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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THE YOUNG KARL MARX (2018)

February 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When the name Karl Marx comes up, most of us recall that iconic photo of the older gentleman with the large grey beard. As with all older gents, they were once young men, and that’s the focus of this film from writer/director Raoul Peck and co-writer Pascal Bonitzer.

The story kicks off in 1843 when young Marx was the editor of “Rheinische Zeitung” and carries us through the 1848 publication of “The Communist Manifesto”. We progress chronologically through Paris, Brussels and London and witness how Marx’s personal life and ideological mission intertwined, leading ultimately to the birth of Communism.

August Diehl (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) plays Karl Marx and Stefan Konarske plays Friedrich Engels. Their mutual admiration brought them together and their commitment, along with the support of their wives Jenny Marx (Vicky Krieps, PHANTOM THREAD) and Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), carried them through and cemented their legacies.

With the endless string of debates and discussion, and the constant struggle with poverty for Marx and his family, the film at times seems repetitive and tedious. It does, however, succeed in making comprehensible the timeline and constant struggle to continue the fight. The process of societal-changing writing is not simple, and we see the different approaches taken by Marx and the upper-crust rebel Engels. The obvious battle between Bourgeoisie and Proletariat remains at the forefront, but we also witness the painstaking networking and research that goes into the work. The two gentlemen share a drink over this toast: “to minds that truly think”.

Today, many in their 20’s, are focused on which direction to swipe, yet at the same age, Marx and Engels were committed to changing the world. The ideals and issues that so dominated their writings (and led to revolution) are every bit as relevant today. We no longer use the terms Bourgeoisie or Proletariat, but class distinction continues to be debated as a source of many global issues – both social and economic. Director Peck (Oscar nominated for last year’s I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO) uses Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” over the closing credits montage of revolutions and historic turning points to ensure we understand that rebellions and convictions do still exist.

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THE INSULT (2017, Lebanon)

February 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a film opens with a statement that ‘the views expressed are those of the authors and director, and not of the government of Lebanon’, one quickly understands the difference in artistic freedom in that country versus what occurs in the United States, where cartoons and memes regularly poke fun at this country’s President. Director Ziad Doueri and his co-writer Joelle Touma present an intense story of human nature that might happen anywhere, but since the leads are a Lebanese Christian and a Palestine refugee, that opening statement is warranted.

One morning, a seemingly innocuous exchange between Tony (Adel Karam) and Yasser (Kamel El-Basha) takes place. While watering flowers on his balcony, the overflow sprays Yasser on the street below. Yasser, a city contractor, orders his team to fix the drainage issue, and Tony reacts violently – leading to Yasser delivering the titular insult. From there, all heck breaks loose. Apologies are requested and never delivered. Appeals to rational reconsideration are made. Tony’s pregnant wife (an excellent Rita Hayek) pleads with him to let it go. Yasser’s boss threatens him with termination. Still, two stubborn and prideful men refuse to give in.

The subsequent courtroom drama feature other side stories, not the least of which is the relationship between the two opposing attorneys (Diamond Bou Abboud and Camile Salaheh), one a rising legal star and the other a veteran attempting to make up for a past failure. Emotions run high as two too-proud men turn what was little more than a playground standoff into a national incident being fought in the legal system and the media. Tony is a hot-head who somehow thinks an apology from Yasser is actually an apology for how Palestinians “messed up this country”. Yasser’s stoic nature barely shrouds his bitterness at the world since the Lebanon Civil War. History and childhood roots play a role, but mostly it’s human nature that is at the core of this escalation.

Though the title is not plural, there are multiple insults slung throughout the film, each reminding us of the power of words and the futility of the “sticks and stones” phrase. Our own prejudices and preconceptions alter our views and reactions, often preventing us from standing in the other fellow’s shoes. Again, this situation could have played out in most any neighborhood on the globe, but this particular locale shows various ethnic and religious groups are still grappling with what it means to live together – despite the years of wars and unrest. We don’t see a great deal of Middle Eastern cinema, but three days after I watched this film, it became the first ever movie from Lebanon to receive an Oscar nomination (Best Foreign Language Film) … proving yet again that the language of cinema is universal.

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HAPPY END (2017)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has blessed us with, what I consider, at least five excellent movies (AMOUR, THE WHITE RIBBON, CACHE, FUNNY GAMES, THE PIANO TEACHER), and though it’s been 5 years since his last, there is always a welcome anticipation for his next project. Unfortunately, this latest is esoteric and disjointed even beyond his usual style. In fact, at face value, it just seems only to be an accusation lobbed at the wealthy, stating that their privilege and cluelessness brings nothing but misery and difficulty to themselves and the rest of society.

We open on an unknown kid’s secretive cell phone video filming of her mother getting ready for bed, followed by the mistreatment of a pet hamster as a lab rat, and finally video of her mother passed out on the sofa – just prior to an ambulance being called. Our attention is then turned to a family estate in Calais, which is inhabited by the octogenarian patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant), his doctor son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), Anne’s malcontent son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), Thomas’ wife and infant son, and the Moroccan couple who are household servants. While her mother is being treated for an overdose, 13 year old Eve (Fantine Harduin), moves in to the estate (Thomas is her re-married father). It’s here that we learn the opening scenes were Eve’s video work … clearly establishing her as a damaged soul.

Initially, it seems as though we will see the family through Eve’s eye, but what follows instead is the peeling back of family layers exposing the darkness and menace that haunts each of these characters. Georges appears to be intent on finding a way out of the life that has imprisoned his body and is now slowly taking his mind through dementia. Thomas is carrying on an illicit affair through raunchy email exchanges. Anne is trying to protect the family construction business from the incompetence of her son Pierre, while also looking for love with solicitor Toby Jones. At times, we are empathetic towards Eve’s situation, but as soon as we let down our guard, her true colors emerge. The film is certainly at its best when Ms. Harduin’s Eve is front and center. Her scene with her grandfather Georges uncovers their respective motivators, and is chilling and easily the film’s finest moment.

The film was a Cannes Palme d’Or nominee, but we sense that was in respect to Mr. Haneke’s legacy, and not for this particular film. The disjointed pieces lack the necessary mortar, or even a linking thread necessary for a cohesive tale. What constitutes a happy end … or is one even possible? Perhaps that’s the theme, but the film leaves us with a feeling of incompleteness – or perhaps Haneke just gave up trying to find such an ending, and decided commentary on the “bourgeois bubble” was sufficient.

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DJANGO (2018)

January 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t mistake this for either the Franco Nero (1966) or Jamie Foxx (2012) movie. This latest from writer/director Etienne Comar centers on Django Reinhardt, one of the most talented and influential musicians of the twentieth century. Based on the novel “Folles de Django” by Alexis Salatko, the story follows the challenges of his escape from German-occupied France.

He is already a renowned (and enigmatic) performer when the film kicks off in 1943 Ardennes, as Django and his band are being contracted by the Nazis to tour and entertain the troops. Of course, he refuses to sign the contract and tour under their terms with limit the style of music he can play. Because of this, Django and his family must flee and disappear underground, while they plan an escape to Switzerland.

His musical influence proliferated the area, and his influence and respect is clear at each step of his travels. In fact, it’s the musical pieces and segments that really stand out here. Reda Kateb (A PROPHET, 2009) gives a terrific and expressive performance as Django, but the musical portions are so outstanding, that we find ourselves not as engaged in the personal saga of escape as we should. Clearly, the war and Nazis are a threat, and when Django says “I’m a musician. It’s what I do”, that serves as his admission that he takes an apolitical stance and does not envision himself as a hero to the people.

As a driving force behind European jazz, and being such an influence on so many guitar players, Django’s legacy is something other than as a war icon. The film certainly could have benefited from more attention to either how his music gained popularity, or what drove him to avoid any political notoriety until it was too late for many of his fellow Gypsies. Admittedly, his escape was crucial and led to his 1945 score, “Requiem for Gypsy Brothers”, of which his conducting leads to the most emotional moment of the film.

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DARKEST HOUR (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Cinematic historical dramas, by definition, face the challenge of overcoming a known and documented outcome. Director Joe Wright (ATONEMENT) and writer Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominated for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) attempt to re-create the tension-packed few days that literally changed the course of history and the free world.

It’s May 9, 1940 and the film takes us through the next 3 weeks of political wrangling that begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister almost by default, as he’s the only candidate acceptable to both parties to replace an ill and weak war time leader Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is skeptical of Churchill and prefers Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), his friend who is likely better suited as Churchill’s adversary and a contrarian than as the actual decision-maker in this crucial time.

Uncertainty abounds within the government and the top priority of debate is whether to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler and Nazi Germany, or fight on against seemingly impossible odds in hope of maintaining the nation’s freedom. Perspective is required here, as at this point, Germany was viewed as an unstoppable military force with Hitler as the leader. The war atrocities and his despicable vision were not yet fully understood. FDR and the United States declined to help and Churchill had few allies inside or outside his country.

We can talk all you’d like about history, but more than anything, this is a showcase for the best working actor who has never won an Oscar, Gary Oldman. This is an actor who has played Lee Harvey Oswald and Sid Vicious, and probably should have won the award in 2012 for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Earlier this year, I was impressed with Brian Cox as the lead in CHURCHILL (which was set four years later), but Oldman’s Churchill looks, sounds and moves like the real thing. We see the familiar profile and silhouette in numerous shots, and it’s actually kind of thrilling.

The always great Kristin Scott Thomas plays wife Clementine, and she shines in her too few scenes. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s bright-eyed secretary and confidant, and she has a couple of nice exchanges with Winston – especially the one explaining the “V” hand gesture. Another favorite line has a character state, “I love to listen to him. He has 100 ideas every day … 4 of which are good … 96 of which are dangerous.” It’s this type of writing that emphasizes the opposite approaches between this film and Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which utilized minimal dialogue as opposed to the emphasis on words taken by Mr. Wright’s film.

We go inside the House of Commons to experience real political gamesmanship, and see the hectic activities inside the war room as typewriters are being pounded while strategies and alliances are being formed. It’s an example of politics driven by a fear of action (by most) while there is a touch of hero worship as Churchill stands alone for much of the film. Some creative license is taken as Churchill rides the Underground (subway) in order to connect with citizens and take their pulse on war … despite most having no clue just how desperate things are. We see tremendous and tragic shots of Calais, and the wide range of camera work really stands out thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also masters the indoor lighting and shading.

Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk is discussed briefly (this would be the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece from earlier this year), but mostly this is the personalization of those who politicize war. The good and bad of history is made up of people, good and bad. Yes, there are a few too many Hollywood moments here, but Oldman does capture the pressure, isolation and belief of the historical figure who helped save a country, and perhaps the world. We hear two of Churchill’s most famous speeches: the “Never Surrender” speech to Parliament and “We shall fight them on the beaches …” prompted by the red glow of the “on air” radio light. There are many published books that provide more detail, but Oldman’s performance does guide us through what the Prime Minister must have gone through … and that’s worth a ticket and a gold statue.

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THELMA (2017)

November 24, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joachim Trier continues to deliver projects with his frequent writing partner and collaborator Eskil Vogt that cause us to take note of their intriguing and always (so far) interesting filmmaking. They may not be the fastest workers – OSLO, AUGUST 31 came out in 2011 and it has been over two years since LOUDER THAN BOMBS – but we can’t help but appreciate their original stories and unique vision.

A chilling opening of a father/young daughter hunting trip sets an uneasy tone for the rest of the film. We then flash forward to that young girl heading off to college. Eili Harboe is excellent as Thelma, a quiet young woman leaving home and her protective parents for the first time. Thelma has had a restrictive Christian upbringing and she’s now a withdrawn, socially inept college student, simultaneously anxious to explore her new freedom and guilt-ridden with every new experience.

The school library is the setting for the first chance encounter between Thelma and Anja (Kaya Wilkins). We witness Thelma’s blushing and uneasiness, and soon birds are crashing into the windows as Thelma writhes on the floor in full seizure. The girls cross paths again and the flirtations are followed by a heavy dose of Thelma prayers. This independence and sexual attractions leads Thelma down the ever-progressive road of dancing, booze, drugs (sort of), and sex – the only thing missing is rock ‘n roll. An awkward dinner with her parents (Ellen Dorrit Peterson and Henrik Rafelsen) leads to more guilt and more seizures, as the two appear connected.

Director Trier’s film is not easily categorized. It’s part drama, thriller, romance, supernatural horror, and religious commentary. There are some supernatural similarities to two films from the 1970’s – CARRIE and THE FURY, and the abundance of religious imagery leans heavily towards the former.

Some unusual camera angles and shots add visual interest to what for much of its runtime is an amorous courtship between the two leads. There is an always present cloak of uncertainty courtesy of the extreme helicopter parents and Thelma’s unpreparedness in dealing with adult feelings. We instinctively realize there’s more going on than the parents let on, but these are essentially quiet people who hold much inside. That theme carries over to the movie as a whole, which is a quiet, but sneaky film on the power of thought … both positive and negative.

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