INTRIGO: DEATH OF AN AUTHOR (2019)

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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ONE CHILD NATION (doc, 2019)

December 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Living in a free society means we get to make many of our own life decisions … big ones and small. Of course, those decisions are best if managed within generally accepted societal norms. Most of us can’t even imagine living under the rule of a government that controls something as personal as the number of kids we can have in our family. Well, in 1979 China imposed a “one child” policy. It stood for more than three decades, until 2015. Filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang give us an insider’s glimpse of the effects of this policy by talking to the folks who lived through it.

Ms. Wang was born in China and moved to the U.S. Having recently had a baby, she decided to return to her birth country and explore the effects of the policy under which she was born. The social experiment and restrictive policy was instituted out of desperation for a country whose population was booming, yet the economy and food supply were a mess. She shows us the propaganda that was seemingly everywhere – from artwork on neighborhood walls to television shows. The approach was to make people think this was their patriotic duty, and that one child was the idyllic life.

What has never been discussed or studied was the dark side of what the policy meant. It was a system that encouraged boys and downgraded girls. To Ms. Wang’s credit, she interviews those on both sides of the policy – those who believe it was necessary and prevented over-population, and those who tell the horror stories of families torn apart, babies abandoned, and the secretive human trafficking that occurred. It’s quite devastating to hear these people discuss the personal impact.

The film is autobiographical in nature, in that Ms. Wang is our narrator, often appears on camera, and even interviews her own family members – both to personalize the story and to educate herself. Hearing the story of her grandfather stepping in to prevent sterilization of Nanfu’s mother is incredible. We learn she later had a son who became the favored child within the family. And yes, we get details … very specific details … on the forced sterilizations and abortions that occurred. One doctor takes credit for ‘tens of thousands’ of abortions and sterilizations, which Ms. Wang effectively contrasts with America’s ever-increasingly restrictive abortion policies. These are the two extremes in preventing women’s control of their own bodies.

No top government officials are interviewed, but the implications are quite clear. We even learn of the Utah organization Research-China.org that researches Asian children adopted during this era, often with the adoptive parents unaware of what was happening in China. We even learn of a set of twins who were separated at birth – one raised in the U.S., the other in China. They have never met. Ms. Wang is quite effective as a documentarian-journalist. Though the film lacks any attempt at style points, the details are astounding. She even shows how the Chinese government transitioned from ‘one child’ to marketing the benefits of a “two child” household, and how the propaganda machine kicked in. This film is all about impact, and it will deliver a gut-punch.

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PARASITE (2019, Korea)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least once per year, a movie really hits a sweet spot … something that is fun to watch and not really like anything we’ve previously seen. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho’s latest film is this year’s cinematic surprise. It’s filled with interesting characters, social commentary, a unique setting, a creative and twisty story, and enough tension that we are left stunned as the end credits roll. There have already been a few excellent movies this year, and this is surely to be a memorable addition to the best of 2019.

We first meet the Kims, a family in poverty living in near-squalor in a basement level apartment with one small window. That window is at street level and allows a bit of natural light to leak in, and also provides a too-clear view of drunks targeting the window as they relieve themselves. The family keeps the window open for free fumigation as the city sprayers drive past, in hopes that it will get rid of the pesky stink bug infestation (yes, there is symmetry to this later in the story). The Kim family consists of Dad (a terrific Kang-ho Song), Mother (Hye-jin Jang), teenage son Kevin/Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and 20-something daughter Jessica/Ki-jung (So-dam Park), and they react strongly when they lose “free hi-fi” access from a neighbor’s system. The family seems to make just enough money for their next meal despite somehow underperforming at their family job of folding pizza boxes for a local vendor.

Fortunes begin to change for the Kims when one of Kevin’s friends ask him to take over tutoring a teenage girl for a wealthy family in town. This sets off an ingenious and sometimes quite funny chain of events that result in all four Kim family members working in some capacity for the Parks, the aforementioned wealthy family. The Park’s home was designed by a famous architect and it is a stunning modern hillside home with lush garden and a window that stands in stark contrast to that little window in the Kim’s city apartment. Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) is a 1% tech titan married to a high-strung woman who is an eternally anxious and over-matched mom (a fantastic Yeo-jeong Jo). Their two kids are lustful teenage daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) and hyperactive young son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).

It’s fascinating to watch how this family of schemers infiltrates this gullible and vulnerable upper class home, and how they so are easily trusted thanks to photoshop skills, Google, and a street-wise understanding of how to read people. The script, co-written by the director and Han Jin Won, explores the co-dependency as the rich depend on the poor for service work, and the poor depend on the rich for jobs and a living wage. Given the film’s title, we soon realize that a “host” may have more than one parasite at any time … something that plays out in what has to be the wildest film twist of the year, thanks to an all-out performance from Jeong-eun Lee as the Park’s long-time housekeeper.

The social and class commentaries are spread throughout, and in addition to the window comparisons, you’ll also notice that the walk is uphill to the Parks’ home and downhill (and flood-risky) to the Kim’s apartment. There are multiple layers within the stories and within the individual characters. What begins as a devastating social satire morphs into a wild and crazy time of violence … without losing its general theme. A comedy of familial con artists bursts into a violent class thriller – the price to pay for unearned comfort. The film is not just unpredictable, it smacks us with a jarring twist.

Bong Joon Ho has become a well-respected filmmaker for his previous work: THE HOST 2006, MOTHER 2009, SNOWPIERCER 2013, and OKJA 2017. This latest elevates him to a whole new level. The film is darkly humorous and unpredictable, with excellent performances throughout. It’s also quite something to look at. Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong works his magic, and it should be noted that the Park’s home is a complete set built solely for the film. I challenge you to notice this – I sure couldn’t tell. The film won the 2019 Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, and it is likely headed for many more accolades.

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PAIN & GLORY (2019)

October 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This marks the 13th Pedro Almodovar movie I’ve seen over the last 33 years. There is no logical explanation for why I feel connected to his movies. It seems obvious I have very little in common with the provocative filmmaker from Spain who won an Oscar for his extraordinary 2002 film HABLA CON ELLA (TALK TO HER). Yet, his movies invariably strike an emotional chord with me – and none more so than his latest.

As with many of his previous films (and more than most), this one has a strong semi-autobiographical feel to it. Antonio Banderas stars as aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo. No other actor could have been cast in the role. This is, by my count, the eighth collaboration between actor and director … no actor has a better feel for Almodovar over the past three decades. It must be noted that Banderas does not stoop to impersonation or mimicry. OK, he has similar spiked hair, beard, fancy clothes and a museum-quality house … but the performance is all Banderas, and it’s a thing of beauty. Salvador is an aged man who looks defeated despite numerous career achievements. His physical pains are many – chronic back pain, migraines, sporadic choking – but it’s his emotional isolation and solitude that stands out. Salvador is a lonely man with signs of depression.

The film bounces between two time periods: Salvador as an older man with the above listed struggles, and young Salvador (Asier Flores) growing up in poverty with his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) and dreaming of a better life. The elder Salvador is reflecting on the life journey that brought him to this point, while the younger Salvador is filled with youthful hope for the future, even as his core being is taking shape.

Cinemateque has remastered Salvador’s first big movie “Sabor” and have invited him to attend the screening and participate in the Q&A. He sees this as a chance to re-connect with the film’s star (and his long ago friend) Alberto Crespo (played by Asier Etxeandia). The two haven’t spoken in over 30 years due to bad blood and artistic differences during the filming of “Sabor”. Now understanding Alberto’s approach to the role, Salvador is told by an actress that ‘the movie hasn’t changed, but the eyes you see it through have’. Salvador visits Alberto and soon the actor is sharing his heroin stash with his director. Salvador continues “chasing the dragon” as a form of relief from his physical pain, and as an escape from his solitude. It seems to work much better than his cocktail of prescription drugs.

Rather than a film of drug addiction, this is a film of reflection. Fellini’s 81/2 (1963) is surely the most famous and iconic of the autobiographical films by a director, and though Fellini may have the advantage of esoteric artistry, Almodovar’s signature style is ever-present through primary colors (especially red) and memorable sets. Deserving of special mention are frequent Almodovar collaborators Antxion Gomez (Production Design), Maria Clara Notari (Art Direction), Paola Torres (Costume Design), and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine. The music is provided by 3-time Oscar nominee Alberto Iglesias.

There are some intimate and touching scenes in the film, as well as a couple of lines of dialogue that hit pretty hard. Circumstances are such that Salvador reunites with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the love of his life. It’s a tender reunion that lasts only a short time, but allows for needed closure for both men. There is also a sequence where Salvador is having a heartfelt and intimate conversation with his elderly mother (Julieta Serrano). She tells him he was not a good son. This conversation between adult son and mother is an example of things that should be said, but rarely are. Ms. Serrano previously played Mr. Banderas’ mother in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN and MATADOR.

Almodovar’s movie premiered at Cannes, and it examines our expectations for life and how they contrast to our later recollections. The two timelines show one looking forward as the stage is set, and the other looking back at both the good times and bad. For an artist, it’s the life that molds their influences for their art/craft. Salvador’s memories even play like short movies. There may be no real plot to the film, and instead it focuses on reflection, introspection and perspective. “Love can’t cure the ones we love” is a gut-punch of a line, and one that can’t be comprehended until late in life. For an Almodovar film, this one is restrained and tempered – even tender at times. And yet despite this, it will stick with me for awhile.

watch the trailer:

 


MS. PURPLE (2019)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kasie (an excellent Tiffany Chu) lives with her father (James Kang), who has an unidentified terminal illness, and has been in an extended coma, showing no real chance for recovery. Kasie is the primary caregiver, and out of familial duty, refuses to put him in hospice for professional care. She also works as a Hostess/Escort at a popular Karaoke bar and has a rich boyfriend, although there seems to be no love between the two – it’s more of a business relationship.

Out of necessity, Kasie re-connects with her older brother Carey (Teddy Lee) who bolted from home many years ago after disputes with the father. He seems to have done little with his life, and frequently gets booted from an internet café for lack of cash. Carrying guilt for deserting his sister and father years ago, especially since the mother/wife left home when the kids were very young, he agrees to help Kasie with caregiving, and even takes dad for “road trips”. It’s quite a comical sight to see son pushing dad’s bed through town set to The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). Much of the siblings’ adult issues can be traced to mom abandoning them for a better life with a rich man. Some emotional scars never heal, so this bit of levity is welcomed.

Director and writer Justin Chon (co-written with Chris Dinh) was behind the critically acclaimed GOOK in 2017 (a Korean DO THE RIGHT THING). Here he uses Kasie’s flashbacks to childhood with her dad and brother as a framing device, demonstrating how the father dealt with his wife leaving, and laying out the responsibilities and burdens that family can bring. There are recurring shots of lone palm trees whose significance to Kasie is only explained late in the film … but does provide more insight into the bond she has with her father. The contrast between memories of her father telling her she’s a beautiful girl and the obnoxious, entitled behavior of her rich Karaoke customers is heart-breaking. A nice young valet (the car parking type) played by Octavio Pizano offers Kasie a taste of normalcy and it slowly brings her back towards center.

Ms. Chu carries the film. Her performance relays the vast array of emotions – the duty she fulfills that wears her down. She is quite something to behold. The film has a terrific score of violin music from Roger Suen, and lets us know that finding one’s self while caring for another can be a breakthrough that may sometimes be loud, and may sometimes be quiet. I was fortunate to stumble onto this movie at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival when another screening got cancelled. Such a pleasant surprise,

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