Foxtrot (2017)

This review comes courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, from whom I received a screener. I was not paid or compensated for this review in any way. 

Foxtrot_poster
Poster

By looking at the poster for Foxtrot, you might draw a few conclusions on the subject, such as life in the midst of war. You would be correct in doing so, but of course the film is much, much more complex than that and honestly I would be at a loss how best to suggest the film’s complexity be expressed in its press material.

In the simplest terms, the movie is an Israeli war drama about the effects of a young soldier’s death on his family. That alone would have held my interest, as war and its cost, when deftly handled, is fascinating enough. However, Foxtrot was not content to showcase such a straightforward premise and instead dives deep into family dynamics and personal demons.

It was warmly received at Venice and the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won awards, but for some reason did not receive an Oscar nomination. Politics may come into play, as it depicts the Israeli Defense Force committing a problematic crime against Arabic people, and so the film was denounced by Israel’s Minister of Culture. There are much, much smarter people out there who can speak to the complexities of this subject, and I will willingly admit to ignorance on many of these issues.

Foxtrot, named for both the dance and the Nato phonetic alphabet, is not a light movie but it was a brilliant depiction of loss and raw emotions.

As always, spoilers below the cut.

Continue reading “Foxtrot (2017)”

My Dinner With Failure, Or, The Importance of Context in Foreign Films

Play a game of charades with some friends and see how far you get if you have to act out anything more complicated than simple nouns or verbs. Chicken? Easy. Chicken Little? Somewhat harder, but there will still be copious pantomiming to get the point across. Even if you know the person very well, you’ll still occasionally have to guess what they’re trying to depict.

Recently I wrote about my cinematic fail in watching Force Majeure. Basically I failed to understand the newest Netflix interface and didn’t push that most important of buttons when it comes to foreign film-viewing: SUBTITLES Now, you can totally fumble your way through a foreign film without subtitles given the right conditions. Such conditions include:

  • A passing familiarity with the language (I know enough French to follow some movies without reading the titles, but if anything gets more complicated than the present tense or basic concepts, I’m sunk)
  • A passing familiarity with the culture (You don’t have to master the pluperfect verb tense to know when people are yelling at each other)
  • A passing familiarity with the story (You might recognize themes or situations from famous plays, books, mythology, or graphic novels)
  • A story simple enough to surpass language (Dead Snow comes to mind; do we really need to know why the zombies of reanimated Nazis are harassing these attractive skiers and ruining their holiday? Do we?)

But!  As I learned, context is key, and for context you must have translation, some kind of intermediary to help guide you to the salient points.

Picture this: two well-dressed people are meeting in a Parisian cafe. The director has done his job, and despite the beautiful, laid-back surroundings, the score is tense, as are the faces of our characters. You know it’s a crime film, you know someone young was murdered and dumped in a ditch and had some kind of relation to these two. Now: what more do you want to know? Who started it? Was it justified? How long’s it been going on?

I don’t need translation to watch Godzilla to know that giant monsters destroying buildings is a bad thing, but what about trying to guess what was happening in the Avengers (assuming you were unfamiliar with the characters)?

“There’s a big blue ball, and it’s just absorbed this little gold ball, and now it’s… there are a lot of windows, and now there are robots everywhere but there’s also one robot who … is standing there talking about something, and now there’s a bigger one and a man in a suit with lasers and now there’s a farm where the people are and again we’re back to the city and robots lots of robots and OMG FLYING TOWN and another flying man with lasers coming out of his head and now everything is okay but might not be. Whatever, it was worth the 10 bucks.”

Context is everything, especially in an age when so little culture is shared on an intimate level. With no subtitles or dubbing, I might recognize a Thai person by their mode of dress or the sound of their language or the shape of the letters on signs in the background or the presence of tuktuks, because those are the big contextual markers. I won’t recognize the little nuanced ones, like the nature of their relationships with other people. I might miss little gestures accompanying the person’s movements that indicate their relationship, like a deferment to an older relative or a rolled eye to indicate a tiresome friend. Even something that should define a relationship, like a sex scene, doesn’t help because you don’t know if these people are together, cheating, or engaging in a forbidden affair.

Play a game of charades with some friends and see how far you get if you have to act out anything more complicated than simple nouns or verbs. Chicken? Easy. Chicken Little? Somewhat harder, but there will still be copious pantomiming to get the point across. Even if you know the person very well, you’ll still occasionally have to guess what they’re trying to depict.

A movie without context is a series of Rorshach images that the viewer can pull all kinds of things from, depending on their perspective.

Filmgoing Fails: Force Majeure

What happened was I basically failed to notice the option on Instant Watch that allows you to activate the subtitles. That’s on me.

ANYWAY – I recognize that I basically watched the movie wrong. I get that. But I didn’t finish it, a rare thing for me. And ti was for the following reasons:

I found the family to be insufferably uninteresting
I found their family crisis difficult to care about, since they were experiencing it in the midst of magnificent natural beauty, AND European luxury. I have never seen real snow, but feel confident that the resort they were staying at did not accept coupons or have the kind of breakfast bar where no one cares if you put loose cereal in a ziploc to take with you

Avalanche!
Avalanche!

Here is what happened with Force Majeure, a Swedish film that won a whole boatload of awards.

JEN: *reads an article about great Oscar movies that everyone should see* “Ah, I now know this movie exists. If I wander across it directly, I shall see it. The description is not grabbing me though.”

(a month goes by)

*The film plays at the local art house*

JEN: “Oh look! I know what that movie is!” *end of thought*

(another month goes by)

JEN: *bored at work and mini-stalking Kristofer Hivju’s beard, finds out he is in the movie* “Ah. Perhaps I shall see it now. I like him in Game of Thrones.”

(a few days go by)

JEN: “Oh gosh! Force Majeure is on Instant Watch!” *presses play* “Huh. There are no subtitles and I do not understand the Swedish words they are speaking. Perhaps that’s just how the movie was released and it’s such a universal story about human drama and the disintegration of family after a traumatic event that the language doesn’t matter. I shall watch it.”

(halfway through the movie)

JEN: “This was a terrible idea.”

What happened was I basically failed to notice the option on Instant Watch that allows you to activate the subtitles. That’s on me.

ANYWAY – I recognize that I basically watched the movie wrong. I get that. But I didn’t finish it, a rare thing for me. And it was for the following reasons:

  • I found the family to be insufferably uninteresting
  • I found their family crisis difficult to care about, since they were experiencing it in the midst of magnificent natural beauty, AND European luxury. I have never seen real snow, but feel confident that the resort they were staying at did not accept coupons or have the kind of breakfast bar where no one cares if you put loose cereal in a ziploc to take with you

Perhaps some people enjoyed the movie for those reasons – seeing a privileged family brought low by revealing the cracks within their facade. I don’t really have much truck with schadenfreude, so perhaps that’s the problem.

Also, I live in Orlando, Florida, a popular family vacation destination. I have seen my share of meltdowns, of families who have reached the breaking point and are torn asunder by nature. Think this Swedish family’s plight in the face of a controlled avalanche was something? You need to see Scandinavians in one of the lines at the Magic Kingdom, when they realize the wait sign is serious when it says ‘3 HOURS+’ and the temperature is merrily boiling into the 90s. I have seen sunburns in shades of purplish-red that would make even the cruelest torturers in history wince and shake their heads.

I have seen children epically lose their shit for a variety of reasons, many of them valid (Mom and Dad didn’t spring for the 30+spf and are paying the price, they didn’t bring extra bottles of water, they are burning through their energy reserves because feeding a family of four at a theme park can get into the triple digits for one meal, they vastly underestimated the cost of everything). I saw a family sneak their child on the Tower of Terror and that kid did NOT have a good time- he was crying and shaking by the end. And when you’re trapped on a ride with a kid (or adult!) having a freakout, it doesn’t matter if you’ll never see them again after the three-minute ride is over – those three minutes will last approximately 8 Bronze Ages. My heart went out to him, as it does for every tourist who doesn’t acknowledge our UV index. The tourist bureau even tries to warn them! I wish I could afford to buy sunblock and just hand it out to people!

HOWEVER – as I have said, I could only guess at the dialogue of Force Majeure and what it was conveying; probably a lot more nuance and depth than I was prepared to accord to the characters. You’d be surprised how many cognates you understand when you’re grasping at straws!

I managed to make it to Kristofer Hivju but even that couldn’t keep me interested. Even so, I’m glad the film and his role on Game of Thrones is getting him noticed in the international film community, and he continues to do well. I mean look at this picture of him:

This is the best picture of anyone, ever
Just a handsome man about town, walking his beard

He just looks like he’s having a wonderful time, wherever he is. The scarf! The boots! The expression of ‘Oh, who’s that over there? My bad, I don’t know that person, but they are probably a friend I haven’t met yet!’ *a small crowd of followers accrues behind him, singing jolly Norwegian folk songs*

I’m going to make it my business tomorrow to try and have a least as much fun as he appears to be having.

Well, three-quarters.

At least half!

I might give the movie another go – we’ll just have to see!