Tuesday, September 27, 2016

2002 Winner, Nowhere in Africa

Nowhere in Africa

Director:  Caroline Link

Distributed by:  Zeitgeist Films

Released:  November 2002

Country:  Germany

A fish-out-water movie is generally a comedy in which the main character is taken out of his comfortable surroundings and plucked into a situation that baffles and frustrates him, usually ending with the hero realizing he fits in more than he thought.  Crocodille Dundee comes to mind:  Outback nature boy goes to New York City and takes 90 minutes or so to get used to it.  But these type of films don’t have to be comedies.  In Gran Torino, for instance, Clint Eastwood, a fairly racist and closed-minded curmudgeon (“Get off my lawn!”), after spending time with his Hmong neighbors, utters, “Son of a bitch. I've got more in common with these goddamned gooks than my own spoiled-rotten family.”
Fish out of water

Nowhere in Africa is essentially a non-comedic fish-out-of-water story.  The Redlich family are well-to-do Jews living in 1938 Germany.  Walter, the father, knows to get out while the getting is good—he moves to Kenya, of all places, and gets a job farming, and soon sends for his wife and daughter.  His wife Jettel enjoys it where she is and doesn’t really want to leave; the daughter, Regina, is more game.  The fish in this story is really Jettel, who at first tries to put on a brave face living in the Dark Continent.  But it doesn’t take very long before she takes a look and smell around the place and realizes the days of crisp apple strudels and schnitzel with noodles are over.  And she’s not happy about it, either.

Owuor and Regina
Regina makes friends with Owuor, the cook, who is a native Kenyan.  Some of the bright moments of this film involve this odd couple’s friendship, and his loyalty to the Redlich family.  Owuor is about as good a friend as the Redlichs could hope for, but Jettel can’t see past the fact that he’s African.

This film is rather epic in scope—we see Regina at three different ages as she grows up during World War II.  An amusing scene involves Regina’s stay at a British boarding school, preceded by a touching one in which Regina says goodbye to a native school-age friend she made in Kenya.   

Jettel:  "Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, C'mon in!"
But Jettel’s story is the centerpiece here.  Jettel is pretty, tough, and will do what she has to in order to survive this ordeal.  And when I say do what she has to, I mean she is prepared to use her feminine assets to survive and earn the movie its R-rating.  Juliane Köhler (who played Eva Braun in the Hitler-in-the-bunker film from 2004, Downfall), is terrific in the role.  To me, the best performances in film involve a character who changes subtly from the beginning to the end of the story—like Pacino’s Michael Corleone, changing from innocent war veteran to mafia kingpin in The Godfather, so that at the end of the movie he almost seems like a different character than at the film's start. Or perhaps a better example is Tom Cruise in Rainman, gradually transforming from selfish egoist to caring brother.  This is that kind of performance.  Watching Jettel, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, adjust to living out of her German water is what makes this movie so enjoyable.

The Nazis were rude
The Title:  Nirgendwo in Afrika.  They are, after all, trying to hide there.

The Culture:  Ever wondered what 1940 Central Africa was like?  Here you go.

Agenda Danger:  The Nazis get a lot of bad portrayals in the Best Foreign Films.  But as Mel Brooks once opined, they were very rude, so they kind of did it to themselves.

Best Picture that year:  Chicago

Rating:  8 out of 10 fishes

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

2003 Winner, The Barbarian Invasions

The Barbarian Invasions

Director:  Danys Arcand

Distributed by:  Miramax Films

Released:  May 2003

Country:  Canada

Maybe because this movie is a sequel, and the second of a trilogy, I just didn’t connect with this film.  The first film in the series, The Decline of the American Empire, was made in 1986, so the filmmakers took their sweet time in getting the old gang back together for another go at it.  Now you would think that with title words like “Empire” and “Barbarian Invasions” maybe you would be sitting down to some middle-earth epic with orcs or ewoks or possibly a cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  You would think wrong.  The Barbarian Invasions is about a bunch of French Canadian middle-aged ex-hippies smoking doobies and pontificating about the bourgeois.  Talk about false advertising.

An Orc invasion would have livened this up a bit
The story is about Rémy, an older ex-professor and socialist who is stuck in a hospital with terminal cancer.  His son Sébastien is some bigshot business-type, pretty much the personification of what his dear old papa hates.  Sébastien loves his dad and wants to do what he can for him to ease his pain, but this is Canada, not Iowa, so getting timely healthcare isn’t really all that easy.  Besides gathering all of Rémy’s aging hipster pals in the hospital to cheer him up, Sébastien drives his dad into pre-Obamacare Vermont to get some real meds.

The cast:  French Canadian ex-hippies
But the real “plot” is with the old folks hanging out, getting high, exchanging glory stories of free sex and Marxism.  In other words, the whole thing gets dull in a hurry.  Imagine The Big Chill, add 20 years and 20 pounds to everyone, and have them speak French.  In addition to that, and I could be wrong about this, I think the filmmakers wanted us to think some of this was funny.  I found the whole thing a bore with very little to recommend it.  I couldn’t wait for Rémy, and the movie, to end.

Slightly younger, thinner ex-hippies
The Title: Les Invasions barbares.  I have no idea how this relates to the movie, but the title has to do with a post-911 thing.  See, when the Barbarians invaded Rome, it was the beginning of the end of a great empire.  So I guess the filmmakers equate al Qaida with Angles and Saxons and Goths?  And what does this have to do with Rémy's imminent demise?  Je ne sais pas.  Makes no sense to me.

The Culture:  Other than some slight commentary on the health care system, this could have happened anywhere there is political freedom enough for ex-hippies to decry their government.

Agenda Danger:  Again, there is an oblique swipe at Canadian health care, but most of the politics is tame generational conflict.  Like, remember le peace, la love, and le dope, man?

Best Picture that year:  Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  Real invasions and real barbarians. Sort of.

Rating:  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

2004 Winner, The Sea Inside

The Sea Inside

Director:  Alejandro Amenábar

Distributed by:  Fine Line Features

Released:  September 2004

Country:  Spain

Sometime prior to starting My BFF Project, I saw two movies from Spain that I found to be masterpieces of cinema—The Spirit of the Beehive, from 1973, and 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth.  Both of these movies were odd little films that surprised me—I had no anticipation that I would like them at all as a caught them quite by chance (years apart) on Turner Classic Movies or IFC or whatever network that would show films like this.  Neither of those movies is a Best Foreign Film winner (rightly so, admittedly, in the latter film’s case, though it was nominated—it lost to Germany’s The Lives of Others).   This week’s movie, 2004's The Sea Inside, beat another movie from Germany, the captivating Downfall.  Downfall chronicles the demise of Adolph Hitler, and is the source of a thousand Internet memes (with der Führer ranting about everything from having to watch Adam Sandler's You Don't Mess with the Zohan, to how awful Rebecca Black’s "Friday" video is, to the length of time for a pizza delivery.  Google "Downfall Meme" if you haven't seen it).

Greg Louganis:  Dude's shorts held no secrets
I wish I were reviewing Downfall, or one of the other Spanish films, or even one of the Downfall memes, rather than The Sea Inside.  It’s not that this film is awful, but just that it’s so clichéd and tiresome.  The Sea Inside is based, fairly faithfully it seems, on the story of Ramón Sampedro, who as a young man, did a Louganis into a shallow sea he thought was deep, resulting in his becoming a quadriplegic.  Now he is 25 years older, having been cared for by his brother’s family most of his adult life.  Ramón is witty and charming to everyone and in fact, becomes the object of attraction to not one, but two women he encounters:  a local woman who is trying to convince him that life is worth living, and his attorney who is trying to legally allow him to kill himself.

Ramón, expertly played by Javier Bardem from the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men (and who is more interested in killing everyone else in that film) is indeed likeable and his situation naturally brings sympathy.  He feels that he should have the right to end what he considers is a unfruitful life, one where he is only able to envision what he loves in his mind’s eye, the Sea being at the top of the list.  Of course, the law, and even worse, that pesky old Catholic Church, are what stands in his way of guzzling down his hemlock and calling it a day.  The Church is personified by a crusty old priest who himself is confined to a wheelchair.  Naturally, the priest is depicted as an old curmudgeon, telling everyone suicide is wrong and putting his churchy morals on everyone.  What a killjoy.

Mean priest
I don’t mean to be too judgmental here, except to push back against the film’s hammer-over-the-head pro-euthanasia message.  In my early 20’s (in 1991), I spent a week in the hospital roomed with a guy about my age who, like Bardem’s character, had become a quadriplegic after a diving accident.  He was in the hospital for a longshot experimental surgery.  I don’t remember his name, nor did I ever see him again, but I do remember how we spent a significant amount of time that week talking and cracking each other up.  Once, while a well-meaning young nurse was shifting him in his bed, he cried out in pain.  Reacting to her surprised and apologetic expression, he began laughing, reminding her that he had no feeling at all below his neck.  I thought of my one-week roomie while watching this movie, and how much I admired the optimistic way he looked at things, if only for that one week we spent together.   

Conversely, in this film, there was little to feel uplifted about.  Honestly, while watching The Sea Inside, I think I wanted to end it just as bad as Ramón did. But for me, it was just the movie I wanted to end.

The Title:  Mar adentro—Enjoying the sea from inside one’s brain.  Not to be heartless, but if I ever lose use of my body by diving into the sea, I think the sea would be the last thing I will want to ponder.  I think I'd opt for imagining myself in a setting a little more to my liking, so my movie would therefore be:  The Buffalo Wild Wings Inside.

The Culture:  The only thing Spanish about this film was the language and the dying influence of the Catholic Church’s values on Western European.

Agenda Danger:  Are you kidding me?  Jack Kevorkian could have directed this.  Euthanasia must have been a hot trend since because the Academy also rewarded . . .

Best Picture that year:  Million Dollar Baby.
Rating:  Do I recommend it?  Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein!