Three Reasons to Love Non-American Films

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Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Yes, American films are wonderful — some of the best movies are American in origin. I like them as much as my fellow citizens. However, there is something about a well-done foreign film, or better titled: a non-American film, that captures and holds my attention unlike most good American films. I find these non-Americans films unique and unforgettable in ways unlike their American counterparts.

In the past few years, many of the films I’ve watched have been directed, produced, and played by non-Americans. In this time, I’ve become more and more engrossed with foreign films and the mindset of those behind them. In my quest to understand why I’ve become a lover of all things foreign movie, I’ve discovered a few possible reasons why they are so remarkable to me, and why they could be to other Americans who haven’t paid as much attention to foreign films. Unfortunately, some non-American films are hard to find or poorly subtitled or dubbed, but if and when you do find a polished foreign film, you’ll be glad you did:

1. Surprising Plots

Watching so many domestic films, plots can become boring and begin to repeat themselves. This is because narratives are often strongly influenced by a person’s culture, experiences, and the world around them. By no fault of their own, American authors, screenwriters, and editors can end up arriving at stories that only differ from each other slightly. As diverse as Americans are, each American has the American experience and influence which informs the way they approach a film.

In contrast, foreign films can be surprising in their plots, even if the changes are subtle. Many times the change is drastic, if the culture and experiences of the scriptwriter differs greatly from that of an American. Sometimes the plot details values or lessons taught in a specific culture. Production elements and casting are unexpected, but add up to add a final touch to the film that make it its own.

2. Gritty Reality

Non-American films tend to showcase a life and culture that is more bold and less politically correct than American films. Things that American filmmakers would hesitate to include or water down are showcased with no apologies in foreign films. The taboo, abnormal, or simply harsh realities of life are presented, to much effect. In one popular foreign film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, rape, abuse, and alternative sexuality are exposed in ways that might be considered disturbing and ill-advised in an American film.

3. Culture

If a non-American film provides nothing else, it gives a look into the culture, thinking, and behavior of people outside of the United States. Foreign films give you a way to travel throughout the globe without physically leaving the country. Accents, clothing, behavior, food, even acting, illustrate the culture being presented in the film. Even for a well-traveled person, a film can touch on aspects of culture not known to outsiders. For this reason alone, it would be great for Americans to find a space in their movie collections for foreign films.

What do you (Americans and non-Americans) think of foreign films? Do you have any film suggestions or favorites?

Atonement

atonement-film-coverAlee’s Analysis: A heart-wrenching tale of lies, hope, defeat, and triumph.

Atonement is a 2007 film adaptation of the novel by Ian McEwan. The action begins in a 1930s England estate, where a young author and playwright, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) plans to put on her first play. While Briony waits to begin rehearsing, she spies her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and crush Robbie (James McAvoy) together outside. Jealousy takes hold of her, and Briony makes up a story which irreversibly changes the destinies of all involved.

Vengeance is Destructive

Briony is thrown into a fit of envy and vengeance at the idea of her sister and crush being romantically involved. Although neither her sister nor her friend are aware of her feelings for him, Briony plans to seek revenge on them for double-crossing her, and plans to split them apart for good. What she doesn’t anticipate is that her deceitful words will have far-reaching consequences beyond a simple childish act of payback.

It is only later that Briony realizes that life is not like storywriting — there is no rough draft; you can’t simply erase and redo life if you’re not satisfied with the way it turned out. Vengeance is harmful to both the person seeking it and the target of revenge.

Lifetime of Redemption

Briony, Celia, and Robbie atone for their perceived transgressions. Robbie ends up imprisoned, a social outcast, and eventually thrust into the chaos of war, while Celia leaves her family and its wealth to wait for Robbie’s return. Briony voluntarily forfeits an elite education to work as a wartime nurse, serving those who, in contrast to herself, have been unselfish and given up what they desire for the well-being of others.

But how can one truly correct the mistakes of the past? A naïve Briony attempted to make others pay for what they’d done, but the older and wiser Briony finds herself scrambling, it seems in vain, to recreate the life stories which ceased to exist when she allowed passion and yearning to overcome her.

The Intersection of Dreams and Reality

As Briony becomes more established as an author she vows to reveal the story of how her envy dramatically altered the lives of those around her — this is her final atonement. She tries to make things right by telling the truth and reuniting her sister with her lost love. Yet she quickly finds that time is running out, or has already passed, to redeem herself. Solemnly she realizes that the way she dreamed their lives would have turned out, and the way they actually did, are completely different, and she is the cause of this disparity. The revelation of this reality presents the greatest heartbreak of Atonement, and reminds us all to think twice before we act, lest we later regret what can never be taken back.

Never Let Me Go

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Alee’s Analysis: An original, but solemn take on the human condition.

Never Let Me Go is a 2010 movie based on the 2005 Kazuo Ishiguro best-selling novel of the same title. The film is centered on the lives of three young adults nearing their deaths. Most of the movie is a flashback: Kathy H (Carey Mulligan) is reminiscing about her life and the lives of her two friends, and she retells the story of when the three met, how, and why they are bonded together for eternity.

On the surface, the three seem like your every day people. However, their lives and life story is a unique one — they are all clones, created for the sole purpose of harvesting organs to cure terminal illnesses such as cancer and Parkinson’s. If you assume that Never Let Me Go is just another sci-fi movie you’d be completely wrong. Instead of focusing on their differences from normal human beings, the movie depicts a moving story of “creatures” who are just like everyone else.

Human Reality: Love

The love between Kathy H and Tommy D (Andrew Garfield) that makes up a large part of the movie’s scenes, blossoms while they are in the fourth grade at their English boarding school, Hailsham. While Tommy is picked on by the other children, Kathy takes a special interest in him, and he in her. Unfortunately, their blossoming relationship is thwarted by Kathy’s friend and roommate, Ruth (Keira Knightley).

Despite this, Kathy holds on to the love she has for Tommy, hoping that one day they can finally be together. Each day more time passes, and time is running out. Will she and Tommy ever share the love they have for each other?

Human Reality: Longing

scene-from-never-let-me-goThe three friends want to experience a true, fulfilling life and understand who they are and where they came from. They see a light through the window when they are finally allowed to leave Hailsham for the outside world. Seeking answers they realize that things might never be clear.

More than anything, they long for more time — time to live life, to love, to feel, to be like everyone else. They know that they are not expected to live past their fourth organ donation, but each is hoping to put the donations off, for their own personal reasons.

Human Reality: Death

In the end of course, they must face their reality. They were not created to live a long life; in fact, their humanity is doubted by those who know who they are. Yet as the end inches closer, even those who at first denied their humanness are faced with the truth. They are human, with all human strengths and weaknesses.

One might be tempted to feel sorry for Kathy H, Tommy, and Ruth. They were given life, just to have it taken away. But one lesson of Never Let Me Go is that their lives are not so different, not so sad. We will all “complete” on day, and many of us will have regrets, with unfulfilled dreams, with love that was never realized. The three may not have reached 30 years, but how many years would be enough — when would we think we’ve experienced all we need to in life? Kat and her friends may be genetically-engineered clones but their lives reflect all of our lives — no one can escape the human condition.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

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Alee’s Analysis: A comical look at the familiar bad boy/nice guy dichotomy and what people do for love

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a 2011 romantic comedy about middle-aged family man Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) who attempts to find his manhood again after being cheated on by his wife who has asked for a divorce. Drinking his sorrows away at a bar, he is found by Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), a noted ladies’ man and young bachelor. Jacob volunteers to transform Cal into the stud he has the potential to be, the man his wife would want to have. What neither of them realized is that life has a way of giving you what you need, which may not be what you want.

Nice Guys Finish Last…Or Do They?

Cal, in addition to be a middle-aged man, is the stereotypical Nice Guy — kind, well-mannered, and completely lacking in perceived masculinity. This, Jacob claims, is a major reason he lost his wife; as he let himself go, he let his wife go. Jacob vows to change Cal’s outlook and appearance, which will in turn change his love fortune.

And it seems to work: Cal’s transformation is successful, on the outside at least. He is able to attract women in large numbers and gains a self-confidence that he never had. At first he is happy with his new lifestyle but he soon finds that the bachelor life is not as great as it seems. To make matters worse, his new identity clashes with what he wants more than anything: to have his wife back.

On Jacob’s end, he realizes that love, true love, is what he really needs. While he is working on Cal, he is soon to get a new persona of his own. Life as a single man no longer satisfies him and he soon finds out just what Cal was pining over.

Love is:

  • Crazy

Cal’s teenage babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) claims to be in love with him and while he is working on himself, she is working on gaining his interest.  Meanwhile, Cal’s son, who she babysits, claims to be in love with her and is working on gaining her interest. Cal doesn’t know about any of this, but the biggest love surprise is yet to come.

  • Stupid

Love is definitely in the air in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and it causes everyone to act out of character. People, in their one-tracked pursuit of love don’t see that their actions are preventing them from getting what they desire — true love and happiness. Cal’s transformation into an alpha man drives away his wife, Jessica’s focus on Cal leaves her in a constant state of anxiety. And, in what they believe is the end, no one is really satisfied with the outcome.

Love Is Worth It

Despite all the craziness and stupidity involved with love, when it’s all over, everyone feels that it was worthwhile. Going through trials for love helped them to better understand and better appreciate the love they always had. And in the end, everyone got what they needed, and if it wasn’t what they wanted — a fantasy love film at its best.

 

 

Dear John

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Alee’s Analysis: A clichéd but heartfelt story of love found and love lost.

Dear John is a 2010 romantic drama centered around the long-distance relationship of Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) and John Tyree (Channing Tatum). The movie is based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, Dear John.

Savannah and John meet by chance one spring day and quickly fall in love. Their whirlwind romance takes place over two weeks and they’re convinced that they’ve found a life partner. Despite knowing that they will soon be separated, they decide to pursue a relationship. But when time and distance comes between them they realize that relationships may be easy to begin but difficult to maintain.

Opposites Attract

Savannah and John come from separate worlds and are as different as can be, which causes attraction and tension in their relationship. Savannah is the wholesome, empathic, goody two-shoes student who arrives in North Carolina on spring break to help build homes for families in need. There she meets John, a rebellious, seemingly dispassionate U.S. Army sergeant who is finally finding direction in life.

amanda-seyfried-dear-johnSavannah studies psychology and her ever-present curiosity about people causes issues with John who would rather keep his life private. However, John feels comfortable enough to invite Savannah to his home, where she meets his father.

John admits to Savannah that he and his father have a strained relationship. He has a hard time understanding his reclusive, socially awkward and routine-obsessed father. Savannah hopes to help the father and son understand each other. After spending some time with him, Savannah offers her diagnosis: John’s father has a mild form of autism (Asperger’s Syndrome).

Instead of being happy to finally understand, John is angered by Savannah’s examination of his father and their relationship meets one bump in the road. Luckily, they reconcile before John is to leave.

Love Can’t Survive the Distance

After their brief affair, Savannah and John return to their regularly scheduled lives: her to college and he to the battlefield. But they promise that they will continue their relationship through John’s enlistment and Savannah’s college years. They do this by writing letters back and forth.

But John ends up spending more time away than he prepared for, and over the next two years they find their relationship dwindling. Neither really understands why things have changed and initially blame each other for the demise of their relationship.

…Or Can It?

John remains in the Army after their relationship ends, even after being shot; he doesn’t feel like he has anything to go home to. When he finally returns to the United States, after a total of seven years, he goes to see Savannah but retains his anger at her for the relationship break-up.

What he doesn’t know is that, after all this time, Savannah still loves him and never forgot about him. When they finally tell each other their true feelings, it is up to them to decide to pursue their love again. The ending, like most parts of this movie, is as predictable as can be but somehow manages to pull your heart strings.

Precious: The Movie

precious-movieAlee’s Analysis: A semi-realistic, unpolished depiction of life at the bottom of America.

Precious is a 2009 critically acclaimed film directed by Lee Daniels and based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Gabourey Sidibe debuts as Precious, an illiterate, obese black teenage girl who dreams of leaving her abusive New York ghetto.

Precious is lauded by some as a bold and honest illustration of several overlooked issues among an overlooked group of people. Others criticize the film as an extreme and degrading portrayal of the life and mentality of low-income black America.

Precious is set in the projects of Harlem, New York in 1987. Claireece Precious Jones, also known as Precious, is a sixteen year old pregnant with her second child. The father of both her children is her own father, who has molested her for years. Precious endures daily verbal and physical abuse from her mother Mary (Mo’Nique).

Precious escapes her abusive surroundings by daydreaming — that she is in another place, another time, anywhere where she is appreciated and loved. She finally finds real life hope when she is transferred to an alternative high school. But not before we get to journey with Precious and explore just how cruel her world is.

No Place to Lay

Instead of protecting her daughter from molestation, Precious’ unwed mother Mary accuses Precious of “stealing her man” and resents her for it. She uses any opportunity to belittle her intelligence and appearance. Her only interest is her welfare checks; she has no interest in seeing Precious grow in any way, in fact she actively works against it.

The outside world is no kinder to Precious. Her classmates tease and bully her for her weight. Precious is literally alone.

Self-Hate

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Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz) and Precious (Gabourey Sidibe)

After years of being made to feel worthless, Precious begins to dislike herself. In contrast to her deep brown skin, she imagines herself with a “light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair”. When she looks in the mirror she sees a blonde white girl. She is embarrassed that she is unable to read.

Illumination

After being suspended from her high school for being pregnant Precious attends an alternative school. There she meets a few of the people who guide her along her path to true happiness and fulfillment.

One of these people is her teacher Miss Rain (Paula Patton). Miss Rain is Precious’ fairy godmother, helping her to learn to read and giving her a place to live when Precious escapes her mother’s home.

Also helpful are Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz) and Miss Weiss (Mariah Carey), a social worker who finally allows Precious to open up about her abusive home environment. With their support Precious takes her life into her own hands and makes herself a brighter future.

Precious is not a lukewarm film. It will make an impression on you, whether you think it is unrealistic or accurate, and whether your impression is negative or positive.

Something’s Gotta Give

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Alee’s Analysis: A fresh yet classic look at age-gap relationships and love against all odds.

Something’s Gotta Give is a 2003 romantic comedy written and directed by Nancy Meyers. The plot involves Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson), a notorious bachelor with a love for younger women, who in spite of himself, falls in love with the more age-appropriate Erica Barry (Diane Keaton). Erica is a divorced well-known playwright who also happens to be the mother of Harry’s current girlfriend Marin (Amanda Peet).

But even after his romance with Marin ends, Harry’s love for Erica comes up against major obstacles. One is internal — his fear of committing to one woman, especially one he doesn’t have 30 years on. The other issue comes from the outside — while Harry plans his move, Erica is being courted by Harry’s younger and more handsome doctor Julian Mercer (Keanu Reeves).

Besides being a typical romantic comedy about enduring love, Something’s Gotta Give offers a glimpse at the always-interesting topic of May-December relationships and love after 50.

Younger Women, Older Men < Younger Men, Older Women < Similar-Age Couple

Or so it goes.

Something’s Gotta Gotta Give features a number and variety of relationships. The relationships involving younger women and older men are superficial and stereotypical. Harry claims to prefer younger women because he likes to “travel light” and younger women are more accepting. Accepting of what, is the question.

diane-keaton-keanu-reevesMeanwhile, Julian’s love for Erica is based on less shallow and self-serving reasons. Before he ever meets Erica in person he falls in love with her via her plays and writing. While he has no shortage of women of all ages available to him, he chooses Erica because he sees something special in her. Age is truly insignificant to him — he hardly notices their 25 year age difference.

But in the end, same-age relationships prevail. After Marin’s short relationship with Harry ends she marries a guy her age. Erica’s relationship with Julian meets an abrupt end as she joins Harry in over-50 romantic bliss.

The Plight of the Older Woman

Erica’s sister Zoe (Frances McDormand), professor of Women’s Studies at Columbia, explains the predicament that single older women are in: “The whole over 50 dating scene is geared toward men leaving older women out.” She uses her successful and interesting 50-something sister as an example of how [screwed] older women are, staying in “night, after night, after night.”

But no longer. Before Erica knows what is happening she has not only a man her own age hopelessly falling for her, but a man young enough to be her son, and handsome and successful in his own right. Alas, there is love and relationships after 50.

You Never Know What You Have…

Harry’s hesitance to commit to Erica causes him to lose her to the attentive and settled Julian. For the first time in his life he finds himself pining after a love lost. Luckily for him, Erica still loves him months after their fling and forsakes her near-engagement to Julian to be with him. Which works out, because Harry flew all the way across the world just to meet her for her birthday.

Don’t try this at home.

See also:

He Got Game

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Alee’s Analysis: The life and times of the black American male is explored in a whirlwind of decades-old stereotypes
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He Got Game is a 1998 movie directed and written by Spike Lee. The plot of the film involves a New York prison inmate Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) serving time for the manslaughter of his wife. Jake is offered a deal by the governor that would considerably shorten his remaining prison time. The only thing he has to do is convince his son, Jesus (Ray Allen), a superstar high school basketball player and number one prospect in the country, to sign a letter of intent to attend the governor’s alma mater. Just one problem — his son hates him; he has never forgiven his father for the death of his mother.

He Got Game features an all-star –and future all-star– cast. The previously mentioned Denzel Washington and Ray Allen (who knew he acted?) appear, plus Rosario Dawson, Hill Harper, Milla Jovovich, Rick Fox, and Lonette McKee, amongst others. But the most outstanding feature of this film is not the cast, but its amazing two-hour display of social and racial stereotypes. If you ever wondered just what stereotypes exist in and around black American communities about black men, this movie is for you.

Colorism

Every romantic relationship in the movie includes a black male with a much lighter, if not white, woman. From Jake and his wife Martha (Lonette McKee), to a pimp and his main prostitute Dakota (Milla Jovovich), and even, later on, Jake and Dakota. Scenes featuring women almost exclusively include lighter-skinned women, unless she is not meant to be a sexual object (e.g. Jake’s daughter Mary [Zelda Harris]). Because everyone knows black American men love light-skinned women!

Sexism and Misogyny

The women of He Got Game exist as extensions of the men. Women serve as outlets for the men, as sexual partners and means to take out their frustration in verbal and physical abuse. Nearly every scene involves some abuse of women. The only power women seem to have is between their legs. But even their one strength has its limits, as we see with the often abused and hopeless Dakota.

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Lakeview Terrace

lakeview-terraceAlee’s Analysis: The trials and triumphs of an interracial couple are displayed in a way that turns stereotypes on their head.

Lakeview Terrace is a 2008 movie about a couple who is harassed by their neighbor for being interracially married. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Abel Turner, a widowed Los Angeles Police Department officer who lives in suburban LA and torments his new next door neighbors, Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington). The neighbors become entangled in a long and bitter dispute over both physical and psychological boundaries.

Lakeview Terrace is based on a true story.

The Good

Abel Turner and Chris Mattson are believable in their interactions; Samuel L. fit the character of Abel Turner perfectly. Chris Mattson is amazingly attractive and Lisa Mattson is beautiful. It is nice to see an onscreen couple involving a white man and a black woman who does not feed into stereotypes or devolve into negativity. Chris is a somewhat uptight yet likeable character.

Favorite scene: In a late night bar scene, Abel tells Chris how he became a widower and why he is so against Chris and Lisa’s marriage. No spoilers — watch the movie to find out the details.

The Bad

Outside of the main characters, the acting in Lakeview Terrace is subpar, at best. Lisa Mattson is a one-dimensional character and doesn’t add much to the movie outside of her role as wife to Chris. Chris’ attempts to put off having children make him seem selfish.

The movie is centered around Chris Mattson and the problems he faces as one half of a black woman/white man couple. Focusing only on Chris’ issues presents an inaccurate portrayal of the difficulties faced by these couples: the woman in these pairings also faces opposition, often more than the man does.

Lakeview Terrace is a good film, but not great: many scenes stop short where they could have gone more in-depth. What makes the movie worthwhile is the excellent acting of the main characters and the chance to glimpse into a rarely explored social issue.

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