At a Glance: Eight More movies, from Minari to Mank

Now that New Director / New Films is over and done with, I can now focus on going back to some of the movies that I watched either right before the festival started, or in the middle of it, but never got to actually have the time to write about them. Here we go:

Minari

Somehow I failed to write about this last year when I had the chance in October. Anyhow, it’s no secret to anyone now some nine months after its release that Lee Isaac Chung’s movie Minari is not just a quintessentially American story but a masterpiece of storytelling. It focuses on a Korean-American family headed by Jacob and Monica (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han), who have moved from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s in an attempt to not only escape the drudgery of their city life but to make some solid roots of their own. From the get-go, it becomes clear that this will be a task easier said than done. Already, there is tension in the marriage, with Monica upset from having left her life behind. Being Asian-Americans with little education leaves both Jacob and Monica to have to work (yet again) in another factory. However, Jacob has big plans to create his own farm and befriends a muttering American named Paul who served in Korea (Will Paxton, as usual, underrated). Coming into the picture is Monica’s mother Soonja (Yoh-Young Youn), a woman with a character all her own who the youngest son David (Alan S Kim) doesn’t accept.

Minari looks like a type of movie that doesn’t get made anymore (and I know, it sounds cliche, but check and see the last time you saw a movie about a family trying to make it in rural America and you’d have to go all the way back to the type of dramas Sally Field was making in 1984, or perhaps, the similar but fantasy-laden Field of Dreams. This is a gentle movie that depicts a family displaced on all ends, trying to hold itself together in a country that at one point fought against them. Chung wisely leaves any racial tensions outside of the picture, although a friendship between David and a young boy, while innocent, seems to be laden with an undertone of fascination with “the other” rather than a true, lasting friendship. Even Paul’s need to serve Jacob’s family seems to stem from some unknown guilt as the man carries a religious weight throughout the entire movie, even when that weight is treated without any sense of an ulterior motive.

If I have one complaint about Minari, it would have to be that come awards season Yeri Han was left without any nomination for her difficult role as the wife. It seems to be a tradition that Hollywood still doesn’t seem to consider the role of the supporting spouse to be that relevant to a story. Monica’s constant sense of displacement added to the fact that she is, alongside Jacob, the glue holding this delicate family unit together, makes for some intense moments whenever she and Jacob throw verbal barbs at each other. Aside from that one complaint, Minari is a wonderful movie to see, not so much because of its cast but despite it. If anything sounds and feels and looks more American, it is a family who comes from a different part of the world venturing into a place they can call their own. This is the closest I can call to seeing the seeds of life grow and its title describes the movie perfectly.

Saint Frances

Kelly O’Sullivan is a force of nature and someone who should be on everyone’s watch list because that girl is Going Places. O’Sullivan writes and stars in Alex Johnson’s feature-length debut, Saint Frances. Here she plays Bridget, a deadbeat thirty-something who seems to be sleepwalking through life while everyone else around her has become settled and grounded. At a gathering, she meets a man who’s going on and on about nothing in particular while she cringes. When he tells her something around the lines of “You’re 24. It gets better,” Bridget flatly replies, “I’m 34.”

That doesn’t stop her from hooking up with Jace (Max Lipschitz), a cute but much younger guy with who she makes a quick connection. Their connection will be fated in more ways than one, but in the interim, it becomes just a chapter that lands her as a babysitter for a lesbian couple named Annie and Maya (Lila Mojekwu and Charin Alvarez) who are expecting another baby and need someone to take care of their precocious 6-year-old daughter Frances. Frances, it turns out, has come to the world fully formed as an adult and has some things to say, plus an attitude to spare. It is inevitable that a bond will form between the two.

Which, suffice it is to say, won’t be enough. Bridget still has a job to do, and a life to live, even as she herself is still figuring things out. Her presence in Annie’s and Maya’s home might not be considered disruptive — Bridget is helpful to a fault — but because Annie works long hours in her law firm and Maya’s postpartum depression has left her swimming in barely contained tears when Annie finally notices that Bridget and Maya have been getting closer as friends, she has a moment. The moment, surprisingly enough, leads to a release of emotion so raw and intense that it left me completely awash in tears of my own.

I love the way O’Sullivan wrote her character as someone simply trying. She’s not worldly, she barely has anything figured out, and even a scene when a former college friend who has become someone famous places Bridget in the position of being humiliated, she takes it all in stride, unaffected (but not completely; she still throws in a jab with Frances help). The movie isn’t afraid to also posit the way women judge other women, and a moment when Maya is breastfeeding her infant. baby slowly turns into a confrontation with a “Karen” who admonishes Maya for simply tending to her child. What O’Sullivan and the child actress playing Frances do to defuse the scene is priceless.

Saint Frances is unique in that it is very well aware that its people, the successful and not so successful don’t have it all figured out yet. Yes, there are cringe-worthy moments like the one I described in the previous paragraph, but eventually, what comes through is the all-encompassing love that Bridget exudes. Hers is a character I wanted to continue to see long after the movie itself was over. On that basis alone, this to me is one of the best movies of 2020.

Ammonite and The World to Come

I’m lumping these two movies together because it seems that lesbian period dramas in which the two female protagonists slowly but surely fall in love albeit the circumstances of their time are becoming the rage since Carol, but more importantly, 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Let me be clear: I’m perfectly happy with these movies, I’d rather see two women falling for each other and surviving into the end credits than something as dismal as The Children’s Hour or anything that came before or shortly after that because in every single one of them the woman (or both women) were harshly punished.

The thing is that where Carol and Portrait both breathed life into the genre, Ammonite and The World to Come arrive a little stale and predictable — so much that it inspired an SNL skit that has to be seen to be believed. Both movies operate on the notion that narrating stories about women giving into their passions even at the danger of being exposed and possibly convicted seems to foster great cinema. Ammonite treads on the concept that perhaps there was a queer attraction between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison (Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan), although no documents survive today that confirms it. Whether or not it did happen, Ammonite simply doesn’t hold that much water in its central romance so anything that happens seems forced. The World to Come doesn’t quite do much better despite the presence of Katerine Waterston and [Oscar nominee] Vanessa Kirby. Theirs is played fairly straight (for lack of another term), but too often it seems to be closer to an anachronism than something that would have actually transpired even if the two women in The World to Come had lived practically on top of each other in super-tight quarters. Both movies suffer from a case of forced drama, and that does not good drama make.

Supernova

Another trend that seems to be taking place is that of placing an older couple at a crossroads in life in which one of the two has a terminal disease, leaving the other one to have to handle it on his own. Still Alice gave Julianne Moore an Oscar, Two of Us was France’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards, and who can forget 2012’s Amour?

Now we get Supernova, a well-intentioned and superbly acted movie about two older gay men (Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth) en route to a gathering. There is a lot of reminiscing and talking back and forth that happens, and we get that one of them is not doing too well. The disclosure arrives almost immediately, which was never meant to be a surprise. Tucci’s character has dementia, and soon he won’t be able to take care of himself.

Supernova is a talky affair, but it also manages to imbue its narrative with moments of pause. I was reminded in a way of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend in which his two male leads talked and talked and talked, and none of it was boring — if anything, their time together (which was almost the entire film) was the core structure of the story. In Supernova Firth and Tucci are almost always on camera, together, with few scenes apart from each other. The two share a deep, smoldering chemistry that burns even when their characters fight. Even so, the director, Harry Macqueen, has a non-judgmental sensibility for his characters in that he lets them have their moments without sugar-coating their performances until maudlin takes over. This is a romance that looks lived in, which makes the pain of what must inevitably happen more heartbreaking.

The Vigil

I’ll always have a soft spot for horror films because in their stories lies a deeper template in which grief or darker traumas are expunged in the manner of a haunting. In The Vigil, that template occurs when a young man named Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) receives an offer to be a shomer for a man who has just died. Needing some quick money, Yakov accepts, but as we’ve come to expect in horror movies involving a haunting, nothing will go as expected and before things get better, they will get very, very worse, especially for Yakov.

Honestly, I don’t know what to say other than I enjoyed this short movie. It’s got a great sense of mood and dread that settles in progressively once Menashe Lustig’s character — who hired Yakov in the first place — leaves for the night, leaving Yakov alone in the apartment with a dead man a mere 10 feet away from him. Thomas uses technology and social media to create a sense of displacement in which we as an audience know what is happening but only through Yakov’s earbuds which blast music to a point, it’s a wonder he can even hear himself breathe.

Using the allegory as a means to tell a story about trauma and PTSD is a great way to get through to the meat of the pain. Lynn Cohen, as the dead man’s wife, has a strong supporting character as a woman who knows all too well about demons who refuse to leave a man in pain. On the plus side, while The Vigil does get rather gruesome at times, it never crosses into implausibility and remains firmly entrenched within a man’s fractured psyche. It knows all too well that demons per se do not exist and cannot drag a person to hell. We already live in a hell out of our own making. We just need to find a way to get out of its binding hold. What works for it, is the sense of claustrophobia at every corner plus the sense that something unspeakable is but within grabbing reach of the main character. At 80 minutes in length, The Vigil might be a bit short for its own good but being its mainly a one-man shiver show, it is enough and then some.

Nobody

I’m coming to truly enjoy these movies in which unlikely folk turn out to be the biggest badasses ever. So far, only older men have played this part — Charlize Theron doesn’t count because her movies don’t focus on her being a pushover turned lethal killing machine. John Wick might not have been the first — he was, in fact, preceded by Hardcore Henry by a few years — but his character is the one most of us including me remember. Now we get Bob Odenkirk stepping out of his attorney in Better Call Saul and into Liam Neeson’s shoes in Nobody, written by the same guy who wrote Theron’s Atomic Blonde and the John Wick movies.

Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a mild-mannered regular guy whom everyone — including his family — seems to both ignore and treat as if he were a nuisance to kick into submission. He accepts it, and goes through the motions, visiting his retired father (Christopher Lloyd, a much welcome presence) at his assisted living home and speaking to his as-yet unseen half brother through CB radio (I thought that went out of style 40 years ago).

One night Hutch finds himself the unwilling and innocent bystander for a group of thugs who enter a bus and basically, unleash mayhem. He quite literally snaps and lets loose whatever he has been holding inside himself, wiping out the entire mob of men with barely a weapon in sight. This leads to a series of events in which the father of one of the men (Aleksey Serebyrakov, last seen in 2013’s Leviathan) demands revenge and payment for whoever did this. That, of course, will be easier said than done.

From here on the movie is exactly what you would expect it to be. Ilya Naishuiller directs Nobody with a muscular hand and offers a few moments for the audience to catch their breath. What I enjoyed the most about this movie is that in no way is Hutch invincible. He can certainly kick ass, and I wouldn’t want to be at the receiving end of whatever he may have in store for me, but he also gets hit a lot and in one scene, gets kidnapped, with some grisly results for the kidnappers.

Nobody is a fun movie to enjoy on an evening night and features solid performances by its supporting cast which includes Connie Nielsen, no stranger to action films herself, RZA, and an almost unrecognizable Michael Ironside.

Mank

Finally, I have arrived at David Fincher’s incursion into hagiography. If this is what he left Mindhunter — an excellent, deeply disturbing series that is right up his alley — for, I suggest he return to it. Mank will do him no favors, but who am I to pass judgment — I’m sure he made a killing in negotiations and can cut some losses here or there. It’s been lauded by many — not me, sadly — and showered with multiple nominations and awards in major events to include the Academy Awards, and the future will eventually decide whether this was deserved, or the result of a relentless PR stunt to make sure that his work (and his actors) received the attention they should. [Note, I didn’t say “deserved.”]

Eventually, most directors want to make their Citizen Kane. It’s an approach to auteur cinema that ensures he or she will pass through the history books with a movie that will be seen as a pean to cinema and thus, merit its place in movies that you should see before you die or some objective list like that. What not many have attempted is to do something so much in the style of Orson Welles as if to almost follow his filming technique by the book in order to make a movie that seems to be telegraphing at full volume, “This is the seed that created the flower,” or perhaps, “Watch as this real-life story imitates the movie that became the monster that now we know is Citizen Kane.”

Clever approach, to film with low angles, oblique shots, characters bathed in shadows to a point where we can barely see their faces, scenes that foretell scenes in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, and attention to detail that is almost infuriating. [This attention. to detail, mind you, might be commendable to some for its eagle eye approach, but misses the point in others, probably conveniently so, or because when a movie packs so much, there is only so much it can take before it implodes in its own ambitions.]

I wouldn’t have minded all that, but then Fincher and his screenwriters fill the story with so many characters that the movie itself is almost an insurmountable wall of information that has no head, no feet, and is all body. When a movie does this it basically becomes, to me, a Jackson Pollock, Pretty to see with the layers of squiggly lines that tell a chaotic creation, but not much else. So, yes, perhaps this is how life is — a mess of chaotic incidents glued together to form a tapestry so wide you have to stand about 100 feet away from it to capture its intricacy in detail. I, personally, didn’t care who was that character who killed himself, or why Marion Davies was in the story when nothing in Citizen Kane (except that much-maligned reference to Kane’s untalented/exploited/victim wife, Susan Elizabeth Kane) truly references her. The dialogue is excellent — language like that needs to return to movies. It makes characters much more interesting to watch as they conduct their conversations and reveal aspects of either themselves or the narrative. Other than that, Mank is a colossal — but elegant — misfire, an incursion into a time barely remembered, and a story of what can happen when overindulged egos clash.

New Directors / New Films: Ten directors make their debut in 2021

So many films, so little time, and I somehow managed to see a little over 15 of them thanks to the magic of never leaving my house. Again, it’s my luck that the pandemic seems to have changed the way we watch movies. Thanks to an all-movie pass I caught this festival almost in its entirety, leaving some that I felt I couldn’t really talk about aside for a future view.

The first of these is a standout movie from India. Pebbles, directed by P. S. Vinothraj, makes for a striking debut in a sea of new movies all trying to make their mark for the first time and establish careers. Essentially a two-character movie, its story seems ripped out of the bowels of a James Baldwin short story. When we enter the movie proper, we see the father (Karuthadayaan) strutting into the frame, anger pouring out from his body from all sides. He’s come to the school where his son (Chellapandi) goes to pick him up drag him out into the blazing heat to go after the mother, who’d left the family.

Their trip, fraught with chance encounters that always end in violence, essentially establishes a painful dysfunction in which the patriarchy reduces women to practically nothing, and woe to them if they were to leave. Throughout their journey, however, as the father implodes into a mess of rage and petty, toxic masculinity that renders him slightly above bestial, the son slowly starts to assert himself into the story’s hero, exacting near-silent defiance against his father and taking in a puppy as a pet (despite the father’s objections). There are some poetic choices that elevate the movie from its desolate surroundings — a drone camera circulating a scene where the father beats his son is a standout that keeps us in the story while denying us the horror of witnessing such abuse. That the abuse even touches some outsiders — a mother in a bus has to get off to avoid a fight that the father starts and gets left stranded in the middle of nowhere, the camera staying with her as she sits under a tree, waiting perhaps for another bus to pass — makes Pebbles unique in that it seems to tell a story of an entire nation and how domestic violence creeps into the fabric of society.

If I had one complaint was a section involving a family that feeds on rats. Vinothraj focuses on the rats a little too closely as they become dinner. I think that perhaps there may have been a point in presenting the ravages of extreme poverty and hunger, but it may offend some sensitive tastes watching this movie. Other than that, this is a solid, excellent short movie that seems, however, destined to go to MUBI or arthouse platforms rather than a theater proper.

Still from Pebbles

Coming into Fern Silva’s Rock Bottom Riser feels like witnessing the Earth breathe. Silva’s movie zeroes in on the volcanoes of Hawaii — particularly Mauna Kea, with its continually erupting volcano — and gives us a front-row seat into a world that is still shaping itself, alive and red on the inside, black and shiny on the outside. This is a world that respects no community, no human structure or roads because of course, it doesn’t. Its sole purpose is to add on to itself and by doing so release energy into the air and be a part of a larger whole that is the Earth.

This is Rock Bottom Riser’s best asset. However, Silva then inserts narratives that dilute the terrible beauty of his film. Not one of them truly captures the attention of the viewer as an eruption but serves to pepper some backstory into the culture of Hawaii, colonialism, and even the geo-location of Hawaii that allows for the construction of a 30-meter telescope in which astronomers can watch the stars. Dwayne Johnson makes an appearance, and knowing that he is actually Samoan made me scratch my head, but okay. Another misstep is to include a teacher so hippy that, well… you’d have to see it yourself to wonder what the heck was this appearance about when it adds next to zero to the geographic wonder that is Hawaii’s volcanoes. My only guess is that there was a need to flesh out what would have been essentially a 20-minute movie into a full-feature-length movie, and while a lot of it doesn’t quite gel, it makes for a little over an hour of escapism.

I can’t review Apples without somehow inserting myself into their premise. I work with memory so for me, remembering details — even minute ones — is a matter of life or death to me. When I came into the world of Christos Nikou’s Apples and met Aris (Aris Servertalis), a man who unexpectedly has forgotten who he is and, unclaimed by his family — who also may have forgotten about him — now has to fend for himself, I literally cringed. How can anyone live under such circumstances? Nikou never gives a straight answer — apparently, characters are able to perform menial activities with no problem, but as of anything involving memories, that points to a cold room. During the movie’s run time Aris meets and starts a tentative friendship with a woman named Anna (Sofia Georgeovassili), and I kept wondering if they would know each other the next time they saw each other. It was almost like watching a younger version of Sanremo, without the dementia part. Their story was rather interesting, and I wish that Nikou would have allowed it to breathe more rather than choosing to let his movie stay in a sense of limbo, but again, when all you have are automatons living on basic motor functions and the barest of memories enhanced by photography, asking for more might be a bit much.

Jessica Beshir’s documentary (and a love letter to her native Ethiopia) Faya Dayi shows the promise of a filmmaker able to conjure poignant tone poems and diaries of a world that no longer belongs to her (as she was raised in Mexico). Here she paints a world gone to stagnancy due to people stuck in the industry of harvesting khat. Khat is one of Ethiopia’s largest exportation products. Chewing it also ensures that its consumer never parts with it. Much like any other plant that can produce addiction, khat becomes the organically produced cord that obliterates a man’s identity and leaves him a shell of himself, his dreams lost, his life lain to waste. Several narratives emerge and meander about the movie, letting the viewer into the quotidian lives of its people as the ubiquitous plant — itself a sentient being and harbinger of malaise — haunts the frame. Shot in gorgeous, velvety black and white except for one sequence in blazing color, Beshir’s movie is a sad glimpse into the trappings of the industry as boys dream about moving away (but never do) and families become divided. If there is any fault here, it is the length. At two hours, the documentary would have benefitted by at least one less story or a good 30 minutes less, but as it stands, it is a strong debut.

Still from Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi

Also in black and white is Mengqiao Li’s Bipolar, a story set in China in which a young woman (Leah Dou, Faye Wong’s daughter) sets on a road trip of discovery after stealing a sacred lobster from its tank. Usually, movies like these will often go into surrealist narratives meant to bring us, the viewer, into the character’s state of mind, and in that manner, Bipolar does not disappoint. The problem I felt with Li’s movie is that despite the somewhat quirkiness of its lead actress, who also seems to be experimenting with gender identity, I never quite felt engaged with her, or her discovery, and the reason propelling her forward. The one salient point in the movie was the lobster in itself. It starts out as a Neptunian creature filled with ghostly mystery, pregnant with holiness, and progressively morphs back to its animal state. One could say that in this respect the movie succeeds in neatly bringing down the walls of ascribing divinity to creatures that live in their own reality. But in the end, the myth of Orpheus that the notes seem to point at don’t quite come together, and Bipolar, a movie that demands a lot of focus from its viewer, never quite comes into its own.

Two South Korean movies make their American debut at New Directors: Short Vacation and Gull. Both movies could not have been more different. Short Vacation, directed by Han-sol Seo, tells the non-eventful story of four teenage girls attending photography class. On a lark, the girls decide to take a trip “to the end of the world”. Sounds like a fantasy, but for the quartet, that turns out to be a lot more accessible. They take the train to the end of the line, all the time simply hanging out, taking in their surroundings. Meanwhile, the director, the camera, and we linger on, mere observers, making no effort to intervene. Night falls, one girl briefly disappears, and yet, no one bats an eyelash at the fact that they are far from home and four sets of parents wait. You would say that a movie this lacking in drama would be a bore-fest, but I think that perhaps despite its serenity, its documentarian style, Short Vacation, with its brief running time of barely 75 minutes counting credits, floats into its own in the same way that the slowest portions of Enchanted April did 30 years ago.

The second movie, Gull, takes a different approach (but still manages to be strictly observational). Kim Mi-jo tells the story of O-Bok, an older woman — I believe she is meant to be in her 60s — who works in a fish market and gets raped by a colleague who happens to be a man who runs the market’s union. Torn between her need for justice and the shame that she will bring to her family on the eve of her daughter’s wedding should this story leak out, O-Bok spends most of the movie nursing her own wounds while silently seething in unresolved rage. Attempts to get help from a female friend and coworker come to blows when the friend, acting like the rest of the critical world, turns the tables on O-Bok and blames her for her misfortune. Kim Mi-jo refrains from steeping her vibrant story into too much emotion, so much that it reads close to the best of Italian Neo-realism from the late 40s. The ending, which comes as an abrupt, but fitting exclamation point, might be a bit unsatisfying to some — the music of choice doesn’t help and robs it of its significance –, but serves the location and the culture of this movie well.

In nearby Hong Kong, a German woman Anke (Anke Bak) has come to visit her estranged son in Jonas Bak’s delicate little drama Wood and Water. This is the type of movie that, like Short Vacation, almost feels like a book of memories that segues naturally into guerrilla filmmaking. I loved how early on, I witnessed snippets of this woman’s life through her pat interactions at home. It was, as a matter of fact, almost heartbreaking to see her sit by herself in a near-empty house, staring into nothing at all, almost wondering where the time went.

Imagine how jarring it is, once her place in Germany is established, to see Hong Kong through her eyes as she cabs her way to a hotel. Here is where the story takes off, and the lingering question is, will she get to make amends with her son. Meantime, she establishes nascent acquaintances with the locals (and, early in the movie, a never-seen tourist looking for a job there as well) and this sets the stage for something bigger than the premise. A horoscope has Anke venturing deeper into the country where she finds a certain closure that the movie suggests she might not find with her also never-seen son.

I found this movie to be supremely beautiful in letting me into the world of this woman. It never tries to patch things up neatly but to present the life of a woman simply trying to do right, not because she did wrong, but because her instinct tells her to. The topic of depression filters its way into the story, so get an idea that there is more to the rift between Anke and her son, but all that takes almost a second stage to Anke’s own story, which is deeply personal, and features a single, final shot that is bursting at the seams with equal parts satisfaction and sadness.

Friends and Strangers is a movie that might be about aimless millennials and their eccentric but older parents but manages to insert a clever statement about the effects of colonialism in a country that once was the home to aborigines. It starts rather well (if a little boring), with Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz) having a conversation that has little in substance, and leads to an outing that goes rather awry. Were then privy to Ray, now on his way to a job interview, having to get rescued by his mother when his car has a problem. Once Ray gets to his appointed meeting, things start to go weird, and then the movie takes a more ominous shape. Somehow, all characters manage to converge into one grand finale that has the vaguest shades of a nightmare seen with eyes wide open and makes you question what it was that you just witnessed. James Vaughan’s comedy is equal parts mumblecore and absurd, with paintings that may not look the same twice and a soundtrack that is jarringly intrusive and unsettling, If it has anything to go against it, it would be its dedication to the Eora and Nginnawal people, and while the white people seem to be clueless about the country’s heritage, the entire dedication seems a bit tacked on. Perhaps that was the intent all along: to make a commentary on colonialism that didn’t seem too preachy, but oblique. It’s still a fun movie.

Anna Cobb in “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair”

Lastly, there is the creepiest entry in this year’s festival and it is We Are All Going to the World’s Fair by Jane Schoenbrun. This is the type of movie that reminded me of the early days of the internet. You would log on, usually to an IRC chat or some chatting software embedded in, let’s say, AOL, and chat up with someone without knowing who that someone was. It should be noted the use of creepy avatars — while I never used anything that feral looking, it still gave a sense of faux-originality and autonomy that now not even your own picture can give you.

In short, you would make connections with total strangers to whom you would pour your heart (while they did the same). Caution to the wind was the norm; all the time you could be getting fed lies by a raving psychopath trying to lure you in for something unsavory. In the end, you would manage to sometimes meet the person, but mostly, it was left to peer-to-peer chat with little to no hope of ever connecting.

We Are Going to the World’s Fair hinges on this premise to tell the story of a young girl named Casey (Anna Cobb) who seems to have no friends of her own, who wants to connect. An online game which forms the title of the movie becomes her way into a community of loners posting into the void, hoping for someone to hold on to. In the meantime, the movie (and a secondary character played by Michael J Rogers) informs that the game is in fact dangerous and will suck a player in until they are essentially no more. To make its point, the movie gives us two fringe characters — one, a young boy who literally gets sucked into the game by a creepy claw, and even more shocking, a boy who starts to cut himself, revealing not blood but tickets.

As Casey delves deeper into the game it becomes clear she has started to lose bits of herself. Rogers, an outsider looking in, at first enables Casey to express herself in the darkest of manners, but when Casey outperforms, it sets the stage for something sinister lurking in the movie’s outer frames.

This is not a horror movie per se, but We Are All Going to the World’s Fair often skirts the edges of a girl’s coming of age in a small town and skinny-dips into the macabre. The sheer creepiness of the online friendship that gets established, and goes much deeper than a simple digital exchange, makes Schoenbrun’s movie a disturbing watch.

None of these movies have yet been picked up for distribution.

New Directors/New Films: El Planeta, Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash), Azor, Madalena, All the Light We Can See, and Liborio

Now that the 50th installment of New Directors / New Films is over I can finally resume reviewing. Having missed all of last year’s due to the pandemic (and many of the movies making their debut have not even made it to the initial stages of distribution) I didn’t want a repeat, So, to compensate, out of the 27 feature-length movies that came out, I managed to capture a little over half of them (while still seeing both recent virtual cinema releases and the foray into classics which I have yet to write about, so my apologies).

Trailer for Liborio, courtesy from Rotterdam FF

To understand a movie like Nino Martinez Sosa’s Liborio you would need to have read extensively and/or studied Dominican history. Yours truly lived for almost two decades in the Dominican Republic and while I can recall most events that transpired in the country’s 500-plus year life, the life of Olivorio Mateo Ledesma, better known as Papa Liborio, was not one of them. I don’t know why; perhaps my Dominican History teacher opted to graze the chapter. In short, the life of Papa Liborio, today, has become somewhat obscured to the point that it’s mostly a curiosity known to only the old guard and a few erudite.

(His)story goes that Liborio (Vicente Santos), a simple man of the fields, disappears in a hurricane in 1908. When he returns several years later, he is a markedly changed man. His return, seen in itself as a miracle, now sees Liborio speaking in prophetic terms, performing miracles, and carrying within and around him the glowing, magnetic aura of a new Messiah. Word of his abilities as a shaman and spiritual leader makes its way around the country. Followers in search of meaning and enlightenment arrive. Eventually, during the US occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916, Of course, as it happens with many fringe cults — because Martinez Sosa never shies from presenting Liborio’s compound as anything but a cult run by a shyster with no actual powers — they become a target of American interest, with disastrous results.

A difficult topic to touch because of its inscrutability, Liborio comes across a bit of history lesson speckled with a lens into a time when the Dominican Republic was emerging from its former Haitian occupation and becoming its own country. All of its action takes place in an isolated portion of the country — San Jose de las Matas, with its gorgeous scenery — so in many ways, the people of Liborio are a community lost in time and faith and innocence of the outside world. Martinez Sosa displays much respect for his take on Papa Liborio but never turns his film into a hagiography. Quite the contrary, while his community truly believes (to this day) that Liborio was a holy man, the movie winks at us by letting us in on the secret that he’s really just another clever man able to sway the masses and turn rabbit tricks that look like miracles.

In another continent and time, women are succumbing to reveries and locked in a state of suspended femininity in Ainhoa Rodriguez’s Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash) The first shot gives us two women, one of them the movie’s central character Cita, drunk in euphoria, high from a wedding. The camera never intrudes but lets this moment of drunken bliss play itself out. Cita, one of the women, embraces the other, unnamed, and both fall to the ground, laughing. Later on, Cita will play a recorded message in an old cassette recorder to remind herself that one day soon she will see a mighty flash that will quite frankly, obliterate everything from existence.

That mighty flash never arrives, but that’s not the case. The women of Ainhoa Rodriguez are stuck in what seems to be a forgotten place in Spain where nothing happens. Extremadura stands in for this sense of isolation, which Rodriguez films in mostly muted colors. The entire look of the movie conveys a sense of the very essence of life sucked out of its few remaining residents, and of these, a strong divide appears between the women and the men. The men are mostly non-entities who simply exist as ghosts of their former selves.

teaser trailer from Destello Bravio (A Mighty Flash)

The women, however, still behave as if they were in pageantry and it was the 19th century. Female churchgoers criticize Cita for not coming to church in a glittery gold dress she wore to a wedding. Another expresses her fear of her dead husband. An early gathering yields to vaguely threatening noises that not everyone hears. Later on, another gathering of women peaks in early arguments that dissolve into a state of sexual reverie, and the lingering question is, what exactly is going on here? I would simply point at a place that has lost its sense of purpose. When all you have is frustration, despair, and passions that have been unresolved, you get the sexually and emotionally starved female ghosts of Ainhoa Rodriguez’s intriguing movie pregnant with desire.

The women in Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta are in a similar state of despair, but Ulman, instead of having their fabric of reality melt into a living nightmare of stasis and unfulfilled lives, prefers to take the route of a comedy of manners with a hint of something rotten underneath. That something reveals its ugly head but gradually. Ulman tells her story with enormous patience and a keen eye that observes its two leads, herself and her mother Ale Ulman.

The start of El Planeta posits Maria (Amalia Ulman) and Leonor (Ale Ulman) as women trapped by their own inability to be self-sufficient, depending on the kindness of unseen others. Maria is a make-up artist trying to land a good job, but her financial situation doesn’t allow her to travel outside Gijon where she lives with Leonor. An early scene has her finagling the price of sexual favors, which sets up the stage for something unsaid.

Meanwhile, she and her mother go on spending sprees, living the high life, acting as if they have it all when in fact, Leonor has been left destitute following a bitter divorce. Ulman slowly reveals the vapidity behind the appearance of glamor, and I kept being reminded of a much softer version of Midnight Cowboy without the extreme grittiness. Where the two men in that movie lived in squalor and followed a pipe dream that was already collapsing at the seams and turning into a living nightmare, El Planeta remains serene, almost as light as a bubble, until Ulman rips the rug from under our feet and we are left not just with an abrupt ending, but a sense that Leonor, the true narcissist in the movie, may have snapped.

Still from Madalena

In another movie, Madalena would be a mystery and being a mystery, it would have to get solved. Madiano Marchetti takes an oblique approach and focuses not on the main character itself, but on the people who either knew her or came upon her lifeless body dressed in white in a soy field. It is a novel take, but during the three semi-connected stories we get next to no information on who Madalena was as a trans woman and how did she end up murdered. The first story concerns a club patron whose only concern is to procure money that Madalena owes her so she can use that money to pay for her Vespa. The second story delves into the son of the owner of the soy farm where Madalena’s body was found. Fearful that a discovery like this could derail his mother’s political career, he spends the entire portion of his storyline trying to find the spot where Madalena was killed… only to never see her again. The final story comes with a hint of bittersweet resolution. Madalena’s trans friends, led by Bianca (Pamela Yule), come to her home to collect her belongings. Some reminiscing happens, but not enough to establish a sense of loss, so we transition towards an outing that places the three transwomen in a space of safety.

Watching Madalena I got the feeling that I was revisiting some of the banalities observed/listened in Bobbi Gentry’s 1967 song Ode to Billy Joe. While nothing in Marchetti’s movie comes even close to the Southern Gothic of Gentry’s song, the tone of reducing Madalena’s murder to a blip in time barely touching those who knew and didn’t know her seems to be the point here. We listen to the briefest of mentions of women murdered in unfortunate circumstances and it doesn’t quite touch us; all we can do is shake our head and go, “That poor woman,” if at that. Madalena, then, becomes a reveal of how society reacts to a trans woman’s disappearance: for one, she’s an inconvenience, for another, a threat of scandal, and for her very own sisters, just another day in paradise.

For Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), the private banker in Andreas Fontana’s Azor, the gradual realization that he may be in over his head might not as a surprise. After all, he is replacing a missing banker with a rather ominous reputation. Simply put, the very mention of the former banker’s name is enough to raise eyebrows and darken a room. Considering that de Wiel’s former colleague seems to have vanished overnight, it begs to question if he had a hand in mishandling certain securities he was entrusted to. There is an obscene amount of money and financial securities being moved from here to there, and with Argentina, in the middle of its Dirty War period in which many who didn’t walk a fine line or were even suspect met a grisly end, de Wiel seems to be the object of intense scrutiny. If these people are to place their trust in someone, they better abide by their rules.

Still from Azor

Fontana’s movie is elegant and filmed with a mainly brown palette. He fills every scene with hints of a greater evil just hiding in plain sight. Conversations are always filled with portent, and while it’s clear that something is foul in Denmark, no one gives as much as veiled explanations and narratives that leave a sense of dread pregnant in the air. Azor, for Argentineans, means “silence”, so during the story, it will be up to de Wiel that he sees nothing, hears nothing, and says nothing. In essence, there is a lot of Benjamin Naishtat’s 2018 Rojo which also dealt with the darker part of Argentinean history. Here we never see but the aftermath of the atrocities: homes and possessions repossessed, in line for the highest bidder. We get that these items belonged to “the disappeared” and now, are simply commodities. It is a horrific sequence because of how banal it looks. Judging from the way de Wiel reacts during the final sequence, it becomes clear that he has literally sold his soul for a life of comfort and protection.

Lastly, there is All the Light We Can See. Pablo Escoto has made a movie that will no doubt play well in film festivals and art galleries alike. Commercial, left of indie, it is not, with a story that isn’t as much a narrative as much as an exposition in the style of the Greek tragedy of a love affair gone wrong between two couples. While the movie is truly gorgeous to look at, at two hours, it is cumbersome to watch because of how stilted its language is, how mannered its performances are, and how much in ideologies he attempts to cram into what is essentially a fable of love.