NEVER LOOK AWAY (2019, Germany)

February 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. As much as we pride ourselves on ‘artistic freedom’, the reality is that politics has long played a vital role – either as inadvertent inspiration for the work, or as organized suppressor or moderator. Rarely in history has the latter been more in effect than during the Nazi regime. This film begins at an art gallery in 1937 Dresden as a loving aunt takes her young nephew to an installation of “degenerate artists”. Nazi propaganda presented modern art by such artists as Picasso and Kandinsky as a blight on German culture, and proceeded to educate (or brainwash) the populace accordingly.

Writer-Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was behind the extraordinary Best Foreign Language Oscar winner THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), as well as the all-but unwatchable THE TOURIST (2010). Fortunately, this latest is much closer to the level of the first one, and it has been rewarded by also being Oscar nominated. Miss May, the loving and free-spirited aunt of the opening sequence is played by the luminescent Saskia Rosendahl. As a student, a simple gesture of handing Hitler a bouquet of flowers destroys her psyche, which leads to even more dramatic ramifications. This was an era when being a free-spirit was treated harshly, which could mean mass sterilization or even being “relieved of a meaningless existence.”  Miss May crosses paths with Nazi gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), in a gut-wrenching scene that hovers over the entire film, and especially that beloved young nephew.

Tom Schilling (and his turquoise eyes) plays Kurt Barnert (the nephew at older age), one who possesses exceptional artistic talent. As Kurt begins making a name for himself (painting as directed), he meets and falls for design student Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer, FRANTZ). Yes, she is the daughter of the Professor who determined the fate of Kurt’s aunt, although Kurt is unaware. As the war escalates, Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany, while the past haunts all involved.

Once accepted into the new art school, Kurt falls under the guidance of Professor van Verten (Oliver Masucci). It’s this Professor’s personal horror story that becomes a turning point for Kurt, and enables him to discover his own voice as an artist. During this time, Professor Carl Seeband has smoothly switched allegiances and become a communist to save his arrogant hide, though he is burdened with the knowledge that his war crimes past could catch up at any moment. This man is both family member and villain to Kurt and Ellie, tormenting and belittling at every opportunity. It’s fascinating to see how the couple perseveres through his psychological games and even medical malpractice – as if the war, Nazism and Communism weren’t enough of a daily challenge.

The film is loosely based on German artist Gerhard Richter, though mostly in the form of his earliest artwork. Mr. Richter is still alive today and still creating. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey) has produced a beautifully shot film, and the result is his 6th Oscar nomination. Brace yourself for a 3-plus hour run time, and the frustrations of how an artist can discover their voice despite an organized singular ideology that one is pressured to accept.

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BIRDS OF PASSAGE (Pajaros de verano, 2019)

February 12, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not unusual for movies to “trick” us into embracing a drug dealer, and even kind of rooting for them – despite the near universal condemnation of such folks when we are outside of a dark theatre. Co-directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra were the producer and director behind the Oscar nominated EMBRACE OF THE SERPANT (2015) about an Amazon tribe striving to hold tight to their way of life despite outside interference. This time out, they focus on the rural Guajira territory of Columbia, with its desert conditions and villagers committed to their own traditions.

The film is based on a true story and covers the time period of 1960-1980, and is separated by chapter titles that include the year and a hint of what’s to follow. We first see Zaida (Natalia Reyes) as a girl in confinement as she prepares to be introduced as a woman to the villagers. This is one of the more elaborate rituals of the village, and it leads to Rapayet (Jose Acosta) asking for Zaida’s hand in marriage. Her mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez), a respected village elder, sets the dowry at what she believes in an unattainable level for Rapayet: 30 goats, 20 cows, and 5 necklaces. Ursula has unwittingly set off a chain of events that eventually brings the family money, power, and tragedy. How can a few goats and cows cause this? Well, when one is poor and needs to quickly assemble a large dowry, what better way than to enter the drug trade? And that’s exactly what Rapayet does.

Rapayet’s friend and partner in the coffee trading business, Moises (Jhon Narvaez), joins him in the transition of careers, and while Rapayet is content to build his empire quietly and under the radar, Moises runs amok with the power and money. Ursula is respected for her abilities as a dream reader, and she’s constantly dousing Rapayet’s business with the cold water of her visions … worried mostly about the safety of her daughter Zaida. By 1971, Rapayet’s business of peddling marijuana to gringos is booming, and by 1979 (in a chapter entitled “Prosperity”) we see the results: a mansion-fortress in the desert protected by guards with automatic weaponry (a sure sign that bad news is on the way).

What began as a look at peaceful remote villagers sticking to the traditional path of their ancestors, transforms into a drug war featuring cartel mobsters. Cinematographer David Gallego contrasts the beauty and simplicity of traditions with the danger and violence of new money and new world order. Leonardo Heiblum’s score is a terrific complement as well. The infancy of the Columbian drug trade presented here conveniently places blame on the free-spirited youngsters of the Peace Corps; while the story plays out like a Greek tragedy, replete with mixed messages on revenge, capitalism, tradition, greed, and family ties. It’s a rags-to-riches story that pulls no punches when it comes to the price paid for taking an illicit shortcut. It’s a path that can destroy lives and culture.

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VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

February 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Dan Gilroy has distinct ideas on how to make his movie stand out from the cluttered maze of Netflix: give elitists a violent comeuppance, and allow Jake Gyllenhaal the freedom to take his character over the top. Not only has Mr. Gilroy reunited with Mr. Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, his leads from the excellent NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), but he has also assembled a deep and terrific ensemble of actors who understand exactly how to present the material … even if some viewers will be confused, startled, or unimpressed.

What begins as a parody of the highfalutin contemporary art world, slowly transforms into a satirical-supernatural-horror film that judges severely those who drive the profit train by peddling art. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the flamboyant art critic who possesses God-like abilities to make or break an artist with the words he chooses for his reviews. His work often intersects with Rhodora Haze (Ms. Russo), who runs the largest gallery in the city. She was once part of a punk rock band (from which the film takes its title), and now she lives to cash in on the work of others. As she so eloquently describes, she has moved “from anarchist to purveyor of good taste”. Other players include Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) as Rhodora’s competitor, Gretchen (Toni Collette) as an agent, Bryson (Billy Magnussen) as a whip smart handyman, Coco (Natalia Dyer) as a Midwestern girl trying to make it in the big city, Piers (John Malkovich) as a blocked artist who regrets quitting drinking, Damrish (Daveed Diggs) as an up and coming artist, and Josephina (Zawe Ashton) as Rhodora’s ambitious assistant.

The story shifts tone when Josephina discovers the artwork left behind when her reclusive elderly neighbor Mr. Dease dies suddenly. Dease is unknown as an artist and was in the process of destroying his life’s work when he died … he wanted no part of the art world, other than creating his own work. Josephina seizes on this opportunity and works with Rhodora in representing the work of this “hot” artist. As the work is monetized, the supernatural forces take over – often in quite violent ways. The players are so focused on how to capitalize on the work, it takes them an inordinate amount of time to realize evil forces are afoot. No one escapes scrutiny: artists, critics, agents, or collectors.

In cinema, if you choose to go bat**** crazy, it’s best to not hold back. Gyllenhaal plays Mort full tilt and he’s immensely fun to watch. The extraordinary ensemble cast benefits from some unusual and vivid imagery supported by expert cinematography from Oscar winner Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD). It’s rare for so much social commentary to be included in a project that could easily be compared to a teen slasher. There is some excellent dark humor, though maybe not quite enough, and two art exhibits in particular are memorable: Hoboman, and the Sphere. There are some clear cut groups of people in the film: the hot youngsters (Josephina, Dondon, Damrish) vs. the establishment (Mort, Rhodora, Piers) vs. misguided wannabes (Gretchen, Coco, Bryson). No matter their approach, one of the messages shines through – artists invest their soul into their work and that often stands in direct conflict with the other side of money and commerce. We can be a bit forgiving the film’s faults given the ambitious nature of the project; just be cautious of the monkeys in the mirror.

available on Netflix

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BENEATH THE LEAVES (2019)

February 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It doesn’t happen often, so it’s probably kind of fun for them when a father and daughter are able to appear in the same film. This is writer-director Adam Marino’s first feature film, and he cast Paul Sorvino and Mira Sorvino not as father-daughter, but as Police Captain and Detective. The script, co-written by Marino, Naman Barsoon, Daniel Wallner, and Mark Andrew Wilson treads familiar, yet usually interesting ground … a crime topic covered previously by numerous TV shows and movies.

The film opens with an abusive father (Don Swayze) doing despicable things to his young son and daughter, before the two of them take action against him. We then flash forward to a prison escape that occurred after a fire is set. One of the escapees is an especially demented psychopath with a trait that ties the story back into the opening sequence. What follows is a whodunit police procedural that focuses on Detective Erica Shotwell (Oscar winner Ms. Sorvino) and the four boys who survived their encounter with the twisted prison escapee some 15 years ago. Doug Jones plays James Whitley, the prison escapee returning to finish the job on the 4 that got away. Mr. Jones is best known for his fabulous “creature” work in THE SHAPE OF WATER and PAN’S LABRYNTH.

The four boys, now grown men, are played by Ser’Darius Blain, Christopher Backus, Christopher Masterson, and Kristopher Polaha, the latter of which is now Detective Shotwell’s partner … though, against his vociferous protests, is prohibited by the Chief from working the case that he is oh-so-close to. Also providing support work are Melora Walters, Jena Sims, and fingernails in general. Director Marino’s film is mostly B-level material, and actually much milder than what we see on many TV shows these days. It does, however, reinforce the notion that screwed up kids quite frequently grow into screwed up adults.

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HIGH FLYING BIRD (2019)

February 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Steven Soderbergh has won an Oscar for Best Director (TRAFFIC, 2002) and is one of the filmmakers who has enjoyed both Box Office success (the “Oceans” franchise) and critical acclaim (SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, 1989). He has also been behind some quite creative TV projects (“The Knick”, “Godless”), as well as many technical advancements in the industry. This latest is his second consecutive film to be shot entirely with an iPhone (UNSANE, 2018). Bluntly stated, Mr. Soderbergh beats his own drum.

Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McRaney (MOONLIGHT) wrote the script and a talented cast allowed filming to be completed in only 3 weeks … a remarkably short production time for a feature film that is quite watchable and polished.  Andre Holland (also one of the film’s producers) plays Ray, a sports agent with a soul. Rarely do films portray sports agents as the smartest guy in the room, much less as one with altruistic motives. But that describes Ray – although we have our doubts at times. The film opens with Ray having a heated discussion over lunch with his newest client – hot shot rookie Erick (played by Melvyn Gregg). The NBA is in the midst of a lockout and young Erick’s top pick contract has not yet been executed … so he’s in need of funds, as is Ray and the agency he works for.

Sprinkled throughout, and serving as a framing device, are talking head shots of actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell discussing the challenges of being a rookie. Their insight and perspective adds an element of reality to the tone of the film. Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) co-stars as Sam, Ray’s assistant who constantly reminds him, “I don’t work for you anymore”, despite her exceptionally strategic maneuvering of others. Also appearing are the always interesting Bill Duke as Spencer, who runs a camp for up and coming youth players; Kyle MacLachlan as the owners’ lead negotiator; Sonja Sohn as the Players Union Rep; and Zachary Quinto as Ray’s boss.

Ray’s work behind the scenes is misinterpreted by many, but his focus is on getting the two sides to negotiate so the strike can end. During this process, the film makes an interesting statement about who owns the players’ image. Is it the league, the players’ association, or the player himself? It’s a legal and philosophical question that again crosses the line into real life. There is also a comical bit that takes aim at the business side of the league regarding selling sneakers and inspiring rap lyrics.

Reminiscent of other Soderbergh films, there is an emphasis on heavy dialogue and creative camera work, as well as some life lessons offered up along the way. “You care all the way or you don’t care at all” is a philosophy preached by Spence, and clearly leading by example is an important element to the key characters. Toss in the music of Richie Havens, and it’s quite obvious this isn’t the typical inspirational, feel-good sports movie.

available on Netflix February 8

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THE LEAST OF THESE: THE GRAHAM STAINES STORY (2019)

February 3, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The story of Graham Staines certainly deserves to be told, as his impact is lasting and his kindness and devotion to the cause are quite extraordinary. In fact he paid the ultimate price … actually even greater than that … for his efforts, simply because he bucked tradition and offered an alternative to folks who previously had none.

Director Aneesh Daniel and writer Andrew E Matthews present Mr. Staines’ story (based on true events), and even shot on location in India despite a limited budget. Sharman Joshi plays ambitious young journalist Manav Banerjee, who in the late 1990’s packs up his pregnant wife Shanti (Aditi Chengappa) and heads to the remote Indian town of Orissa in hopes of securing a writing job for the local newspaper. Once there, he finds no guarantees – only an editor who assigns him the nearly impossible task of procuring evidence that a local missionary is illegally converting Hindus to Christianity.

The missionary is Australian Graham Staines who, along with his wife (Shari Rigby) and 3 kids, run a camp for locals afflicted with leprosy. Staines is played by Stephen Baldwin, the youngest of the Baldwin brothers, and best known for his turn in THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995). Baldwin and his whispered Aussie accent plays Staines as a near-Saint; one who could only be doubted by the most ferocious traditionalists (of which there are many).

Mr. Joshi plays Banerjee as a bit of creepy-stalking guy who spends a little too much time staring at others. He’s conflicted with fulfilling his assignment and discovering the truth about Staines. Banerjee’s own moment of self-preservation likely inspired the horrific event by a mob of Hindu fundamentalists that, combined with some insider information, set Banerjee straight with how to proceed and what to report. In the process, he exposes the corruption and self-interest of rural India driven by the many minds closed by religious traditions.

Director Daniel opens the film with actual footage and archival clips of unrest and turmoil from those times. As you would expect, these clips are more disturbing and provide more intense reaction than anything the movie could produce (except for maybe the horrific event noted above). The overblown and overly-dramatic music doesn’t help the presentation, yet somehow the message of kindness and forgiven is not lost.

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CAPERNAUM (2018, Lebanon)

January 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Rare is the film that casts a kid in the lead role and then features him in most every scene … often with only him and a toddler on screen. It’s even rarer when that kid is a first time actor, and the film gets nominated for an Oscar (Best Foreign Language film). Each of these come to pass in the latest from writer-director Nadine Labaki (CARAMEL, 2007), with a script she co-wrote with four others: Jihad Hojelly, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, and Khaled Mouzanar (Ms. Labaki’s husband, who also produced the film’s music).

The film opens in a courtroom setting which acts as a framing device for a story that is told mostly through flashbacks. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is asked by the judge why he is suing his parents. His answer: “Because I was born.” Zain is an undernourished 12 year old Lebanese slum-dweller who lives with his parents and an indeterminate number of brothers and sisters. Zain is particularly close to his 11 year old sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam), and the two work odd jobs on the streets to bring home money and food for the family. When Sahar comes of age, Zain knows this spells change, as their parents view her as little more than an asset that can be traded for chickens. When this happens, an angry Zain runs away from home.

Zain’s adventure takes him from the slums to shantytown, where a kind-hearted, poverty stricken single mom takes pity on him. Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) is an undocumented Ethiopian who works multiple jobs while hiding her toddler Yonas (so freaking adorable). In exchange for food and shelter, Zain agrees to babysit Yonas while Rahil works. The two young boys become like brothers, and when Rahil doesn’t return home, Zain’s street smarts kick in. He reverts to the lessons of his previous life and begins literally scrapping for scraps. His ingenuity is inspiring, as is his full-blown survival mode … all while caring diligently for Yonas.

In the courtroom, director Labaki appears as Zain’s attorney, but it’s the young actor who carries the weight of the film. He is truly remarkable to watch, whether he’s interacting with other street hustlers, conversing with “Cockroach Man” on the bus, or in that final freeze-frame ending, Zain steals our heart. The film is not dissimilar to SHOPLIFTERS, the Japanese film also nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar this year. The title means “chaos” and it begs the question, without paperwork, do we exist to society? Ms. Labaki manages to put a pretty face on a tragic environment, and offer up a rare matter-of-fact melodrama on the hardships for children in poverty.

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