All posts by mostlyindies

Lambs to the Slaughter: Viktor Kossakovskiy’s Gunda

This review contains mild spoilers.

Animals in cinema fall under three categories. First, we have the merely decorative ones — the cute pets that have sometimes grace the screen, sometimes with a tiny part to play. Then we have the more symbolic, or even heroic, in which an animal — usually a dog, or a horse — becomes an emblem for a larger scope if you go for greatness, or the stuffed birds in Psycho which portent not to a greater danger just about to happen, but segue into another film titled The Birds. We could also include, as a third category, the anthropomorphic creatures that since the dawn of animation — drawn and now, computerized — have told their own stories, which dimly reflect the human experience.

What Gunda offers is something completely different, Zoning in ever so slowly to the barn where she lives, we don’t get to see her proper until we are about five or so minutes of an extremely slow zoom-in. Lying on the ground, she seems to be in some pain. We soon realize why. She’s currently in the end phases of giving birth to a dozen little piglets who are already squirming about trying to find her milk-engorged teats to begin feeding. Meanwhile, she lies on the ground, accepting, not really moving, barely making any noise at all. If anything, the only noises come from the piglets themselves, and while at first, they seem to be akin to the cries of newborn babies, later on, they will morph into the cries of hunger, play, and something completely unthinkable.

Gunda remains close to its protagonist, the camera practically right next to her and her piglets as they all move as one body throughout the confines of the barn and then venture out into the farm. Along the way, the omnipresent camera, while tracking her movements, also tracks that of a trio of chickens recently let out of a coop, and focuses on one who is missing a leg. Then the camera tracks Gunda who has approached what seems to be a cow farm. One majestic shot gives these animals a sense of grandiosity only afforded to scenes of horses during a stampede. To see a group of cows emerge and tear through the fields into the woods, sometimes skipping, as their bells clang, is truly an epic experience.

But then, Kossalovskiy’s camera does what little movies do: focus on not just the animal in question but on their faces. While it is possible that some people may wonder what is the purpose for this, it gave me a sense of identification if you will. Watching an animal who seems to be alert, watching me, as it continues to move about, is a bit unsettling, particularly when you realize later where Gunda is headed, and how complicit you are in its own thread.

It slowly becomes apparent that because Gunda transpires within the confines of a farm that these animals, as cute as they are, are completely under the control of their unseen humans. This becomes clear when Gunda herself while venturing a bit too far from her home, comes across an electric fence, We don’t see it; she doesn’t, either, and her squeal of surprise and pain is piercing.

The reality of these animals couldn’t be more present when focusing on the piglets, a thing which Kossalovskiy’s camera does, and often. At first, the suspense hinges on their mother’s enormous body. The babies are so small, so fragile, that one slight movement from her could mean the difference between life and death. Every time the camera, after cavorting with the chickens and cows, returns to Gunda and her babies, they seem to have grown. First, it looks like a week, then months. Suddenly, they have what seem to be personalities all their own. A scene in which two piglets taste the rain with their mouths is something out of magic. I couldn’t get it out of my head for a while.

Of course, something indescribably awful cracks the serenity of the entire montage, and then I feel the rug being pulled from under my feet. All this time, a false sense of security has been planted within the meandering narrative. The camera, which has stayed so close to both Gunda but especially her little piglets, continues to do just that, now only delivering a growing sense of shock that is more effective from what we never see but hear. Those squeals from the moment of the piglets’ birth now come with terror, while Gunda can only run — yes, run — after the large tractor that has come. It is a gut-wrenching scene and stands right up there with the scene in Bambi.

This is a deceptive documentary. It arrives enfolded in the black and white beauty of pastoral images, slowly draws you into what seems to be the life of a pig, only to disclose the ugly magician at the center. You will not see anything else like it. I don’t think it will change the world, but at least, it has changed me.

Woman at war blends disparate styles to create an unclassifiable eco-thriller with a wink

Sometimes you say you’re going to watch a movie or read that new book, and you place it in your queue where it sits and sits and sits. That is the case of Woman at War, a 2018 film by Benedikt Erlingsson (and follow-up to his quirky debut Of Horses and Men from 2013) that follows Halla (the regal Halldora Geirharosdottir), a chorus teacher living in Reykjavik who unbeknownst to everyone who knows her, moonlights as an eco-terrorist (or eco-activist, pick your term; I’ll stick with the former and I’ll tell you why later). Intensely focused on preventing an aluminum factory that could potentially contaminate Reykjavik, she has no problem decimating drone cameras, power lines — heck, entire towers! — in order to render any further development dead in Iceland’s as-yet pristine waters.

Trouble arrives — as it would — from a few angles. First, a manhunt predictably ensues, but it is, if anything, predictable. Second, a letter of adoption from a Ukrainian agency now gives Halla the chance to adopt and raise a little girl of her own and thus, fulfilling her dreams of motherhood. While Halla continues to evade officers in sometimes truly daring ways, the urgency of her mission, now compounded by the urgency of her having to leave to Ukraine to fetch her daughter, pushes Hall against a crossroads.

Erlingsson refuses to give into genre conventions which make his movie a weird, but totally satisfying experience. His Woman at War is part-action, part character study, part surreal thriller that offers a unique but dry sense of humor and a clever, unobtrusive music score played by stand-ins both Icelandic and Ukrainian that serve as a Greek chorus and subtly impose a slight effect on Halla’s own character and the chronology of her movements. A touch of 40s screwball enters the movie in bringing in a twin sister also played. by Gerhardsdottir, and while at first it seems it might only be to grant a sense of surreality, the story reveals much more later on.

There seems to be a running commentary on how tourists – and most global travelers who may not look like the ideal race – get treated overseas. A minor character, Julio Castillo, played by the actor of the same name (who also had an observer-like character in Of Horses and Men), repeatedly gets assaulted by officers who continually (and ineffectually) identify him as a terrorist. Julio, who also often breaks the fourth wall, becomes every tourist or immigrant who invariably tends to receive the brunt of the law while its more privileged folk run rampant and create chaos (and let’s not romanticize Halla; she is an eco-terrorist, she just happens to be a nice one with noble motives). An almost symbolic exchange occurs late in the movie between Halla and Julio that Erlingsson leaves unresolved, but he makes his point.

Woman at War is available on DVD formats and Prime. See it before Jodie Foster Americanizes it and thus saps it from all its light, comedic touches.

The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do it, So I Sat Down and Watched it on HBO.

I often wonder why is it that when you have a movie that churns up a sequel, producers and creators alike feel the need to install a third (and, potentially, final) film in its universe. That’s not even including adjacent stories that might include some of the characters from the original plot thread, but you get the picture, even when the picture itself while looking great, feels like a complete let-down.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the (aforementioned) third in the Conjuring universe (although the original spawned the Annabelle movies, because, money). As with the previous two, it focuses on yet another case of possession that the Warrens were involved in. Only that this time, the stakes are higher, because it involves a young man named Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) on trial for the gruesome murder of his landlord, and the fact that Johnson claimed to have been under demonic possession at the time of the murder.

I liked the previous two movies which brought the Warrens in as strong co-starring characters attempting to solve a case because it focused more on the family trauma and forced the plot into the familiar territory of the haunted house trope (and in these movies, all the houses are enormous and claustrophobic as heck). Centering the story around them somewhat dilutes the overall theme. However, I can see where the producers were headed with the third (and again, hopefully final) installment.

It was only time before the couple known for cracking paranormal cases would, as shown in a scene in the first Conjuring in a vision of horror Lorraine Warren experiences, find themselves at the unwelcome end of a malevolent evil — the same evil they themselves were trying to stop in the first place. In a way, it’s a neat way to tie up ends and bring the horror home, to have the Warrens face their own Everest and (in a cheesy manner) reaffirm their own marriage vows.

On that basis, the movie succeeds. Where it doesn’t is in the inclusion of Satanic Panic into the plot, which arrives under the form of John Noble, who plays the predictable character who knows more than he should and exists solely for the purpose of explaining some backstory and delivering some foreboding nods that lean towards a “leave it alone, this is not your battle” type of advice. This is not saying that Noble doesn’t commit to a solid performance — he does, even when he has to deliver a convoluted and implausible explanation of what has happened. However, I’ve always been of the belief that the less one knows, even after investigation, the better. And then I recalled that both the previous two movies also leaned on a backstory.

For the most part, The Devil Made Me Do it is a good, handsome spectacle to watch. Director Michael Chaves establishes a reliable sense of suspense with solid camera work, particularly in the opening scene in which a boy (Julian Hillard) finds himself trying to hide from an unseen thing out to get him, and when Lorraine, using her abilities as an empath, dives deep into the mystery that is haunting Arne Johnson (and may be part of a larger plot).

Where it fails: While it’s okay to make references to other movies, to basically insert scenes that look like an exact replica is a bit lazy. When you can see one scene lifted clear off from The Exorcist, and another one from the book version of The Shining (which happens rather late in the book and was also used for Doctor Sleep), then the disappointment happens. Adding to that, The Devil Made Me Do It seems to have lost its original steam, its magic. Its existence is meant for those who are die-hard fans of the movie’s old-school, 70’s horror cinematic universe, and who can scare easily without much effort. If you want to see truly disturbing horror movies, and I mean stuff that will keep you up at night and question your own taste, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Grade: B

The Mortuary Collection represents the best in horror anthologies

Horror anthologies have always been a mixed bag. Think of it as when you stream your favorite artist’s latest CD and find that other than the big hits you may not really resonate with any of their other songs. There may be that obscure “B-side” (does that term even qualify anymore?) that might be a sleeper favorite, but after a listen, you’re done, and all you can recall are the obvious favorites.

The same can be said here. If I can recall a good horror anthology it would be Creepshow from 1982 (despite the critics who savaged it). True, it wasn’t exceptionally high quality but it delivered its scares in the way horror comics of old did (and I’m going way, way back to Weird Tales). The only other would be Trilogy of Terror, but for audiences today, its only scare would be realizing that Karen Black’s career, on the upswing in the mid-70s and peaking in Robert Altman’s Nashville, would grind to a crashing halt soon after where she would make bargain basement horror movies that went straight to video (or cable) and died a quick death. [Also, the movie itself is remarkably tame and campy, but that’s the beauty of it.]

The Mortuary Collection piqued my interest after seeing Chris Stuckmann’s video review on his YouTube channel. Had I not seen anything else, I would have completely bypassed it and moved on to the next batch of festival screenings.

Dear reader, I came into this movie with next to no expectations and came out of it pleasantly surprised. Ryan Spindell’s movie spins a cohesive link of four independent stories connected by a creepy, Lurch-like mortician of the name Montgomery Dark, who receives an application to a vacancy at the mortuary where he operates, surrounded by glorious, old school gloom. Each story is more gruesome than the next. One venture deep into the bowels of pure marital dysfunction that I thought was brilliant. However, there are a few twists along the way, one of them provided by a key character, who plays a significant part in the final tale that has strong shades of both Halloween and The Shining and concludes it in a masterstroke of depravity that had me at the edge of my seat.

Spindell clearly loves the horror genre. In a time when jump scares are the norm for most if not all of the major releases (and even some Indies are getting into it), he lets a scene build onto its own sense of dread. His look is that of an experienced director who knows how much to show and not show in a scene. It simply looks and feels like a living comic book in which you may be given a certain amount of information on one scene, but no more than the characters, which makes for an uneasy view. The fourth and final story is in itself a stand-out and probably would make a full feature-length movie on its own (it exists as a 22-minute short). This is where Spindell lets out all of the visual tricks, some worn, some unexpected, and pulls it all together for a bravura fight between the Final Girl and her stalker. [And can I say that I’ve never seen hair move that way in a movie — it looked almost drawn, the way he has Caitlin Custer move during her more violent scenes that feel lifted from both the aforementioned Halloween and The Shining.]

If I had one minor complaint — but I’m nitpicking — is the look of the periods in which the stories transpire. A sequence in the 60s doesn’t once evoke that era, and the third, which takes place in the 70s, feels like it has elements of other time pieces. However, this is so minor I shouldn’t even be addressing it, but it’s been a thorn on my side to see period pieces look half baked and only feel like a vague rendering of what it was like to live in a specific era.

And on an end note, Clancy Brown. I’ve no clue how this actor has somehow bypassed true fame and awards, but aside from being the sole marquee name on this movie, as an actor, he truly embodies his role down to the mannerisms and voice inflections of Montgomery Dark. Some of his movements had a slight whiff of what Fred Gwynne did as Herman Munster, but other than that, this is an actor who on voice alone drives and elevates this movie.

The Mortuary Collection is available on Prime.

Suffer the Little Children: Bad Tales (Favolacce)

The D’Innocenzo brothers tackle suburban life as a portrait of hell in their latest (and second) movie Bad Tales. [Their 2018 movie Boy’s Cry is available on IMDBTV.]

Focusing on three separate families, they immerse their movie with a sense of surreal dread right from the start. Featuring a voice-over from an unseen narrator (Max Tortora), they seem to give the impression that the events of their movie transpired in the past, and the unseen someone is simply telling his memories. However, it turns out, the events that unfold come from a little girl’s diary… but these events are all false.

That already gets us into the mood of the movie, which is bleak. Two families, the Rosas and the Placidos, live side by side on the outskirts of Rome. When Viola, the daughter of the Rosa family, does something apparently awful, off-screen, her hair gets cut, and she spends the rest of the movie in a depressed funk wearing an oversized black wig, Dennis and Alessia Placido (Giulietta Rebeggiani and Tommaso di Cola) are a brother and sister who are forced to read their report cards in which they reveal they’ve gotten straight A’s except for one. Their father (Elio Germano), ostensibly the most violent of the two fathers, has installed an elevated swimming pool. In an irrational moment, because the Rosas were using it, he destroys it only to blame gypsies for the act.

We segue to the third thread in the movie. Geremia Guerrini (Justin Korovkin) and his father Amelio Guerrini (Gabriel Montesi) live in what seems abject poverty, but seem to enjoy a relationship. However, it seems there is no mother figure here, and Amelio seems to have no real means to support his son. Going even further into dysfunction, Amelio also seems like an overgrown kid himself with sex on his mind (and is trying to get Geremia to have his first sexual experience).

Woven into the story, which is already brimming with something awful about to happen due to the lack of communication between parents and children and an undercurrent of rage just hiding underneath all three of the fathers, is the threat of disaster just waiting to happen. A young woman floats into the picture. Contrary to the carnal fantasies in Fellini’s movies, she is its antithesis, a peroxide blonde with a look of hate on her face and a body about to blow because she is with child. One of the boys takes notice and repeatedly hits on her. Meanwhile, a teacher gives out some very disturbing classes to his students, who are, in turn, creating artifacts of obliteration… and that’s not the worst of it.

Bad Tales could easily be an American horror story of the quintessential family (and neighborhood) gone to rot from the inside out. The D’Innocenzo brothers keep most of their story under never-ending pressure — it seems that all this unspoken, unresolved tension that is eating away at their families must at one point get acknowledged. They make it near impossible with the presence of patriarchy rooted in the past, in which fathers were demanding monsters and mothers had no say in the house — or were simply absent. If the final act seems too brutal, that is because that is how a story like this would resolve itself. When there are no signs of communication and all attempts at logic fly out the window through acts of perpetuated violence, the only way out is, well, out.

Under the Radar: Gelateria

British humor is something that you can either totally get into, or completely negate as a comedic expression stemming from a situation that is completely bonkers and most likely has no clear, logical solution. In Christian Seritiello’s and Arthur Patching’s surreal comedy Gelateria, the story of an artist on the trail of her artwork — the centerpiece of their movie — gets introduced by a series of vignettes that seemingly have no relation to one another. However, if you step back and pay attention, you will see how there is a thread that forms a larger, albeit wonky whole.

Even if I chose to go frame by frame I still wouldn’t be able to give much in the way of spoilers. Gelateria begins with a man screaming out to sea, only that his voice gets muted and in its place, crashing piano keys. It then throws you into what has to be the convoluted mind of Zbigniew (Serritiello) who seems to spend the movie trapped symbolically in a non-moving relationship that somehow has taken the form of a non-moving locomotive. He wanders in and out of locations, either as himself into a jazz club where he gets relentlessly hazed by a singer who looks a bit like The Weeknd, as an outsider looking into a barbershop that has its own weirdness going on, and as merely a background picture in an art gallery that hosts the most unusual of (mostly failed) art and performers.

In the interim there are tangents — some a striking, some simply become incursions into bizarre observations on how we treat others — particular foreigners. The piece de resistance arrives almost by accident and requires an introduction, which happens via animation. We then get thrown back into the action with both Serritiello and Patching alternating the role of the unnamed artist who takes off into the unknown to retrieve her art. Her story goes completely off the rails. However, it does deliver a clever, self-referential wink of a pause that shows her, in the middle of a chase scene, re-applying lipstick. [Hey, a lady has priorities.]

If you’re reading this and it still makes little sense you’re in luck: it doesn’t, and it’s totally fun. I have to confess, I haven’t seen a movie quite like this in some time. The closest I can come to compare it to is to the early Monty Python skits and I do so reluctantly because I liked this movie on its own level of zaniness. Gelateria is its own lucid nightmare that makes you laugh, but nervously. On the surface, this movie arrives with an awkwardness closer to the comedy of discomfort. As its collage barrels along the entire piece morphs into something darker, sinister. I laughed because and despite its absurdity. In one scene a translator gets used for no purpose at all. In another. the artist in search of her missing body of work finds herself in a wake in which a woman drank herself to death, and now her mourners (and the dead woman) demand that she herself take a drink.

This is a striking debut feature film that transcends any linear narrative in lieu of presenting what seems to be its own internal logic and uses both its directors as substitutes for everymen (or everywomen). If this movie ever gets to see an American release, I hope that it will be through a prestigious film festival like New York Film Festival or next year’s New Directors – New Films where it would be completely at home.

Gelateria has been screened in various European film festivals to include Kinolikbez International Film Festival in Russia, Salerno Film Festival in Italy, and Mostra Internazionale di Cinema di Genova, also in Italy. A big thank you to director Serritiello for forwarding me his and Patching’s film. Please bring it to New York.

on Netflix: Special, Seasons 1 & 2

Given the sheer volume of TV shows that are out there demanding my attention while I gorge my eyes on movies with a zeal that would make Lucille Ball’s chocolate-eating clown blush, it’s almost a miracle that I managed to catch a little show called Special. Special came recommended to me cautiously by friends who know I have a low tolerance for idiot television and shows that eventually morph into bloated, unrelatable behemoths that overstay their welcome and still try to squeeze out every drop from its cache of stories by making tie-in movies and spin-offs because that seems to be the only way out of a creative rut. Checking the run time of each of Season 1’s episodes (on average, 15 minutes), I decided to give it a go and see what the fuss was.

Well, reader, I stand corrected. Let me put it to you this way: I didn’t just binge-watch the first season in one massive gulp but went into the second (and, to date, last) season of Special. I said to myself, here was a show that got it. While it might be based on Ryan O’Connell’s life, it also portrayed a young thirty-something in a manner I could have never anticipated in the days of Will and Grace or even the over-sexed Queer as Folk (I’m going quite a ways back, people.). Special gives you not a ravishing gay man who looks airbrushed to death and is played by an actor who can’t play a mannequin (which would be a stretch for the pretty), but a super-cute gay guy who just happens to have cerebral palsy.

The CP part gets downplayed early in the show’s first season as Ryan (Ryan O’Connell), just employed by the online blog eggwoke, informs his nightmare boss Olivia (Marla Mindelle, an actress trapped in a one-note, viciously stereotypical role) that his limp is the result of an automobile accident that left him this way. Olivia flat-out pretends to sympathize but exploits Ryan’s “accident” for page views.

In the interim, Ryan navigates his attempts at becoming independent from his over-protective mother Karen (Jessica Hecht, criminally underrated) who is also going through her own issues of being an older woman who meets an attractive neighbor (Patrick Fabian) while navigating taking care of Ryan and tending to her own demanding, senile mother in a story arc that mirrors into itself. The show’s 15-minute length is perfect to give us a snapshot into Ryan’s life as a newly independent millennial: in one episode, a housewarming party that would have involved his “friends” morphs into a poignant get-together with recent BFF Kim (Punam Patel, who is a stand out in this show). In another episode, Ryan has a rather tender moment with an escort (Brian Jordan Alvarez) who Ryan has contacted to help him lose his virginity.

It probably is inevitable that Special veers into soap territory, but never fully goes there. It is possible that the only way to develop Ryan and Karen’s codependent relationship was to add a few monkey-wrenches that would eventually bring the two to a clash, but the narrative actually deepens what could have been a rather superficial show. That storyline will get played out during season 2 which expands its episodes’ runtime to almost 25 minutes and fleshes out Kim’s character to be not just the sidekick but a fully-developed Indian-American woman going through financial hardships and the pressures of being/looking successful in a world that would demand she look flawless (and white, and thin).

If the show lacks some depth it’s essentially in Ryan’s workplace. Everyone in eggwoke seems to be a cartoon. A tangential character, Samantha (Gina Marie Hughes) has a voice so squeaky and a demeanor that makes her resemble something out of Salad Fingers — sad, with a trembling appearance and huge eyes. Olivia… well. The show thinks that having her creates some kind of contrast in her rampant, outlandish sociopathy, and perhaps at one or two appearances she would have been enough, but she is in almost every episode, and her presence snuffs the light out of what is an outstanding show that loves its main characters.

What I admire the most of Special is Ryan himself. O’Connell has written him not as a put-upon millennial trying to make it in the writing world but as someone who can be petty, self-centered, and even a bit flakey. He’s so bulldozed into getting his independence that he completely obliterates his mother’s importance — although, in his defense, Karen, who has not had a life of her own since she can remember, has projected everything onto Ryan in such a way that a separation would be inevitable. I loved that she also gets to have quite the storyline later in Season 2 as her character somewhat resolves a romantic situation and eventually comes to grips with her own mortality through the death of a loved one. Hecht truly lets her character breathe out in the moments she gets to explore her inner pain, and this gives Special much-needed depth.

I hope that O’Connell can negotiate a third season. It seemed that come Season 2 Special was getting into its groove of discomfort, with Ryan falling in love with a guy (Max Jenkins) who happens to be involved with someone else, and then flirts with another (Buck Andrews) who is also comfortable in being gender non-conforming and also is autistic. However, if two seasons is all there is, then so be it; this is an excellent show with a great cast that finally gives me characters I want to see more of on TV.

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.