Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Film Review: For Some Inexplicable Reason

"For Some Inexplicable Reason"  ** (out of ****)

What will you do with your life? It is a difficult question to answer. It doesn't matter how old you are. Whether you are 8, 18 or 58. It is a question however all 18 year olds are expected to know the answer to before entering college and they should know the answer after they graduate, as they will get a job that will be the beginning of a long lasting career.

That of course may have been true in 1948. But, this is 2015. The world has went into a downward spiral since than. Individuals graduate from college with no real prospects. Yes, unemployment is down, so says the government, but are these high paying jobs? Or is McDonalds just doing a lot of hiring? Are these even jobs in the fields graduates studied for? Are they prepared for today's job market?

The Hungarian comedy "For Some Inexplicable Reason" (Van Valami Furcsa es Megmagyarazhatatlan 2014) provides the comfort of knowing this isn't just an "American" problem. Life is bad everywhere! The youth in many countries have no idea what they are doing.

The movie is the feature length directorial debut of Gabor Reisz and premiered in Chicago at the 18th annual European Union Film Festival.

Aron (Aron Ferenczik) is a 29 year old film major, who still lives at home with his parents (Katalin Takacs, Zsolt Kovacs) was recently dumped by his girlfriend, Eszter (Juli Jakab). While mending his broken heart, one day, he and his guy friends, head out to local bars and get drunk. Things get a bit out of hand and the next morning Aron learns he has bought a ticket to Portugal, where it just so happens his ex is currently living with a new boyfriend.

Though Aron tries, he is not able to cancel the purchase. He facing mounting pressure from his parents to get a job. Though, any film major will tell you, with a film degree you have no "marketable skills" in the so-called "real world".

Gabor Reisz said in an interview, with me, the idea for the movie came from his" realization" that he hadn't seen a "Hungarian movie in a long time where the characters were believable to the people of Budapest".

Unfortunately, watching "For Some Inexplicable Reason" the viewer doesn't come away feeling they have seen a distinctly "Hungarian" movie. The characters do not seem to be believable unless the people of Budapest are all leading the life of characters from an indie American movie about slackers looking for a path in life.

That is what becomes the ultimate downfall of the movie. We've seen this all before in American movies. Socially awkward people unsure of what to do in life. One of the most famous examples would be "The Graduate" (1967), about a college graduate who is not sure what to do with his life.

What would have made "For Some Inexplicable Reason" a better movie, would have been if the movie was in fact a "Hungarian" movie and tell us this familiar story with a new fresh perspective. But, what does "For Some Inexplicable Reason" tells us that is original?

Economically times are tough. Unemployment among the youth is high. After you graduate college it is a difficult time. Are graduates really prepared for the "real world"? Getting over a broken relationship is hard. Children don't feel connected to their parents and feel pressure from them.

Now what? That is what "For Some Inexplicable Reason" tells us. Have you heard this before? So have I. There is nothing wrong with telling us this story but the question becomes, what makes your movies different from all the others? That is what the movie lacks.

"For Some Inexplicable Reason" doesn't feel Hungarian, It feels like a somewhat decent indie American comedy.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Budapest Times: EU Film Festival

Here is a link to an article I wrote on Hungarian movies playing at the European Union Film Festival in Chicago, published in the Budapest Times.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Film Review: Wild Tales

"Wild Tales" **** (out of ****)

People are mad as hell and they just aren't going to take it anymore in the savage dark comedy "Wild Tales" (2015).

"Wild Tales", originally titled "Relatos Salvajes", is directed by Damian Szifron and comes from Argentina. It was the country's official selection at the 87th annual Academy Awards ceremony in the "best foreign language film" category and competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The movie is comprised of six short films, none of which share inter-connecting storylines or characters, but all address similar themes of violence and revenge.

If "Wild Tales" is any reflection of Argentina or the world in general it would suggest some very dark and disturbing (to some) truths. The world presented in "Wild Tales" is one filled with people who are angry and hostile. Some feel abused by a bureaucratic system, which is nothing more than a money generating scheme, and a government which is complicit with it. Others are fueled by greed, even at the expense of their family's protection, while others are willing to commit murder in the name of family honor.

Still Mr. Szifron and his film try to end on a positive note, suggesting, yes, life is miserable. Lets not pretend it isn't. Terrible and unfair things happen in this world to innocent people. If people aren't hurting you, institutions like the government, are, however, we need to learn to accept things as they are. Life is messy and we all need to learn to deal with it and not allow anger and hatred to dictate our actions. We all need to learn to take a deep breathe.

The movie also serves as a psychological experiment on the viewer. Audiences may find themselves in agreement with the acts of violent on-screen, accepting the behavior of the characters. Which may serve the point, everyone has built up rage within them. The characters on-screen may actually be behaving in ways the audience wishes they could. Did you ever get so angry at someone you wanted to scream at them or hit them? Most people would answer yes. That is what makes it gratifying for the viewer to see the characters in this movie engage in violent behavior.

Some viewers however may not find the violence in this movie disturbing and for that we must give filmmaker, Mr. Szifron, credit. Some viewers may even laugh at the destruction on-screen. Why? Mr. Szifron presents the film's graphic scenes in an almost cartoonish, caricature fashion. Events are exaggerated to the extreme. No rational person would behave this way. That may provide a small comfort for viewers and allow them to laugh. If viewers were to find the movie too grotesque any social and/or political themes the movie would want to address would go unnoticed by the public and the sheep (movie critics) who would primarily focus on the violence instead.

Watching "Wild Tales" I could not help but think of the television show "The Twilight Zone". All six stories in the film end with an ironic twist. A ha-ha punchline moment. Depending on the individual story and for that matter the punchline, it can feel unnecessary and cheapen the overall effect of the movie as we sit and wait for the resulting joke. Still the majority of the stories work. The theme is clearly stated and delivered.

The first story in this anthology is called "Pasternak". It is the story of a group of people on a plane who all share something in common from their past. Every passenger on the plane knew and wronged a musician named Pasternak from an ex-girlfriend, an old teacher, a music critic and his psychiatrist. Why has Pasternak brought these people together on a plane? The idea though is a common one. Wouldn't we all like to gather all the people who ever wronged us and tell them off?

The second story is called "Rats". It deals with a waitress at a small diner who must serve a man who caused her family financial ruin years earlier. He doesn't remember her but she remembers him. Should she seek revenge?

Another interesting story is called "Strongest". It deals with a wealthy man driving on an empty road. Eventually he finds himself driving behind a working class man, who isn't driving as fast as the privileged wealthy man would like him to. What happens is what every person who has ever been cut off on the road would love to do in retaliation to every maniac driver on the road that is incapable of following speed limits.

By themselves the stories would be somewhat interesting and hit on universal truths but collected together in one film the stories having a damning effect. It is almost unrelenting in its intensity. The movie gets a strong reaction out of the viewer.

Although 2015 is only three months old "Wild Tales" is a movie I'm sure I will remember at the end of the year. It is one of the best films this year.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Xpatloop: EU Film Festival

Here is a link to an article I wrote about two Hungarian movies playing at the European Union Film Festival in Chicago and an interview I conducted with one of the directors.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Film Review: White God

"White God"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Budapest has gone to the dogs in Kornel Mundruczo's "White God" (Feher Isten 2014), a half-thriller, half dark (very dark) comedy with a strong social commentary.

This Hungarian film, which is billed as making its U.S. premier as part of the 18th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, was a winner at the Cannes Film Festival, receiving the "Un Certain Regard" award for its filmmaker.

The movie opens with a dedication to Miklos Jancso, the brilliant Hungarian filmmaker who was part of the "Hungarian New Wave" of the late 1960s and early 70s, when Hungarian films were being released in America and met with much critical acclaim.

Like a Jancso film, "White God" uses its story as an allegory for something deeper. On its surface "White God" is the Hungarian equivalent of "Lassie Come Home" (1943), the story about a teenage girl, Lili (Zsofia Psotta) and her dog, Hagen (played by two dogs; Body and Luke) with whom she is separated from and the journey the dog must go on to find the young girl. Will the two ever be reunited?

"White God" however goes on to become a story about revolt. The tagline for the movie is "the unwanted will have their day". The "unwanted" it is referring to is not dogs or animals in general. It is referring to the downtrodden; the poor and working class, the homeless. The people society prefer to ignore. Society treats them like animals. If we keep mistreating people one day they aren't going to stand for it. They will become fed up. And when that happens, they will fight back. Remember, there are more poor and working class people in the world than there are rich. Which means, when they do fight back, we will have strength in numbers.

That is what happens in "White God" only it is the dogs which revolt. We see countless humans mistreat animals from Lili's father, Daniel (Sandor Zsoter), who forcefully tells the young girl her dog is not welcome in his home, to a dog fighting promotor, who buys Hagen in the hopes of turning him into a killer.

Using animals as metaphors for humans has been done before in other stories from Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" to Orwell's "Animal Farm" and we have seen animals attack humans in films like Hitchcock's "The Bird" (1963) and to the movie which most people have compared "White God" to, Samuel Fuller's "White Dog" (1982).

One can also interpret "White God" without the subtext and take its plot at face value. It is the story of humans who mistreat animals. In which case the movie also serves as a warning, as does "The Birds", one day human mistreatment of animals will come back to hurt them. We keep training animals to be violent, to serve as protection, and one day the animals will turn on us. Then who will protect us?

Either way you chose to interpret the story the movie is richly executed by Kornel Mundruczo, a filmmaker whose previous film, "Delta" (2008) left me a bit cold though visually it was striking. Here Mundruczo's visual style is on full display and he is working with a story worthy of his detail and attention.

One sequence in particular which is worth mentioning is what appears to be a dream sequence of Lili riding a bicycle on a deserted street. She is riding her bicycle in slow motion. Soon, from behind, we see an army of dogs appear, headed in Lili's direction. Are the dogs about to attack her? Why are the street empty? Why can't she bicycle faster? Mindruczo, through his actor's performances and cinematography, is able to give the sequence an unsettling dream quality.

Despite the dedication to Jancso however, "White Dog" does not share anything in common with the visual style of the films of Miklos Jancso, who was know for extreme long shots, limited camera movement and lack of character point of view.

Critics of "White Dog" have questioned its meaning. If the dogs are to be a metaphor, what do they represent. The answer would seem to be everyone that feels marginalized by society. Some don't like that answer. It cast too wide a net for their cinematic sensibilities. However the movie should resonant with American and European audiences. In Europe we are seeing the rise of right-wing political parties such as UKIP in London and the Jobbik party in Hungary, which have been describe by varies mainstream media outlets as hostile towards minorities and in the case of UKIP have been branded anti-immigration. The same debate is going on in America concerning the border with Mexico and illegal immigration.

"White God" is a confidentially told story by a director with a clear vision and objective. The only wrong step may be an air of satire and dark humor at the end of the picture which becomes repetitive. Mundruczo hits his theme quickly and forcefully.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Eastern European Cinema At the 18th Annual European Union Film Festival

There’s more than European cinema than French and Italian!
This month marks the beginning of the 18th annual European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center which began its run March 6th and runs through April 2nd.
The festival gives movie lovers the opportunity to experience international films from countries they normally wouldn’t look to, namely cinema from Eastern Europe.
Though Mexican cinema and filmmakers have recently caught the eye of American moviegoers thanks to the work of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, who won an Academy Award for best director at this year’s award ceremony for his film “Birdman” (2014) and Alfonso Cuaron, who won the best director Academy Award at last year’s show for his film “Gravity” (2013), Eastern European cinema has largely been ignored.
This is unfortunate and wasn’t always the case. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s Eastern European films were making headlines in America. Moviegoers were being treated to films from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany thanks to various “new wave” movements which saw the emergence of filmmakers such as Milos FormanRainer Werner FassbinderWerner Herzog,Miklos Jansco and Andrzej Wajda at a time when these countries were under the censorship of communist regimes. Their movies were sharp social criticisms of the political powers which ruled their countries.
In more recent times Eastern European cinema has still managed to experiment with the conventions of cinema. In the Czech Republic there is the work of Jan Svankmajer, a surrealist animator, in Hungary there was filmmaker Bela Tarr, who experimented with linear storytelling and in Romania a string of socially and politically charged dramas such as the 2007 Palme d’Or Cannes Film Festival winner, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” and the black comedy “12:08 East of Bucharest” (2007).
One of the obstacles Eastern European cinema faces though is it must overcome the world-wide perception it has obtained through the years as being depressing, cynical and sarcastic. These perceived negative traits often keep moviegoers away. Two movies of note at this year’s festival are the Slovak movie “The Candidate”, a political comedy, and the Hungarian movie “For Some Inexplicable Reason”, a look into the lives of the disenfranchised 30-something youths in Budapest. Both of these movies will try to change the world’s perception of their country and its movies.
Jonas Karasek, the first-time director of “The Candidate”, tried to differentiate his movie from other Slovak movies. “Our typical film”, the director said “is usually a depressive insight into the life of an individual on the edge of society. We tried to be more funny, although in the background we show the sad reality of how sick our world is.”
The “we” Karasek was referring to included his friend and the screenwriter of “The Candidate” Maros Hecko, who felt “our film might be something different. Slovak films have for years been producing mainly films that are in the genre of social drama. We are an exemption. We created a multi-genre film. A thriller mixed with elements of comedy and detective story.”
The movie, which follows a factious presidential’s candidate, with links to a historical 19th century Slovak leader, and his campaign raises issues Hecko feels American audiences should be able to relate to. “I can very well imagine this story adapted for American audiences, it could even be a potentially very successful remake.”
Gabor Reisz, who is also making his feature-length directorial debut, would like audiences coming out of “For Some Inexplicable Reason” viewing Hungary as a “country full of contradictions, a very colorful place that’s a happy and depressive place at the same time.” Reisz added “I think Budapest is an exceptionally beautiful capital and it’s important to me that people abroad feel the same way about it.”
Reisz’s comedy follows a group of amateur acting friends in their 20s and 30s and one in particular who still lives at home with his parents. After being dumped by his girlfriend he finds himself on a trip to Portugal.
The director got the idea for the movie after he came to the “realization that I haven’t seen a Hungarian film since a very long time where the characters were even a little believable to be real people from Budapest.”
 And that is the great things about movies, their ability to show us other countries, other cultures. To discover people all over the world experience the same things, whether it is a corrupt political system or the personal journey we go through to discover ourselves. This is what audiences will recognize as they watch Eastern European films.
It is also worth noting the opposite effects of cinema, especially the global influence American cinema has on other cultures. When asked to name favorite filmmakers of their own, both directors named Americans. Karasek said “I am quite Hollywood oriented” listing Christopher Nolan and David Fincher as favorites whereas Reisz cited Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers as influences.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Film Review: Deja Vu

"Deja Vu"  ** (out of ****)

Locations. Certain locations hold special memories for us. You remember the restaurant you had your first date at. You remember where you were when you had your first fight as a couple. You remember where you were when you proposed.

And those memories stick with us. No matter what happens to the relationship, whether you break-up, divorce, never see the other person again, it doesn't matter. We remember the locations. They leave lasting impressions. That is partially what the Romanian movie "Deja Vu" (2013) is about.

The movie, which played as part of the 18th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, follows a married man, Mihai (played by the movie's director, Dan Chisu) who has been having an affair with Tania (Ioana Flora) for the past three years. The movie begins on the morning when Mihai will confront his wife, a television personality, Valeria (Mirela Oprisor) with whom he is currently separated from, along with Tania and officially ask for a divorce.

A majority of the movie takes place in Mihai's car as he and Tania drive to Valeria, who is staying at a lake side house her parent's own. The road to the lake house however is one Mihai and Valeria have driven on before. Mihai associates certain memories of these streets with conversations he had with Valeria. But Valeria is now longer by his side. Now he is with Tania and will have to make new memories.

This is suppose to signify the movie's title, "Deja Vu". Yes, it all seems familiar. Everything looks the same, just as we remembered it but something is different, the person we shared the experience with.

The director, Chisu, has decided to film the entire movie from Mihai's point of view, which means we never see the character's face, only moments of his hands or legs. We see this day through his eyes. Often, when this technique is used its purpose is to help us identify with the character. To put the audience in the character's shoes. To help visually re-enforce the concept the audience is taking on this journey with the lead character. The question is however, was this choice necessary? Could Chisu have told this story without this cinematic gimmick and still have hit on the themes and emotion he hoped for? Personally, I believe he could and the POV becomes distracting. It doesn't add anything to the story.

As a result of this device, nearly the entire movie rest on the shoulder's of Ioana Flora, who is on-screen almost for the entire length of the picture. She is a decent actress and pleasant to look at. Sadly the movie doesn't demand too much from her. As an actress she isn't required to express too much of an emotional range. Not enough is revealed about who she is and what she is doing in a relationship with an older married man.

The other problem with the movie is we don't quite understand Mihai either. Is this drive making him fall in love with his wife again as he recalls their conversations? Maybe. But the movie doesn't have a romantic or nostalgic element to it. Despite putting the viewer in Mihai's shoes he doesn't become relatable or a sympathetic figure. If anything, Tania does because we have seen her on-screen more. By looking at her face the audience can tell what she is thinking. Because we never see Mihai we can't tell what he is thinking. Many times our words don't match our emotions. So, hearing him speak isn't enough in trying to understand what his thoughts are.

And that is the great downfall of an otherwise interesting concept. Everything in "Deja Vu" feels one dimensional. It feels like a one note movie. The characters are not relatable. The movie needed some more human emotion. An element of nostalgia. A better musical score. And to completely skip the POV gimmick.

I have seen one other movie by Chisu, "Chasing Rainbows" (2012), his previous movie which has also shown at the European Union Film Festival. I didn't enjoy that one either because of the characters.

If you want to see a better Romanian movie dealing with a married man cheating on his wife and the implications his decision will have on his life see the magnificent "Tuesday, After Christmas" (Marti dupa craciun, 2010). There is a movie which is able to get tension out of its situation and deal with the characters in a more human and realistic manner.