LGBT Films: Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and Jayro Bustamante’s Tremors (Temblores)

God’s Own Country (image from Indiewire)

At first glance, he might not be much of anything. Living in complete isolation in the Yorkshire area, Johnny (Josh O’Connor) simply exists: he toils day and night in his family’s farm while his father (Ian Hart) constantly puts him down while his mother (Gemma Jones) gives little warmth. A life that seems to be headed to oblivion, Johnny truly has no friends, he looks perpetually sullen, is given to drink in excess, and enjoys casual sex with anonymous men to let the tension stemming from loneliness go, if at all, for a time. That is, until a stroke debilitates his father, rendering Johnny as temporary head of the house. However, Johnny is unable to run the farm on his own and hires Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu), a Romanian migrant to lend some much-needed help.

At first, it doesn’t seem as though Johnny and Gheorghe would have anything in common; nothing in their characters suggests otherwise except for a few cursory looks both throw at each other from time to time. However, Johnny’s pent-up anger at everything lands a few times on Gheorghe when he calls Gheorghe a gypsy. Gheorghe gives Johnny a warning sign not to call him that. Johnny, seeing that the guy he hired has somehow threatened his own masculinity, lashes out, and it’s not long before Lee flips the scene on the audience and reveals a moment of unbelievable sexuality, raw and dirty and completely animalistic as anything this way from the motorcycle diaries essay go mixing viagra and poppers thesis statement for research paper on terrorism viagra pea ridge case studies learning descriptive short essay example analysis ghostwriting website us https://psijax.edu/medicine/nitrolingual-spray-viagra/50/ https://academicminute.org/paraphrasing/analyst-skills-for-resume/3/ https://www.arohaphilanthropies.org/heal/viagra-gantt/96/ cheap best essay writer site us www.essay on best friend.com descriptive essay components enter follow example of process analysis essay photoshop skills on resume http://jeromechamber.com/event/english-language-gcse-essays/23/ get link enter site go to link what is the pka of prednisone http://yogachicago.com/pills/buy-cialis-one-a-day-133/25/ english essay about christmas compare lipitor and zocor southworth paper watermark viagra sites review i need help writing an essay for college https://rainierfruit.com/levitra-long-term-side-effects/ https://greenechamber.org/blog/best-dissertation-hypothesis-proofreading-services-gb/74/ research papers on big data mining Brokeback Mountain.

However, it would be unfair to compare God’s Own Country with And Lee’s powerful 2005 drama, and the comparisons will and have been made by reason of theme. The men initiate a tentative bonding that soon becomes much more than that — you literally see them falling in love onscreen as they continue to work in near-complete isolation. Lee wisely avoids bringing in any obvious contrivances to his story — there are no suspicious girlfriends, no family confrontations (it is implied Johnny’s parents are mutely aware of Johnny’s sexuality, which may be a reason for Johnny’s almost adversarial relationship with his father) — because God’s Own Country as a romance develops on its own, naturally, and is anchored by its two leads who turn in sharp performances as tonal opposites who simply complement each other in every shape and form.

I am going to say that this is the kind of movie audiences need to see in order to capture the beauty of men falling in love. Too often gay dramas are soaked with plastic models substituting chiseled features for lack of acting, and cardboard storylines, which is why I tend to stay away from gay films (with some exceptions, this being one of them). What I wish Lee would not have done was to diminish his already potent character study and love story with the slur word “faggot” framed by the equally offensive “freak”. Was it necessary? Yes, sometimes people in intimate relationships call themselves by choice names, but I think that by now it’s time to leave the F word behind for once and for all. Too many men have unjustly died for it. [A-]

Now, if I was shocked by the use of the F word in God’s Own Country, nothing could prepare me for the nightmare unleashed by Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, who just released La Llorona (available on Shudder). Tremors (Temblores) is a surrealistic nightmare with strong Yorgos Lanthimos sensibilities (think Dogtooth). Bustamante starts his movie with the portent of something horrible that has befallen a wealthy Guatemalan family. The hero (or anti-hero) Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) comes home to a house in emotional turmoil. We don’t quite know what exactly is the problem but it soon becomes clear. Pablo’s secret — that is a gay man — has come home to roost. Needless to say, the family is shocked to the core, and Bustamante punctuates this with a carefully placed earthquake in the middle of the scene.

For worldly audiences, this will almost come as a comedy not aware of itself — really? A house in complete disarray praying to God for a miracle, for a cure for the son’s illness? A mother telling her son, on the way to church, to lower his head so he can hide his shame in 2019? At times I had to hold myself to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. However, having lived in the Dominican Republic, Tremors‘ almost telenovela-like dramatics involving a viciously accusatory family who cast more stones than Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and which comes short of holding pitchforks are quite real. The reality in many Latin American countries that are 98% religious and treat their religiosity as an Iron Rule Never to be Questioned, Period rings true if at times it is so shocking one almost can’t believe the insanity unfold. Pablo, already a weakened man due to his backward-thinking society really hasn’t anywhere to go but back to the enforced mafia that is his family, and all attempts to live a normal life come to a crashing halt even before they can begin, proper.

It is a scenario that Bustamante highlights in presenting the gay community as completely marginalized, people barely surviving, their voices unheard, self-aware and woke in a nation that blatantly hates them for being them. The one sympathetic. character is Pablo’s long-suffering boyfriend (Mauricio Armas) who already knows who he is and is okay with it. It’s a shame that Pablo doesn’t, and has to basically submit to the demands of cult-like devotion to a religious life-coach (Sabrina de la Hoz) who arrives with shades of The Handmaids Tale’s Aunt Lydia. My one complaint is that Bustamante did not include some note at the start of the film that would at least soften the blow of what I was about to see. I avoid gay-negative films in general because there is too much negativity in the world already. I cannot recommend this one to anyone who has undergone gay conversion therapy because frankly, Tremors is torture to watch. [B]

Tremors is available on Dekkoo, while God’s Own Country is on Amazon Prime.

Week Three of the 58th New York Film Festival

I Carry You With Me, Heidi Ewing’s newest movie, a standout this film festival, opens January 8, 2021. [Image from Sundance]

And so, another film festival comes to a close. I have to say that the decision to broadcast all movies virtually has been quite the success — it allowed me to view more pictures than I would have normally been able to have they been screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. When you have to commute from a distant town to see a double feature and then commute back home, only the desire to witness great art and new releases — the inherent love of cinema proper — is what keeps a person like me going.

I’m not sure why, but I’m starting to notice a pattern with the New York Film Festival. More often than not the most impressive films will screen first (often right after Opening Night and during the first half, leading up to Centerpiece), leaving the second half to roll out its own list of films that while good, never quite leaves the indelible impression that the first ones did. This is not to say these are lesser films — perish the thought that I would even entertain that! — but I feel that some of them are solid debuts from new directors who haven’t yet found their footing in cinema, re-discoveries that truly merit a second view, and among them, the usual culprits who like clockwork send their newest works to movie-hungry folks waiting like hyenas for the kill.

Red White, and Blue

The only way to create change in a system that clings onto an arcane series of rules is to infiltrate it from the inside and by sheer presence alone, be the change. [As an openly gay man working in a decidedly non-traditional profession I will perfectly agree.] Steve McQueen’s fifth and final episode from his Small Axe series, Red, White, and Blue focuses on the topic of being the lone outsider in a sea of complacency. John Boyega plays Leroy Logan, a forensic scientist who comes to the realization that the only manner in which to bridge the gap between the police force and the Black community in London is to join them.

McQueen’s episode suggests that this is a decision that’s been a long time coming — the catalyst being an incident in Leroy’s childhood when he was stopped and searched as a young teen by police officers who zoomed in on him for the sole reason that he was Black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. The incident, which ended with Leroy’s father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint) warning Leroy never to be a hoodlum or bring a cop to his house, couldn’t be more pregnant with irony, because years later there will be cops arriving at Kenneth’s house, but to recruit Leroy.

Clearly, the scene and story are set to spark conflict not only with Leroy and Kenneth — who gets attacked by cops over a false charge (again laced with racial overtones), but Leroy and his colleagues. The tension, from the moment he arrives at the precinct, is palpable. The only other ethnic officer is an Indian officer who is not even allowed to speak his native language when responding to an incident involving Gujarati speakers. Other than that, this is a milk-white police force, and not many are welcoming — quite the contrary. Red. White and Blue is a sharp episode that ends a bit too abruptly to leave the audience satisfied, but perhaps this is because Leroy’s major accomplishments occur much later than the episode’s timeline. While all that is excellent for the real-life Leroy, we as an audience are left closer to the gaping would of overt racism than anything else, leaving the story at an exclamation point rather than an east resolution. [B]

Small Axe premieres on Amazon Prime on November 20.

The Woman Who Ran

No women run, or even jog, in Hong Sang-soo’s latest movie, a wispy tale of a woman (Min-hee Kim) who travels to the Korean countryside to visit two female friends and has an unplanned encounter with another one.

Parallels between Sang-soo and Woody Allen are again visible. As usual, the woman is a central character, and in his muse and frequent collaborator Min-hee Kim he assigns a task of a frail but determined young woman who still has a ghost of a former lover hanging over her shoulder. This is a well-observed little comedy of manners in which women talk naturally, and within those conversations, you get glimpses of their lives away from their men or at least, the patriarchy.

As a matter of fact, men barely make an appearance in The Woman Who Ran. When they do, it’s under the guise of petty behavior and they get filmed unflatteringly — from the back of their heads, or from a distance. The first one, we only meet from the rear as a neighbor who complains Kim’s friend is feeding a stray cat. Inconsequential, like many of Sang-soo’s events, but later we see another man disrupting Kim’s second friend. This one brings a hint of petty menace as a jilted one-night stand who won’t accept that “she’s just not that into him.” However, it is the final one whom we get to see in full, and it’s the one that Kim herself will have to confront on her own.

The Woman Who Ran is really for Sang-soo enthusiasts and might not be of much consequence because it’s such a slight little drama. Personally, I enjoyed it as I often do with his films, but I will admit that it never quite resonates at an emotional level, barely lingering like a soap bubble seconds floating in the air. [B]

Beginning

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut film Beginning is quite an accomplishment, even when it will manage to outrage anyone across the pond who has not lived through a repressive society. Her film tells the story of Yana (Ia Yukitashvili in a stand-out performance), a devout Jehovah’s Witness who finds her life upended after a Molotov bomb explodes inside the church where she and her husband impart the Holy word. The intrusion of a detective (Kakha Kinturashvili) with increasingly nefarious intents against Yana and her family presents itself as a metaphorical serpent in the garden, here to upend her life in the name of “order and the norm”, sent perhaps by the very same people who Yana and her very mortified husband David (Rati Orneli) have gone for help. Beginning, oddly titled, is an uncomfortable experience because it throws a woman’s faith — the one thing she holds on to with conviction — and places her against forces she cannot understand nor defend herself from. Kulumbegashvili’s camera is merciless in depicting an act of debasement that almost borders on torture, but she is trying to make a point. In this world, the oppressed will be humiliated at all costs and must endure until they can find a way out, and any attempt to curb the process might end rather badly. If only Kulumbegashvili had not taken her already tense story into the extreme, I would be able to understand, but sometimes, extreme situations call for extreme actions, and Yana’s final sacrifice seems to be pregnant with meaning that transcends the narrative and eventually finds its way, albeit symbolically, to the corrupt detective (and perhaps the entire organization, since the scene is depicted as a symbol more than an actual occurrence,). Definitely not an easy watch but still ultimately gratifying, I’m going to give Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning a B.

Simone Barbes or Virtue

Of all the French entries that screened at the 58th New York Film Festival (if I remember, a paltry few), this one was the sole movie that held my interest. [Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears held no sway over me as I sensed it would be just another bland entry into a world of casual love and who wants to see that?] Featured in the Retrospectives category, Marie-Claude Treilhou’s debut 1980 film Simone Barbes or Virtue is an uneven gem of a comedy that deserves better recognition among cinephiles and art-house film lovers alike. Hopefully, this film will get shown in the US (Film Forum, pay attention), because this is a movie that seems to be rather ahead of its time while being strictly French.

Simone (Louise Bourgoin) is an usherette working at a porn theater alongside friend Martine (Martine Simonet). Already I find the premise interesting being that you wouldn’t see women in porn theaters (unless I am wrong), but I digress. The women seem to be as jaded as they come — they could be madams in a brothel — tiredly exchanging stories and comments that occasionally lapse into the witty while the men come and go, screening after screening. Meanwhile, the movies’ vocalizations float out into the lobby, sometimes punctuating what’s being discussed right in front of us.

Soon later Simone leaves the movie theater for the night and heads out into a lesbian bar for a night by herself as she both admires the younger girls who also come in for a bit of fun and exchanges small talk with the older butch lesbians who work there. One scene features a trans woman enjoying a night out in a way that would seem common today but was groundbreaking 40 years ago since at the time transgendered people were never seen as anything but in exploitation dramas or horror movies.

The third act is by far the weakest. Once Simone leaves the bar she gets accosted by an older man on the street. Not being standoffish, she decides to take the man’s offer to drive her home, and their banter is rather monotonous and uneventful and somehow diminishes the potency of a character study that could have ended on a higher note. However, even with its final 20 minutes of tedium, Simone Barbes or Virtue is a film unique in its portrayal of lesbians on film as simply existing, with occasional forays into the fantastical, and moments of sharp observational humor. [B-]

Undine

If it weren’t for the outstanding chemistry between Undine‘s Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, I probably would not have cared much for its heavy-handed treatment of a fairy tale which titles Christian Petzold’s movie. Undine tells the story of Undine Wibeau (Beer), a historian who specializes in Berlin’s urban development throughout the years. Her current boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) leaves her for another woman, a thing that at first glides by as an afterthought as Undine literally dives into her work. It isn’t long before she literally runs into another man, Christoph (Rogowski), and soon they initiate a rather breathtaking and sensuous romance that reaches dizzying heights. Of course, no romance would be perfect with a monkey-wrench thrown into the middle of the movie like a spider, and Undine here becomes a bit muddled as it threatens to force its heroine to reenact the tragic actions her myth is known for. If it weren’t for Petzold’s images, which are indeed elegant and restrained even in its moments of passion and in one chilling sequence, I would say that this movie would basically be the equivalent of a director having to meet a quota of a movie every two years whether it makes sense or not. Undine manages to haunt, but not too convincingly, which is a shame when his previous movie Transit basically demanded more than one viewing and was rife with tragedy and suspense that lingered well past the end credits. [C+]

I Carry You With Me (Te llevo conmigo)

It never fails. Every year, new LGBT movies come out in droves and I can only watch as many as I can catch without this turning into a futile upstream swim. Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You With Me (Te llevo conmigo) so far is the standout 2020 has to offer and here’s why. It is a compelling, beautifully shot romance fused with a documentary that chronicles the lives of Ivan and Gerardo, two young men living in Mexico who meed in a time when both had to suppress their own orientation from everyone and live double lives. Ivan (Armando Espitia) makes the decision to forge himself a future and cross the river to the USA, a thing that will ultimately separate him not only from his already estranged wife Paola (Michelle Gonzalez) but also from Gerardo (Christian Vasquez). Matters get a bit complicated with Ivan’s sister Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez) tags along, but from then on, the movie focuses on not just Ivan’s assimilation into American culture, but his long-distance relationship with his son who is growing right in front of his own eyes, and then the arrival of Gerardo who has left everything behind just to be with Ivan.

Heidi Ewing’s I Carry you With Me doesn’t over-romanticize Ivan and Gerardo’s love story; instead, it adopts a position of simply observing the two men meet cute, then meet again, then realize each one carries the burden of living a lie, and finally, realize that they are meant to be together. There are no real mysteries to be had in their story — simply the silent accrual of two men who are destined to be together and create a life out of a labor of love and sacrifices. Later in the movie Ewing departs from the fictional Ivan and Gerardo and settles into the actual Ivan and Gerardo, whom she personally knows, and lets them finish off the final segment of her movie. Mind you, if you don’t walk out not just crying in sheer emotion at seeing a true love story flourish, then you just don’t get what the power of true love is. Ewing’s movie reflects just that and is a standout for LGBT movies. [A–]

I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Conmigo) will arrive to virtual theaters January 8, 2021.

Closing Night: French Exit

There seems to be a new trope emerging for older actresses to have a field day with due to the opportunities that playing such a role requires and it is the aging socialite. Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert have been playing this type of character for ages now to a point where they can basically phone it in with minimal effort and still come out with flying colors. Over here in the US, the type is still in its infancy (although Jessica Harper and Megan Mullally have nailed it on the small screen in their respective roles as Lucille Bluth and Karen Walker). [I’m sure I am missing others but for now, let’s pretend I didn’t.]

Michelle Pfeiffer essayed a somewhat similar precursor to her most current role in Murder on the Orient Express, but in Azazel Jacobs’ adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s French Exit she pulls out all the stops as Frances Price, a woman of privilege who’s been left practically destitute following the death of her husband (Tracy Letts, voice only). A rash decision following the offer of a friend (Susan Coyne) sees Frances departing to Paris with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and pet cat in tow, where they encounter a series of oddball characters that subtly manage to bring some change into their already messy lives.

There’s an aura of sadness just lurking underneath the apparent flippant facade present in French Exit. We get that Frances is a woman who in her youth was probably not a pleasant person and got by through the sheer power of her looks. Now an aging 60-year-old something with fried red hair and lines starting to mar her face, she’s a bit of a spectacle, an oddity that mostly exists to make cutting remarks that will make you laugh as you also cringe. This is a woman who really has come to the end of her own existence and in the MacGuffin of a psychic subplot to communicate with her dead husband she is attempting to find a way to make amends, with mixed results. It’s no accident that the entire movie feels like a motif to taking a final decision and exiting gracefully.

The cast, comprising of the aforementioned Hedges (second banana to Pfeiffer here), Valerie Mahaffey (who comes across just as batty as a lonely older woman without much grounding and one too many cats might), Danielle MacDonald. Isaac de Bankolé, and Imogen Poots, is uniformly solid, which all together bring a feel of the screwball comedy that went down with The Philadelphia Story 80 years ago. [B]

French Exit is set to premiere February, 2021 in limited release.

Seen at the AFI LatinX Film Festival

Poster for La Llorona, image from Movie Plus

Land of Ashes

Sofia Quiros’ heartbreaking movie Land of Ashes (Cenizas Negras) is a unique coming-of-age story in which Selva (Smachleen Gutierrez), a preteen girl who happily lives with her grandparents gets a rude awakening when her grandmother Elena (Hortensia Smith) goes missing after a communal party. Up until then life for Selva might not be considered ideal — they live in abject poverty, but happy, and the movie establishes playful bickering between Selva and Elena as well as Elena and grandfather Tata (Humberto Samuels) that is truly affecting. Elena’s disappearance plunges Selva into her own internal world where a mysterious girl communicates with her. At the same time, Selva now must forget her own childhood and be the caregiver for Tata who seems to have stopped living and only mourns the loss of Elena. Sofia Quiro’s movie is intoxicating, a glimpse into a life untouched by modern appliances or technology. We only get that the story is taking place in today’s day through music, which plays often. Ultimately, the tragedy lurking just off-screen is the fact that one day Selva’s world will be a thing of the past, and her only chances at survival is an accelerated induction into forced adulthood through practical and supernatural means. Smachleen Gutierrez’s performance is revelatory in its layers of wisdom that she reflects with her eyes; her character suggests pain and terror for the future, but the courage to confront whatever may lay ahead. [B+]

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela

If ever there was a tragedy that needed to be told it would have to be Venezuela’s fall into complete despair and abandonment. Anabel Rodriguez Rios tells of her country’s fall through her documentary feature Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, filmed through a period of six years. In it, she focuses on the micro-universe of El Congo Mirador, a fishing paradise located on the southern tip of Lake Maracaibo, once a community that thrived and offered spectacular lightning shows that have through sedimentation and governmental neglect been rendered abandoned and overtaken by the jungle. Rios’ story largely focuses on the town itself, its inhabitants, as they go through life living in their shacks that they’ve erected on stilts at the mouth of the Zulia River. During this time we encounter Natalie, a young idealistic teacher, and what seems to be the Queen Bee of Congo Mirador’s society, Tamara. Both women are opponents by politics — Tamara is the ultimate Chavista supporter, while Natalie is not. Tamara would prefer that Natalie teach elsewhere; Natalie discusses her victimization under the current administration but her hopes that this place will continue to exist. While the women never explicitly come to a contentious encounter, both storylines remain firmly at the mercy of Venezuelan politics. Tamara lives and acts under the belief that by buying votes she can secure her party’s stay in power and guarantee her own security in the land she has come to identify with. What she isn’t aware of, and will find out in the worst of ways, is that she is just as much a victim of politics like everyone else. Rodriguez Rios’ movie unfolds like the inevitable and implacable fall of a country that once had it all, and it is a shame that while people lament the passing of time, those who have the power to make a difference simply have chosen to look the other way. [B]

Blanco en Blanco

Alfredo Castro and Esther Vega in Blanco en Blanco.

Welcome to the ultimate No Man’s Land, located at the bottom of the world, in which if you are a landowner with money the place is yours to conquer at your own will and no one to stop you. Thèo Court’s White on White (Blanco en Blanco) is the chilling story of such a man, Mr. Porter (never seen) who has hired Pedro, a photographer to take a picture of his bride to be Sara (Esther Vega), a girl not even 15. Entranced by the girl Pedro (Alfredo Castro) makes some rather disturbing requests to enhance the girl’s beauty through his lens. While preparations for the wedding continue, Pedro progressively becomes involved as an observer to the atrocities that settlers committed against the Selk’nam people, an indigenous tribe that Porter has decided to eliminate for her own reasons involving having pure control of the land and its riches.

It would be a lie to say that White on White has anything that resembles a resolution because it essentially is a headlong dive into pure lawlessness. Court has framed his movie to look like there is essentially no escape from this God-forsaken place that only harbors greedy killers and victimized indigenous people. By adding the victimization of two women — an older one, the housekeeper Aurora (Lola Rubio) already seems to have gone past any hope for herself — but also the aforementioned Esther who doesn’t even speak except for one scene where she utters precisely one line. Court’s movie is at times gorgeous in its muted, wintry palette, and repellent by the humans that inhabit it — particularly Castro who seems suited to play these morally rotten characters. White on White might come across a bit too nihilistic for viewers but it remains firmly entrenched in actual events that mark yet another forgotten chapter of the evil that men do to others, especially when they arrive from foreign lands. [B+]

Morgue

Before you groan, consider giving this short little horror nasty a look when Netflix or Shudder takes ownership of it. [If it means anything there is a Netflix movie in the works, so that tells you this isn’t a clunker.] Hugo Cardozo’s Morgue is a regurgitation of everything you’ve seen involving the main character who has to spend the night alone where things go bump in the night. This time, it’s David (Pablo Martinez), a security guard who works at a morgue. An argument with a girlfriend sends David hitting a cyclist on the way to work, but because he panics, he doesn’t report the incident. Once at work, things will not just go bump in the night but he will literally begin seeing the craziest visions come from Hell and will wonder if he in fact has gone batshit or what.

For the most part, Martinez carries the entire movie on his shoulders and he delivers a solid performance equal parts unlikeable and vulnerable to forces he cannot understand. At times Cardozo makes you wonder if you are watching a mortality play of the type that Tales from the Crypt used to showcase where a character, in trying to outwit a wrong, basically dug his own grave. Cardozo prefers to then zig-zag through twists and turns and often they work, although there are times when holes are clearly visible either through the production values or simple staging. Be advised, Morgue has a vicious jump-scare that is well-earned, but its denouement will raise questions more than it answers them. All in all, this is a solid, muscular little horror movie with the dubious honor of having dethroned and out-performed It: Chapter Two in Paraguay. [B]

La Llorona

I was a bit apprehensive when I heard of a remake of the now-famous story of La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) because it seems that every year a new Llorona movie makes it to theaters, often with results so dismal one wonders why even bother tackling the monstrous character when her legend and mystery can’t be respected. However, this is Jayro Bustamante, the man who brought Ixcanul and Temblores to the silver screen. I was sure that Bustamante could bring his special touch of dread and uncomfortable narrative to the surface.

The bridge between the narratives of both Ixcanul and Temblores dovetails perfectly in La Llorona. Bustamante’s first movie focuses solely on an isolated Ixil community at the foot of the Ixcanul volcano, while Temblores took a sharp left and plunged itself and its story into the perspective of society and identity corroded by centuries of Spanish dominance, itself tainted by its strict adherence to religion which has by now been assimilated by the Ixil populace. La Llorona skillfully bridges these two cultures under the umbrella of metaphysical horror that uses genocide as a means of telling the story of the iconic, tragic character.

As in Temblores, we start with an affluent family and focus on its matriarch Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) deep in prayer, accompanied by a group of women holding hands. Already we sense that something is amiss as the camera zooms away from the matriarch’s tortured, trance-like face. It turns out, her husband, General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) is on trial for crimes against humanity during the Civil War. During his tenure, he massacred a large chunk of the Ixil population and was complicit in the rape and murder of countless women for no other reason than to assure Spanish dominance over the land.

His crimes get a chilling recounting under the testimony of a survivor, an Ixil woman whose face we never quite see as it’s under a black veil, but whose story, which represents everyone else’s, is horrifying. Justice gets delivered, but it’s not enough, and the story pulls into second gear when the Monteverde family, which includes accusing daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz), retreats to the comfort of their home-fortress, while a mob of angry civilians surrounds the house, their claws at the ready for carnage. The staff of servants, all of Ixil origin, leave in a hurry and won’t be coaxed back. They know something is coming, and want to be as far away as they can.

That something does arrive, but its face remains invisible to the audience. La Llorona eventually does show her face, but it’s not in a jump-scare — the movie is far too intelligent for that, thank goodness — but in an event of unimaginable horror equal to that of the horror at the heart of Sophie’s Choice. By then, the entire household and its characters are on a sinking ship still trying frantically to escape, knowing full well that karmic debts are unforgiving and implacable.

Bustamante’s version will bury its claws into you and linger on — that is how deep its roots go. His version resonates, deeply, and I’ll tell you why. Anyone who has either lived through the tyranny of dictatorship, a system that gave birth, and fostered the culture of the “disappeared” will have a visceral reaction to La Llorona. Good horror — even transcendent horror if you will — has a narrative that can exist on its own without venturing into the paranormal for scares. La Llorona manages to bring new blood into a well-worn tale of a grieving mother by using genocide and the silent cry for revenge against its perpetrators. [A –]

La Llorona is available to stream on Shudder and I can’t recommend it enough.

The Mole Agent

Poster for The Mole Agent, image from Salt Lake City Film Society

Here is a documentary unlike any other. Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent has the look and the feel of a cozy — something straight out of Murder She Wrote minus the actual murder — with the difference that our hero is Sergio Chamy, a charming older man who gets an assignment to “infiltrate” an old peoples’ home and attempt to find out if a specific tenant is being abused. [Her daughter has come to a private investigator because of these concerns.] What Sergio finds out is less dramatic on that level, but gut-wrenching on another, and he slowly but certainly morphs from being a detective to being an angel of solace for individuals who have been forgotten by their loved ones, due to outliving them, or simply, being old and “of no use to anyone.” Alberdi’s docu-fiction is truly a revelation: funny during its early scenes when we see applicants to the position that goes to Sergio trying to operate an iPhone, but progressively more and more touching until it becomes nearly impossible to see without pausing for an emotional break. Her Mole Agent serves not only as a glimpse of what goes on inside old peoples homes but also as a reminder to please love our elderlies and treat them with the utmost respect, because no matter how senile they may be, how frail, they were an important part of our lives, and should never wind up alone, with only foggy, confused memories to keep them company. [A ]

Week Two of the 58th New York Film Festival

The haunting In the Mood for Love, which received its 4K restoration for its 20th anniversary

Night of the Kings (La nuit des rois)

Image from the Harvard Crimson

He’s arrived to a prison for a crime we are not privy to, and even before he gets there, his fate is sealed. From inside, a behemoth of a man watches, waits, and plans to turn this boy into his successor whether he wants to or not. Philippe Lacoste’s movie takes place in MACA, an overcrowded prison in the Ivory Coast, where guards have no power and the system is run by the inmates. MACA’s leader, Black Beard (Steve Teintchieu), is sick — dying, actually — and wants to secure that his power continues since there are several inmates at the wait to their claim. When he spots Roman (the aforementioned boy, played by Bakery Koné), Black Beard has made his choice. Roman will extend Black Beard’s rule for a short while longer by telling them story after story in order to cause a distraction from the immediacy.

Philippe Lacote creates two distinct worlds with this film. One is the oppressive MACA facility which, already overrun with inmates, seems to be teetering on the edge of explosive violence. The other one comes from Roman’s stories. At first Roman, unfamiliar with his own role, fumbles and doesn’t quite know how to make his way around oral fiction, but as the night progresses, he becomes more confident, spinning tales of a war between a princess (Laetitia Kye) and her brother which mirrors the conflict at MACA and Roman’s own. Night of the Kings is a thoroughly intricate story of adventure and politics that doesn’t exactly make any reference to actual events but manages to mirror that of countries under oppression searching for a savior. [B]

The Chess Game of the Wind

Image courtesy from The Guardian

Pity the poor family at the center of Mohammed Resa Aslani’s chamber drama about the class struggle between members of a wealthy family. Even if you didn’t know of the historical events framing The Chess Game of the Wind, you would understand what the power of greed does to corrupt a family from the inside out.

Following the death of the family matriarch (off-screen), the paraplegic daughter Ashdgas (Fakri Korvash) finds herself pitted against her stepfather, his sons, and her own fiancee to see who will stand to inherit the property. The only sympathetic person who Ashgdas has any support from comes under her own maid (a young Shorhesh Ashgladoo) with whom she has an intimate relationship with. Tensions reach an ugly high and Asgdhas is forced to commit an act of violence to preserve her own self and interests… but destiny has something else up its sleeve.

Resa Aslani’s movie seems to film everything under a constant sense of dread. The house, which is huge offers no sense of security for anyone under its roof. The camera films its scenes with tones of gold and brown reminiscent of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis but adding elements of deep shadows and discomfort. The only moments of levity occur every so often when the action moves outside to show washer-women commenting on the family’s corrupt past, but this only augments the tragedy that is to come. [A]

Isabella

Image from Cineuropa

It’s safe to say that Matias Piñeiro is not the most accessible of storytellers. His work, which often (always?) relies on the works of Shakespeare (to be exact, in the Shakespearean comedic heroines), doesn’t seem to really add much to what those female characters were all about unless I am missing something crucial hidden in plain sight in his narratives. I just find that his dramas seem devoid of real conflict and dilute any tension to the point that I wonder if perhaps maybe his version of conflict is something verging on the abstract, to be read on paper, like a transcript, or the art installation that figures prominently in his latest, Isabella. Isabella tells the story of an actress trying to get her life together who uses an audition for a Shakespearean play to get financial help from her brother. At the same time, she meets a friend, who it turns out, is also auditioning for the part. The meeting of these two women would indicate some type of tension but all they do is have conversations that really don’t add up to much more but suggest competitiveness and maybe, subtle hints of professional envy. It just doesn’t feel like a movie I would want to watch and the jumping back and forth in time, an arbitrary choice, reveals nothing spectacular. Perhaps it’s time to throw in the towel and move on to another, more interesting pool of inspiration, or make a movie that has no jumping-off point riddled with abstractions. [D]

Nomadland

If you were to call Fern homeless she’d immediately, with a wry smile, correct you and state she’s not homeless but “houseless”, and you’d believe her, because something in the deeply lived performance that Frances McDormand delivers conveys a message of living the moment, taking every chance, pause in between flight.

Chloe Zhao is truly a revelation and quite simply, the best thing this year’s festival has offered. Take a cue to develop narratives along with the book of the same name, Zhao and McDormand create something truly brilliant and poignant in Nomadland, a movie that delves into the topic of those who have been left behind to fend for themselves due to choice or circumstance and equally, those who have decided that possessions are a hamper to live a fully lived life in which the entire world was a home full of marvels to see, sense, experience, taste, and finally, leave behind to spin on its own.

A victim of the housing crash of 2008, Fern (McDormand) travels the country in her camper van she names Vanguard, working odd jobs here and there if there is a need for a person like her, and she is okay with it. In the interim, she befriends a group of people who for their own reasons also decided to leave it all behind and search. One of these turns out to be a potential romance for Fern (played quietly by David Strathairn), but Fern, whom McDormand inhabits as a woman unyielding to tragedy and to old age itself, is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Simply perfect. [A+]

Days

If I were to describe Tsai Ming-Liang’s new movie Days, I would have to say that it is essentially an art installation comprised of stills that through its images tells a story of loneliness, alienation, and the need for human contact.

The two men in the movie, frequent collaborator Kang-sheng Lee and newcomer Anong Houngheunagsy are presented back to back as they move about in solitude, separate from each other. It gets revealed that Kang-sheng’s nameless character suffers from chronic back pain for which he goes to an acupuncturist. The scene, in which Kang-sheng sits in stoic silence, enduring what must be an excruciating session as his body tenses against the wires and steam emanating from them, is long and tortuous.

Equally long, and the crux of the movie is the sequence in which Kang-sheng and Anong, who we learn is a sexual masseuse, meet in a sterile hotel. The scene is the sole occasion in which both men wordlessly open up to each other and where Kang-sheng experiences the magic of human touch which in turn releases him from his pain which hints at his loneliness. And then, Days turns into something purely magical. Once the two men resort to a less sensual, more businesslike demeanor, Kang-sheng gifts Anong a music box. In a world in which these kinds of situations would start and end as mechanical as the needs propelling them, Ming-Liang takes this encounter and turns it into one of connection and sharing. Even when the men leave for a night on the town, the camera remains in the now dark room, lingering over the restrained moment of sexual release that continues to float, unacknowledged, in darkness.

For newcomers to Ming-Liang’s cinema Days may take a while to warm up to. This is not a director interested in the more familiar aspects of the narrative. His shots, minimalistic to a fault, express merely what is happening at a bare-bones level. An opening scene in which Kang-sheng sits in silence gazing out into his yard while the rain pours (and reflects onto his body) suggests a lifetime of living like a monk. Another, rather late in the film, where Anong sits by himself listening to this wonderful little gift he has received — such a payment for a moment’s service! — you can almost sense the excitement, the private joy, that he experiences in such a moment. Ming-Liang’s movie Days is like that –a living still life, in which the essence of a scene is delicately played out on screen, delivering its filtered emotion through the wordlessly visual. [B]

The Human Voice

Here we have a miniature by Spain’s Almodovar, a director who has devoted his entire body of work to the female psyche, light or dark, fragile or steely. In his Human Voice, all the elements of his previous work find themselves reduced to their bare essentials: female desire, the horror of abandonment, the abuse they have received, the tragedy of a love that has died, the ultimate need to perform an act of exorcism in order to move on. Who better would embody these characteristics for his English-language debut than Tilda Swinton, an actress severely underused in a starring role, who often gets the smaller part where gives her no other option than to steal the picture by proxy alone.

For Almodovar’s third incursion into Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice, he focuses solely on the play itself. [Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown begins in almost the same manner but from the moment the call ends, the story becomes a wild farce with a spectacular ending.] From the moment the Bernard Hermanesque score opens and we see a rain of tools over a background of sea-green that then segues into two shots of Tilda, dressed in fire engine red and ashy black, we have entered the unleashed emotions that Almodovar loves to navigate through, Buckle up.

The Woman receives the foreboding call from her narcissistic boyfriend who’s been breadcrumbing her, holding her hostage emotionally and physically for four years. He will not be making an appearance to collect his items and his dog (who also has noticed his absence).

This final act of cowardice sends the Woman right over the edge. During her conversations she will resort to a dramatic attempt at self-destruction, every note of exaggerated emotion not devoid of manipulation, and fire, all in the name of both getting her unattainable man to pay attention to her or else. Tilda’s Woman is a primal scream that she carries along from the moment her character steps onto the stage to when she abandons it with her ex-lover’s masterless dog, a woman dressed in tones of equal parts mourning and healing.

The Human Voice is, for anyone still not yet familiar with Almodovar, a way to get a glimpse of his universe, his women, and their complicated desires. [A-]

In the Mood for Love

“Feelings can creep up like that. I thought I was in control.” This is the line that can basically summarize the subtle events that transpire during a short stay within cramped quarters in a Hong Kong apartment.

The time is 1963, a time when Hong Kong society was much more conservative. A man and a woman (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung), both married to other people, move in next door to each other, and other than making diurnal polite exchanges, neither of them would have any need to meet. Due to the fact that their spouses are almost always absent on business trips, this leaves them by themselves. A pattern of loneliness starts to emerge within the two, a thing that leads them to venture out to eat alone, sometimes passing each other by without acknowledgment, and on other occasions, a slight, polite but strained hello.

It soon becomes apparent that both of them are victims of infidelity, and the movie is extremely clever in the way it drops clues. Eventually, their paths intersect, and this begins a tentative, restrained approach to a friendship that starts to take shape between both Mrs, Chan and Mr. Chow. From here on, In the Mood for Love starts developing an intoxicating scent that like the Nat King Cole song that continually teases in the background, threatens to push the both of them to the moment we, the audience, are waiting for.

Any director might have taken a less impressive turn, or might have even delved into slight overtones of predictable romance. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love takes a different road while sticking to the “will they won’t they” formula. It is all about anticipation and voyeurism draped in gorgeous, pregnant sensuality aching for release. His camera moves stealthily, sometimes from a distance, or behind lush curtains, maintaining a sense of the clandestine that could still be uncovered at any time. A sense of fragile privacy is always present, keeping them together within the frame, longing, and yearning. It is a potent approach because we as an audience are already hoping for someone to crack the ice.

When I saw In the Mood for Love 20 years ago I was not ready for this level of eroticism playing out where the actors never once show more skin than what is already visible. Kar-wai lets us into a world of narcotic but safe greens in the first part and then lets red explode over as if dressing both his characters with the feelings they themselves cannot confess. And then there is Maggie Cheung’s doll-like face, luminous like no one ever, her eyes speaking volumes even when her posture remains poised. She is the perfect foil to Tony Leung’s restrained yet smoldering desire that hints at intensity (and will color his stories which he writes in room 2046, a hotel room that will become the basis of the sequel).

In the Mood for Love boasts some of the most pristine restorations I have seen and it shows: a copy of the movie that came out 20 years ago is still sharp, but the 4K restoration must be seen, sensed, experienced. If there ever was a movie that I would call essential for anyone venturing into film, it would be this one.

A 2016 restoration is available on Criterion Channel for subscribers. [A+]