SUMMER 1993 (2017, Spain)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In Sean Baker’s 2017 surprise indie hit THE FLORIDA PROJECT, we viewed a challenging family environment through the ever-optimistic eyes of a young girl intent on making the best of every day. On the opposite end of the spectrum is this autobiographical tale from writer/director Carla Simon in her first feature film. Co-written with Valentina Viso, this story is about one young girl’s struggle with grief and a cold-water splash into a new family.

Six year old Frida is left orphaned when her mother dies. She eavesdrops through half-closed doors as adults make arrangements for who will take care of her. Uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) and Aunt Marga (Bruna Cusi) agree to raise her, requiring the young girl to relocate from Barcelona to a remote Catalonia village bordering a forest. It’s an idyllic setting for most young kids, however, paradise doesn’t exist for a young girl who has lost both parents.

Initially it seems to be simply ‘kids being kids’. As more oddities occur while Frida plays with her 3 year old cousin Anna, we begin to believe that Frida’s rebellious acts may actually be that of a disturbed young child incapable of dealing with nearly unbearable sorrow. Clearly Aunt Marga runs a more disciplined household than Frida’s (apparently) eccentric mother, though it’s quite obvious to any parent that Frida is vying for attention – literally competing with the younger Anna for the love of parents. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

We view most everything from the viewpoint and perspective of the kids. Even the camera angles are often eye-level for a 6 year old. This is a terrific approach by filmmaker Simon since Child Psychology is at the core of the story. As adults, we look to teach and protect, while sometimes overlooking the undeveloped emotional maturity in youngsters.

There is brilliance in the story-telling process here as adult viewers (it’s certainly not a movie for kids) will catch the hints and partial details that Frida can’t possibly process. The disease that killed her mother, though never stated, becomes clear. That cause also leads to unexpected reactions to Frida by others. The lack of sentimentality or over-dramatization is delivered through lazy summer days that lull us into complacency before awakening us to what could be. Two amazing child actresses, Laia Artigas (Frida) and Paula Robles (Anna) keep us captivated as director Simon unfolds her life onscreen.

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ON CHESIL BEACH (2018)

May 30, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those movies that has the look and feel that leaves me believing I should like it more than I do. Ian McEwan (the excellent ATONEMENT) adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and it’s by no means a cookie-cutter story. The feature film debut of director Dominic Cooke features one of today’s most talented leading ladies, a strong supporting cast, and some stunning outdoor scenery from a very beautiful part of the globe.

The story kicks off in 1962 England with a setting that could easily be a one-Act stage play. We are in a hotel room immediately after the ceremony of a newlywed couple. Awkward movements and forced conversation are interrupted by a formal dinner being served in the room by two waiters. The expected post-dinner gawkiness leads to a bedroom scene ravaged by emotional trauma that goes far beyond inexperience. It’s disastrous and leads to full disclosure along the shoreline of Chesil Beach, Dorsit.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Florence and Billy Howle is Edward. Through flashbacks we witness both their budding romance as eager youngsters, as well as pervious childhood moments that now seem to matter. We learn Florence is Mozart, while Edward is Chuck Berry. Maybe opposites do attract, however, the class differences become more obvious as we meet the respective parents. Florence’s mom (Emily Watson) and dad (Samuel West) are upper crust types who don’t take kindly to her infatuation with one not of their ilk. Edward’s dad (Adrian Scarborough) is a school teacher and his mother (a marvelous Anne-Marie Duff) is an eccentric artist, “brain-damaged” in a freak train accident.

Florence and Edward are victims of their time … a time of sexual repression, where such conversations simply did not occur. It’s not so much a story of rejection as it is of being not accepted, though it’s clear how childhood led each down their path. Had the film remained focused on this fascinating story line, it likely would have been better received by this particular viewer. Instead, we are subjected to an ending that crashes and burns as it attempts to provide resolution for characters that should have none. A flash forward to communal living in 1975 and a 2007 farewell concert at the beautiful and historic Wigmore Hall (opened in 1901), are little more than a show of disrespect to those viewers who invested in the unfortunate tale of Florence and Edward.

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SWEET COUNTRY (2018)

April 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For whatever reason, Australia and Westerns seem to go together quite well. Perhaps it’s the naturally beautiful vistas that seem to stretch forever. Maybe it’s the slower pace and the accent that provide the perfect blend of comfort and danger. What matters is that director Warwick Thornton has delivered another gem from the Outback genre.

That previously mentioned blend of slow pace and danger is evident in the opening scene. Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is napping in a rocking chair on his front porch until being startled awake by the snorting of a stranger’s horse only a few feet away. The new neighbor is Harry March (played by Ewen Leslie), an ornery war vet who drinks too much and is racist to his core.

The film is set in the 1920’s, although it doesn’t really matter when. It’s more about the what, the why and the who. The racism on display would be just as believable in contemporary times, though this Outback seems especially far out. Neighbors are rarely seen, and the town is so small, they watch silent movies (The Kelly Gang) and hold court outside on the dusty main street.

Co-writers Steven McGregor and David Tranter have created a story that likely has played out in real life, although hopefully not to this extreme. A series of events occurs: indigenous Australian Sam Kelly (played exceptionally well by non-actor Hamilton Morris) is coerced into helping March put up a fence, March crosses the line with Sam’s wife, a young boy Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) is always stirring up trouble and pilfering things, and a drunk March accuses Sam of hiding the boy and violence erupts leaving the “white fella” dead and Sam and his wife on the run.

Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is the local law – he even proclaims “I am the law” – and he forms a posse to track down Sam so he can stand trial. The posse includes March’s friend Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), Sam’s employer Fred Smith (Mr. Neill), and Archie (Gibson John), an indigenous Aussie employed by Kennedy.  Director Thornton uses this chase sequence to paint some extraordinary visions on screen. The natural land is beautiful, and then we come across a stunning and deadly desert in the salt flats. Mr. Thornton acts as co-cinematographer with Dylan River, and the result is a movie that’s a thing of beauty to look at.

Director Thornton uses an array of flashbacks and flash-forwards, sometimes in quick cut form. This approach keeps us on our toes, sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes filling gaps. Against the wishes of the locals, this is a developing country, and many of the locals feel it’s no longer their country – they are kept as laborers, and rarely treated as equals by the new inhabitants. In this world, for this man (Sam), doing the right and necessary thing places he and his family in instant peril. It’s better to run than surrender. The story is very good, though the dialogue is a bit lacking at times. The photography is world class. Though we would have preferred screen vets Bryan Brown and Sam Neill to have more scenes together, the panoramic majesty of Australia is certainly enough … with an added and fitting bonus of Johnny Cash singing “Peace in the Valley” over the closing credits.

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BIG FISH & BEGONIA (Dayu haitang, China, 2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Animated films from Asia will likely always draw comparisons to the films of Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master storyteller behind Studio Ghibli and such animated classics as SPIRITED AWAY, PRINCESS MONOKE, and THE WIND RISES. Some may find it curious to mention Miyazaki when discussing a project from two first time Chinese filmmakers, but their work here is so impressive, the comparison is justified. Not only that, it’s quite clear Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang have studied the master’s work and are believers in his style.

As with any animated film, success can only be had when both the look and the story hold our attention. Supposedly the film took 12 years to complete, and with its intricate weaving of Chinese culture and tradition, and the dreamy visuals, we understand why. While I don’t begin to understand the many references to Chinese mythologies and legends, and most of the classic Chinese literary characters are new to me, the movie has a spellbinding effect that draws us in and leaves us fascinated.

On her 16th birthday, Chun partakes in a rite of passage that involves spending 7 days in the land of humans. See, Chun is from a magical parallel world where “the others” control the human world seasons and tides. And we all know that if one is going to have control over another world, it only makes sense to have a basic understanding of that world and its inhabitants!  Chun is transformed into a red dolphin and shoots through a portal into the land of humans. It’s there that she is saved by a boy, whose courageous act costs him his own life when he is caught in a vortex. Chun is determined to deliver his life back to him … remember, she is from a magical world.

The story really takes off from here and becomes an adventure filled with love and sacrifice. We are told “Some fish aren’t meant to be caged, because they are meant for the sky”, and it’s not until the conclusion that we fully understand. Chun’s mission has her crossing paths with both the Keeper of Good Souls who lives with more cats than anyone should, and a creepy Rat Lady who is the Keeper of less fortunate souls and commands an army of rats for her dirty work. This game of cat and mouse between the two factions of soul-keepers is but one of the many webs of intrigue presented in the story.

As you would expect, these two parallel worlds collide and Chun, her friend Qui, and the hero human who is resurrected as a small fish named Kun are all at the center. Chun must protect Kun for his soul to survive, and this puts her in conflict with her own family who prefer the tradition of keeping the two worlds separate.

“Without happiness, what’s the meaning of longevity?” This quote is at the heart of Chun’s passion, and in fact, also drives her friend Qui to go above and beyond. A debt to be paid sprinkled with love and attraction adds a personal touch to the otherwise fantastical proceedings. Though the visuals are splendid and enough to keep us engaged, it’s the convergence of sky and sea – and Begonia flower power – that move this from a fancy cartoon into a story with depth and meaning. Remarkably, it’s the first film for these two filmmakers, though I do hope we mustn’t wait a dozen years for their next.

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FOXTROT (Israel, 2017)

March 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The most dreaded knock on the door. Every parent or spouse of someone who has served their country during war time fully understands that indescribable feeling of opening the door and seeing uniformed soldiers waiting to deliver the worst possible news. That knock is how Israeli writer/director Samuel Maoz (LEBANON, 2009) chooses to open his film. Knowing her son Daniel is dead sends Daphna (Sarah Adler) into hysterics, and the experienced messengers know to administer something to help her relax and sleep. Her husband Michael (Lior Ashkenazi, FOOTNOTE) stands stunned, mostly unable to respond.

What follows is one of the most stunning first Act performances we’ve seen on the big screen. That is not hyperbole. Mr. Ashkenazi is remarkable over the first approximately 20 minutes as a parent in shock, experiencing devastating grief. The news is debilitating to his physical and mental being. Additionally, the filmmaking during this segment is quite something to behold. The close-ups add a heavy dose of humanity, while the terrific overhead camera angle presents Michael as trapped, while also adding to the disorientation that is so key. The one-hour alarm set to remind him to “drink some water” would be humorous if not for the fact that its structure prevents the man from totally breaking down.

The second Act takes us away from Daphna’s and Michael’s contemporary Tel Aviv apartment and plops us into a remote military outpost where 4 young soldiers are charged with guarding a road passage. Thanks to this boring assignment, the young men find ways of adding interest to their days: timing canned goods that roll down the ever-increasing slope of their sinking-in-the-muck domicile container, raising the bar for the periodic camel that lopes by, and giving the rare passers-by a bit of a hard time as their ID’s are checked. ‘Of course, this is war territory, so when something goes wrong, it goes terribly and horrifically wrong.

Our final Act takes us back to the original apartment as Michael, Daphna and their daughter are working to reconcile their feelings and somehow re-assemble the pieces of their shattered lives … though the shifts from that heartbreaking first Act are what sets the script apart from so many movies. Cinematographer Giora Bejach continues the exemplary camera work during this curious segment that leaves us feeling somewhat uncertain at first.

This family is stuck in the war that never ends. Like so many in the area, they carry burdens, guilt and grief that, like the war, also never ends. That first Act is transcendent filmmaking and acting, and the three acts work together as a prime example of the melding of visual and emotional storytelling. Most of the film takes place in one of two locales, and it’s the subtleties in each shot that tell us what we must know. And yes, the foxtrot dance does play a role, but like most of this film, it’s best discovered on your own.

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LOVELESS (2018)

March 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Divorce is rarely simple or clean or amicable. By definition it changes people’s lives and is typically cluttered by a wide range of emotions that distort one’s thoughts. When kids are involved, the process is even more delicate, even treacherous. Russian filmmaker Andrey Zyyaginstev and his co-writer Oleg Negin follow up their exceptional Oscar nominated LEVIATHAN (2014) with this very intimate project focusing on the tragic impact of resentment and self-centeredness. They have been rewarded with another Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, and deservedly so.

The film begins with stark, almost harsh music as a young boy walks home in the woods after a day of school. Later that evening, his parents are involved in an extremely vicious and demeaning argument. The camera then glimpses the boy from the woods, their son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), behind a door. He has overheard the entire argument and is devastated, quietly sobbing and unable to deal with words no child should hear. As viewers, we too are overwhelmed.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are the boy’s parents, and to say they dislike each other is an understatement. She is a salon owner and he is a generic “salesman” at a Christian company that doesn’t allow divorced employees. She is focused on her phone and new lover, while he is worried about losing his job while his girlfriend (Marina Vasileva) is pregnant. They are fighting over who should raise their son. Neither want him.

With each of these despicable people going about their business, neither notice that the boy doesn’t come home one night. A teacher calls to say he has missed two days of school. It’s at this point where the tone shifts from poor parenting to lackluster police work. In what could be described as the polar opposite of an ‘Amber Alert’, the Russian police rule it a runaway, and in ho-hum manner suggest that the parents give him a few days to return home. This lackadaisical approach lead Zhenya and Boris to turn to an organization that specializes in locating lost kids.

The coordinated search creates a quiet tension that is quite effective. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman’s camera work is extraordinary as it tracks the searches through the forest and an abandoned building that could be a character unto itself. The parents head to the home of Zhenya’s estranged mother. What follows is one of the most explosive movie scenes of recent years. Natalya Potapoya plays the mother and delivers a memorable no-holds-barred diatribe at her daughter Zhenya, who refuses to fight back. We easily understand how a disconnect between parents and kids can gain traction across generations.

The brilliance of the movie is in how we somehow maintain empathy for all of these less-than-ideal people. When Zhenya calmly pronounces that her mother is “God and the Devil rolled into one”, we understand her point while at the same time hope it stimulates self-analysis.

Although we do get a rare Jill Stein reference, it’s quite easy to spot the differences between story-telling in Russia and the United States. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a Hollywood remake, but it would likely tread a bit lighter on the dwelling of past mistakes without losing one’s humanity, and it would surely come up with a more Americanized ending. The detail in Zyyaginstev’s filmmaking is exceptional, and while it may not be entertainment for the masses, the film is a prime example of cinema as emotionally powerful art.

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A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Una Majur Fantastica, 2017)

February 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. A few years ago, Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza delivered a terrific little indie entitled GLORIA (starring Paulina Garcia). It told the story of a single woman in her late 50’s navigating a society not designed to provide happiness for her. This time out Mr. Lelio and Mr. Maza collaborate on the story of another interesting woman, in what could easily be described as a companion piece to their previous film.

Trans actress Daniela Vega stars as Marina, a waitress who moonlights as a singer. The film begins quietly with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a distinguished gentleman enjoying an afternoon spa treatment, before heading over to catch Marina’s singing act. See, Orlando and the much younger Marina are a couple. Their connection is obvious as they spend an evening dining, dancing, and heading to bed. Tragically, Orlando suffers an aneurysm and Marina rushes him to the hospital. When he dies, she is subjected to questioning, accusations, and a true lack of respect by most everyone – doctors, nurses, police, and Orlando’s family.

Marina is questioned by a sex crimes detective (Amparo Noguera) about her relationship with Orlando and whether she was paid or abused. The implication being that she was likely a prostitute. Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) and even ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) have reactions that range from passive-aggressive to threatening towards Marina and forbid her from attending the wake and funeral, and won’t even let her take the pet dog.

Cinematographer Benjamin Echazzarreta uses effectively uses light and color, and quite often has Marina front and center – either head-on or from behind. Marina’s visions and dream-like sequences allow us to understand how the stress of the situation is affecting her, and just how much she misses Orlando. She displays much inner-strength and dignity in the face of hatred and disgust … even while being treated as a criminal and/or victim – really anything except the partner she was.

The film has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. Beautifully photographed with a knockout lead performance from Daniela Vega, the story emphasizes how we so often strive for “normal” that we lose our empathy and humanity in how we treat others. Music is put to good use – even the quite obvious use of Aretha Franklin singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, and there is even a clever use of a McGuffin (a locker key). This well-made film with a powerful message is a reminder to ‘keep on keeping on’.

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