I've seen a couple of very good films in the past couple of days. "Cafe DeFlore" (8), the work of a director from Quebec, is an amazingly satisfying, complex sort of mystery that follows two story lines. In one, a determined young Parisian woman in the 1960s devotes her fierce energy to raising and protecting her son, who has Down's Syndrome. In the second, a handsome Canadian DJ has left his wife, whom he has loved since he was a teenager, for a beautiful woman to whom he feels compellingly drawn. It takes awhile before the connection between the stories begins to emerge, but both (especially the Parisian story) have a compelling momentum and the director masterfully handles a plot that would have gone way off the rails in lesser hands. The result is not only wonderfully suspenseful but also resonates with wonder about what may underlie deep connections that draw us to certain people. I can't think of many films that do this well at finishing what they start and tying everything together without feeling contrived. I hope this will get a U.S. release.
"Cirkus Columbia" (7.5), the work of Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, uses the story of a shift in family relationships to highlight the conflicts that brewed in the former Yugoslavia after the Soviets left. Though some subtleties were lost on me and likely would be for other U.S. viewers, the story is intriguing and easy to follow. A middle-aged man, Divko, returns to his small town in 1991 after a 20-year exile prompted by political troubles and clearly ready to make up for lost time in his chosen role of fat cat. He left behind a wife and son, who have been living in a house that was in his family for decades, and never wrote to them in 20 years. Now, resentful of his wife and traveling with a younger, lovelier woman, he unceremoniously throws his wife and son out and struts through the town flashing money around and making demands. The conflicts between Divko and his wife, their pulls on their son, Divko's expectation of where cash will take him and his fixation on a mangy cat that he believes brings him luck, the son's relative innocence and fixation on traveling to America--these and other aspects of the story are all a fitting backdrop for depicting the sort of conflicts that can and did arise with shifts in power. It's not as good as Tanovic's Oscar-winning first film, "No Man's Land," but this director knows what he is doing.
So does respected Hong Kong director Johnnie To, or so I hear--but I wouldn't know that from watching his recent film "Life Without Principle" (3). It takes the stories of three characters who are in financial straits--a police inspector whose wife is pressuring him to buy an expensive apartment, a bank officer who is under pressure to sell high-risk investments, and a small-time gangster anxious to help out his sleazy associates--to illustrate the effects of the world financial crisis on people we might conceivably care about. The problem is, none of the stories is told particularly well and the connections between them seem flimsy and pointless--and the film didn't make me care about them.
"El Sicario, Room 164" (2.5) doesn't fare any better. Part of the problem is that it is pretty boring to watch; it's filmed almost entirely in the confines of a motel room where a former enforcer, or sicario, for a Mexican drug cartel mostly sits in a chair with a black hood over his face and narrates his past exploits torturing, killing, and trafficking, filling a book with crude doodles to illustrate. He describes acts of terrible violence and the details of how power is exercised and outside the cartel with what seemed like a kind of enthusiasm to me, which may be why I was unmoved by the conversion story he finally gets to, supposedly explaining why he is now out and living on the run. I don't necessarily doubt his stories (though I do wonder if all of them happened to him), but it is curious to me how unmoved I was by it all, given how other stories of transformation have affected me (e.g., Jessica Yu's excellent documentary, "Protagonist"). Here there are too many contradictions--like, for example, how he says that a real sicario never brags about what he does. For me, the objective driving this exercise seemed muddled and dishonest.
Still to come: films from Russia, South Korea, Italy, and a couple of documentaries.