Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Time with Netflix - Part Four: The DVD Gems

     Something I never did when renting from RedBox, Blockbuster,Oak Park Video, or Orland Video was rent foreign language films.  I kind of viewed my renting dollars as too valuable to risk checking out a movie I didn't know much about and would have to read all the way through.  This was a foolish outlook, and not just because I've learned to watch movies with the subtitles on even when they are in English.  Netflix, however, made me feel a little more free to add the movies I had heard good things about to the queue (I was already filling it up with absolute crap), and this included two fantastic foreign language films.
     As these are – on the balance very – good movies, I know that my reviews of them will not do them justice.  I will make an attempt to explain what I saw in them that made them more than worthwhile, but I recommend taking a look at real reviews of them or (better yet) giving them a chance yourself.  I will also note that there are only a few titles that made this list, and that is one of the reasons why I feel that – even if Netflix is a good deal for the price – I wasn't using it correctly.

The DVD Gems
Winter's Bone (2010)
     Writer-director Debra Granik adapts Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel of the same name into a tight, intense look at the determination of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) to do right by her family in the wake of her father's disappearance.  There is no romanticism here; Granik presents the present day Ozarks as a criminalistic feudal society living on the fringe and sharing some trappings with mainstream America culture.  Family and lineage, no matter how worthless they may seem, mean everything in this land, and the sins of the father can and will be rained down upon the children if Ree cannot find a way to satisfy the forces on both sides of the law who are working against the Dollys.  While Jennifer Lawrence gives an Academy Award nominated performance, the true soul of the movie is presented in the powerful portray of Teardrop Dolly by John Hawkes. While Ree undergoes a more geographic hero's journey, it is Teardrop who takes the emotional journey from one brand of darkness to another, sadder brand of darkness.  To audiences born and raised in affluent suburbia, Winter's Bone may seem slightly overwrought in its portrayal of rural desolation and criminal activity as the norm.  It isn't.  And it story being told could easily fit into nearly any time period in American history. 

Downfall (2004)
     Director Oliver Hirschbiegel and actor Bruno Ganz do the impossible in Downfall: they manage to make Adolf Hitler a sympathetic figure.  He is still a monster, but a very human one whose entire world has gone away and he is left with only the thoughts of what the Third Reich embodies. Nazi Germany is already shattered, awaiting only the Russians to advance a handful of kilometers and occupy Berlin for the war to be over, and Hitler (Ganz) is frantically trying to rally phantom armies and create victories through shouted rhetoric from his underground bunker.  Witnessing all of this is his secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara); indeed, the story comes from the real life Traudl Junge.  There aren't many likeable Nazi characters, but there are surprising human sympathies evoked in watching them hurtling towards the end.  I was spellbound throughout this film, wishing only that I had greater knowledge of some of the less well known figures portrayed so as to have a better frame of understanding.  Excellent film, easily one of the best I have seen in the last three years.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
     By the end of The Secret in Their Eyes, I was actually angry that it wasn't an American film.  While thoroughly grounded in Argentina's less than ideal political climate of the 1970s, the very human appeal of the story transcends any setting; one would think it has one simply because it must.  I continue to be amazed at the depth of character that was crafted, even making standard types and stereotypes appear new again when given life by these actors.  I had heard about The Secret in Their Eyes on the old At the Movies (with Michael Philips and A.O. Scott) where both hosts sang its praises, but made no effort to even see if it was playing in Chicago at the time; foolish me.  There is a story with policemen, criminals, and questionable courts and what justice may really be, but there is also a multi-layered and textured love story.  It all works. 

A Single Man (2009)
     I am a fan of Colin Firth – how else can I explain having seen The Last Legion (2007) – but I somehow stayed away from the acclaimed A Single Man.  Part of that may have been some misgiving as to what level of commitment Julianne Moore was going to bring to the project (get out-acted by David Duchovny once and expect me to doubt your dedication to the role).  Colin Firth is brilliant here, more for how he lets his character inhabit his setting and ordeal than for anything else; a man who was forced to hide – but allowed to share – his love, but has no recourse to alleviate his aching sorrow or chance for public understanding.  It is akin to watching the whole worth of a life experienced in a day, and Firth breathes life into the role while making it appear as though he were there for the whole of it and could carry it around with him, the hints of which escape in furtive smiles and a glint in his eyes. 

Tangled (2010)
     This is a cheat; I saw Tangled  in  the theater while waiting for my Triton transcripts to be ready for pick-up, but I did want to see it again, so my second viewing was through Netflix.  It looked like it was more closely related to the old Disney animated features, and it did not disappoint.  In fact, except for the "I Have a Dream" song and scene, I absolutely adore Tangled.  It is dark, and filled with what children might consider to be real danger.  It has a message that parents will restrict their children to serve their own interests, and must thus be disobeyed when they do their children wrong.  I have met those who take issue with the deviations from the Rapunzel story (and nobody likes to criticize changing perfectly good source material more than I do), but I think it still encapsulates the core of the original story – as I understand it – and still manages a classic Disney feel.  I love the music, the action, and the chameleon...and I am nowhere near the target audience.

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