UNDINE (2021)

June 3, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. German filmmaker Christian Petzold has a track record of creating thought-provoking, intelligent, and ambitious films such as BARBARA (2012) and TRANSIT (2018). This time out he re-teams his TRANSIT co-stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in a film that’s more fable or fairy tale than conventional storytelling. If forced to label, we might go with Fantasy-Romance-Drama-Mystery, which really means the film doesn’t easily fit into a known genre.

The film opens with a very uncomfortable break-up scene between Johannes (Jacob Matschentz) and Undine (Ms. Beer). When he says they are done, she responds, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” While researching the name Undine, I stumbled upon the 1811 German fairy tale of a water nymph Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet, which clearly inspired Petzold. The story has some similarities to “The Little Mermaid”, itself a Danish fairy tale originally written by Hans Christian Anderson. It helps to know all of this upfront to prevent some of the frustration that goes with deciphering what is real and what is imagined.

As one would imagine, water is a recurring element throughout – beginning with Undine’s chance and unusual café meet-cute with Christoph (Mr. Rogowski). The two find themselves attracted and connected after being drenched. Christoph is an industrial diver, so water is a part of his life … as is ‘Big Guenther’, the legendary giant catfish he spots while on a job. Undine is a historian who holds sessions for tourists during which she recounts the architectural evolution and urban sprawl of Berlin over the past centuries, by utilizing scale models of the different eras. We also learn that “Berlin” means marsh, or a dry place in the marsh … yet another water-related aspect.

Ms. Beer, who was so good in FRANTZ (2016) and NEVER LOOK AWAY (2018) continues her fine work, and reuniting with her TRANSIT co-star, Mr. Rogowski (VICTORIA, 2015) works out beautifully, as they have a nice rapport. Mr. Petzold’s film has a supernatural element and is dreamlike at times, and though I’ve used the “fairy tale” description, it’s clearly a very high concept film for grown-ups … and there is enough humor (“Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees) to offset the doomed relationships and Undine’s return to her natural element. It’s quite a trip for those who are up for it.

In theaters and On Demand June 4, 2021

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THE DRY (2021)

May 20, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Remember when an exonerated OJ Simpson vowed to dedicate his time to finding “the real killer” of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman? For some reason that memory came back in the early stages of this film as a Melbourne-based Australian Federal Police agent returns to his isolated hometown after his childhood friend is implicated in a murder-suicide. See, that agent left town as a teenager when he was suspected of being involved in the murder of a local teenage girl.

Eric Bana (MUNICH, 2005) stars as that AFP agent Aaron Falk. He’s been gone for 20 years, but agrees to return for the funeral of his friend Luke (Martin Dingall Wall) at the request of Luke’s parents (Bruce Spence, Julia Blake). The parents don’t believe Luke would have killed his wife and one of his two kids and then committed suicide, and they want Luke to investigate. Of course, the rest of the town believes Luke did it, and most are none too happy that Aaron has returned, as they haven’t forgotten the suspicion tied to him for the tragedy that took the life of his friend Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) so many years ago.

The stark contrast of glass and steel Melbourne towers and the drought-stricken cracked soil of (fictional) Kiewarra are as distinct as the comparison of today’s Kiewarra with Aaron’s flashbacks to those carefree days of swimming in the river with Ellie, Luke and their friend Gretchen – who is now a single mom played by Genevieve O’Reilly, and one of the few to welcome Aaron back. The film is based on the 2016 international best-selling novel by Jane Harper, and there is a lot to keep up with, despite a pace that never feels rushed. The two cases may be separated by twenty years, but they seem connected, even though we aren’t sure how murder and suicide and a slew of suspects all fit together. Aaron works with local police officer Greg Raco (an excellent Keir O’Donnell) in an attempt to make sense of what’s happened.

There are angry and suspicious people throughout the town. William Zappa plays Mal, Ellie’s grudge-bearing father, while Matt Nable plays her obnoxious and quick-to-accuse cousin Grant. James Frecheville (ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) is local farmer with a motive Jamie Sullivan, while John Polson plays school Principal Scott Whitlam who isn’t quite as put together as he’d like everyone to believe. Farmer Sullivan remarks (with the film’s best line), “You think you’re gonna get the truth in a town like this?”  And by that time, we know exactly what he means.

The flashbacks to Aaron’s teenage years provide much of the context to the story and his character, and they are handled beautifully. It’s a small town whose residents hold an abundance of secrets, rumors, and grudges, creating a web of misinformation that challenges Aaron and Officer Raco. The two cases (past and present) collide, and cinematographer Stefan Duscio does terrific work with the vast, dusty landscape, as well as the many interior shots where the characters reveal their true selves. Writer-director Robert Connolly (a heavy TV workload recently) co-wrote the script with Harry Cripps and Samantha Strauss, and they have created a suspenseful and entertaining whodunit. With the heavy dose of crime shows on TV these days, it’s a pleasure to see a well done film with high production value and a cohesive story. Just remember to use an alibi other than “shooting rabbits”, if you are ever working on a cover story.

Opening in theaters and on VOD on May 21, 2021

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NEW ORDER (2021)

May 20, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. “You say you want a revolution … well, you know … we all want to change the world.” Writer-director Michel Franco hits head-on the always hot, and very current topic of the haves versus the have-nots, and I immediately thought of those Beatles’ lyrics.

Chaos at a hospital and a pile of bodies informs us trouble is brewing on the streets of Mexico. We then cut to a lavish wedding event being held at the luxurious residential compound of the Novellos, a wealthy family whose daughter Marianne (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) is marrying her fiancé Alan (Dario Azbek). Her father Ivan (Roberto Medina) is an important businessman who invited other important people and dignitaries. As the attendees mingle, her mother Rebecca (Lisa Owen) is summoned to the gate to meet with Ronaldo (Eligio Melendez), a former employee who is asking for the money to pay for a surgery his ill wife needs. What follows is the mannered way in which the Novellos react. They give Ronaldo some money, but it’s far short of the amount needed. It’s Marianne who, even on her wedding day, tries desperately to help him.

Marianne has Cristian (Fernando Cuautle), the son of loyal housekeeper Marta (Monica Del Carman), drive her to where Ronaldo lives. Unbeknownst to Marianne, an insurgence has disrupted the wedding festivities and carnage has ensued at her house. Upon arrival at Ronaldo’s house, masked soldiers take Marianne hostage. Her vibrant red outfit and the green paint used by protesters provide symmetry to the national flag of Mexico as the streets are under siege. Many of the elite rich have been killed, while others taken hostage for ransom and torture. Filmmaker Franco expertly captures the frenzy and terror brought on by the revolution.

As the uprising takes hold and the coup progresses, we quickly see the effects of power and greed. Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of the privileged, and that’s likely to offend many. At times we are confused about just how many sides there are in this war, though it seems Franco’s point is that there are no good guys. The film teeters on the line between social commentary and exploitation, due to the violence and greed – we even see the glee on a maid’s face as she loots the valuables from her employer. We find little empathy for anyone here, except of course, for those being held captive and tortured. Certain elements thrive in chaos, and the situation turns to Authoritarianism. The cynical message is that entitlement and corruption exist regardless who is in charge. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The “New Order” is the same as the old – just with new faces. Franco has highlighted unrest specific to Mexico, but also nods to global issues.

“You say you got a real solution … well, you know … we’d all love to see the plan.”

Releasing in theaters on May 21, 2021

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RIDERS OF JUSTICE (2021)

May 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe occurrences that appear related, yet lack a clear connection. Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (Nicolaj Arcel is credited with the idea) starts us off with a slew of coincidences: Mathilde’s bike is stolen, her dad calls to say his military assignment has been extended, her mom decides they should take the train to town, a man surrenders his seat to Mathilde’s mom, a passenger throws away his sandwich while getting off the train, a bomb derails the train after that stop, a key witness in a criminal trial is killed, and the man who gave up his seat is a probability expert who begins assembling the pieces before going to Mathilde’s dad to present his case. Were these coincidences related or is it possible meaning is being found where none exists?

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Markus, who returns home from military service to care for his teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) after the train wreck killed his wife/her mother (Anna Birgitte Lind). The problem is that Markus is a no-nonsense man who deals with his grief by not dealing at all … except for guzzling beer and slapping Mathilde’s boyfriend. Markus is a different look than what we usually get with Mads. His tussled hair has been sheared and he sports a full beard. He’s a combustible man about to burst with pent-up aggression, which makes him especially accepting to the theory he’s about to hear.

Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kass) is the statistical analyst who gave up his seat on the train. His partner Lennart (Lars Brygmann) is a brilliant man, likely on the spectrum, while Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) is an obese loner and computer whiz. This trio reminds of The Lone Gunman from “The X-Files”, and add a dash of dark comedic flair to an otherwise weighty and somber affair. Soon joined by Bodashka (Gustav Lind), a victim a human trafficking, this is a team of flawed and damaged individuals, each dealing with their own personal baggage – while focused on Markus’ obsession with vengeance.

The titular Riders of Justice are a criminal gang whose leader was set to go on trial. The key witness died in the train wreck, kicking off the domino effect for Otto’s theory and Markus’ path of wrath. Can the series of coincidences be mathematically explained, and if so, can this group of overly intelligent, geeky misfits lead the vengeance-seeking husband down the path of vigilante justice?

Filmmaker Jensen nicely balances the moments of extreme violence with the Brainiac segments so that we can easily follow what Markus is doing, and why. The group therapy has us questioning if life can be mathematically predicted, or if coincidences are simply that. Other supporting work comes from Roland Moller and Albert Rudbeck Lindhart, but as you might expect, it’s Mikkelsen who captivates on screen. He’s not skilled as a cuddly parent, but his military training suits this mission. Were this to receive a U.S. remake (hopefully not), we could expect Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington as obvious choices for the lead.

NY & LA theaters May 14th, 2021 and everywhere May 21st, 2021.

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THE MAN IN THE HAT (2021)

May 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Who is the woman in the picture? What did the five men toss in the river? Why are those men chasing the man in the hat? Why is that other man wet? If the man in the hat is running from the five men, why does he keep running into the same people? What are those two measuring now? Why doesn’t anyone (ok, almost no one) speak? Why are there so many questions, and why, by the end, do we not care that most go unanswered?

John-Paul Davidson, known mostly as a travel documentarian, and Stephen Warbeck, an Oscar-winning composer, have teamed up as co-directors and co-writers to deliver an unusual and whimsical road trip movie that tips a cap to the silent comedy films of yesteryear. Adding to the unusual elements is Ciaran Hinds starring as the titular man in the hat. Mr. Hinds is a long-time terrific actor, but not one we think of for jocular comedies requiring exaggerated facial expressions, physical pratfalls, and squeezing into a tiny Fiat for a back roads drive through rural France.

As the film opens, the man in the hat spends the day sharing a table with the woman’s photo at a charming riverside café. That evening, while still seated at the table, he witnesses 5 grown men pile out of a clown car Citroen and dump what appears to be a body into the river. The man escapes with the framed photo and one of the film’s recurring gags is the close calls he has with the five men as they drive through the countryside. The film plays a bit like Homer’s Odyssey in that the only real story occurs as the man interacts with various folks he meets along the way. The Damp Man is played by the always interesting Stephen Dillane, and a lovely woman on a bicycle who exchanges flirtations with hat man is played by Sasha Hails.

Among the strange and wacky paths that cross are a couple of onion-chomping geezers who fix his car, a cluster of singing female mechanics, a solo French biker, and a pair of city workers with a measuring tape and eyes for each other. Music plays a huge role here, which is not surprising given the presence of Mr. Warbeck. Not only does the accompanying music feature an unusual and varied blend of music types, but we also see and hear many local musicians, including Mathilda Homer. And for the finale, music again plays a role, bringing things full circle.

Coming up with a comparison movie is not easy, though one description could be director Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” franchise … if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were not allowed to speak! This isn’t a laugh out loud type of comedy, rather it’s mostly just pleasant and odd. For a drive through rural France or a chance to watch Ciaran Hinds chase his shoe down a drain, this bizarre little ditty from Davidson and Warbeck will work just fine.

In theaters and on demand on May 14, 2021

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LIMBO (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Immigration is an important and hot topic these days, and it should be noted that most countries have challenges with people either trying to get in or trying to get out … and for some, it’s both. Writer-director Ben Sharrock offers a unique and creative look at refugees stuck on a nameless remote Scottish island, awaiting word on their UK asylum request.

Omar (Amir El-Masry, Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” TV series) has escaped the war in Syria, and we learn much about him from listening in on calls to his mother from the only phone booth on the island. An acclaimed musician in Damascus, Omar lugs around his grandfather’s oud (“it’s like a guitar”). As proof of his homesickness, the bulky case never leaves his side, nor does he pull the instrument out to play – music is meant for joyous occasions. Omar shares a small house with three other refugees: Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan, Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) from Ghana, and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) from Nigeria, with the latter two posing as brothers in hopes of improving their odds for asylum.

Omar is a sullen stone-face who absorbs the racist taunts from young locals (they ask if he makes bombs), and stands in contrast to the more outgoing and optimistic (and darn funny) Farhad. Not only does he idolize Freddie Mercury for “teaching” him English, Farhad, with his ever-present cigarette, also captures a chicken and keeps it as a pet. These refugees regularly attend a class entitled “Cultural Awareness 101”, meant to acclimate those from varying backgrounds to the local customs and culture. These segments are mined beautifully for comedic effect, while also giving us insight into all those involved. There are also references to Chet Baker, Donnie Osmond, and the TV series, “Friends”.

This is a terrific film, as well as an odd one. Many of the shots from cinematographer Nick Cooke are static and sparse in style, and though focused on the individuals, the camera also captures much of the isolation of the island. These visuals are stunning in both their simplicity and relevance. It’s a dramedy unafraid to be absurd in a moment, while also being enlightening. At times it has the feel of Wes Anderson without the color palette. We aren’t sure what is worse, the weather or the local postal service. Brutal cold envelops the newcomers, while the delivery route of a postal van (and the reactions of the refugees) is a comedic highlight. Even the local market, with its limited spice selection and directions for urination, draws laughter from us.

Despite the comedy, we never lose sight of these folks being stuck in purgatory. Maybe it’s not true camaraderie, but they seem to take some comfort in numbers as they wait. Omar is carrying guilt and feelings of inadequacy as he chose to leave while his older brother Nabil (Kais Nashif) remained in Syria to fight in the war. There is a wonderful “scene” that allows Omar to make peace with their contrasting decisions, and it leads him back to playing music. After all, “a musician who doesn’t play is dead”. The titular term of Limbo often means stuck, and there is also a game of persistence that uses that name, and both definitions work here. We are reminded that regardless of the various cultures, those in the immigration system have their own personal stories and burdens.

Opens in theaters on April 30, 2021

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THE WHITE TIGER (2021, India)

April 26, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani (the excellent 99 HOMES, 2014) adapted Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel, and for his efforts, he was awarded an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay. The honor is justified thanks to the complexity of the story, though we are never sure if this is satire of, or insight and enlightenment into India’s caste system. Either way, it hooks us early and never lets go.

Adarsh Gourav stars as Balram, and the story is structured via his narration of his own life story as outlined in a letter he drafts to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao prior to his official visit to India in 2010. The timeline stretches from Balram’s youth to the time of the letter, when he describes himself as a Bangalore entrepreneur who rose from poverty to being a self-made man. We are there when Balram overhears the local powerbroker known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) mention that the family needs a second driver. The ambitious Balram borrows money from Granny (Kamlesh Gill) for driving lessons, and soon he’s at the gate talking his way into the job.

Balram is hired as the driver for The Stork’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) who has returned from his time in the U.S. with an American woman, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) by his side. It’s bizarre to see Balram’s eager-to-please ways contrast with the western approach Ashok and Pinky apply. Whereas servants are usually treated poorly, mixed messages are received by Balram, who ends up sleeping in a parking garage storage room while his masters luxuriate in a Delhi penthouse.

A tragic event occurs leaving Balram betrayed by the family to which he’s displayed nothing but loyalty. The film even takes a wicked shot at the Oscar winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), although the films do share some common themes. This film follows the plight of a servant, and takes a particularly close look at the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Just how far can one be pushed before standing up or fighting back. Since the film starts where the story ends, we are prepared for the path, though the actual steps are stunning.

Filmmaker Bahrani floats dark comedic undertones, though it’s never really funny – in fact, most of the story is quite serious. Mr. Gourav excels in the lead role as he explains India’s social structure through big belly vs small belly. His journey takes him through multiple personality shifts – the poor villager busting rocks, the eager to impress new servant, the insightful young man who learns a harsh lesson, and finally, the “self-made” man, confident in his abilities and able to overlook his own actions that got him there.

available on Netflix

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ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2021, Sweden)

April 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. A quarter-century once elapsed between feature films for Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. He only directed a handful of short films between “GILLIAP” (1975) and SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000). Mr. Andersson makes Terrence Malick look prolific. He’s certainly not a traditional filmmaker and this latest is not a typical movie. In fact, its highest and best use may be in a graduate Psychology or Philosophy class, so that the mental capacity of students can be stretched and tested to determine whether Andersson is celebrating life or bemoaning our existence.

The narrator begins most segments with something along the lines of: “I saw a man …”, “I saw a woman …”, “I saw parents …”, and “I saw a couple floating …”. These lead us into static one shot vignettes with little or no dialogue. For example, in the first segment, a woman on a park bench concludes with, “It’s September already.” There is a priest who makes a recurring appearance as one who has lost his faith. In another, parents have lost a son. The emphasis is on the artistic impression and one’s own interpretation.

Over the opening, and again later in the film, we see a couple floating over the ruins of Cologne. It’s Andersson’s take on Chagall’s 1918 painting, “Over the Town”. Another segment is a recreation of Hitler’s bunker in Kukryniksy’s 1946 painting, “The End”. These are simple, stark, low-key snapshots in time. The color palette seems to be off-gray, and the sun never shines in this world – there’s no tanned skin in the bunch. Andersson offers just enough moments of hope/happiness to prevent this from being 80 minutes of full-on depression. We always think he’s trying to tell us something, but can’t always decipher what the intended message is. Like the best art, it’s up to your interpretation, and surely dependent on individual perspective.

Release delayed due to COVID-19

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ANOTHER ROUND (2021, Denmark)

April 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Denmark), its director, Thomas Vinterberg was also nominated for Best Director. Mr. Vinterberg also directed the excellent 2012 film, THE HUNT, and this time out, he collaborates yet again with his co-writer and lead actor from that film: Tobias Lindholm and Mads Mikkelsen, respectively.

Mikkelsen (already one of the few must-watch actors) stars as Martin, a married man, father of two, and history teacher. His long-time friends include Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), a PE coach; Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) a Psychology instructor; and Peter (Lars Ranthe), the music teacher. The buddies are chatting over dinner as they celebrate Nikolaj’s 40th birthday, and they come to realize they are each floating through life – in a mid-life crisis of sorts, neither happy nor sad. It’s at this point where Norwegian Psychiatrist Finn Skarderud’s hypothesis is discussed. They agree to test Skarderud’s theory by maintaining a .05% Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), even while teaching.

Almost immediately, the men each feel mentally sharper, more engaged, and awakened to their lives. Martin re-connects with his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), and becomes a history teacher that inspires students … quite a change from the complaints he had been receiving. The accomplishments of Hemingway and Churchill are discussed, as if alcoholics need role models. And then, to push a good thing even farther, the men decide if .05% works, why not take it to .10%? Well that’s what the men do, and of course, the results aren’t so great – ranging from upsetting to tragic.

Is it possible to re-discover a life that’s being wasted in self-pity or a state of numbness? Can alcohol jolt one back to life after the loss of youth and the reality of adult responsibility? Mid-life crisis has been addressed in many films, and alcohol is often part of the story … think SIDEWAYS (2004). We learn here that the Danish culture involves heavy drinking, and in Denmark, there is an extraordinarily high rate of teenage drinking.

The film is well acted, and Mikkelsen is terrific. Vinterberg dedicated the film to his daughter Ida, who was scheduled to appear in the film before dying in a car crash. He strategically includes Kierkegaard’s quote about life being lived forwards, but only understood backwards, and that truly is the crux of what the men are experiencing. The final scene is extraordinary and unexpected, as Mikkelsen wows with an interpretative and energetic dance to “What a Life” by Scarlet Pleasure. What a life, indeed. And perhaps there is hope after all.

Available on HULU

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GUNDA (2021, doc)

April 15, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We open on a pig in prone position with her head sticking through an opening in the barn. It takes a minute to realize the sow isn’t sleeping, but rather giving birth. Slowly the newborn piglets begin tumbling out into the world. Cutting to a reverse camera angle, we see the 12-13 babies desperately trying to latch onto mom for their first meal. The runt of the litter struggles more than the others. Award-winning filmmaker Viktor Kosakovskiy runs this first segment just over 19 minutes. There is no dialogue. No human on screen. The soundtrack is all natural from nature: the snorts from mama sow, the squeals from piglets, and unseen birds chirping.

Our second segment finds roosters in a crate. Clearly new to the surroundings, and likely never-before “free” to roam the land, these chickens cautiously explore as the camera focuses on their tentative initial steps from the cage and startled reactions to birds. A one-legged rooster captures our attention as it makes its way through the grass and over fallen logs. It’s likely the longest amount of time a movie camera has been dedicated to following roosters around.

We then head back to find the piglets have grown substantially. We don’t know how much time has passed, but we watch along with their mother as the youngsters play in the field, fight with each other, and bully their youngest sibling. Gunda, the mother sow, watches over them just as any mother would watch over her kids. Our third group is introduced as the barn door opens and the cows are released. They romp into the fields like school kids at recess. Some of the cows stare directly into the camera as if to inform us they are ready for their close-up. It’s fascinating to see how they use teamwork for an ingenious head-to-tail solution to the annoying flies that relentlessly pester them.

The final segment returns us to the pigs as they display the same feeding frenzy as one might witness at the buffet on a Carnival cruise. An ending that will surely evoke emotions in viewers, though maybe not at the extreme of Gunda herself. Filmmaker Kosakovskiy leaves us wondering how a black and white film with no dialogue or human characters makes such an impression as it focuses on farm animals. Pork, chicken, and beef. Clearly it’s no coincidence that he chose three staples of the American diet. There is no lecture on animal rights, and none of the brutality of other “raised for food” documentaries is shown. But the message is there. It was filmed on farms in Norway, Spain, and the U.K., but the locales matter little. Director Kosakovskiy previously brought us the excellent AQUARELA (2018), a documentary showcasing the nature of water and ice, and here he assisted Egil Haskjold Larsen with cinematography, and Ainara Vera with editing. It’s an unusual film, and one meant to inspire reflection and thought … and hopefully change.

In theaters beginning April 16, 2021

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