PARALLEL MOTHERS (2022)

January 13, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. As a devoted follower of films by Almodovar for more than 35 years, I still find myself enchanted by his stories, his visuals, his characters, and his consistency in writing complex and engaging parts for women. Oscar winning writer-director Pedro Almodovar’s last film, PAIN AND GLORY (2019) may be considered his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, but this latest proves he still has much to say, and will do so with his customary flair.

I often write about a filmmaker ‘delivering’ a film, and in this case, Almodovar literally serves up dueling deliveries in the maternity ward. The births are edited for a bit of comedic relief, but the sequence also makes the all-important point about the connection between the two mothers. Oscar winner Penelope Cruz stars as Janis, a woman pushing 40 who has a fling with married Arturo (Israel Elejalde). He’s the forensic archeologist working on the project to excavate a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War rumored to hold the remains of relatives of Janis, as well as others from the community.

While awaiting the birth of her child, Janis meets her roommate Ana (a terrific Milena Smit), a 17-year-old who is much less thrilled than Janis at the thought of becoming a mother. The two women of different ages, different attitudes, and different, yet similar, situations give birth on the same day at the same time – each becoming a single mother. The exhausted women have no clue of what is to cause their lives to become intertwined and push the story forward. While in recovery, we are introduced to each women’s support. Janis’ lifelong friend Elena (played by Almodovar favorite Rossy de Palma) bursts into the room (and onto the screen) in a flash of color and smile. On the other side, Ana’s narcissist mother Teresa (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) immediately begins recounting her latest audition, which could lead to the big break in her acting career. As an afterthought, she then asks about the babies. We learn so much in these few minutes.

This becomes the story of the two women and their babies, yet always hovering is a story about the history of the country, and the families affected by the Spanish Civil War atrocities. The story structure isn’t seamless, but then neither is life … especially of those impacted. Past and present have unbreakable links, as do the generations of strong females who carried on. As Janis pursues the archaeological dig, we contrast that with the self-centered Teresa who states, “I’m apolitical. My job is to please everyone.” Of course, by the end, Janis, Ana, and Teresa have all grown as people after facing morally challenging dilemmas.

This is Penelope Cruz’s 8th Almodovar film, and, to no one’s surprise, she excels in the role of Janis. It’s unfortunate that very few actors receive Oscar recognition for Foreign Language films because her work stands with that of any actor this year. Almodovar is a master, and proves time and again that melodrama is not a taboo approach to storytelling when handled properly. On display throughout is his trademark use of color – in clothes, cars, art, and yes, the hospital room. Even his closing credits are stylish. Frequent Almodovar collaborators include Production designer Antxon Gomez, composer Alberto Iglesias (heavy on the strings), and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine … and what a team they make. The film can be viewed as a tribute to (and reminder of) the history of Almodovar’s beloved Spain. He even includes a fitting quote, “History refuses to shut its mouth”, something he works to ensure.

Opens in select theaters on January 14, 2022

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A HERO (2021, Iran)

January 4, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” That line from a Sir Walter Raleigh poem hit me early, and stuck with me through this latest superb film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. Having won me over a decade ago with A SEPARATION (2011), and again 5 years ago with THE SALESMAN (2016), Farhadi excels at pushing our buttons on the complexities of human nature.

Rahim (Amir Jadidi) receives a two day leave from debtor’s prison, and has reason for optimism. He has a legitimate plan to make good on his debt and gain his release. A taxi drops him at the tomb of Xerxes where his sister’s brother Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh) is working on the preservation. Rahim, a low-key guy with an easy smile, asks Hossein for help in brokering a deal with Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), the man who paid off the loan shark on Rahim’s behalf, and filed the complaint that sent him to jail.

The divorced Rahim meets up with his secret lover, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), to cash out the 17 gold coins she recently found. Unfortunately, the exchange rate is less than expected, and worse than that for Rahim, Bahram refuses to accept the partial payment in conjunction with a promissory note. This leads to the aforementioned ‘tangled web’ and allows filmmaker Farhadi to do what he does best … cause us to question everything.

The web involves Rahim, Bahram, the jailer, and a local charity that gets involved for what is initially termed the actions of ‘a hero’. But that’s just the tip of who gets dragged in, and that includes Rahim’s son, who has a significant speech impediment. So what happens? Well, without giving anything away, we learn there’s a fine line between a lie and the truth, and between a heroic act and manipulation. In fact, Farhadi has us questioning what it means to be a hero. What impact does media attention have? Is it heroic to do the right thing? What if that thing also helps you?  What role do the reasons for your actions play?

Rahim faces a steady stream of moral forks in the road. Which path to take at any given time has ramifications on him, his situation, and countless others. As the fibs pile up, soon others are lying to help you or telling stories to hurt you. There is so much grey area here, we can’t be certain whether black and white even exists. Farhadi’s film seems like a simple story about a simple man, but neither the story nor the man are simple. It’s not about the money, but the money reveals character. Reputation and integrity are on the line. We may first root for Rahim and jeer Bahram, but upon reflection, we likely shift our support. This is Iran’s submission to the Academy, and it’s a good one.

In theaters January 7, 2022 and streaming on Amazon Prime January 21, 2021

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PEBBLES (2021, India)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Movies don’t get the credit they deserve for opening our eyes to other cultures and providing a snapshot into the lives of others … lives often unimaginable to us. Another aspect of World Cinema is that it serves as a reminder that people are people all over the globe. Dreams and disappointments are simply a part of the human existence. Often we recognize more similarities than we previously thought. Such is the case with the debut feature film from writer-director P.S. Vinothraj. This is India’s official submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award.

Ganapathy (played by Karuththadaiyann) marches purposefully through the village until he finds his son, Velu (Chellapandi), in the school room. The abrasive father brazenly inquires if the boy prefers him or his mother. It’s not a question the young boy dares answer. As the two begin their journey, it’s clear the man is angry, annoyed, abusive, and we soon learn, alcoholic. He seems ready to burst with pent-up energy and emotion. His goal is to travel to another village and bring back his wife, who returned to her family … and his demeanor leaves little doubt as to why.

The trip involves a bus ride and long walk on the sunbaked dirt trail through the rocky and mountainous desert. The father doesn’t so much walk as stomp, while the small boy follows behind in hopes of minimizing the abuse. Of course, as kids often do, Velu finds his ways to rebel, despite the risk of another slap upside the head.

With only minimal dialogue, director Vinothraj serves up visual storytelling at its finest. The filmmaker is obsessed with details … right down to minutiae. The camera sometimes lingers as if to force us to go deeper than merely noticing something – a woman loading water jugs on a bus, a family catching-prepping-cooking rats for consumption, or a young boy’s collection of the smooth rocks (pebbles) he tucks into his cheek to generate saliva. The remarkable, extended closing shot of women painstakingly filling bottles with precious water is culmination of what we’ve just watched – a slice of life demonstrating how life is complex even in the most remote areas of India, and yet no dissimilar to what we experience.

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DRIVE MY CAR (2021, Japan)

December 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of little films that seem quiet on the surface but deep down have jarring tremors of emotions, then this 3 hour art-house gem from Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is a must-see. The director, along with co-writer Takamasa Oe, adapted the script from the short story by Haruki Murakami, part of his “Men Without Women” collection. The story revolves around Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”.

In what may be the longest prologue in cinematic history, the opening credits finally roll about 35-40 minutes in. But that first segment is absolutely terrific. Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a stage actor and director married to playwright and TV series writer Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their long relationship is bound by their love for each other despite the loss of a child many years earlier. Oh yes, there is one thing. Oto’s creative juices flow best during and after sex. The intimate moments are filled with story ideas that she bounces off her partner. These conversations may continue over meals or during a car ride, but they always begin during the throes of passion.

Husband Kafuku has come to accept these terms, and beyond that, he’s learned that Oto’s infidelities are a continuing of her creative process. Because of this, he says nothing when walking in at a most inopportune time – Oto is ‘creating’ while in the arms of rising star Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku elects to remain silent on the issue and allow Oto to have her way. Just when it seems the married couple might address the unspoken, an unexpected tragedy strikes. Each scene to this point has been meticulously crafted and acted. We know these people and feel the connections.

Flash forward two years, and Kafuku has been contracted by a Hiroshima theater group to direct a production of the ‘Vanya’ play for which he’s well known for his acting. He chooses not to cast himself due to the stress the role puts on him … one that forces the actor to face ‘the real you’ and the missed opportunities in life. Instead he puts together a multi-cultural, multi-language cast, including one actor who speaks only Korean sign language. And yes, the actor he chooses to play his Vanya role is Koji, the same actor he previously witnessed with his wife.

Koji has been a lost soul the past couple of years, and he claims it’s Oto who brought him and Kafuku together. A key element here is that Kafuku’s contract with the theater group requires him to accept Misaki (Toko Miura) as the chauffeur of his beloved, always spotless red Saab. During the hour long drives, Kafuku recites his familiar lines of dialogue in conjunction with a recorded tape of Oto reading opposite. It’s his way of keeping her close, yet this also assists with the warming of the relationship between him and his driver Misaki. Both are stoic individuals who keep their emotions hidden under a mask of self-control. It’s fascinating to see the bond slowly develop.

It’s actually Misaki’s backstory that means the most here. It’s a reminder to Kafuku (and us) that every person’s life has a certain complexity that we likely have no window into. The building of this bond actually begins a mutual healing of personal pain previously held inside. It’s also a stark reminder of the difference between these characters and many Americans who barely delay in laying bare their soul on social media. The play’s cast varies in age and background and language, but their collaboration, as well as the connectivity between Kafuku and Misaki are the central theme here. This may be best exemplified by the large video screen above the stage presentation, where the subtitles are displayed in multiple languages. A brilliant touch to an excellent film.

Currently playing in a limited theatrical release.

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THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021)

December 4, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t mess with the smart ones, as brains often outlast brawn. I’m conflicted on how best to describe this film. Perhaps … It’s nuanced storytelling at its finest. Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for THE PIANO (1993), while also becoming only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. This is her 8th feature film to direct, and the first since the underrated BRIGHT STAR (2009). Ms. Campion is such a smooth filmmaker, and her latest is so expertly crafted and so beautifully filmed, that some may find themselves not recognizing the underlying tension between characters. I urge you to remain diligent and take note of the subtle gestures and facial expressions, as the emotions run deep.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank. He runs a successful cattle ranch with his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons. Though they sleep in the same room and have been driving cattle together for 25 years, the brothers couldn’t be less alike. George is a soft-spoken man with few needs or aspirations other than wishing to not grow old alone. He lives in the shadow of his formidable brother, an educated man with a domineering personality. Phil is constantly proving how tough and macho he is by bullying others, even calling his more sensitive brother “Fatso”. That thundering you hear is Phil purposefully slamming his heels into the wood floors so that his spurs never stop jangling.

Phil is playing a game that only he knows the rules to. George bows his head in shame as he hears Phil belittle the frail and effeminate teenage Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is waiting on their table at the Red Mill. Peter’s widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) owns the place, and after George provides some comfort to her, George and Rose secretly marry. Viewing this as a personal affront, Phil is merciless in his cruelty towards Rose and Peter. It turns out that Phil is masquerading as one thing in order to hide another truth. An intriguing sequence (that is so well acted I could watch it 10 times) leads to a warming of the relationship between Phil and Peter. The two bond over horseback riding, rope-braiding, and stories of Phil’s now-deceased ‘mentor’, Bronco Henry.

This setting is 1925 Montana, though it’s filmed in New Zealand. The majestic mountain range constantly looms on the horizon. Yet despite the beauty, it’s a tough life made tougher by Phil’s menacing behavior – psychological torturing of Rose that leads her to the bottle – something that clearly holds unfavorable memories. The four leads are truly outstanding, and supporting work is provided by Thomasin McKenzie as the young housekeeper, and Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Allison Bruce, and Peter Carroll as uncomfortable guests at a dinner party.

Jonny Greenwood provides the music. It’s not so much a score as it is mood-enhancing messaging through guitars, violins, and pianos – each piece delivering just the right note. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, 2019) works seamlessly with director Campion to capture the shifts in tone and the minutiae of the performances. An early shot through the kitchen windows captures Phil strutting through the ranch. The shot is repeated later with a contrasting look. The film is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, and it includes some of his personal experiences. Nothing haunts us more than the lingering effect of words Peter provides as narration near the film’s opening, when he informs us that a real man must save his mother. Oh yes, this is nuanced storytelling at its finest. By the way, you know how to whistle, don’t you?

Streaming on Netflix

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BENEDETTA (2021)

December 3, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has long made his cinematic living on the fringes: the brutality of the Middle Ages in FLESH + BLOOD (1985), the violence and thirst for power through technology in ROBOCOP (1987), the buried dark side (and other uses of ice picks) of our personality in BASIC INSTINCT (1992), more thirst for power combined with a baffling lack of sex appeal in SHOWGIRLS (1995), and the unbridled desire for revenge in ELLE (2016). This latest displays his mastery of ‘nun-on-nun’ eroticism and the duplicity of religious faith. Verhoeven’s usual goal is to provoke, and along with his co-writer David Birke, this ‘based on true events’ story (adapted from the 1986 Judith C Brown book, “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy”), is a natural fit.

Benedetta Carlini is delivered to the convent at a young age by her well-heeled parents. The girl claims to have a direct line to God, who delivers well-aimed bird droppings when called upon. OK, that’s just the first somewhat comical event in this film that seems less interested in the documented antics of the real Sister Benedetta, than in tantalizing today’s viewers with the behind closed doors sins of the flesh between she and fellow nun, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Portraying Sister Benedetta, Viginie Elfira never shies away from the material, whether it’s the stigmata, bedtime play with a specially carved Virgin Mary statuette, or channeling the voice of God during outbursts claiming blasphemy.

Felicita, the abbess of the convent, is played by the always interesting Charlotte Rampling. Sister Felicita’s real talent seems unrelated to issues of God, and instead lies in matters of money. Because of this, she capitalizes on Benedetta’s visions as a form of fundraising, while turning away (except during moments of voyeurism) from her other activities and claims. Our early caution comes from Benedetta being told upon arrival that, “Your body is your worst enemy”. After more dreams and visions, and a possible miracle or two, we understand that nuns are to believe that suffering is the road to salvation and redemption … a theory that leads to one of the more humorous moments as a sword-wielding Jesus saves Benedetta from a gaggle of attacking serpents.

Is there such thing as erotic religious satire played straight? We must assume that Verhoeven has his tongue planted firmly in cheek for this one, as it goes beyond skepticism of religion and directly to the morally adrift. Whether Benedetta’s claims of visions are/were true or fake, Verhoeven is a filmmaker who takes pleasure in the pleasure of nuns, no matter how prohibited it might be. We can just never be certain whether his objective is to expose religion, or simply expose.

Available in theaters on December 3, 2021 and On Demand beginning December 21, 2021

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PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN (2021)

November 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This is Mexico’s official Oscar submission for 2021 Best International Feature Film. Written and directed by Tatiana Huezo (her first narrative feature), the story is adapted from the 2014 best-selling novel by Jennifer Clement. It’s an unusual film that lacks a traditional plot, and instead focuses on the daily lives within a small village in Mexico.

Young girls Ana, Paula, and Maria are good friends. They live in a poverty stricken area, and most of the males work in the quarry/mine or for the cartel, leaving women and children to make do scrounging for food and working in the poppy fields at harvest time. Rita (Mayra Batalla) is Ana’s mother. She’s a proud, hard-working woman who is very protective of her daughter. Why? Well the area is patrolled by the cartel, and neighbors regularly go ‘missing’ – especially young girls. When Ana shows up wearing lipstick, Rita doesn’t find it cute. Instead she serves up a harsh reprimand to the girl too young to understand the risk.

Our view is from Ana’s perspective, and there are two distinct halves. In the first, Ana and her friends are very young (likely between 7 and 9). When we flash forward, the girls are 13 or 14. As a youngster, Ana is played by Ana Cristina Ordonez Gonzales, and she cries when her mother chops off her long hair and styles it like a young boy. This is not done for punishment, but rather to make her less desirable to the cartel. Her friend Paula goes through the same ordeal, while Maria’s cleft palate is deemed to serve the same purpose. As a teenager, Ana is played by Marya Membreno, and the haircut no longer hides her femininity, though her friend Maria faces a tough decision when medical assistance becomes available.

Director Huezo and the actors do a superb job in conveying the ever-present aura of danger hovering over the village. Rita digs a grave-like hole as a hiding place for Ana, and their strategy is put to use. In one particularly tense scene in conflict with the cartel, what keeps Rita alive is that she works in the poppy field – so she is viewed as an asset. As if possible starvation or abduction aren’t enough to keep everyone worried, the poppy fields are sprayed with poison in an attempt to control the crops – only the poison gets dumped on the village instead, as the helicopter pilots have been bribed and threatened by the cartel.

This is a haunting film and we connect quickly with Rita and Ana. We feel the relentless pressure of living in an environment where the cloak of danger is always worn and constant fear is a part of daily life. School provides the girls with a glimmer of hope, although it’s fleeting. This is no place for childhood innocence, and the responsibilities of parenting are almost beyond anyone’s ability. Cinematographer Dariela Ludlow perfectly captures the images, the acting is terrific, and director Huezo has delivered a gem.

Available on Netflix beginning November 17, 2021

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THE GRAND BOLERO (2021)

October 27, 2021

Austin Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The symphonic crescendo of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” is perfectly synched with this film’s crescendo, creating a heart-racing, frantic few moments of passion, lust, revelation, and shock – for both the characters and viewers. Also shocking is discovering that this is writer-director Gabriele Fabbro’s first feature length narrative film (after many shorts and videos). This is expert filmmaking and creative storytelling that harkens back to classic 1970’s cinema in a time when it’s certainly needed and appreciated.

Veteran Italian actor Lidia Vitale stars as Roxanne. The film opens on her haggard face as she utters, “F-you”. Right on cue, the organ music thunders over the opening credits. Her bitterness is aimed at the banner hanging outside the church where she works. The words on the banner dare state, “Everything will be fine”. This is March 2020, and Italy has just begun the initial shutdown over COVID-19.

Roxanne is a passionate restorer of pipe organs, and this 1700 church currently houses two – one from 1500 and one from 1900. After a workplace tragedy, Roxanne’s supervisor, Paolo (Marcello Mariani), finds her an assistant who will work for organ-playing lessons and food. Lucia (Ludovica Mancini) is a young, eager-to-learn mute. Her soft, soulful eyes are in stark contrast to Roxanne’s sharp facial features and stone cold glares of loathing. Whereas Roxanne is angry, annoyed, and hot-tempered, Lucia remains spirited, open, and energetic.

Of course, the barriers between the two slowly break down, but the twists and surprises and secrets are gradually unveiled. Roxanne’s obsessions are not limited to the beautiful pipe organs and sweet Lucia has a side to her no one would have predicted. Ms. Vitale’s performance really drives the story and the building of trust between Roxanne and Lucia. The manner in which conveys the softening of her barriers and the re-directing of her focus is fascinating.

Without being overbearing, the film reminds us of the pandemic through Paolo’s all too frequent ringing of the ‘death bell’, the television reports playing in the background, the protective mask defiantly looped around Roxanne’s ear, and the warning that nature may carry out God’s wrath. And speaking of nature, the camera work outside the church is, at times, stunning in its beauty, striking angles, and message. It’s rare to find a filmmaker’s ‘first’ feature so original and well-executed, and that is on top of Mr. Fabbro’s use of powerful pipe organ music throughout. This is a truly fine film that hopefully will find an audience.

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TORAO (2021)

October 27, 2021

Austin Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes what we see on screen doesn’t tell the whole story about a movie. Writer-director Kazuya Murayama delivers his first feature film, and it’s based on the true story of a 1992 murder in Japan. Not only did Murayama fund the making of this film (there is no producer or Production Company), but the murder took place in the town where he was growing up … and in the same park where he often played.

Still, Murayama goes a step further. He cast the actual detective from that unsolved case, Torao, as himself. Kayako, a University student, is researching metasequoias (Dawn Redwood), which are known as “a living fossil”. She stumbles on the unsolved murder case of a young swimming coach and is drawn to finding out more. She attempts to interviews those who would have knowledge, though no one is willing to share any real information since the case was closed years ago.

Everything changes for her when she meets Torao, the former investigator/detective on the case. More interviews and an attempt to re-create the victim’s last day still don’t satisfy the girl. It’s Torao who is haunted by the case – it’s something he lives with and dwells on every day. The cinematic joy here is derived from contrasting the older, knowledgeable (one particular undisclosed detail), retired detective with the younger, eager, uninformed ‘partner’ in this re-investigation. It’s an unconventional end for a procedural murder case movie, and it’s one that should appeal to fans of the genre. The extraordinary elements beyond the movie simply add to the intrigue.

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THE FALCONER (2021)

October 27, 2021

Austin Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This compelling film is the debut narrative feature film from co-writers and co-directors Adam Sjoberg and Seanne Winslow. Filmed on location in Oman (not sure I’ve ever seen another filmed there), it’s based on a true story and features first time actors in the key roles.

Local teenager Tariq (Rami Zahar) and privileged Westerner Cai (Rupert Fennessy) are best friends working at a rundown zoo. Cai is the more idealistic of the two, and dreams of rehabbing animals and releasing them back into the wild. Tariq is more grounded, and views it mostly as a job that allows him to help his family make ends meet. He does, however, enjoy learning about the animals from Cai.

When Tariq’s recently married sister Alia (Noor Al-Huda) confides to him that she wants a divorce from her abusive husband (“a bad man”), Tariq agrees to help. In this culture, a divorce is no simple matter. Her family must pay back the dowry – money the poor family doesn’t have. It’s here where the clash of cultures comes to a head. Right versus wrong means different things to Tariq and Cai. One is committed to doing right by his family, while the other wants to do right by the animals. The friendship is tested as Tariq sees opportunity in selling animals on the black market … in particular, a much valued trained falcon.

Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Nicholas Bupp, it’s fascinating to see the contrasting cultures of two close friends. In fact, friendship, family, and devotion are the prevalent themes here. The closing credits include clips and photographs of the real life friends.

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