International Film

REVIEW: The Truth

Le Pacte
Rated: PG
Run Time: 106 minutes
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

One of the great things about Parasite winning best picture is it has inspired moviegoers to dive into the filmographies of great international filmmakers, like Parasite’s director Bong Joon Ho; a director that hopefully doesn’t get missed in this movement is Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. His filmography is truly exceptional with such wonderful films as 2018’s Shoplifters, 2015’s Our Little Sister, and 2008’s Still Walking. His films have a humanity to them that leave you with a sense of hope and connection. It also always feels like he has an affection for his characters and by his understanding them we, as viewers, feel more understood. In Kore-eda’s latest film The Truth he is branching out beyond his native Japan to France, making a simple film about a family that anyone can relate to.

The Truth has an excellent cast, led by the great French actor Catherine Deneuve. She plays Fabienne, a star of French cinema who has recently published her memoir which—to her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche)—is full of half-truths and falsehoods. Lumir comes to France with her working American-actor-husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), who is content with the simple pleasures of life. He does not care about the fact his life does not have the gravitas held in Fabienne’s memories—mostly left out of the memoir and oftentimes quite painful. He’s happy just to eat good food, spend time with his daughter, and act occasionally.

That’s the crux of the movie. What is a happy life? And what in our memories is the truth? Is Lumir’s version true? Is Fabienne’s? What does ambition get you? It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters. It reminded me of lazy weekends with my own family (big personalities and memories included)!

Juliette Binoche, Clémentine Grenier and Ethan Hawke in a scene of The Truth | Le Pacte.

Fabienne is also acting in a film called Memories of My Mother, about a woman who goes to space when she finds out she only has two years to live because “nobody grows old out there.” As Fabienne reads for the role (including one great scene with Hawke), she is forced to contemplate her own memories even more; in particular her own relationship with her daughter as she deals with her daughter in the film (played by Manon Clavel).

The Truth will not be for everyone. It’s a movie of simple pleasures. Again, if you like spending time with a family and contemplating the bigger questions of life then it will be for you. If that sounds like a super snooze then it won’t. I don’t know if it has quite the emotion of Kore-eda’s great films. It does feel a little easy to digest at times, but I still really enjoyed it. At times it reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies that are also about the ins and outs of a relationship or family group and seeing how everything turns out. I’d be interested to see how this family turns out just like we have been able to do in the Before Sunrise movies. Movies like The Truth make me want to try harder with my own family; and in this crazy world of coronavirus and panic, that’s pretty special.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

8 out of 10

REVIEW: 18 Presents

NETFLIX
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 115 minutes
Director: Francesco Amato

I have never been to Italy nor lost a close family relative to a terminal illness, but I do have a mother and, like her, I am a crier. Watching 18 Presents accompanied by my mother late at night on Mother’s Day was a recipe for disaster, especially when the real-life inspiration for the film is revealed. If you’re looking for something to turn your tear ducts into sprinklers and don’t mind reading subtitles, you’ve come to the right place.

The premise is this: Elisa (played by Italian actress Vittoria Puccini) is pregnant with a baby girl when she finds out that she has terminal cancer. Knowing that the progression of the illness would likely result in her dying during the child’s infancy, the mother-to-be decides to buy her unborn child 18 presents: one for every birthday until she becomes an adult. Sure, it might be hard to shop for someone you’ve never met, but isn’t it the thought that counts? Apparently not. Her now grown daughter, Anna (Italian actress Benedetta Porcaroli), actually hates these gifts from her mother, and her dad has to force her to open them, even as early as her 5th birthday. By 18, Anna has become a Lydia Deetz (Beetlejuice) look-a-like with a far worse attitude and talent for self-destruction. I literally hated her. In the notes I made while watching the film, I wrote, “There is just no redeeming this character.” The biggest compliment I can give 18 Presents is that it proved me wrong: by the end, I forgave Anna, and couldn’t find it in me to hate her even the slightest. I remain impressed by this unexpected redemption. 

As the plot progresses, and thanks to some extraordinary circumstances, Anna gets to meet her mother and relive the last few months of her life beside her. Thus, there are plenty of scenes of mother and daughter interacting whilst simultaneously longing for a past/future that will never occur. These moments are genuinely sweet and get you right in the feels. The ending had me sending twin waterfalls down my cheeks, not unlike the emoji titled “loudly crying face 😭” (though it should be noted that my tears were silently dignified and not noisy). 

Vittoria Puccini and Benedetta Porcaroli in a scene of 18 Presents | NETFLIX

My quibbles are petty, but still I will quibble. First, I felt like Italy was another planet, or at least a world the Kardashians would find more relatable than I would. For instance, what would you do if you accidentally locked yourself out of your house? When I was growing up, that meant my Mom busted out the crowbar and boosted me through one of the windows so I could get in and unlock the door from the inside. I guess that makes me a trashy American, because this film would have you believe that the only sensible thing to do when locked out is rent a penthouse for the night, complete with a pool, and simply wait until morning to call a locksmith. Second, when Elisa is in her cancer support group, her suggestion of buying eighteen gifts for her unborn daughter is met with awkward silence and sideways glances (while other members are discussing their sexual promiscuity and whether they should have their cremated ashes converted into diamonds). In fact, everybody acts like the idea of a mother trying to substitute her presence with presents for her daughter’s birthdays is insane and awful. At one point it’s suggested that Anna is unfairly burdened by these gifts from her dead mother. I guess that’s just how the other half lives; burdened by too many gifts and slumming it in penthouses. It made me feel sorry for Italians.

18 Presents is the brain-child of daytime soap opera and Hallmark with an affinity for the F-word and cigarettes. Though it has its virtues, I have a hard time universally recommending a tear-jerker unless it is almost above reproach. This movie has its audience, and cry-fests are necessary evils in their time and season, but it lacks any “must-see” qualities. Considering how hard it is these days to acquire tissues, maybe go with something on Sam Cooley’sUltimate Feel-Good Movie list” instead. 

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: The Platform

NETFLIX
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 94 minutes
Director: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia

I’ll have you all know that I had no plans to review this film. The plan was to review Mulan—a nice pleasant Disney film remake where I would sit down, relax, and enjoy a nice evening at the theater. However, because of the current circumstances in the world I ended up at home, watching The Platform—a movie I had never even heard of and yet made me so tense and wound up that I stayed up most of the night thinking about it. So buckle up your seatbelts friends: I’m going to explain to you why you absolutely need to carve time out of your day to watch The Platform.

Originally premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, The Platform is a Spanish film with a very simple premise; it takes place in a dystopian future in a single location—a prison.  The prison is rather peculiar as it is called a “Vertical Self-Management Center,” meaning that the prisoners are held in what is essentially a skyscraper with endless floors, each with a large hole in the center. The prisoners are each assigned a floor and a roommate, and at the end of the month they are randomly assigned a new floor. Why does the floor number matter? I’m glad you asked. At a random point in the day a platform (filled with more food than you could ever imagine) floats down from the top floor all the way to the bottom via the holes. Each pair of prisoners is given a small amount of time to “eat their fill” before the platform moves down into the next floor… But if only it were that simple.

The prison is not only home to criminals but prisoners by choice—such is the case of the main character, Goreng. He has opted to spend six months in this prison to obtain a college degree (wouldn’t that be nice) and to finally finish Don Quixote. His roommate, Trimagasi, however, is a cold-blooded killer, convicted of murdering an immigrant. While Goreng is optimistic seeing this as a good opportunity to further himself, Trimagasi is anything but. He explains to Goreng, “There are three types of people: those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall.” A real pleasant roommate, right? He lectures Goreng on the ways of how this prison operates: show no mercy to those beneath you, and hate those above you.

Prisoners shown easting in a scene of The Platform | NETFLIX

The message of The Platform is anything but subtle. Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia delivers the point of his movie so heavy-handed that it felt more like a slap in the face. In fact, one of the characters even gives it away as they say, “If everyone only took what they needed there would be enough for everyone,” and therein lies the true nature of this film. A message about human nature and the nature of capitalism. The prisoners at the top of the prison get their pick of the finest delicacies: Kobe beef, duck, cake, and champagne. But as the platform moves down those on the 40th floor can only eat picked-at meat covered in the saliva of others. While those on the 80th floor find nothing but bones and filth, leaving a chain of selfishness, frustration and hate.

Earlier today while I was at the grocery store I walked down the toilet paper aisle and saw nothing but barren shelves. We live in a strange time, and people are afraid. I kept thinking about that one line from this film—“If everyone only took what they needed there would be enough for everyone”— and it resonated with me how relevant this movie is in this day and age. The Platform begs the question, in the face of survival, are we selfish or compassionate? If we’re at the top, do we care about those beneath us?

Alexandra Masangkay looks up from her cell in a scene of The Platform | NETFLIX

To wrap things up I enjoyed the hell out of this film. However, it is not a film for the faint of heart—it is gory, it is violent, and it is gross. If you are squeamish do not even attempt to watch this film. The movie also struggles from a weak third act. For a movie that started out so strong I was disappointed at how the third act felt like it had a total lack of direction. Lastly, the ending is very open ended and ambiguous. A lot is left open for interpretation and that may frustrate viewers. However, if you can push things aside I think you will enjoy The Platform. It is one of the most unique horror films I have seen in a long time. It doesn’t scare you with ghosts, serial slashers, or demonic possessions; opting to horrify you in the worst way: showing you the ugliest side of human nature. It is a brutal allegory of class warfare and the inequalities of the world showing what greed and selfishness does to the human condition in a sickening way.

The Platform is available streaming on Netflix.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Akira Kurosawa

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa

As the son of a Japanese immigrant, Akira Kurosawa was embedded into my life at a very young age. Kurosawa has inspired some of the world’s most successful directors; he was highly regarded by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, where the latter even referred to him as “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time.”

Background

Kurosawa was born in Tokyo, Japan on March 23, 1910 and was the youngest of four sisters and four brothers. His family could trace their lineage back to 11th century Samurai. As he grew older, he became close with his elder brother, Heigo. Kurosawa later said that he and his brother “would go to the movies, particularly silent movies, and then discuss them all day” (McDonald, William. The New York Times Book of the Dead: Obituaries of Extraordinary People. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2016).  Eventually, he started working as an assistant director right before World War II.

Directing and International Fame

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in a scene of Rashomon (1950) | Daiei Film

He started directing films in 1941, but it was not until 1950 that he shocked the world with his film, Rashomon, about the psychological struggle over the nature of truth itself. Rashomon went on to win an Honorary Academy Award for ‘Most Outstanding Foreign Language Film’ and Akira Kurosawa’s name became forever embedded into history. Rashomon marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage. This also came at a time where the United States had defeated Japan in World War II just six years prior.

After Rashomon, Kurosawa went on to direct The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress and many more films. Over his 57-year career, Kurosawa directed 30 films and won over 50 awards worldwide for his cinematic work. Some of his accolades include a ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Academy Award in 1976 for Dersu Uzala, a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ Academy Award in 1990, and a Directors Guild of America’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ in 1992. 

His Style

Some may say that Kurosawa’s films can feel a bit slow because there are long periods between the main plot points. However, if one is only watching a Kurosawa film for the action scenes, they are already missing the point of the film—Kurosawa uses repetition in his films’ stories to show how life is cyclical. He also uses pauses internationally so the audience will analyze what has come before the pause and then understand the following results. Kurosawa’s most important theme is drawn from his personal belief that humans are fundamentally good. A film’s ability to affect the audience through its themes and messages are qualities of a good film. Kurosawa took that one step further and embedded that idea into his film-making process.

His Impact

George Lucas showing Akira Kurosawa details of a Snowspeeder during the making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Kurosawa is the man who opened Asian cinema to Western audiences. While some film junkies may not have ever seen his films, they for sure have seen the films he inspired, or other adaptionations that are based on his films. Rashomon has inspired numerous films such as The Usual Suspects, Gone Girl, Vantage Point, Hoodwinked, and several Quentin Tarentino films. George Lucas’s Star Wars was based on Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood is a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. 2016’s The Magnificent Seven starring Chris Pratt is a very loose remake of the original 1969 The Magnificent Seven, which was a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; this film was also the inspiration behind Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life. Kurosawa has also influenced the film world in other ways, from editing to how a scene is blocked. Both current and future movie fans across the globe can learn a lot from Japanese cinema and other Asian films.

Akira Kurosawa stands between George Lucas (left) and Steven Spielberg (right) after receiving his Honorary Academy Award at the 62nd Academy Awards

Early on in his career, Kurosawa had to overcome post-WWII sentiments and prejudice, specifically in the United States—anti-Japanese and anti-Asian propaganda was abundant. Much has changed since then; there have been two Academy Awards for Best Picture given to Asian directors (Ang Lee in 2013 for Life of Pi and Bong Joon Ho in 2019 for Parasite). Four Asian directors (including Kurosawa) have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (Ang Lee, Bong Joon Ho and Hiroshi Teshigahara). Both Ang Lee and Bong Joon Ho won the Oscar for Best Director for their aforementioned films. It’s safe to say that these modern directors would not have accomplished what they have without the foundations laid by Kurosawa. Progress has been made in recognizing quality filmmaking at the international level, but we still have a long way to go.

Kurosawa’s embedded themes still resonate with viewers today. If you have not seen any of his films, Throne of Blood, Ran, Kagemusha, plus the others mentioned in this article are a good place to start. If you’d like to check out Kurosawa’s entire directing work, click HERE to see the rest of his filmography.

How many Akira Kurosawa’s films have you seen? Let me know in the comments section or hit me up on social media.

REVIEW: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Pyramide Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 120 minutes
Director: Céline Sciamma

The first thing that piqued my interest about this movie was the title. And then I learned that it was a French film. But not just any French film, it was an LGBT+ romance. By the time I saw the trailer, I knew that this film needed to be firmly on my radar. Unfortunately, since Cache Valley is relatively small compared to the rest of Utah, the chances of seeing any independent film that wasn’t nominated  for Best Picture at the Oscars at our local theater is pretty slim. Thankfully, Broadway Center Theaters (operated by the Salt Lake Film Society) answered my cinephile prayers by showing all the lesser- known indie movies that I could want. I want to give them a huge shoutout for being awesome, and accommodating film buffs like me!

I was not prepared for this two-hour work of art I was about to experience. This movie was so impeccably crafted that when the credits began rolling, you could see my tear-stained face in the reflection of the screen. Normally when I review a movie, I like to get all the things I didn’t like (my quibbles, as I like to call them) out of the way before moving on to the things I thought were well done. Well, (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) I have nothing to report that I didn’t like! This movie was THAT good. So, this entire review is just going to be me gushing about how good this movie was.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in a scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Acting

Noémie Merlant (who plays Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (who plays Héloïse) are absolutely phenomenal as the two leads. All the acting is spectacular, and the two leads really bring their A-game to this movie. One thing I really appreciate about international and independent cinema is the different approaches they have to the way acting and emotion could be conveyed on screen. This film had the potential to be overly-melodramatic, but it is more meditative and thoughtful. Every facial expression has meaning and adds depth to the characters. I became so focused on what their expressions were saying that the first time that Héloïse smiles, I wanted to cheer! Every desire, every confession of love, every heartbreak is written all over their faces without having to ham-fist it down your popcorn-stuffed throat. And the acting is only enhanced by the cinematography…

Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Cinematography

There are certain movies where the cinematography is the main standout of the film. Movies like 1917 or  Birdman, (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)  where the one-shot technique is the device, or like The Lighthouse, where it was filmed entirely in black and white and on a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Portrait of a Lady on Fire does not boast of any major achievements or innovations in cinematography. Nevertheless, it is one of the most well-shot movies I have ever seen. Every camera angle and movement is geared toward highlighting the emotion and thoughts of the characters—I hate to use the cliché “every frame a painting,” but that’s what this movie felt like.

The Score (or lack of)

You would think that such a beautiful, intimate movie would have a haunting, sweeping romantic score to go along with it…. Right? I was so engrossed with the movie that it was near the halfway mark when I was shocked to realize that there was no score. Nothing. In fact, there are only two diegetic pieces in the entire film. One is a piece called “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” (written for this film) and the other is “Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315, ‘Summer’” by Vivaldi from The Four Seasons. Both come at highly emotional significant points in the film, and the lack of any other music (diegetic or non-diegetic) frees and allows the viewer to take in every sound, every gasp, every whisper. By NOT having an intimate score, it allows the movie to feel even more intimate.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in a scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Subtlety and Subtext

Like I said in my commentary about the acting, the film could have really hammed up the melodrama and not be subtle about its messages at all. Thankfully, the dialogue and themes of the film are just as well crafted as the rest of the movie. In an interview with The Guardian, Céline Sciamma (the director of this film) said that that the French found this film not to be erotic because “it lacks flesh.” And really, they are right. Unlike another French lesbian romance film, Blue is the Warmest Color, Portrait of a Lady on Fire contains very few scenes of nudity, and no sex scenes at all. The story is not about the two leads’ sexual relationship, but the very real love and affection they have for each other. I found that to be quite refreshing. 

The motive of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the various interpretations of that myth that the characters present, is also quite fascinating. The idea that Opheus “chose the path of the poet rather than the lover” by turning back to look at Eurydice was a fascinating observation and gave the outcome of the plot of the movie weight and clarity.

One other thing I really enjoyed is actually getting to see Marianne paint. There was no montage where the finished product sprung into view. We spent time watching her sketch, telling Héloïse how to pose and position herself, mix the paint to create differing colors, and so much more. It allowed time for us (and the characters) to really know Marianne and Héloïse, and understand their feelings and motivations.

Final Thoughts

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is nothing short of a masterpiece. It was crafted as a living portrait of these two women as they fall in love with the complexities and expectations of the society surrounding them and governing their choices. The acting, cinematography, minimal use of music, and the screenwriting were all masterful. It was announced in December that this film was joining the prestigious Criterion Collection and, in my opinion, it is more than worthy of that honor. If you have the privilege of having this film playing in a theater near you, make this movie one of your top priorities.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

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