When the Only Way to Assertion is Defying Tradition in And Then We Danced

Image from the Gryphon

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Chances for Merab are already slim to successfully join the dance troupe, that is, until Irakli (Bakhi Valishvili) shows up and performs — not before having to remove his earring (again, a sign of effeminacy). Merab instantly takes to the new boy, who’s kind of a jock to Merab’s refined but somewhat androgynous features. However, he doesn’t yield only because he also happens to live in a place that is out of step with the modern world. Like the farmers in Gods Own Country, or any gay man living in rural America, Merab has to hide his own sexuality at all costs, even from his increasingly suspicious girlfriend, especially since gossip among the female dancers has spread that another dancer, outed as gay, has had to resort to prostitution in order to survive.

That becomes a problem when Merab and Irakli find themselves having to work together in the dance troupe, and whatever was repressed suddenly gets released in a moment of awkward passion. And Then We Danced doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel in terms of closeted romances, but it manages to handle the difficult process of coming out in the middle of an ultra-conservative mindset with loads of sympathy and contains a bravura sequence of utter defiance in the name of tradition that makes this gay romance soar. In Georgian with English subtitles. [A–]

A Clash of the Privileged and the Destitute Meet in Styx

The first shot of Wolfgang Fischer’s movie Styx concerns a paradise filled with wonder and endangered species. Ascension Island is a national park located midway between South America and Africa and is the place our heroine, Rike (Suzanne Wolff), a German doctor, is headed for a little bit of R & R.

Her story gets introduced rather sparsely, and only the bare-bones information is revealed. We learn she’s a skilled doctor, can handle herself alone, and seems to have little to no attachments to anyone. You could almost see a little bit of Hemingway in the narrative as she departs from Gibraltar towards Ascension Island in her yacht. Alone, in the expanse of the Southern Atlantic, Rike is seen performing rather mechanically as any boater would, but also enjoying the solitude of swimming naked in the ocean. Friendly banter with another ship informs her that a storm is coming, and much in the way of J. C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, it arrives. Rike is able to weather the worst of the storm well. What she isn’t prepared for is what comes next.

A large trawler riddled with people begging for help appears in the distance. Rike, appealing to her humanity, attempts to radio for help and is cooly advised that yes, help is on the way, but to steer clear from the trawler. however, Rike is close enough to induce a state of panic and people start jumping off the boat. One of them, a young African boy (Gedion Weseka) manages to swim all the way to Rike’s boat. Rike manages to get him aboard to safety. However, the boy’s sister is still on the boat. The boat is sinking.

Fischer’s story seems to shed some light on the struggle that refugees seek when setting out to unknown territories into an unknown but hopefully better future. The matter-of-fact coldness to which authorities continue to respond to Rike signifies how badly, how shabbily those in position to help treat the helpless, and how they see Rike as more of a commodity as a white woman of certain affluence. Rike herself quickly realizes she is literally navigating into forces that are completely out of her league and that even the compassionate act of saving one life won’t be applauded. Fischer’s Styx is a taut drama about two sides of a coin headed for the illusion of paradise, held together by a strong direction and Suzanne Wolff’s performance. In German and English with subtitles. [B+]

Deneuve and Binoche Play Mother and Daughter Coming to Terms with Family Secrets in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Tepid Drama The Truth

Image from The Guardian

After the sheer gravity of a movie like Shoplifters which found Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda at the peak of his narrative powers, it was announced that his first film not in his native Japanese would be released sometime in 2020, and Kore-eda would finally “arrive” on the Western Hemisphere.

If you remember Shoplifters, which took home the Palm d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, told the almost unbearably intimate and poignant story of a family cobbled together from the remnants of others barely surviving in Tokyo, going about their business until a chance encounter with a little girl changed their entire world.

The topic he chose — based on a short story by Ken Liu — comes under the form of another domestic drama in which an aging, narcissistic actress has written a book she claims to be the autobiographical truth, but whom others who know her well, see otherwise. Assembling a cast headlined by French giants Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and bringing in Ethan Hawke for good measure, The Truth begins with Deneuve, who plays Fabienne (which happens to be Deneuve’s middle name), an actress starring in a science fiction movie in which her character, a space explorer, never ages, and has a complicated relationship with her mother (Manon Clavel).

When Fabienne’s daughter Lumir (Binoche) and her husband Hank (Hawke) arrive with precocious daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) in tow, Lumir sort of preps Hank, an actor himself albeit struggling, into meeting her mother, but that’s not the central part of Kore-eda’s movie. Lumir discovers that her mother’s memoirs are riddled with inaccuracies, almost as if she chose not to include them in order to make her story seem more idealized for the reading audience. It soon emerges that buried deep in Fabienne’s book is a glaring omission that Fabienne herself chooses not to acknowledge, a thing that starts to affect the mother-daughter relation.

That omission morphs into the elephant in the room, and leave it to Deneuve and Binoche to tackle each other not with barbs but restraint and sometimes snarky humor. One gets the feeling that these two, who interestingly mirrors the mother-daughter relationship of the movie within a movie, know each other way too well to let things go, but somehow manage to not make a terrible scene of it. Such is the way Kore-eda handles his stories as if they were gentle earthquakes that throw slight shadows into the family make-up but never truly cause scenarios like say, something Lillian Hellman might have done.

The Truth plays out its drama in a lesser but no less sensitive key. You won’t walk out savaged and destroyed by devastation as you did in Shoplifters, but there are enough character reveals that don’t pigeonhole Deneuve and Binoche — the two most salient performers here (Hawke wisely takes a step aside and plays along, happy to be in the picture) — as simply a shallow mother and cynical, self-effacing daughter. Overall, very enjoyable and pleasing without being too memorable. [B]

In French and English, subtitled. Available on most platforms.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Blissfully Crossing Over the Line, and Thank You for That

[Originally seen October 24, 2020]

Sacha Baron Cohen is a clever, clever dude. For four years now everyone with a fully functioning mind and who could see past the gauze and the glitter has been wanting to see someone — anyone — lampoon 45 without seeing their career threatened (cue Kathy Griffin during a chunk of 2017). His current movie, available on Prime, is a comedy so sharp it might as well arrived with Ginza knives and tackled an entire populace raised in blissful ignorance, white privilege, and the belief that anything slightly different than white would be considered the enemy in exclamation points. His timely release somehow serves as a poetic bookend to the damning move made by former FBI Director James Comey days before the election in 2016 which plunged the nation into four years where it seemed that anarchy was the norm, wrong was right, and anything resembling progress on all grounds was now headless and placed in a freezer ’til further notice, the later the better so the country could be run ragged to its knees.

Borat returns, this time with a proposal to make to the American government in exchange for not seeing himself killed in a rather unsavory way back in Kazakhstan. With his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) in tow, both set out to meet the VP (and potentially, the Man himself), but in the interim, Tutar must undergo a radical transformation to render her palatable for the right-wing nutjobs she is set to enchant. This sets up for a series of comic set pieces that have to be seen to be believed, each one stronger than the other until Tutar becomes from being a simple punchline to her own voice. I really don’t want to spoil the movie for you although the trailer does manage to hint at one special meeting which has given a certain politician publicity he would not have wanted if his life depended on it.

Reader, movie lover, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a howler. It arrived timely and wisely before the elections by a director and actor so fearless one must simply applaud his for sheer bravado. I’m sure Baron Cohen armed himself to his eyeballs to make sure all the legal bases were covered in case the movie backfired, because how else could you go out on such an extreme a limb and lampoon this current (and soon to expire) administration who has managed to whip the already tenuous emotions of a nation and turn them into a frenzy of fanaticism and intolerance? Sure the movie will age rather badly five, ten years from now. However, we will always remember how it managed to place a mirror at whoever was willing to see and expose our nation’s hypocrisy and underbelly, and by default, become the equivalent of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Come to think of it, I stand corrected. This movie will only grow in stature. If Chaplin’s has become the cry against tyranny told with grace and scathing humor, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is in fantastic company. [B+]

Trapped in Suburban Hell: Vivarium

Image from Flickering Myth

Most of us spend a chunk of our lives aiming for our forever home, and if you’re like me, you even subscribe to a few hashtags on Instagram to follow with homes that represent that which I’m aiming for, wallet and finances considering.

The couple at the center of Lorcan Finnegan’s wicked little parable of the trapping underneath the perfection of suburbia is one of them. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), dating, not exactly an official item but it seems, well acquainted to each other to indicate that Things Are Serious, are looking for a starter home, something to nest in, grow a little, and create memories. When they walk into a real estate office, they meet Martin (Jonathan Aris), a funny looking man who seems from an entirely different time capsule and whose smile, which never touches his eyes, could send chills down any spine and make a person nope out of there real quick.

However, Gemma and Tom are somewhat taken in by Martin’s insinuating salesperson’s charm and on a gander decide to follow him into the new development he’s promoting, the oddly titled Yonder. Already things seems a bit out of whack, but I have myself been in strangely named townships., Yonder, however, is its own character, a place where every single house seems to be made exactly the same down to the furniture on the patio and the perpetual lime green of its houses walls. When Gemma and Tom walk in the place is staged to cold perfection down to his and hers on the bed, and a lovely bottle of wine to greet them.

Still, Gemma and Tom start to realize that something not right is afoot, but before they can do an eye-blink, Martin is gone. Okay, no big deal, they decide to leave. Except, no matter how hard they try, they can’t. Every turn, every corner, every street leads back to the ubiquitous no. 9 on the unnamed street. They try to walk their way out to no avail… it seems that somewhere down the road from they slipped into another place and time, away from known, three-dimensional society, and are now trapped in this spotless little town where no one seems to live, the clouds seem made out of cotton balls, and the sun seems as artificial as the ones present in cartoons. Doomed to stay, they continue nevertheless trying to escape, but then, a baby arrives neatly in a box on their driveway.

I don’t know about you, but this is the time I would start to get very worried or simply panicking. Gemma and Tom keep their cool throughout, but then, the story takes its twists and turns that render them both weakened and on the verge of losing it. Finnegan seems to be saying that no matter how much we want to be in control, there is somehow an outer force tinkering with the buttons, and for a time, that seems true. Gemma and Tom seem to have stepped into a horrible joke that turns more sadistic with each passing scene until it seems that something has to give or insanity will take hold.

I don’t want to give too much out of this movie because so much is contingent on its opening scene. Vivarium is a couple’s worst nightmare in which the concept of even browsing for a home could lead to disastrous consequences. Or perhaps, it is a parable of what tends to happen when a young couple experiences their first adult moments as homeowners and parents. I choose to go with the latter. It just seems fitting to leave it at the projections of suburban life turned upside down, and the script is wise to leave everything in limbo, merely hinted at, and going for all-out cruelty at its close. Vivarium is not for anyone seeking an easy way out because, quite frankly, it doesn’t offer a way out, in the metaphorical or the literal. [B+]

When Coming-of Age Collides with Asteroids and the End of the World in Love & Monsters

Ever since the creation of film as a storytelling media, humanity has always been on the edge, or just past, near-extinction due to some massive calamity. It doesn’t matter how many times that topic gets touched, someone manages to take a spin on it and somehow create something entirely new. Even television has in the last oh, ten or so years, jumped on the bandwagon with the incredible success of The Walking Dead which doesn’t show signs of fizzling anytime soon.

Now we get Love & Monsters, a good little popcorn movie to tune your brain out of the artsier batch of movies usually coming out in packs via virtual cinema platforms.

This one takes the scenario of an asteroid headed for Earth — one that Armageddon famously tackled a little over 20 years — and instead of keeping the story hinging on when it might hit, it goes a different direction. Taking a cue from how man-made chemicals insect repellants have made bugs immune to them over the last 20 or so years and have even managed to create superbugs, South African director Michael Matthews and screenwriters Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson have posited the scenario that Earth, in trying to save itself from the lethal asteroid, launches rockets to slam into it. In the process, while the asteroid does get deflected and destroyed, the chemicals that created these rocket ships have fallen back to Earth. Now all cold-blooded creatures have become horribly mutated into grotesque, gigantic forms, and well… most aren’t friendly.

Hence, the Earth’s population has now been reduced to a tiny fraction.

Several years later we meet Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien), a kid barely out of his teens living in a bunker with other survivors. Due to his fear paralysis Joel has been relegated to cooking food and basically keeping house while his friends go out risking their lives to ensure survival. A reconnection with his still-alive girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) stirs up the gumption in him to go making a trek across 85 miles of unknown terrain to reunite with her at the colony she’s staying with.

Image from NY Times

Armed with just the basics, Joel’s journey seems doomed from the start when he has a series of rather icky encounters with giant deformities. However, meeting a rather smart dog and two survivors (one of them played by the reliable Michael Rooker) toughens him up and lays out the blueprint on how to make it alive without dying halfway.

This is a fun movie and I had no expectations for it other than to sit back and simply enjoy its simple adventure. It is clear that this seems to be geared more at a younger crowd due to the lightheartedness of its story because no matter how large the mutant insect, it never once seems terrifying as, for example, the giant creatures of Frank Darabont’s The Mist. An encounter with a talking robot induces all the feels reminiscent of Wall-E, and the appearance of a giant crab somehow inexplicably triggers memories from Ray Harryhausen had he had access to CGI. Dylan O’Brien seems to be channeling a younger Logan Berman (they even have somewhat similar faces), and his character, who goes from completely clueless to heroic, has a strong depth despite the story’s superficial limitations.

Give this one a look-see. I on my end, had a blast. [B+]

Regina King’s One Night in Miami

Eli Goree as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in Regina King’s excellent One Night in Miami (image from Metacritic)

I know that Steve McQueen manage to hog most of the 58th New York Film Festival all to himself — which is why I only saw two of his three episodes the form the basis of Small Axe. Nothing against McQueen. I am currently obsessed with Black Stories as depicted in cinema. Furthermore, I’m ecstatic that the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been a long time coming, has made it possible for directors and actors to get their visions out there because frankly, cinema has for far too long relegated Black Voices to the fringe in both acting, producing, and directing.

I just wish that Regina King’s One Night in Miami would have also been screened at the NYFF because it deserved that kind of opening, not just the Toronto International Film Festival. One Night in Miami is a muscular showcase for four incredibly talented actors to showcase their acting chops in a movie based on the play of the same penned by Kemp Powers. In the narrative, lightning gets trapped in not a bottle but an unassuming hotel room in Miami where four friends — Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldris Hodge), and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) — converge not for a night of debauchery but a night of celebration. The guest of honor is Cassius Clay himself, who has just won Sonny Liston, and thus has become crowned World’s Boxing Champion.

During this incredible night, the men engage in friendly banter, but as it happens, the topics move smoothly from the banal to the relevant to the time, which still resonates today. Malcolm begins to criticize that Sam Cooke can’t have a hit on his own even though his own songs have been performed better by white artists. Cooke posits his own stance at how this has in essence served him fine, but deep down, there is a sense that he’d like to have his own name headlining a hit instead of being the pen who wrote it. Brown is about to leave his successful career in sports to become an actor. Clay preens and posits little conflict throughout, but is actually on the verge of converting to Islam, with Malcolm as his mentor.

Regina King never lets her camera intrude more than it has to, opting instead for allowing her actors to do the heavy load and create a perpetually mobile story that lifts itself off from its rather wordy roots. One Night in Miami serves up a lot more truths — particularly those of Brown, Malcolm, and Cooke himself, which will make audiences view them in a different light. The timing of the story — in reality and its fictionalized version — could not have been more telling, given that 1964 was the year when the Civil Rights Movement reached its head and all of the men here held a position in which they were not just heard but seen and thus became icons of the movement.

Ultimately, its story lands squarely on Malcolm X’s shoulders more than once, and it’s often telling how the movie manages to give him the voice of reason and gravity behind the allure of success and fame. All of the actors are in fine mode here, but to me, Kingsley Ben-Adir’s performance as Malcolm X is the one that sticks with me the most. [A]

One Night in Miami will have its official premiere on December 25, 2020, and will arrive on streaming platforms come January 2021.