THE LIGHTEST DARKNESS (Samaya svetlaya tma, Russia, 2019)

February 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the movie world, good things rarely happen on a train. In fact, whether it’s the train whistle, the train depot, or the passenger compartment, it’s a warning to viewers that this journey is troubled. So brace yourself. This may be the first feature film for Russian writer-director Diana Galimzyanova (known for video and documentary shorts), but her visual flair and nods to cinematic history are evident and welcome.

It’s billed as the first female directed Russian noir, and it’s clear Ms. Galimzyanova offers up a tip of the cap to Alfred Hitchcock (and others) in this homage to 1940’s Film Noir. Filmed in stark black and white for dramatic effect, the film features a very interesting story structure. Events move forward for the characters on the train, but their individual backstories are revealed in reverse chronological order via flashbacks and recollections. It’s both linear and reverse linear … requiring the viewer to pay attention and keep up!

So, who are these characters? We have Ruslan, the OCD private detective played by Rashid Aitouganov. The self-described “Crime Solver” has his frustrations at being unable to solve a case playing out with him compulsively wiping his hands. Next we have arrogant and judgmental concert pianist Elina played by Marina Voytuk. Elina boasts that her face is recognizable from the marketing posters for her concerts. Lastly we meet screenwriter Arina, played by Irina Gevorgyan. Arina claims she is researching for her computer game being written from the perspective of the murderer.

What murderer you ask? Well it turns out there is a serial killer nicknamed The Fruiterer, who is responsible for 6 murders over the last 6 months – all on the same train route that our 3 characters find themselves on. The nickname stems from the fresh strawberry the killer leaves by each body. If you enjoy the armchair detective work that goes along with murder mysteries, you’ll get a real kick out of this. Processing the interaction between the characters on the train, and blending in the details we pick up from the flashbacks leaves us filtering out what matters and what doesn’t. During the flashbacks we meet an unconventional therapist name Izolda (Kolya Neukolin) who seems to have a strange power over clients. Izolda is a key character, and also entertaining are the two knockout train conductors who have quite the side gig going on this route they refer to as “murder express.”

The opening of the film shows us a suitcase being packed with instruments of destruction. As with most mysteries, each clue must be taken with a grain of salt. Strangers, suitcases, secrets and strawberries all play a part in keeping us off balance. The film works thanks to the psychological uncertainty as we attempt to assess each character and what each tidbit means. When one of the characters says, “I can’t stand to talk to grieving people. They are so self-absorbed”, we understand each of these people has their flaws, but no one jumps out as the obvious killer.

The black and white photography, harsh lighting with shadows, and story structure add elements to the suspense and the surreal tone of the film. The camera angles and shots via mirrors, as well as the disconcerting score (often harpsichord) add intrigue to the bounty of clues and fake clues. It’s a fun movie to watch and a challenge to try and solve ahead of the reveal. For fans of murder mysteries and/or Film Noir, it’s a train ride worth taking.

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CORPUS CHRISTI (Boze Cialo, 2019, Poland)

February 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are two camps of thought. You either believe people don’t change, or you believe that people can change. This feature film from Poland has been Oscar nominated for Best International Feature Film. In this film inspired by true events, director Jan Komasa and writer Mateusz Pacewicz will challenge your thoughts on people and change, as well as the role of Faith.

Twenty-year-old Daniel (a powerful and mesmerizing Bartosz Bielenia) is being paroled from the Juvenile Detention Center he’s been at since committing a violent crime. While incarcerated, Daniel has experienced a spiritual awakening, and is disappointed when Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat) informs him that his criminal record bars him from attending Seminary and becoming a priest. After a night of partying with his old buddies and attending to other releases not permitted at the center, Daniel eschews the provided job at a sawmill. He then stumbles into a temporary spot as a priest in a small community where the elder vicar’s (Zdzislaw Wardejn) health issues require him to take some time off.

Wearing a stolen priest collar, Daniel studies feverishly in order to lead mass and hear confessions. He falls back on what he has seen and heard from Father Tomasz, and even assumes that name for identity. Daniel has stepped into a community that is still reeling from a tragic car accident that took the lives of many locals. The widow (Barbara Kursai) of the “other” driver has been ostracized by the community, while mourners gather at the same site each day. Daniel befriends Marta (Eliza Rycembel), the sister of one of the victims, and he is assisted with his duties by Marta’s mother Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), who is suspicious of young Daniel, and still carrying much anger towards the man (and his widow) responsible for her son’s death.

Of course we know, even if Daniel sometimes forgets, that his past will eventually catch up with him. In the meantime, his enthusiasm and sincerity and youthful wisdom win over many in the community, and start the healing process among those who didn’t think it possible. These are people desperate for guidance, and they find themselves drawn to this young man so devoted to helping. Some of the most interesting scenes include the town mayor (Leszek Lichota), who also runs the sawmill. He’s a power broker for the town, and Daniel instantly recognizes his arrogance.

What is true Faith? Has Daniel turned a new leaf or is it an act? We know violence is in his make-up, but we also see that he is actually helping folks – he’s making a difference. There is a funeral procession that is quietly affecting, and the theme of forgiveness is crucial throughout. Mr. Komasa’s terrific film has been very well received at festivals, and it is sure to inspire many deep discussions. People are drawn to those who will assume the pulpit, and though the ending is brutal and crushing, we are reminded that no feeling compares to doing good for others … it’s addictive.

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STOLEN (Japan, 2020)

February 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. As the film opens, we are informed that since 1977, there have been 13 confirmed cases of Japanese citizens being abducted by the North Korean government. No reason is known, and countless other “disappearances” are suspected to fall under this same crime. Writer-director Taka Tsubota’s first film could be described as a political drama, a family drama, societal commentary, or international crime mystery. While it touches on each of these, the film, at its core, is a look at the turmoil and anxiety that strikes when a family member goes missing. Importantly, it’s inspired by real life events from within Japan.

The Hiiragi family is a mess. The youngest son, Tetsuya, has gone missing – presumed abducted by the North Koreans, given the history and that no ransom has been demanded. What we witness is the fallout: how each of the family members reacts, how the media treats the story, and how society as a whole leans toward victim-shaming. The father and mother are played by Takahiro Ono and Miwako Izumi, respectively. Dad has a background as a conservative journalist, and the couple experienced some bumpy marital times a few years prior. Both of these items come back to haunt them as the media pokes and prods for a story.

Kaede (played by Mizuki) is the daughter, a hard worker who gets fired from her job due to concerns for her employer’s image. Yuichi (Yuki Kawashima) is the oldest son, and we see him obsessed with boxing. His reasons are initially unclear, but become the heart of the film’s conclusion. Of course, the media (and others) interpret his focus on boxing as indifference towards his missing younger brother, adding fuel to the fire that this is some elaborate hoax meant to attract attention to the father’s political beliefs.

Guilt, confusion, and frustration are spread throughout the family as the media and society turn against them. Their lives are picked apart – past and present – and anything that can possibly be twisted as evidence is thrown at them. Is anything more disturbing than having personal family issues on public display? It’s fascinating to see the many reactions … especially those of the individual family members. Sometimes a family only has each other, and a reminder of this can arrive in many ways – some of which are emotionally draining. Although director Tsubota’s focus is on the Japanese culture, it’s very easy to see the similarities within American society. Victim-shaming is an easy sport in which to participate … just pray the full force is not aimed at you.

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INCITEMENT (Israel, 2019)

January 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Since November 4, 1995, the day that Yigal Amir shot and killed Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speculation has existed that there could have been peace in the Middle East – if only the assassination had not occurred. The film opens on the first Oslo Peace Accord in 1994. Why was there a segment of the population concerned about possible peace? They were angry at the idea of surrendering their “promised land” to Palestinians and the Chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat.

Writer-director Yaron Zilberman and co-writers Yair Hizmi and Ron Leshem aren’t focused on what an end to the hostilities might look like today. Instead they offer up a psychological study of Yigal Amir (played by a forceful Yehuda Nahari Halevi) and what drove him to take the fateful action that changed the course of history. The film is presented as a slow-build thriller, and it mainly takes us through Yigal’s transformation from activist to assassin … a giant and significant step.

Yigal is a Law student at Bar-Ilan, and the college campus is filled with protests and tables dispensing information on all sides. Soon enough, Yigal is seeking counsel from rabbis who seem to be on board with revenge. When someone becomes obsessed, it’s not uncommon for them to ‘hear what they want to hear.’ Yigal sees Rabin fitting into the Jewish law of “pursuer/Rodif and Informer”, and he believes himself to be guided by Talmud and rabbis. The film is not about Yigal’s glory, but rather WHY he did it.

Alternatingly charming and frightening, intelligent and foolish, Yigal organizes a rebel movement for what he sees as a coming war. To him, there is no line between religion and politics. With archival footage of Netanyahu speaking out against Rabin and the peace project, it just pushes Yigal that much closer to action. There are three women who cross paths with Yigal and have varying impacts on him. His mother convinces him he is due for greatness (again, he interprets in his own way); Nava (Daniela Kertesz) is attracted to him, but can’t come to grips with his beliefs; and Margalit (Sivan Mast), who respects Yigal and understands how to lead him deeper down his chosen path.

There is a terrific scene between Yigal and his father, where the parent is emphasizing to the son he knows he’s losing that only the hand of God should determine Rabin’s fate … not an idealistic young man. The Oslo II accord from 1995 leads Yigal to conclude that Rabin is a traitor, and that it’s God’s will for Yigal to “let him go out like a tyrant.” This is all chilling to watch, and it helps us comprehend the vicious cycle of violence that plagues the Middle East. The film was Israel’s official submission for Academy Award consideration.

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January 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Daniel Alfredson directed two of the three films in the original “Millenium” trilogy by fellow Swede, the late Stieg Larsson. He handled THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST. Alfredson has now signed on to direct a trilogy of films based on Hakan Nesser’s “Intrigo” novellas. This is the first in the series, with “Dear Agnes” and “Samaria” coming soon (each with completely different casts).

Nesser’s stories have been adapted for the screen by Alfredson and Brigitta Bongenheim, and they face the challenge of all crime stories making the move to movies … how to create an equal level of suspense. Benno Furmann (JOYEUX NOEL, 2005) stars as David, a translator by profession who has written his first novel. We first see David on vacation with his wife Eva (Tuva Novotny, ANNIHILATION, 2018), who spoils his plans by telling him she is leaving him for her therapist. We next see him planning or imagining her death.

Flash forward three years and David has arranged a meeting with successful writer Alex Henderson (Sir Ben Kingsley, Oscar winner for GANDHI, 1982) in hopes of receiving advice on his debut novel. Their meeting takes place at Henderson’s isolated island retreat, which serves as his primary residence away from ‘people’, the lot of whom he readily admits he doesn’t much care for. Henderson agrees to let David read passages of his novel, and the ‘cat and mouse’ game is afoot.

David has been contracted to translate the final book of Austrian writer Germund Rein, who recently committed suicide (mysteriously) while at sea. As the twists and turns unfold, David begins to wonder if there is a connection between Rein and his own story. A simple cough heard while listening to a radio concert sends David on the road. He discovers a code within Rein’s manuscript, and the film bounces between the multiple stories and layers.

When David’s fiction crosses over with his own reality, it’s our job as viewers to keep up and distinguish between the two. It’s not always easy as the structure seems designed to confuse. On the other hand, some of the aforementioned twists and turns might as well have neon signs explaining what is about to happen, why it happens and how it is related to what has already happened. Because of this, the film lacks the tension suspense and conflict necessary for this type of story. Storytelling is the focus, but it’s that storytelling that is the film’s downfall. While it’s always fun to watch Kingsley tear into a role, and some of the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous, we do hope the next two chapters of Nesser’s books transfer better to the screen.

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LES MISERABLES (France, 2019)

January 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being the new student in school can be an emotionally trying experience for some kids. Now take that pressure and put it in a patrol car for law enforcement in a tough part of town where racial and religious tensions are always on edge. The ‘new kid’ in this case isn’t a kid, but rather an adult cop … and the experience will eclipse ‘trying’ and shift directly to life-altering. “Ever since 2005 …” is a line that reminds us that the Paris riots of that year remain fresh in the minds of locals, and police harassment is applied to most every stop or interrogation. This is an area that has yet to reclaim balance and writer-director Ladj Ly, having grown up in this part of the city, is more qualified than anyone to tell these stories.

Montfermeil is the Paris suburb where Victor Hugo wrote his classic 1862 novel “Les Miserables”. Recently divorced Stephane (played by Damian Bonnard) has transferred to the Anti-Crime Squad (ACS) in the area to be closer to his young son. His first day on the new job involves riding on patrol with local officers Chris and Gwada, who are veterans of these streets. Chris (played by Alexis Manenti) is a racist, hardened by the locals who have nicknamed him “Pink Pig”. Chris’s intimidation methods are old school and iron-fisted. Gwada (played by Djebril Zonga) is an African-Muslim who tries to capitalize on his own roots with locals, even though they now consider him a traitor.

Immediately obvious is the fact that Stephane’s ‘by-the-book’ approach doesn’t meld with the forceful posture assumed by Chris and Gwada. “Greaser” is the nickname Chris gives to Stephane, emphasizing that the new cop doesn’t fit on the streets or in the patrol car. As the prime example of how this environment can cause a small situation to escalate quickly due to one wrong word or movement, a young thief named Issa takes a lion cub from a travelling circus as a prank. The next thing we know, the Muslim Brotherhood is involved and threats are flooding every interaction, creating tensions for all. When the cops finally track down Issa, an accident occurs that further escalates the tensions between various street factions and the cops. Things get really ugly when it’s discovered a young boy captured the event with his drone.

Director Ly opens on citywide excitement at the 2018 World Cup with a backdrop of Paris sites such as The Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. The script from Ly and co-writers Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti doesn’t allow us to wallow in the happiness for long. Soon, we are on the streets with the cops in Victor Hugo’s (and Ly’s) setting – contemporary only in look, not feel or substance. We are dropped into an environment where each moment is dictated by racial-social-political lines. Foot chases, car chases, and confrontations are de rigeur. Disenchantment cloaks kids and adults alike, and the fear of anarchy never wanes. A bad day for Issa turns into maybe the worst ever first day for Stephane. This is one of the year’s most incredibly tense and gripping films, and one that leaves us exhausted and dumbfounded. It’s a brilliant work.

January 2020 UPDATE: The film has been Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film

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INVISIBLE LIFE (Brazil, 2019)

January 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Masterful storytelling when combined with expert filmmaking is a treasure to be appreciated and enjoyed, even if the story is not so pleasant. Such is the case with this gem from writer-director Karim Ainouz, who adapted the screenplay with Murilo Hauser and Ines Bortagaray from the novel “The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao” by Martha Bathala. Based in Rio de Janiero, the film blends the vibrant colors of the area with the traditional and restrictive Latin American family expectations of the 1950’s.

The story spans 5 or 6 decades, and when we first meet sisters Euridice and Guida, it’s clear they share a tight emotional bond that goes deeper than blood. Though their personalities differ greatly, they are both ahead of their time and out of step with the conventions of the era. Euridice (a strong performance by Carol Duarte) longs for independence and aspires to be a concert pianist after a hoped-for Conservatory in Vienna, while Guida (a powerhouse Julia Stockler) is a dreamer seeking true love, and whose party girl ways must be kept hidden from their conservative father. Both young ladies are spirited, yet respectful.

Their lives are forever altered when Guida runs off to Greece with her sailor lover. As is too often the case with young dreamers, she returns home once her spontaneous choices prove to be poor judgment. Her father rejects his pregnant daughter since, in his eyes, she has disgraced the family. The parents mislead Guida about her sister’s whereabouts, so Guida assumes Euridice is off at conservatory fulfilling her dreams. This sets Guida off on her own solitary path.

In actuality, Euridice has married and experienced one of the worst ever wedding nights, featuring what is likely cinema’s most unsexy bathroom lovemaking scene. There is an element of horror films to this segment of the film, as the sisters are living their worst nightmares, while being separated from each other … unable to communicate. The male-dominated Latin culture and family traditions prevent their mother from ‘disobeying’ the father’s order, so the cruel lie continues as the sisters unknowingly live their lives within the same town. There is even one excruciatingly painful-to-watch scene that finds them in the same restaurant at the same time, yet oblivious to the presence of the other.

Each woman’s inner-strength pushes them forward. Guida (now Gisele) befriends a wise former prostitute Filomena (an excellent Barbara Santos) who becomes her mentor in poverty. Euridice tries to make the best of her situation while keeping her dream alive. Mostly what we have is a tragic story without one specific tragedy – other than the daughter spurned by her father. There are so many moments of pain and frustration, with undelivered mail being among the worst. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Helene Louvart, and it reminds us that ‘life happens’, and it’s not all love and Bach. This is an emotional and heart-breaking story, and devotees of The Lifetime Channel will likely be disappointed in the ending. For me, I have no qualms about the emotional wringer the film puts viewers through – even after the opening scene foreshadowing.

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