idea so well, and makes it so clear why Malèna, a woman he never touched, is the one woman Renato will never forget.  And sprinkled in are enough comic moments that are so typical of adolescence.  I particularly liked Renato’s struggle to convince his father to allow him to wear long pants, mostly because I remember my grandfather describing the same struggle with his mother.  One of my favorite sequences is Malèna dancing with her husband’s picture towards the beginning.  It’s simultaneously sweet and heartbreaking.

Things I didn’t like: I’m really having to work to come up with this.  I wanted the women and the men of the town to get more of a smack down than they got.  I realize that the marketplace scene is a big deal—there’s a fantastically long pause between the women greeting her and her finally turning and saying, “Good Morning” that totally gets the point across.  But the men don’t get anything and the women seem to get off easy.  I realize why said smack down can’t come from Malèna, but I wish there would have been a way for it to have come from Nino or Renato.

Rating: 5/5 jars of peanut butter with perhaps just a spoonful out of one of those jars.  I loved it, but I don’t see myself watching it again any time soon.