DownStream – Around the World, Part 1

Through a combination of luck, increased distribution, and me just being an obsessive, I’ve been able to get an amazing head start on the International Feature category for next year’s Oscars. Often the hardest category to finish, thanks to Academy rules that do not mandate domestic screening, this year I’ve been able to track down a good number of the films in theatres and online. There are 92 submissions this year (it was 93, but Jordan withdrew their entry after backlash from certain groups), and at the rate I’m going, I will be able to see at least 27 of them before the Academy announces the shortlist on December 21. That’s more than 1/4 of the films eligible for the prize, whereas most years I’m scrambling up to the week before the ceremony.

A big chunk of this year’s success comes from the California Film Institute. They’ve been screening entries consistently for the past two months, but since they’re in San Francisco, I haven’t been able to stroll down the road and watch (though it may be worth a quick hopper flight to see Colombia’s film, Memoria, if it makes the shortlist, and it debuts there before Los Angeles; their “road show” release model is very weird and frustrating). However, in addition to their in-house shows, there is a virtual option that allows viewers to stream up to 14 of the films, either through their website or their Roku app. The program costs $50 and runs through the end of this month, so if you’re interested, sign up while you still can. You can find all the information here.

It’s certainly been worth it for me, to the point where sometimes I can cram in two films per day. So what we’re going to do today is do a brief (well, as brief as possible) run through about half of the films on this list (Luzzu and Hive I’ve already seen and reviewed, and White on White, which is available on the site but not on my Roku, I saw in a theatre just this week). I’ve watched six movies so far, and within the next few days I’ll complete the other five. This will be a bit of a sprint, but it’s the best way I can think of to give each entry proper coverage apart from doing four separate posts per day as I try to keep up with foreign and domestic Oscar hopefuls.

So let’s get started. Please have your passports out and ready.

Brighton 4th – Georgia

This is a rare foreign film that was largely produced within the United States. The film begins in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, but the bulk of the action takes place in New York City, specifically the Brighton Beach neighborhood, where there’s a healthy Russian and Georgian population. This could be what tipped the scales for the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, where it won Best International Film, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay.

Filled to the brim with foreshadowing and parallels between the two nations, the film stars Levan Tediashvili as Kakhi, a retired Olympic wrestler (Tediashvili is himself a past medalist), planning to visit his son in the States. Thinking that Soso (Giorgi Tabidze) is studying to become a doctor, Kakhi takes the trip as a way to get relief from the pressures of his normal life, including bailing out family members with gambling debts and addiction issues. He notes on his travels that the only things he misses are his wife and his dog.

Unfortunately for Kakhi, Soso himself is caught in his own crisis with gambling, owing $14,000 to a local gangster while trying to raise $15,000 for a “green card” marriage to the sympathetic Sveta (Anastasia Romashko). Kakhi must navigate his way through an unfamiliar environment and stretch the limits of how much a father can sacrifice for his child in order to get Soso back on the right path. He also finds himself caught in the middle of myriad schemes and dilemmas with the other residents at the boarding house where he and Soso are staying.

Tediashvili gives a tremendously subdued performance, with the weight of all the issues clearly showing on his aged face, especially as he tries to help people – particularly Soso – escape self-destructive behaviors. But the film can be frustrating at times, mostly because the characters around Kakhi are being asked to do simple, rudimentary things to live in peace, and they keep actively choosing to do the opposite, to the point that it beggars belief from a narrative standpoint.

That said, the film is at its best when it takes the time to just slow down and delight in the basic humanity of all involved. There are several scenes where conflicts are either resolved or at least set aside by having everyone sit down, share a drink, and sing songs. These moments provide much needed catharsis for the more strained areas of the story. And if nothing else, it’s nice to just have a couple of minutes where people are just people again after all they’ve been through.

Grade: B-

Casablanca Beats – Morocco

Selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Casablanca Beats in many ways plays like a stylized remake of Mr. Holland’s Opus, only set in Morocco and focusing more on rap music than classical or rock and roll. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since the characters involved here add a degree of relevant life experience to the proceedings that the 90s movie wasn’t quite able to pull off.

The film’s primary focus is on Anas (Anas Basbousi), a former rapper and DJ who takes a job at an arts education center in the Sidi Moumen neighborhood of Casablanca, an area known for poor standard of living (shanty towns and the like) and fundamentalist violence. His goal is to teach neighborhood teenagers about hip hop music and encourage them to develop their own voices and bring a social consciousness to their lyrics. Eventually, as he trains them how to not only speak their minds but record their truth, the students decide to hold a concert, daring the community to stop their creative expression.

Anas is a fun character, because it’s clear he has a chip on his shoulders from the shortcomings of his own career. Taking up the mantra of “those who can’t do, teach” is not something he was planning to do at his age. Initially he’s stern and overly critical of his students due to the generic, bragging nature of their lyrics. Essentially he finds them to be not “real” enough. But as he challenges the students, so too do they stand up to him, noting that his supposed “realness” didn’t resonate with audiences enough to keep him gainfully employed as a musician. This leads to several scenes where the students debate social issues and the use of rap as a means of protest, much to Anas’ pride.

Where the film really hits its high marks is when we leave the classroom to follow the at-home lives of the students, whose disparate situations inform their lyrics and their attitudes. Ismail (Ismail Adouab) is confident and skilled, but feels the pressure to provide for his family through traditional means rather than seeking out his own path. Abdou (Abdelilah Basbousi) is caught between his fundamentalist Muslim upbringing and the independence of his friends and classmates. Nouhaila (Nouhaila Arif) wants to break the proverbial glass ceiling and speak out for women’s rights through music, but is stymied by her family’s more conservative demands for her education.

A lot of these avenues are simple enough to decipher, and anyone who’s heard critiques of the Muslim world for the last two decades is well aware of the issues at hand. But it’s still heartwarming and empowering to see these kids working their way through it, without any real Western influence for the closed-minded to use as a convenient scapegoat. If there’s going to be significant changes in the years ahead, it’s these kids who will have to make it happen, and encouraging new forms of expression is the first step. The story itself is formulaic and predictable, but that doesn’t make the ride any less fun.

Also, it was kind of cool that not only did the French and Arabic lyrics rhyme internally, but whoever was in charge of the subtitles made sure they rhymed in English as well. That’s a very nice touch.

Grade: B+

Do Not Hesitate – Netherlands

This year’s Dutch entry is very simple and compact, so much so that there are basically only four characters, and they’re all pretty one-dimensional. It’s not a bad film. In fact it’s presented quite well. But there are no real surprises.

A unit of the Dutch military is on patrol somewhere in the Middle East when one of their vehicles breaks down. While waiting for rescue, one of the soldiers gets jumpy and shoots a goat that he mistakes for a hostile entity. When the goat’s owner, a young boy (credited as Khalil, played by Omar Alwan, though he crucially never reveals his name in the film), comes looking, the squadron leader, Erik (Joes Brauers) tries to compensate him with cash as an apology.

Khalil refuses to leave, and eventually the entire platoon is reduced to three people guarding the equipment with Khalil annoyingly under foot. Erik tries to take charge and form a rapport with Khalil, but has little luck. The trigger-happy Thomas (Tobias Kersloot) constantly challenges Erik’s authority, taunts and threatens Khalil, and generally makes the situation on the ground more difficult. Passive Roy (Spencer Bogaert) mostly does what he’s told, torn between loyalty to Erik’s rank and sheepish desire to disprove Thomas’ snide comments about him being a loser.

Events unfold as you’d expect, for better and worse, and every once in a while the film reaches for poignancy, particularly near the end as the trio of soldiers deals with post-traumatic stress in their own archetypal ways while still keeping all the real problems completely insular. But mostly, the movie is boring, and Khalil is irritating in the extreme. I don’t approve of the bad stuff that happens to him throughout the proceedings, but literally all of it is avoided if he just goes home after the initial encounter. Even with a language barrier, the kid can tell that these are military men with guns, and he is just a pissant adolescent with no leverage in any situation. There is nothing to be gained by him sticking around. If he cuts his losses and leaves (Erik even tries to literally sweeten the deal by giving him candy in addition to the money for the goat), none of the rest of the movie gets to happen. And when that much of a contrivance is required for even the most basic of plots, I tend to lose interest fairly quickly. The performances are strong given the weak material, but the Netherlands is capable of so much better than this.

Grade: B-

Drunken Birds – Canada

Don’t be fooled by our neighbors to the north. They’re just as active in this competition as any other nation, and they even have a win under their collective belt (2003’s The Barbarian Invasions). Their latest, Drunken Birds, is one of the stronger entries they’ve put forth in a while, a tale of love, dedication, and the harsh realities of modern labor.

Jumping back and forth along the film’s timeline, the story focuses on Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero from Roma), a former drug runner for a Mexican cartel now working as a migrant farmhand in Quebec. After his secret romance with Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega), the wife of the wealthy and violent boss, is discovered, the two separately flee to Canada, promising to meet again one day. Four years later, the cartel has been toppled, but Willy is still searching for Marlena.

But as one threat is alleviated, another rears its head. The farm’s owner, Richard (Claude Legault) is jovial and welcoming to his seasonal workers, but a darkness lurks beneath the surface. His wife, Julie (Hélène Florent) had an affair with one of the workers the year before, and he’s living in denial about the betrayal. Meanwhile, their daughter, Léa (Marine Johnson), who informed her father of her mother’s infidelity, is increasingly disillusioned with her family, and constantly runs off to Montreal with her friends to party as her form of rebellion. Rather than deal with any of these potential rifts, all three stay in their respective bubbles, with Julie once again infatuated, this time with Willy, and Richard putting a soft face on an emotional powder keg just begging for a match.

Willy is torn between several fronts. He wants to keep his job, which means keeping the bosses happy, but is he willing to cuckold yet another powerful employer for the sake of peace? How many dead ends can he run into in his search for Marlena before he just gives up and embraces the next opportunity for love? How much danger is Léa willing to put herself in just to satisfy her own need for youthful thrills? All of this comes to a head in a deeply tragic, but ultimately redeeming climax that says more about commitment and exploitation than I was prepared for.

Some of the messaging gets muddied here and there, and the editing leaves a bit to be desired, in that sometimes we jump back in time without anything firm to truly establish setting changes. But apart from that, this is a gorgeously shot, well-acted film with surprisingly resonant turns. I also love the layered meanings behind the title itself, ranging from the chaos of migration to a more literal interpretation of Léa’s inebriated exploits. It’s a very worthy entry in this crowded field.

Grade: B+

The Good Boss – Spain

Knowing the nature of Awards Season, I’m sure there will be some heavily lobbying for Javier Bardem to get an Oscar nomination for his turn in Aaron Sorkin’s new movie, Being the Ricardos. I haven’t seen it yet, but I wouldn’t discount another nomination-worthy performance that he’s turned out this year, as the title character in Spain’s entry, The Good Boss.

Bardem plays Julio Blanco, the CEO of Blanco Scales, a factory that makes personal and industrial scales, which he inherited from his father. The company is up for a local award for corporate excellence, and Blanco takes on an intense micromanagement role to ensure that everything goes smoothly and he gets that win.

Blanco brands himself as a family man, with the company and its employees as his children, since he and his wife (Sonia Almarcha) never had kids of their own. But of course, things are never that simple. No matter what face he puts on, he’s always dealing with a crisis, some of them of his own doing, others by happenstance. Either way, he takes it upon himself to try to solve everything, doing whatever is necessary to tip the figurative scales in his favor, all while maintaining the façade of keeping the literal scales at the company’s front entrance perfectly balanced.

Among his issues are the following: a disgruntled former employee (Óscar de la Fuente) has gone from making a scene in the factory about his termination to camping out in protest on a piece of public land across the street. He harangues Blanco every day, and even tries to recruit other workers into a strike, but because he’s on public land, he’s not violating any trespassing laws, and thus cannot be removed. Blanco’s Head of Production, Miralles (Manolo Solo from Pan’s Labyrinth), is in an emotional spiral because his wife is cheating on him, causing his work to suffer. Blanco and Miralles have been friends since childhood, so there’s a sense of loyalty to letting him slide a little bit, but at some point there has to be a limit, especially when Blanco finds out who the wife is cheating with, and of Miralles’ own indiscretions. Finally, Blanco himself finds himself enamored with a new intern named Liliana (Almudena Amor), though he’s unaware of a past they share.

Bardem is no stranger to playing great villains. He won an Oscar back in 2008 for playing Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, one of the best baddies in modern cinema history. Here his Machiavellian machinations are an absolute delight to watch, as he slowly sheds his friendlier aspects to become a full-on Mr. Burns by the end, gathering information and ammunition before devastating his victims with self-serving aplomb. What starts as doing a favor for a line worker (Celso Bugallo) pays massive dividends as Blanco exploits every possible situation to his eventual advantage.

And of course, as with any awesome cinematic cad, the comeuppance has to be just as sweet, and boy do we get it here. In his hubris, the fact that Blanco can’t see the writing on the wall of his own possible undoing is wonderful irony.

There are a few moments that rely on plot contrivance to work, most notably a twist in the proceedings that only comes after Blanco’s wife remembers an important detail she meant to tell him days before but kept forgetting. Without coincidences like that, a lot of the manipulations can’t actually work, but with the strength of Bardem’s performance, it’s more than forgivable. This is corporate satire at its finest.

Grade: A-

The Great Movement – Bolivia

Unfortunately, we have to end this run on a bit of a down note, with the worst entry of the six – and the second-worst submitted film I’ve seen so far. The Great Movement is a bland, boring, and listless trek into entry-level psychedelia mixed with labor grievance that never really pays off on the promise of its premise, with only cosmetic production values giving us anything worth watching.

Set in La Paz, the film centers on Elder (Julio Cézar Ticona), who walked for a week to the capital with his colleagues, Gallo and Gato (literally “Rooster” and “Cat,” though more likely in a colloquial sense, given that they’re presented as bad influences, “Cock” and “Pussy”), played by Israel Hurtado and Gustavo Milán, respectively. They’ve marched to demand the return of their jobs as miners, and have drawn the attention of local media as they protest and work as day laborers to survive.

Elder, however, is not well. He is short of breath, often physically weak and exhausted, and coughs constantly. He sees doctors at local clinics, but they determine that there’s nothing medically wrong with him. This leads to the intervention of Mama Pancha (Francisca Arce de Aro), who claims to be Elder’s godmother. She believes the issue is a spiritual one (it’s no coincidence that her name is an inversion of “Pachamama,” an ancient Andean goddess known as the “Earth Mother”), and seeks aid from a hermit named Max (Max Bautista Uchasara), who lives in the forested mountains surrounding the city and takes hallucinogens, which he believes shows him visions of cataclysmic destruction for the region.

On the surface, that sounds kind of cool. The idea of taking a woodland acid trip to cure exhaustion can work if presented in the right way. Director Kiro Russo even includes some retro elements, like a synthesizer score and shooting the entire affair in Super 16mm film to give it the eerie feel of the European New Wave era. I saw fairly clear influences from the likes of François Truffaut and Dario Argento in the work.

But that’s about as interesting as this movie gets. At a scant 85 minutes, somehow the film drags at a languishing pace, not bothering to get to the point until the final 20. I was amazed at how a film with less than half the run time of Drive My Car could be infinitely more boring. It also doesn’t help that there’s almost no real symbolism in Max’s visions, apart from a white wolf and some pretty obvious commentary about how industrialism is bad. As cool as it was to see the old school filming techniques, the lighting scheme doesn’t match it, to the point that we can almost never see the actors’ faces unless they’re looking directly at the camera in full daylight.

Finally, the acting itself is just horrid. Only Max has any personality to him, with Uchasara being the only one willing to do anything beyond basic line readings and blocking. Mama Pancha is the worst offender, evidenced by a scene where she talks to a clinical doctor about Elder’s condition, and she suggests that he may be possessed by the devil as a completely straight, tossed off line. She posits demonic possession like she’s reading her grocery list.

The movie isn’t offensively bad, but it does pale in comparison to just about everything else I’ve seen so far (save Zero to Hero, ugh). It feels like there was no effort put into this apart from the classical production techniques, as if that was going to make up for a story that goes nowhere and a cast that doesn’t perform. Honestly, I think I made a greater movement than this film when I sat on the toilet after it was over.

Grade: C-

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen any of these films? Which ones sound the most intriguing to you? Are you going to splurge the $50 to watch all 14 by the end of the month? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “DownStream – Around the World, Part 1

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