It’s not that I don’t go see documentaries; I do, but usually I tend not to review them being I find that the medium, while visual, is more presentational and discursive rather than a strict narrative. Of course, for the past decade or so the medium has been morphing and delving into meta-narration, docu-fiction, and docs-dramas or a hybridization of visuals and exposition to create something completely new and challenging to the viewer. Eric Baudelaire’s Un Film Dramatique — Americanized as A Dramatic Film for its 2020 release — is one example. A movie I missed at the New York Film Festival, I managed to see it at The Contenders at the MoMA with barely a notion that it was a filming of the lives of a group of children at the new Dora Maar School in the outer limits of Paris, and that it played at Locarno to great acclaim. As a matter of fact, Festival Scope had it for a solid month in September in its Locarno section and I, occasional documentary watcher that I am, kept pushing it farther and farther back until it became unavailable until it made its second appearance at The Contenders. So, lucky me to have seen it and share it with you.
[For those of you who don’t know what The Contenders at the MoMA is, it is a screening of films that either premiered in the current year or were screened at film festivals around the world that bring a heavy quota of artistic value to cinema. It runs annually from November to January at the MoMA and I strongly urge movie lovers who aren’t aware of it go at least once and experience a new film or revisit one that somehow stuck in the memory for its bold visuals.]
Baudelaire began filming at the Dora Maar school what would have been a more traditional documentary (it seems), but eventually morphed into the movie that took on a life of its own. Twenty-one children for a period of about four years documented aspects of their own lives, sometimes in playful manners, other times in rather precocious discussions of class, race, politics (it becomes clear none of them care much for Marine Le Pen or our current sitting president), and the plight of immigrants in Paris where, much like here, if you do not have a reason to be in France you will be unceremoniously asked to leave. For such a large cast — we get introduced to them sometimes in groups, but sometimes in solo vignettes — Baudelaire assembles a rather colorful collage of living in the Seine-Saint Denis area of Paris, a jurisdiction often referred to by its administrative number 93, a number associated with ghetto, poverty, and low-income families. Some of the children — including friends Guy and David — are extremely outspoken, while one of the girls, Fatima, has no idea what to say to the camera and instead quietly films herself going about the day at home. Another group of girls wonder the fate of their friend who moved to a “place with palm trees” and debate to whether she may be still in France or perhaps the Caribbean. [It turns out, she moved to Reunion.]
This is a wonderful experimental film in which children express themselves in simple interactions with the camera and amongst themselves, and in a way, due to its time-lapse, could even have elements of a coming of age film. Often incisive as well as laugh out loud funny solely based on these incredibly bright, observant children, A Dramatic Film emerges as a commentary on what the future will be like once these kids grow into their adult selves. hoper Baudelaire will do something in the likes of Michael Apted’s ongoing, similar experimental Up series (now in its ninth iteration, 63 Up, which I will be reviewing once it makes its debut In theaters).
They don’t get bleaker and darker and grittier than Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 Poverty Row film Detour, a movie that not just plunges headlong into its own soullessness but practically basks in it as if it were predators ripping apart its prey and bathing in its blood. With an anti-hero who gets lured into a plot involving stolen identities and large amounts of cash and a femme-fatale that dominates the story even before she enters the story proper, this is the essence of film-noir, hard-boiled to the core and not apologizing for it.
Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, a down and out piano player dating lounge singer Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue longs for a better life and heads out west to make it as a performer. Al follows suit soon after, and while hitchhiking in Arizona he makes the fateful meeting of Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund McDonald), a man with a gambling addiction who also seems to be hooked on pills. Al notices Haskell’s right hand is full of scratches, which Haskell explains it came from a dangerous female. Disquieting enough, but even more so is when Al takes the wheel to give Haskell a rest and Haskell simply dies in his sleep. Not wanting to attract attention from the police, Al disposes of Haskell but takes his vehicle and ID.
As he continues driving into California, he has the unfortunate luck of encountering the last person he would expect, and she comes under the form of the woman Haskell had picked up before Al, the woman who Haskell had a row with, and boy, does she have claws. Vera (Ann Savage) at first enters the vehicle sullenly but soon wakes up to realize where she is, and before you can bat an eye she has managed to secure the upper hand on Al, threatening to inform the cops of his taking Haskell’s car and money and is ferociously dragging Al alongside with her down a road where all one needs to do to get money is take it and run and spend the spoils on the quick and easy.
What makes Detour so effective is how nasty its story is, how completely self-serving its characters are, and how unsure we are that what Al is telling us is the truth. If you’ve seen it, you’ll note that the movie is one long flashback in which Al continues to remind us how he seems to be the victim of circumstance. We don’t know for sure if he truly had a girlfriend who left him for a better life, or if any of the events in which he hitchhikes in order to reunite with her actually happened. Haskell’s death simply happens, and sets up the entire chain of events in motion. Could Al have made up the whole Vera-Haskell fight as an alibi to justify his later encountering her down the road? We never know, and the movie is so bare-bones that is basically leaves this and the escalating cat-and-mouse relationship between Vera and Al that ends with them joined by a telephone wire open to interpretation.
Adding to this is Ann Savage’s merciless interpretation of a woman on top. Had this movie received more publicity (it played well, yes, but not enough so to garner an Oscar nomination) Savage may have received the attention from the Academy and perhaps secured roles in A-pictures. Her Vera rivals even Bette Davis at her bitchiest and has her walking off with the entire movie. Why her career didn’t take off is a mystery. Savage later claimed that her antagonistic relationship with the character Tom Neal played wasn’t too far from reality; Neal allegedly was rather unprofessional to Savage, and this, she believes, helped her react back at him under the guise of acting.
Detour is available on YouTube, but if you can, check the restored version on either Prime or iTunes. Highly recommendable.
At one point, Mary Lambert was a promising director who seemed to have a vision and a future in film making. Lambert’s music videos for Madonna often held striking imagery, so the step to movies seemed to be inevitable. Her debut movie Siesta was weird in the way most first-time directors attempting to score a name and visibility in the festival circle tend to be, and that is perfectly acceptable, Directors often go to great lengths to make their first mark memorable, and more often than not, plot believability moves to second place when the visuals and themes are strong, which Siesta had. I remember seeing it on Showtime where it seemed to play on a loop. I also remember watching it twice, and not really knowing if what happened was inside Ellen Barkin’s character’s mind or if the film itself was some incursion into the surreal. Did it matter? At the time, I would say no, because I had he same experience after watching David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a film I still cannot grasp 40 years later. Anyway. Before I lose track, what I meant was, Siesta seemed to announce a strong visual voice under the direction of Mary Lambert.
So, when HBO showed a sneak peek into the making of Pet Sematary, complete with Stephen King announcing how absolutely frightening it was, I was prepared to see a truly disturbing, nightmarish entry into the horror genre. At the same time, a part of me was hesitant. By the time Pet Sematary was revealed to audiences the genre was all but dead in the water, with the occasional surprise. Even so, I was excited for a new Stephen King adaptation and hoped for the best.
Well, folks; Hereditary this is not. I lay blame on Stephen King himself who wrote the screenplay, and while by now calling King a master of horror would be like calling water wet, his entry into the screenplay genre is another story altogether. While the 1989 movie follows the book almost page by page with some slight deviations too small to really notate, some subtlety could have been used to at least make the story as unsettling as possible. From the opening credits, we get shots of the cemetery and a use of creepy children singing slightly off-tune, both tropes of earlier films. A family, moving into a spectacular new home overseeing a lake, but who is inexplicably entranced by a next to invisible path that leads to the woods. Yes, it’s in the novel… but who on earth would be this drawn to a tangential part of a property with that lake steps away (which would most likely have a dock, but I digress)? An all but too on-the-nose ominous explanation of what the path is, and where it leads to. Cardboard conversations that just don’t feel natural. And I was barely 20 minutes into the movie. Then Victor Pascow’s over-the-top introduction and how he infiltrates himself into the Creed’s life, all but shaking heavy chains and moaning, and an out of left field flashback in which we learn Rachel’s sister Zelda (could the sisters have been more disparately named?) died from spinal meningitis, leaving Rachel scarred. [It never fits into any of the events in the novel, so why King felt it was necessary to include it eludes me.]
All this gets filmed with the interest of a dead cat on the road. It’s as if Lambert, who again, displayed strong visuals in many of her videos for pop artists, either didn’t get the backing she wanted to truly show what she could be capable of, or she figured the movie itself would be a blip in her career and she could just get it done and move on. She shows no clue as to how to build any scene to meet a satisfactory end — family dinner sequences look and feel flat, characters behave only in service to when the plot needs them (or when it doesn’t), and there is a lot of filler thrown in for good measure and a couple of glaring continuity flaws. Several lines, whose repeated appearances on page works (“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier,” is one of them) could have been omitted altogether because let’s face it, no one will guess what that means and it doesn’t matter because while what happens midway is truly horrific and the one sequence in the story that sustains some nail-biting suspense, we never get into the heart of Louis Creed (or Jud Crandall for that matter). Louis serves to be the poor hapless victim trying to do his best to keep his family together.
Thirty years later, and we have a new version of Pet Sematary. This one arrived with about the same anticipation and title spelling as last time, complete with teaser trailers and all. The story is basically the same — family moves into a wonderful new home that harbors a terrible secret just beyond, with one crucial plot switch, which again had me scratching my head when I saw it last April because as awful as that plot development is, it is the one thing that pretty much unspools the entire Creed family and everyone around it.
Pet Sematary 2019 breezes by, touching plot points as though it were an Impressionist doing a rendition of a scene as barely remembered. That works even less this time around because there is, again, next to no time to flesh a story out. Lambert at least attempts to let her characters breathe even if the air was badly manufactured and her actors are from soap and TV stock. For characters to reach a point where there is no other option to alleviate the grief, there should be enough scenes to slowly walk them there. However, this version is even less interested in the why’s and how’s which posits the question, was the remake really needed? Did we truly need to see an adaptation of a novel that was never one of the more salient works of Stephen King? I would say no, but in light of the recent successes of several adaptations of works large and small, the directors thought they could bat it out of the park.
They couldn’t. And because of that, I think that we should let this one rest the sleep of the dead. It didn’t work the first time, it didn’t work in 2019.
Perhaps, the book itself is to blame. It is too… eager to go and wreck havoc on a family for the sakes of self-fulfilling a cursed ground that seems to have a sentience of its own. [Places like these abound in King novels.] It is a shame because the story on its own, without the horror overtones, would have worked — family loses a loved one and falls apart. Again, Hereditary doesn’t just tread those waters; it goes for the deep blackness beyond and perverts the entire concept of what a family is. If both Lambert and the team of Widmeyer and Kolsch hadn’t gone for tired tropes and perhaps gone for a story steeped in dread, an air of inescapable doom, gallows humor, and made the place a truly menacing location wed have a different kind of movie. Instead we now get a completely re-imagined ending that is so twisted it’s almost funny, and that isn’t exactly a compliment.
One of the perks of living in a city with so many art-house cinemas (and even a couple of multiplexes like AMC and Regal who also have at least one or two movie theaters that also mainly play Indies and foreign movies) is that you can get a wide variety of cinema that fall way on the left side of your average popcorn blockbuster. Its a blessing and a curse because when you have so many movies competing for your attention its likely you’re almost playing a losing game of swimming uphill as you scramble to see what you can for the movie’s one-week only release.
The good thing is, many of these get released almost immediately onto streaming platforms so if you’re a festival lover like me and missed half of the entries at Tribeca or SXSW or that one semi-obscure film that somehow caught your attention after reading about it on movie magazines, you will rest assured to find them on some streaming platforms for your viewing pleasure,
In between Superman movies Henry Cavill attempts to prove his versatility by entering the shoes of the archetypical grizzled detective named Marshall estranged from his family because of work who gets caught in a complicated plot involving abductions, a criminal mastermind behind it, and a race against time to solve it in David Raymond’s debut feature film Night Hunter (originally titled Nomis). A body of a woman gets discovered on a freight truck, and it gets assumed she was escaping her assailant before meeting a gruesome death. At the same time, retired judge Michael Cooper (Ben Kingsley) and his daughter Lara (Eliana Jones) are conducting stings against pedophiles on their own. When Lara herself gets kidnapped, Marshall is able to locate her through her tracker, and finds several other women being held captive inside an isolated house. The other occupant, who gets arrested, is a mentally disabled young man named Simon (Brendan Fletcher). Interrogations made to Simon prove fruitless as the man clearly has no real grasp on reality… or does he?
Night Hunter owes a lot to 90s thrillers and cop movies in the Seven / Copycat slant, although one can also see large traces of recent movies like Prisoners as well. Without giving too much away, its safe to say Raymond;s movie is far, far from perfect and some plot developments might raise an eyebrow (bringing your child to work, then horrified when that same child gets abducted, and a key character gets kidnapped twice). I would say Raymond’s Night Hunter is more the equivalent of a pulpy novel one might find in the thriller section of any bookstore, one that contains juicy enough moments to draw one’s attention if one doesn’t care to ask too many questions about how one arrived from point A to B to C. The cinematography makes it look much more expensive than the movie is and often the movie has a faint European feel, as though one were watching a Scandinavian thriller. On the minus side, for a movie that boasts performances by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Fillion, these are largely wasted, but I get it; even A-list actors must work in tinier productions. Aiming for Paul Dano’s disturbing shoes in the aforementioned Prisoners is Benjamin Fletcher, who alternates from truly creepy to incredibly shrill. All in all, this is a satisfying movie that should fill all the base expectations.
Melanie Laurent’s first movie Breathe (Respire) was a striking debut that had that shocking finale which made the audience which I saw it gasp; it was almost as if Laurent herself had taken a club and swung it onto the audience’s stomachs; we were left in a stupor, numb but horrified and oddly, perversely satisfied. It was the announcement on her behalf that she had something to say, and she continues to prove that streak with her sophomore film Galveston, her take on Neo-noir. Based on Nic Pizzolatto;s award winning novel (who also helmed the screenplay under a pseudonym), Galveston tells the story of Roy (Ben Foster), a hitman involved in a violent double-cross orchestrated by his boss (Beau Bridges in a welcome small role), which leads him to meet a young woman named Rocky (Elle Fanning). She’s an escort who has a secret of her own, a daughter posing as a sister who she is trying to protect. An attempt at blackmailing his former boss leads the pair into dangerous territory in which neither of them may survive,
Galveston has a look and a feel of Ben Foster’s character, equal parts wired up and tired, beaten up but begging for one more chance as he opens up to this lost women he’s now somehow found himself having to protect. Laurent knows her way around the camera, framing each scene with a feeling that nothing good can come of Roy’s enterprise, but she even then instills the movie with a fragile sense of hope that the both will reach safe haven and start life anew, away from the mess of their criminal lives. In a way, this movie is rather anti-noir, in which Roy comes off less an anti-hero sucked in by a shady woman and unable to move forward, but more a reluctant hero trying to do good. Rocky on the other hand is clearly defined by her sense of rescue and duty to her last surviving relative, and Fanning plays her with equal parts vulnerability bordering on helplessness and moments of bravery. This is, overall, a strong second feature for Laurent and I am anxious to see what direction she will take with her next film and it makes me now interested in seeing Diving, a movie that never was screened or released in the US, and is now available on Prime.
Movies like Ixcanul don’t get the exposure they should because of the external presentation of culture that may alienate anyone seeking a more formulaic, accessible story. The irony is, Jayro Bustamante’s story couldn’t be more accessible and is as old as time itself; it just happens to be dressed in the traditions and beliefs of the indigenous people who live at the shadow of the dormant volcano that titles the movie.
The story, as simple as running water: Maria, a 17 year old girl living in a society that is a bubble and seems to exist out of time, promised to a man in marriage, but in love with another who wishes to emigrate to the US. You can almost guess what happens next with the latter part of the sentence, but Bustamante moves his story rather languorously — allowing only certain information to reach the audience without venturing into melodrama nor maudlin.
Preceding Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma by four years, Ixcanul bears a spiritual link in the presentation of a nearly mute woman rendered incapable of making her own decisions, at the mercy of tradition and what we could call superstition. Bustamante seeks to shine light on a people mostly forgotten and uses a tableau of tragedy and spiritual beliefs to inspire compassion and understanding. The looming volcano, the place where Maria and her mother go to pray and perform rituals, turns out to be more than a myth, but even in the face of exploitation and disempowerment, life must continue, as does tradition, which is firmly entrenched within the narrative down to the last beautiful shot.
The Witch in the Window
It’s never a good idea to buy a house that turns out to be haunted. Usually the lingering spirit or spirits feel as though you are invading your space and they’re not nice about it. However, we never get a feeling the the house Simon and Finn (Alex Draper and Charlie Tacker) are flipping may be hiding a dark secret until much later, so director Andy Mitton fleshes out the relationship between father and son in a way that doesn’t get done that often in horror movies. It’s a smart and also touching choice which greatly helps the movie once the house starts revealing its ghost (Carol Stanzione). Lydia, the titular witch in the window, appears almost midway, and has her own agenda, and it’s not what you might think, which is a nice surprise.
The Witch in the Window is less outright horror and more a domestic psychodrama with some slight supernatural overtones that never quite coalesce into full-blown horror, but rely more on the power of narration to deliver its premise. Think of it as one of those ghost stories you may have read in your English literature class in which the story depended less on shock and pure horror but a slow, deliberate construction of a relationship… that then got a wrench thrown into it. If you take Lydia away the movie still works well on it own. That speaks a lot for a little movie that has such a short run time like this one.
For me, it has become a truth that I acknowledge wherein a director, a storyteller, has one basic story to tell, and that is his own. It doesn’t matter that the storyteller or a movie director will navigate different schemas in order to seem versatile in various genres, and truly, many do. In the end, when all is said and done, when you look at the story from an objective perspective, the result is that details begin to emerge that will pinpoint to the autobiographical, and by essence, the most personal of confessions.
It’s no secret that Almodovar loves women, and almost always features them as the leads in his movies. So it’s rather refreshing to see that for once, Almodovar has taken a different approach and filmed the closest thing to a memory play in Pain & Glory (Dolor y gloria), featuring a writer/director not unlike himself who takes a reflective look into the past in order to find facets of himself that have made him the person he is today.
Salvador Mello (Antonio Banderas) is a director in decline whose movie “Sabo”r (Taste) has become rediscovered and re-released to a new audience who of course wants to see more of the director himself, know the person, as cinephiles do. Mello, however, is in a mental funk and suffers from physical ailments, which have him calling upon a colleague, fellow actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who was the star of Sabor and with whom Mello had a fallout due to his performance. Crespo and Mello make up over some hallucinogens, which lead Mello to revisit the past when he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, as usual, luminous and Earthy) moved to Paterna.
Crespo discovers Mello has been writing a story called Addiction which Mello considers not only unpublishable, but too personal. Crespo, however, is so taken by the powerful, moving text that he wishes to perform the play, and after some coaxing, he delivers an emotional performance that draws the presence of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Mello’s ex-lover and the lead character of the moving story. Mello and Federico reunite and have one of the most moving, emotionally shattering, and erotically charged conversations, an extended scene fraught with intense closure that we almost forget that Almodovar is barely halfway through his book of memories, and we still have a couple of scenes that have to come forth in order to bring the film to a proper close.
Some of these scenes are so beautifully rendered I get the feeling Almodovar took some time in fleshing out how they could transpire and look in the overall product. While there are no flashy transitions like the dramatic shift that happens right in the middle of Julieta, Pain & Glory meanders along, often using his special brand of humor and absurd scenes to pepper a moment of reconnection, and occasionally — but very sparingly — veering into pathos. As a matter of fact, this is one of the most emotionally restrained films I have seen in Almodovar’s body of work. Nowhere is there intrusive music as it happened, for example, in High Heels or All About My Mother, and simple expositions by themselves reveal layers of drama just simmering underneath. If anything, the most expressive part of Pain & Glory is the use of color, with every color getting some form of exposition, but especially his use of reds, greens, and orange.
Transitions to Mello’s childhood are extremely poignant and linger on much after the end; scenes in which the young Salvador wonders what will become of himself and his mother as they take refuge in a train station, or later, when Salvador confronts her on the topic of education, are the stuff reminiscent of Italian Neo-realism and cement the type of mother-son relationship that anchors the story, and even inform his own somewhat close relation to his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas, an actress with a passing resemblance to Carmen Maura)..
Later, Salvador finds himself discovering his own sexuality in a rather delicate manner. Almodovar treats this specific sequence with extreme taste; it’s no secret that many of us found ourselves while admiring an older man, and the way this happens is almost accidental, but crucial to the future Mello. As payment for fixing up Jacinta’s house, Salvador offers to teach the young construction worker to read and write. Now, there is a reason the worker comes under a specific physicality (he is muscular and attractive), but before, it happens that an impromptu moment has the worker painting Salvador on canvas. Once he is done, he takes a shower, and that is where Salvador accidentally sees the older youth in the nude and faints dead away. The situation is not resolved, but the painting finds its way to Salvador’s hands as an adult and a short but moving letter where the young man thanked Salvador for teaching him to read and write.
The beauty of Pain & Glory is that its a personal story that anyone could relate to. While watching Salvador engage with the older Jacinta and filling her with promises that never came to fruition (because life happens), I ended the ghost of my own mother sitting quietly next to me, holding my hand, letting me know that it was all okay. You see, throughout the movie, Salvador fights with an enormous level of self-doubt stemming from his own self-worth, a stigma placed by Jacinta;s limited understanding. How many of us have had that happen, a parent who, while they loved us, couldn’t quite get us? Almodovar knows that all too well and plays that messy relationship with unbelievable compassion.
Its safe to say, and probably redundant by now, that Pain & Glory is not just a good movie but perhaps his best ever, his most mature, his most emotionally satisfying, one whose story continually reveals itself to its viewers, one that will evolve over time as a design of great honesty and emotional nakedness. It is anchored by its entire cast, but Antonio Banderas, an actor who rarely has been able to play quality roles, playing a haunted man trying to cope with his own sense of mortality and his future. Shambling throughout the movie with unruly hair and expressive eyes, he confronts all the ghosts of the past, achieving beautiful closures even when some of those might be a little messy.
Wealth is a dirty business, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat sets out to do a vertiginous explanation of just how deep down, how entrenched into our global consciousness it has become. Focusing and using the ones who got caught, Jurgen Mossack and Elmer Fonseca (Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas) as hosts, we get a quick succession of vignettes that tell us how the entire scheme all works. Soderbergh, a director who has always employed a sharp visual style, at first presents the men in matching outfits and moves them from what seems to be an open paradise to an underground club within seconds, both with martinis in hand, to introduce one unfortunate victim, a tiny, tiny cog on a massive wheel.
That woman is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who finds herself not only a widow following a freak boating accident in Lake George, but now, at the setback with the insurance agency who will not provide payment due to her husband’s untimely death. That story shifts to a conversation being played out by owner of the tour boat (Robert Patrick) whose financial advisor (David Schimmwe) informs that he switched to an agency operating out of the tiny islands of St, Christopher and Nevis in order to avoid costs. The operator of that firm (Jeffrey Wright) turns out to be living a double life, and part of a larger money laundering scheme that now has Ellen out of a retirement condo as well.
More subplots get introduced: a filthy rich socialite finds her friend is having sex with her father, but the father is willing to give her assets to banks as payment for her silence. Most intriguingly, a sequence in which Rosalind Chao and Mattias Schoenaert engage in verbal warfare over — you guessed it — money, and lots of it, which ends in someone dying. It all seems to come back to the roots that were Mossack and Fonseca, who managed a gigantic money laundering operation out of Panama and is, according to the movie, one of many operating, unscathed, controlling everything from politics to who gets what in terms of wealth.
Soderbergh’s film is less a dramatic affair than a 90 minute expose of how this all happens, and the mood is definitely cynical if not outright bouncy. That alone might detract a bit from the entire issue, which is to inspire outrage, but to be honest, in a world where there is so much of this going around it is truly hard to see anything happening other than a denunciation of one agency that has now gone under. Hurting Soderbergh’s film is the cramming of so many marquee names into one tight little picture, and having Streep play three characters is a bit much. Also, having Oldman and Banderas play theirs as smiling Cheshire cats who never once admit contrition but flaunt their guilt is a bit much — then again, I did state Soderbergh is in a cynical mood and it shows. In a way, it seems to say that in this world, pretty much, we are all fucked to the mercy of those few who have so much of the green thing.
If Ted Bundy had had his pick of actors to play him in a crime drama about his life, he probably would have chosen himself. That alone tells you the kind of person Liz Kloepfer (Kendall) met during the time Bundy was out doing unspeakable things to women with long brown hair. An anomaly of a person, Bundy stands alone and unparalleled for sheer affront, a man unafraid to challenge authority to the bitter end, a man who leaves behind a chain of terror for the most part, unsurpassed.
Joe Berlinger’s movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile correctly places Zac Efron, an actor with unusually attractive looks and a body that most men would kill for front and center and while he doesn’t quite look like Bundy, Efron all but loses himself in the part, assuming Bundy’s mannerisms, charm, gift for words, self-serving theatrics, and unbelievable but fatal magnetism. Efron’s Bundy is definitely the quintessential wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a scarily precise performance as the infamous serial killer who even when he found himself on trial, he had women like Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scoledario) panting inside a courthouse, defending him to the end even when it was clear through evidence that he was not the kind of man you would bring home to introduce to your parents as your future husband. That Kendall (Lily Collins) survived being one of those unfortunate victims remains a mystery even to Kendall herself and sadly, the movie doesn’t spend more time with her but merely uses her (and Scoledario) as a blueprint to go where the controversy and yes, evil thrived. Perhaps this was the only way to truly make a movie about someone like Bundy, because with a personality as toxic and as narcotic as his, how else could one grasp the level to which he had a nation flummoxed as the killer of women?
Neither Berlinger nor Efron have the answers. Certainly not Kendall, who now lives a live of privacy. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is mainly a question mark of a movie, one that simply presents the reality through KLendall’s deluded but cognizant eyes, and makes no attempt to analyze further, and that, perhaps, is all that this movie needs to be.
I had high hopes for Harriet since I saw the trailer first pop up during the summer at the Angelika. Actually, let me go a step farther: I was moved to tears by its rousing trailer where this woman, bound by slavery, defied it to its core and became the historical icon that she now is short of being the face on a 20-dollar bill, which she rightfully deserves.
So imagine my surprise which quickly became disappointment when, once Harriet the movie proper started, that I saw none of the passion, the urgency, the need to be free, and instead I was regaled by a color-by-number rendition so mawkish and clumsy in its depiction of Harriet Tubman that it felt at times as though I was navigating through a docudrama of the cheapest sort, the kind you could see in the 70s and 80s (and 90s, if you knew where to look) in which stock actors reenacted historical events in bad wigs, overwrought dialog, and music so shrill and derivative it could easily belong in any exercise in schmaltz starring Tom Hanks during his 90s heyday.
Harriet begins proper on a shot that looks like it was borrowed from Richard Linklater’s establishing shot of Boyhood, in which we see Minty (Cynthia Eriyo) who’s lying on the grass gazing dreamily at the sky thinking of happy thoughts when her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) comes and whisks her away, only to have us realize that while the two of them are married, only he is a free person of color, while she works as a slave on the Brodess plantation. Not only that, when Minty and her mother Rit Ross (Vanessa Bell Calloway) attempt to assert their freedom based on contract, the Brodess’ family will not honor it.
Something clicks in Minty, a mix of the visions she gets — a residual from a nasty blow she received from her master when she was a girl of 12 — plus her own gumption, and she sets off away from the plantation, leaving her husband behind and taking off into the unknown. Now, you would think that Kasi Lemmons would focus on her journey, which must have been frought with peril and extreme uncertainty — remember, this is a woman blindly fleeing for her life and her freedom, in enormous peril where every white face could bring her back to slavery. Lemmons instead goes for broad emotions using Eriyo’s singing voice to signal portent and this Dramatic Moment, which falls flat on its face. It gets worse. The moment Eriyo, cornered, makes that fateful decision “to be free or die”, the movie cuts away from her peril and into the aftermath. A woman in the river fighting for her life would have been a showcase for incredible, nail-biting tension as well as supreme acting. Lemmons squanders that chance. Finally, when Minty finally realizes she’s standing on land that will make her a free woman, her reaction is… off to say the least. She just doesn’t convey the enormity of her action in such small a body. I would have loved to see that.
I thought, probably budget constraints, maybe stunts weren’t available, perhaps logistics just didn’t make her plight seem more memorable than the fairly uneventful trek from Maryland to safe haven in Pennsylvania. But the movie then continues to somewhat not know what to do with Minty’s story. Yes, once in Philadelphia, she contacts William Still (Leslie Odom, underused) and he allows herself to re-christen herself Harriet Tubman. Checklist. But she has a moment when she is re-telling/reliving the horror of what she experienced to Still. The camera kept breaking away to these blue-washed scenes that are supposed to be her own visions and I was furious. I don’t need that. I need to see a performance, the camera dead on Erivo’s face, as she tells her story, exhausted but free and still not quite knowing what comes next. The movie brushes over Harriet’s own reaction to her new life as a free woman, but then punctuates her visions with the blunt force of an exclamation point to establish the urgency the she must go back to get her husband.
The husband part misfires, and again, that singing, please, make that stop, it takes me out of the movie (even if it was a way of her communicating). Lemmons goes down the list of Tubman’s achievements in bringing her first batch of people to the North, but again, colors her own actions with too much self-awareness of her own future greatness, as if all this was somehow preordained. That preternatural confidence, historically, came much later. Her first trip back, again, happens with so much ease that in one shot they’ve crossed the river, the next shot they’re in Philly. We never sense that Harriet the slave who freed herself is even in real and present danger, with bounties on her life and Lemmons’s movie plays it way too safe. We only see the marks on her skin, not the horror that produced them. It goes for the movie as a whole. We only get glimpses of slavery, but never more than a lot of white actors having to say unspeakable words and hamming it up to maximize how evil they are.
I don’t want to say Harriet is a bad movie because it is not: it’s closer to a necessary movie to watch to see for historical purposes but that is it. I didn’t find it compelling at all. The picture is flat. The music score by Terrence Blanchard is so intrusive and so derivative of the likes of Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer circa Hidden Figures I almost barfed at its repetitiveness. Erivo does a solid performance and will almost certainly glean Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, but I still would have preferred to have seen a character study of a woman who gradually grew into her own by defying a system that would have diminished her as a person instead of a biopic that was too self-conscious for its own good. Perhaps a longer form narrative may be the thing, although it has been done with Cicely Tyson at the helm and it’s kind of hard to top Tyson.
I’m usually a bit jittery about movies that bring a lot of anticipation bolstering their US premiere because the more the promotion, the less likely it’s warrant to deliver on its premise or be watchable past opening night. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Knowing next to nothing other than its bare-bones synopsis of two men stranded on a remote location tending to a lighthouse, I walked in, and let his story unfold.
The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, two actors who have been involved in back to back projects that have only managed to cement their status as two of the best working actors in cinema today. Both star as a pair of lighthouse keepers who must take care of the building for a total of five weeks. It’s a task that sounds simple enough — do your duties, rinse and repeat — but soon enough, isolation starts to sink in, and the need for the men, who already don’t like each other, to relate to something human while asserting their own presence starts to play mind games… or does it? Pattinson’s character one night walks out into the dark open to see what looks like a mermaid swimming in the waters beyond. DaFoe stands in front of the huge beaming light of the lighthouse in complete ecstasy, but what is that tentacle quickly seen and that disappears? A sea gull turns out to be more menacing than just bothersome.
Could the night and the fog and the lighthouse itself hold some dark secret?
Robert Eggers never reveals what, in fact, might be the ghost that haunts the grounds where the fabled lighthouse stands, and that is perfect for me. Exposition and backstory are kept to a minimum, only enhancing the entire movie’s mystery and whatever it is that haunts the twosome. All we get is that the previous lighthouse keeper went insane and killed himself. Pattinson’s character longs for some peace and quiet far into the Canadian country and thought this could be a next step into achieving the goal. DaFoe has been chained to the island and the sea for 13 years, a thing that took a toll on his marriage. Meanwhile, in the present, the men go through their daily chores, making irritating small talk (well, technically, DaFoe is the one who talks the most while Pattinson, who starts out as silent as a moonless night, let’s him take center stage), engaging in petty banter over who does what.
The more they engage in the mundane, the farther away they creep from reality. Soon, even a simple dinner sequence becomes a nightmare of repetition in hell with two men aching companionship devolving from mates to enemies to back in a furious kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Eggers movie becomes a ferocious battle of wills to see who will remain the last madman standing, all the while the looming, sinister figure of this lighthouse, the all-knowing sentient spirit, observes without pity or passion.
This is the most cinematically gorgeous movie I have seen this entire year — or this decade, as a matter of fact. It is rare to see black and white, treated with such care that even seeing it at a two-dimensional ratio one can almost see depth in the style of deep focus, and have that morph seamlessly into German Expressionism, only to do a fade out like David Lynch’s Eraserhead towards the ambiguous end. Eggers’ movie seems as though it came out of the lens of someone living and making movies 100 years ago: it is dense, exotic to a letter, alien, mythical, and yes, haunted. Two actors helm the entire production and carry it to next-level narration, something strange and sinister, with fart-jokes and base-level humor to pepper it through as if reminding you these are two uncouth men sharing tight quarters together while the endless storm rages on and they lose their minds. I firmly believe this will a film that will be studied well past tomorrow, and a template for future directors wanting to get behind a camera to make a story come alive.
Unless anything comes along the road that can surpass this movie, I will call The Lighthouse the movie of 2019. Done.
And just like that, the New York Film Festival has come to a close. While it does end on its usual high note of offering an entire day’s worth of selected movies to watch on encore presentations for anyone who missed their official premiere, yours truly has seen more than enough from both established and rising directors to take it as a day to rest, mull his thoughts about the cornucopia of cinema he just experienced, and give his eyes and brain a one-week rest before attempting to write anything. You see, in a compressed time-frame of four days, I was able to sit and digest a total of seven movies from the festival’s Main Slate not counting whatever I saw at home on Netflix or Prime, and also not counting the sneak premiere of Robert Eggers’ head trip The Lighthouse which is now in theaters.
Friends ask me over and over why is it that I do this. The answer is simple: love of cinema, open, unabashed, and passionate. I don’t get paid a dime to come see these movies, many which will only see US Premieres in niche cinemas like Film Forum, Angelika, Landmark, Quad, or IFC (or at the nearest art-house theater if you live elsewhere). Even worse, a handful of them might just not (I’m still waiting for Lian Ying’s A Family Tour (56NYFF, China/Taiwan) to read our shores, but I doubt that will happen. So if it remains a festival-only presentation, at least I got first dibs, saw someone else’s vision, and walked away completely satisfied. So, in a nutshell, this is pure love for the medium, experiencing storytelling that is new, not mainstream, even challenging.
This year, for example, Italy was present not once but twice with Martin Eden and The Traitor (Il Traditore). I missed the first, which will come out anyway, but saw the second, due to premiere in US theaters January 31, 2020. Marco Bellocchio’s film presents a mafia drama unlike many we’ve seen here. It serves as a means to re-tell a Italy’s colored history with the Cosa Nostra, without the romance and ideation of Mario Puzo. Bellocchio’s version is grittier, and an extended portion of the narrative takes place inside a courtroom where confrontations between capos are electric and pregnant with tension while Mafia kingpins eagerly wait behind bars to have at it with the man they call their enemy.
That enemy, the traitor of the movie, is Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favina in a strong, solid performance), who starts the movie proper in 1980 during a frosty gathering between two rival families, his own and Toto Riina’s (Nicola Cali), convening for a truce. The entire sequence is all polite gestures and posing for pictures while rival members stare daggers at each other. You expect violence to explode at any minute among the extravagant decor. Bellocchio, however, saves the violence for after Buscetta has moved to Brazil with his wife and six of his eight children (leaving Benedetto and Antonio behind, a fatal mistake he comes to regret later on). The systematic gunning down of Buscetta’s extended family in Sicily is brutal and unrelenting. It is that, plus Buscetta’s own arrest in Rio as well a torture sequence in which he witnesses his own wife being dangled from a plane, that prompts him to become a pentito, an informer for the Italian court seeking to bring Mafia bosses to justice. As a pentito, Buscetta gets the velvet gloves treatment precisely because he has so much information to share, and from a frosty first meeting with Judge Falcone (Fausto Augusto Alesi), a somewhat tentative agreement that may resemble friendship in its earliest stages forms.
The Traitor is, by far, one of Italy’s strongest entries following 2013’s The Great Beauty — compelling from start to finish, when we learn the fates of everyone. If anything, the one thing I could see in both men — one fictitious and one who died a little under 20 years ago — is the haunting sensation of regret. The biggest difference is that while Jep Gambardella’s one regret is that the could never find the essence of beauty, Buscetta laments not having been there for his sons, and their absence from his life haunts him throughout the entire film. It is an anguish that Favina’s eyes alone register once all is said and done, and everyone has met their fates behind bars.
From a clear-cut story to one muddled with double crosses, triple crosses, and a narrative as clear as sludge, comes Saturday Fiction, directed by Lou Ye, and starring Gong Li as an actress who is also a spy, and who may be playing Mata Hari to more than one side of the war. Or maybe she’s not. I walked out not quite sure what I had seen, other than Li played an actress named Jean You who returns to Shanghai to appear in a play titled Saturday Fiction. She’s also there to be present for the release of her ex-husband from the Japanese. She’s also there because she has a relationship going on with the director of the play Tan Na (Mark Chao), but also seems to have some sort of daughter-father relationship with Frederic Hubert (Pascal Greggory) who is also a spy. Her hotel room is bugged, and she initiates a friendship that quickly becomes intense with a young admirer named Bai Mei (Wang Chuanjun). To note, the plot of Saturday Fiction takes place six days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so it’s no secret where the is leading to… but the movie itself takes so many twists and turns and no one seems to be trustworthy, it’s only when the guns come out that masks also come off and Gong Li becomes a relentless shooting machine. Who knew she was a gunslinger? It might take more than one view to completely grasp the entirety of Lou Ye’s murky vision, but as a recreation of the days leading up to December 7, 1941, and by virtue of Gong Li herself essaying an impenetrable woman marked by fate and duty and her own allegiances, Saturday Fiction is a watchable head-scratcher.
A punch in the gut as it navigates the depths of an impossible situation, is Kantemir Balagov’s remarkable Beanpole, which will premiere in US theaters at the end of January, 2020. Before we see her, we hear her, apparently choking on her own breath. Her name is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working in a Leningrad hospital in the summer of 1945, and she is the caretaker of her friend Masha’s (Vasilisa Perelygina) little boy Pashka while Masha is away at war. Masha. Iya brings the little boy to liven things up in the hospital from the specter of death. Iya also suffers from moments of inexplicable, crippling stiffness and gets lost in a fugue, making choking noises in what would only be a reaction to the horrors of war. It’s a condition that will come to haunt her in the most inappropriate of times as she plays with Masha’s boy one evening with devastating consequences.
When Masha returns from the front, and learns her son is gone, her reaction is equal parts devastation and disassociation. It’s as if something inside her cannot accept the fact that her only son is gone, a fact that becomes even more terrible when we learn she has had her reproductive organs removed, Beanpole here takes a slight turn to the left and presents both women, completely codependent on each other, moving from love to hate and back again. Masha starts seeing another young man; Iya gets jealous, not wanting to share her only friend with anyone else. And then, Masha hatches up a cruel plan to get back at Iya for having allowed her Pashka to die.
If only Iya could see the reality around her (and there are often times when I wanted to scream at her but that is the type of person I am). Iya’s PTSD, compounded with her own broken self — she often states how empty she feels — have left her next to unable to function on her own and so she needs Masha to conduct the strings for her. But then, let’s take a look at Masha herself. Masha, who often seems to be the aggressor, has even less of a chance at happiness than Iya because she can’t be a mother. One scene has Masha dancing in an emerald green dress, and she starts rather okay, girlish, before devolving into a beast trapped in her own poverty because even something as simple as this would never be hers.
Balagov is less interested in constructing a path towards hope than to take a moment to observe a universe where no one ever had anything to begin with, and the war has left everyone desensitized, broken, and at the mercy of fate. It’s a striking piece of cinema, suffused in deep reds and greens with a perpetual gold light about it, and that is about as warm as he will allow it to be. After that, Beanpole is another slice of despair and nihilism and the inability to take matters into ones’ hand to find anything resembling happiness.
We don’t get many African movies in the area so I felt intrigued by Senegal’s entry Atlantics. What starts as a movie steeped in social realism quickly (and quite deftly) morphs into something else entirely. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is going out with Souleiman (Traore), a construction worker who, alongside his colleagues, has not been paid for three months. Facing a brick wall of resistance the men set out to sea to start life anew in Spain. Ada on the other hand is in an arranged marriage to a rather wealthy man, and on their wedding night someone sets fire to their bed, effectively ruining their honeymoon, Reports soon abound that Souleiman has returned, but Ada thinks it impossible since by now he would be in Spain. Adding to that, some of the local girls (and one detective working the arson case) are falling into delirious fevers and suddenly waking up, asking for their payments owed. Could it be that perhaps Souleiman and the rest who left have returned but in spirit? Diop doesn’t provide a tidy answer past what she presents, but her debut movie (which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, no easy feat) is a strong sequence of visuals verging into the magical that could fit in any coastal town, where men who have gone to sea may not be at rest. Atlantics arrives to Netflix November 29, 2019.
Over the years Federico Veiroj has been a presence in the Lincoln Center. I became aware of his movies when I saw, first hand, The Apostate, a quirky little comedy about a man wanting to part ways with Catholicism and I still remember it to this day. His follow up, The Moneychanger (Asi hablo el cambista) seems to have larger ambitions in recreating a period piece navigating the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and I felt a tenuous link to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street at least thematically and in its use of rather dry humor. It tells the story of Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler), an accountant who got sucked in (with little resistance) into the world of money laundering. Starting small, Brause soon takes a penchant for handling larger and larger clients until one of his dealings comes to bite him in the rear. Seeing Hendler go from one situation to the other with a bland, sort of deer-in-the-headlights look is funny enough, but Veiroj imbues his rather short movie with enough doses of wit to keep the story moving even when it starts to get a bit over its head. Dolores Fonzi has a blast with her take on the brittle wife who’s pretty clear of her place in the world and has no intention of relinquishing it.
If Virginia Woolf had been born in Cape Verde then Vitalina Varela would have been something she would have created on a lark. A film that itself is a spin-off of other past films that Pedro Costa has made about his marginalized characters who live rich interior lives, Vitalina starts proper where Horse Money ends. Arriving late to her husband’s funeral, she is introduced emerging from the plane in nothing but her bare feet. It’s a striking introduction because it leads to defining who she is: a woman that has nothing, who simply exists. She arrives to the slum where she used to live, a place of no electricity it seems, all pools of shadows. Memories of the past emerge into the present seamlessly as she reminisces, bringing to us, the audience, heartfelt confessions of a life she once had but one that has long disappeared. Vitalina the actress holds the entire picture together with her fiercely and mostly silent performance.
What makes a parasite? For one, we do know that a parasite is an organism that can’t produce its own food (or lacks the means to do so) so it latches onto another larger organism in order to secure its own existence. We can also even state that a parasite may live in the upper echelons of society, but managed to get there through unsavory means and the exploitation of others. Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite is the exploration of symbiotic relationships between the haves and have nots (willingly or by circumstance) in ways I would have never anticipated. The trailer reveals not a thing of the events that start to unfold, which is perfect because I walked in knowing next to nothing about what I was about to witness. The story of an insidious takeover of a rich household by people from a lower income unfolds with an ease that is essentially frightening, but shows just how disassociated from reality many of the nouveau riche have become. Needless to say, from the moment this begins to happen we a) root for the family and b) laugh at the sheer audacity of what they are able to get away with and c) wonder, where will all this end?
I don’t want to reveal anything else and this is why I am both ending this rather long article of movies seen at the New York Film Festival at that, because precisely that is the pivot to where the entire story hangs. Suffice it is to say, Bong Joon Ho is in complete command of his razor sharp farce. Every action, every line, every gesture is uttered with complete attention to a precise vision of story telling. Watching the escalation of craziness that unfolds is like the moments before the roller coaster has reached the top: you know at one point the entire car has to careen down and take some twists and turns, but boy, does he let that car take its time to reach its highest point.