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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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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