Category Archives: Festival Circuit

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.

SFIFF: Franka Potente’s Home tackles redemption in a small town

Instinct would say that you can never go home again, but when you have unfinished business, an ailing parent, and nowhere else to go, then home might be your only option. Franka Potente (the star of Run, Lola, Run) steps behind the camera to direct this heartfelt, but sometimes a tad on-the-nose drama of a convict who, released from prison for a terrible crime he committed years ago, decides to come home to start over.

Marvin (Jake McLaughlin) is a man of no resources of his own; all he has is the sheer determination to survive and hopefully make some form of amends. His mother Bernadette (Kathy Bates, as usual, excellent), isn’t too open to the idea. She’s been on her own forever and not much has changed since he walked out of her life. To add conflict, the town itself has little in the way of sympathy for Marvin — after all, the crime he committed was truly heinous and had no reason or logic. The family members of the woman he killed, led by hate-filled Russell (James Jordan) are living in arrested development, caught in the spirals of that unresolved crime, and are basically in wait for Marvin to arrive.

In the middle of this, is a young woman named Delta (Aisling Franciosi, of The Nightingale) who was a child when Marvin committed the crimes. Her story has her going nowhere fast as a small-time drug pusher barely surviving on the scraps she makes. Somehow, Potente figures out a plausible way to have Delta and Marvin somehow meet in the middle, purely by chance, and have their barely budding friendship be a harbinger of better things to come.

Jake McLaughlin and Kathy Bates in Franka Potente’s Home

Potente’s movie shows a promising director attempting to tell a story that seems to stem from the heart. While that is good for the most part, because it establishes a deep mother-son bond early on, it also saps the story from a little bit of tension. She at first sets up a potential showdown that grows and grows… but fizzles. At first, I thought, what was the purpose? and then realized that perhaps it needed to go that way to expand the story from its potential and predictable showdown, complete with Western overtones.

Potente instead veers the story towards Marvin’s rehabilitation through his encounter with Delta and his friendship with Jayden (Lil Rel Howery), a man who takes care of Bernadette. We see the movie go into Marvin’s character development in which he comes out of his shell and finally seems to be the man he should have, far removed from his old, more violent persona. McLaughlin manages to convey Marvin’s transformation through his soulful eyes and vulnerable body language — he doesn’t even attempt to defend himself in a crucial early scene.

Home isn’t perfect, though. One of its blunders is not knowing what to do with Wade (Derek Richardson). Wade is the one who knows Marvin the best and might be considered his ride-or-die friend. The problem is, Potente keeps him in the film for much longer than she needs to, and that in essence, slows the movie down to a crawl. One scene would have been more than enough to inform us that yes, these two have a deep bond, and as broken as they both are, they can still cling to each other for support.

Its ending also resolves itself in a religious setting which probably will push the limits of belief with some viewers. It’s not that movies can’t have a slight religious overtone, but Potente’s script calls for an almost Biblical intensity to a moment where a character can finally achieve some form of resolution, and it shouldn’t have happened that way, at least, not credibly. I, for one, was not too moved by this sequence. It just seemed to belong in one of these religious movies that are tailor-made for Christians and star Christian actors. However, this is the movie that Potente wished to release, and there it is, imperfections and all.

Home is awaiting distribution, so it has no release date yet.

Grade: C+

SFIFF: An investigator gets drawn into a mysterious death and unearths demons from his own past in “The Dry”

It’s been a minute since Eric Bana made a movie (that was a success on this side of the globe). You can imagine my surprise when he teamed up with Robert Connolly, a fellow Australian (whose work has never been officially released here except in a few film festivals), for a movie version of Jane Harper’s novel The Dry, set to premiere in the US on May 21st. via IFC theaters.

Every small town has its secrets and the town of Kiewarra is teeming with them. An act of shocking violence that leaves an entire family except for its infant daughter dead opens the story. The (now deceased) father is a former childhood friend of Aaron Falk, a detective who grew up in Kiewarra and has returned upon being summoned by the friend’s parents to clear their son’s name. However, Falk has another connection to Kiewarra that is much darker and lingers on throughout the entire film like a festering wound waiting to release its noxious contents.

For the most part, The Dry is a solid procedural with Bana at the helm, accompanied by Keir O’Donnell as the police officer also assigned to the case. There are moments of genuine suspense and a plausible red herring that somehow doesn’t quite pan out in the way it should, but the flashbacks to when Falk was a teenager are on-spot, filled with dread. A tad bit of ambiance and mood could have helped give this incursion into Gothic a sense of land gone tainted and lives gone to waste. The movie’s flashback sequences, while informative, pop up a bit much and rob the movie of its more disturbing nature of the perpetuation of evil that can pop up in any form. It makes me think that a bit less would have helped more.

Even so, Connolly keeps the movie going, never pausing too much except when the story itself needs to. The Dry might not have a chase sequence typical of American thrillers and is probably a closer portrayal of how an actual procedural works, which keeps it grounded. However, it is compelling, polished, anchored by solid performances all around. Also, and this is not a spoiler, it does have a killer double denouement that has to be seen — they’re both that good. [C+]

SIFF: Bebia, à mon seul desir

I hate to say it, but I left the most confounding movie from the entire film festival for last even though this was one of the first. I was able to see this one in pieces, pausing, resuming if at all to grasp its significance and digest its symbolic imagery, and while at times the film alienated me in more ways I’d like to admit, I felt in whole that I had seen an extremely personal, but somewhat self-indulgent film about death and linking your ancestors to their final resting place.

The movie itself, with its strange title Bebia, a mon seul desir, is mystifying. A teenage runway model named Ariadne (Anushka Andronikashvili) learns that her grandmother has passed on and must return home for the wake and burial. Once she arrives, the disconnect is clear. A family friend, Temo (Alexander Glurjidze), picks her up and escorts her home, but instead of there being any emotional greetings yielding to sympathetic exchanges, the two remain stiff and separated from each other.

When Ariadna arrives home her alienation is made deeper by the appearance of her forbidding and perpetually angry mother (Anastasia Chanturaia) who has little time for affection but spends her onscreen time lashing out. We wonder what may have transpired between her and Ariadna to engender such barely repressed hostility. The movie doesn’t go there, but instead, lets it fester, untreated, which in a way is satisfying. Not all loose ends have to be tied, so to leave this part of family dynamics up in the air is a good move.

When the time of mourning arrives Ariadna becomes confronted with tradition and it makes her laugh before she cries. Female mourners sit next to Arifdna and begin to wail painfully, their voices going louder and louder until the priest has to tell them to stop. It’s only then when Ariadne’s composure, which began complete with an eye-roll and a nervous chuckle collapses. It is her only moment of emotion.

Ariadna learns that tradition has it that she has to take a ball of yarn and walk from the house to the place where her grandmother died in order to link her soul with her grave. Ariadna then starts the trek over an open expanse of land with Temo beside her. Here is where the movie, which has worked up until now, starts to lose focus. A ritual of any kind has to open your senses to something greater than yourself even when the said ritual may seem silly or unnecessary. Ariadna’s walk through miles of land transpires without much emotional gravity. It’s so performed as though Ariadna herself was suffering from a type of disassociation by proxy. While she may be, in fact, completing a cycle of life, there is no emotional arc that plays here, no act of heroism, or even selflessness.

Director Juja Dobrachkous gives enough information that may explain the disconnect between Ariadna and her mother’s home. It may even — and I’m overreaching here — form a parallel between other stories in which a person who leaves a country finds his or herself at odds with the place of birth and its customs, now seem as borderline barbaric or plain ridiculous. Her use of inserts of the past (she claims they are not flashbacks) also confuses rather than enlighten. They don’t seem to add anything new to this elliptical tale, which is a shame because the opportunity was clearly there from the onset to make a great mediation about roots, and the loved dead.

Aside from that, Bebia, a mon seul desir is striking in black and white in a manner reminiscent of Pavel Pawlikowski’s Ida, and many shots that focus not on characters but on no specific subject, in general, come off also a bit like that film. It’s a dreamy experience that seeks neither to enlighten nor to reveal, but to let you in on a strange, symbolic labyrinth.

Bebia, a mon seul desir is also playing at the New Directors / New Films festival. It has no US release as of yet.

SIFF: A blundering biopic of Sonja Wigert in The Spy

Female spies were all over the European map in World War II, but one that you might not know of was Swedish actress Sonja Wigert. That might be because during her natural life that aspect of her career was never revealed until a quarter-century after her death in 1980. It seems appropriate, then, that the powers that be would make a movie about her life in a ways to honor her work against the Nazi regime.

It would make sense, then, that one of Norway’s biggest female stars, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, would get pulled into Jens Jonsson’s movie, simply titled The Spy, which makes its bow at the SIFF. You might have seen Bolsø Berdal in the first two seasons of Westworld, but she was rather under-utilized in that series. In Spy, she plays Sonja Wigert, Sweden’s biggest box-office draw who gets recruited by her government to spy on the Germans, who in turn unknowingly use her to spy on the Swedes, with poor results for obvious reasons.

Jonsson’s movie could and should have been better, but instead, it falls back into familiar spy movie tropes that are so on-the-nose, so blatant, you can practically sleepwalk through the entire affair and not lose a beat. That’s not a good thing, because in a spy thriller, the need for suspense, even when its main character clearly survives the ordeal, even when you know the story well, is paramount. It just doesn’t seem as though Wigert is in any real danger, and one red herring does not exactly save the movie from its color-by-numbers development.

Adding to this, the movie never knows what period it takes place. If you are a stickler of detail as yours truly can be, you will notice that while the movie takes place in the late thirties and early forties, much of the hair and outfits seem a bit all over the place, as if the intent was to make it look of the period, but not be of the period. If we sum this to Bolsø Berdal’s committed but somewhat undefined performance, we get an actress playing an actress that seems to be not sure where her alliances are. Sonja Wigert deserves a better movie.

The Spy does not have a release date as of yet.

Grade: C

SIFF: Topside, or the Underbelly of New York City

You don’t often get movies that depict stories that focus on the forgotten who have slipped through the cracks of the big city. The last time I can recall I saw a movie that went there was in Oren Moverman’s 2014 Time Out of Mind, which got followed almost immediately by the Safdie Brother’s Heaven Knows What. Both pictures showcased compelling character stories of the homeless, stuck in a storm they might not probably survive while New York moved on, indifferent to their plight.

Logan George and Celine Held’s movie Topside follows in the previous’ footsteps but goes underground into the tunnels of the City. It is a sad truth that there are hundreds of people living surviving in squalor within the tunnels of New York’s massive MTA system. Topside focuses on a mother and child (Held and newcomer Zhalia Farmer). Nikki, the mother, scrapes for a living and tells her 5-year-old daughter Little she can only go topside (their term for above ground) once Little gets her wings.

Their communal fragility gets shattered when transit authority officers move in. Nikki and Little are forced to go above ground, emerging in what seems to be uptown (but is, for the keen observer, a mish-mash of footage shot in the Bronx — 170th St. and Nostrand Ave. inspired by the Freedom Tunnels). New York winters are harsh and Nikki, out in the cold open, has to find shelter for herself and Little.

Held’s direction is frenetic during these sequences, which contrasts the dark but golden warmth of the makeshift shelter her character lives in. The second she emerges onto the street, light crashes through, and Little, who’s never been above ground, is terrified. Movement, everywhere, people everywhere, sounds coming from all directions — this is where Topside goes into sensory overload and almost mimes the Safdies in energy.

Topside then makes a darker turn which has to be seen to be believed. Judging that Nikki is far from the best mother in the world — she can barely fend for herself — it seems to be the only logical step in a woman frantically searching for help in the wrong places. Held clearly has done an excellent job in studying the homeless, and giving her character a limited knowledge of resources available for her. Where I diverged a bit from the movie was in how Held (and George) chose to resolve Nikki’s situation. However, I realize that this is the only solution she can have, and it actually lands the movie with a poignant sense of tragedy mixed with hope.

Kudos to Held for looking like she hasn’t taken a shower in forever, and choosing her locations carefully. So many New York shots seem plastic; hers are entirely lived in and lit in ways that make the city a nightmare of urban chaos — which only mirrors Nikki’s own. With this movie, she announces herself as a bold filmmaker who can also act the crap out of herself and land a completely lived-in character that is flawed but trying to do the right thing, even when she makes some questionable choices.

Topside as of yet has no release date.

Grade: B+

SIFF 2021: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet and The Pink Cloud

Brazil and Argentina present two movies that attempt to present a world gone upside down through a cataclysm, which references the 2020 pandemic. [Note, both movies were filmed before the COVID-19 outbreak struck.]

Daniel Katz wearing an oxygen tank in The Dog Who Wouldn’t be Quiet

Absurdism through a black and white lens and a young man somehow manages to come out of a series of disarming situations, one direr than the other, in Ana Katz’s movie The Dog Who Wouldn’t be Quiet (El Perro que no calla). Daniel Katz plays Sebastian, a soft-spoken man who sees the world react around him and somehow manages to conform to its curveballs. When the story begins we see him tending to some plants while his dog Rita observes in silence. Neighbors suddenly fill his doorway complaining that the dog won’t stop barking and perhaps the animal is in some mental anguish. The complaints get mirrored at work where Sebastian had brought his dog: the animal is disruptive. Such a disruption may lead to other employees acting out in non-productive ways. Sebastian leaves his job and finds work as a caregiver for a man suffering from dementia, which leads to other events in which Sebastian finds himself suffering a poignant loss, falling in love, and surviving a cataclysm that mirrors the 2020 pandemic. Ana Katz paints an experimental, gentle drama with hints of deadpan comedy that on two occasions veers into animated drawings that, while distancing in style, actually add to the gravitas. Her movie is a quiet exploration of resilience, pathos, and of a kind man caught under a world filled with chaos.

A lethal shade of rose envelops the world in The Pink Cloud

The Pink Cloud offers a hellish premise straight out of Luis Bunuel. If you ever saw The Exterminating Angel from 1962, you will see remarkable parallels between that movie and Iuli Gerbase’s debut film. With both movies, we find people unable to leave a comfortable space that becomes increasingly claustrophobic and which eventually pushes its occupants into the limits of stress. Both movies offer no explanation for why its cataclysmic event happens and offer no satisfaction. The culprit in The Pink Cloud is — you guessed it — a mysterious atmospheric change in which clouds turn a lovely shade of rose… and turn the air into a death trap that can kill you in 10 seconds.

A woman and a man (Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça) wake up from a night of partying to find themselves now having to lock themselves inside her home, unable to leave. Lucky for the woman, her place is conveniently large enough to fit her and the man she barely knows so at first, when the clouds appear, it seems a passing fad. “It’ll end soon,” its characters say through Facetime, and we as an audience hope so, (and again, I’m reminded about March of 2020 when the pandemic was new). It’s when the clouds refuse to leave when days become weeks, weeks become months, and months turn into years, the movie stretches itself into an act of indefinite torture. Stakes get higher, situations that would never have happened with the movie’s characters — central and peripheral — all of a sudden become very real, and the movie plunges into a dark terrain from where there may be no escape.

The Pink Cloud (A nuvem rosa)asks a lot from its characters and its audience alike. Forced cohabitation, the unreality that you might find yourself alone and left to fend for yourself (as one character is), is horrifying. Seeing its characters set adrift when we are still in the middle of a pandemic is a sobering experience. I recall when I didn’t know if a sense of normalcy might return. However, a year later, life is slowly returning to its roots (although we are still a long way). I can move about even when I still don’t engage in my pre-pandemic activities. The small cast of characters of The Pink Cloud, on the other hand, are glued to themselves and their immediate surroundings. Unnatural realities are being created, and life, miraculously, still goes on. You don’t have an alternative. You’re stuck to whoever you were stuck with at the moment of crisis; you can either manage or die.

Both The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet and The Pink Cloud are awaiting distribution so a release date is TBA,

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet: B

The Pink Cloud: B+

Capsules: Snippets from 2020 Festivals

Last March it seemed the entire world stopped dead in its tracks. The last movie I managed to see in theaters was Emma. during the waning days of February. All of my best-laid plans to catch March releases went down the tubes once the Coronavirus pandemic took a grip of the planet and kept it in the shadows of quarantine and a looming sensation that the world was over. Festivals were canceled. Hell–life, in a nutshell, was canceled.

Luckily for arthouse cinemas, movies lived on and were conveniently shipped to distributors before debuting onto virtual platforms sometime in early April. Slowly, but surely, movies became more accessible than ever for the movie-going public. It seemed all you had to do was to hit click on your arthouse theater and presto, a rental, which was set to premiere formally, would play (and you had access to it from anywhere between 24 – 72 hours). All from the comfort of your own home.

Lucky for me, a rabid cinephile. Since being holed up at home became mandatory, I decided that I’d cast the widest net possible and see not just new releases but film festivals at a level I don’t think would have been possible at a geographical level. True, Cannes was canceled and most of its features are still making their way to arthouse cinemas via virtual platforms, but New York Film Festival and every film festival following that — Philadelphia, Chicago, AFI, even Savannah — became accessible and proceeded as planned.

Because of this I was able to watch more movies than ever before — upwards of about 10 a week, to include retrospectives and restored versions. Basically, to quote Manohla Dargis from the New York Times, I watched movies ’til my eyes bled. And I’m proud of it. While I don’t think I’ll be writing about every single movie I saw come September 17 onwards I will briefly touch on some that made a lasting impression in my mind.

Bela Tarr will never go down in history as a director known for comedies. His is as cinema filled with mood, with pools of darkness, and a pervasive sense of despair. The 58th New York Film Festival outdid itself yet again by presenting a 4K version of Damnation. A precursor to what would become his magnum opus — Satantango — Damnation presents the story of a doomed love affair that drowns in a swamp of noir without the glamour and languor of the 1940s. A polar opposite, Wong Kar-wai’s restoration of In the Mood for Love also touches a doomed love affair. However, Kar-wai’s film, while restrained, is bursting at the seams with pure desire and despair, suffused with thick, atmospheric reds and greens, smoke and longing, and the unforgettable (and Oscar-overlooked) performances of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.

Women were as present as ever. Heidi Ewing’s touching docudrama Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You With Me) is a loving, poignant portrait of two young men who overcome the odds to not only secure a life as a couple but also leave their own imprint in the world. Joyce Chopra’s restored Smooth Talk not only revealed Laura Dern in her first adult role (and predated the types of roles she’d play with David Lynch) but also shed a light on vulnerable young women who find themselves preyed upon by dashing strangers and contain the seed of what could very well be the #metoo movement.

Taking a step further into the violence inflicted on women by a collective, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning paints a quietly devastating portrait of a corrupt society as seen through the eyes of a religious woman who sees her faith dragged across concrete by the omnipresence of masculine evil. More accessible, but no less potent, is Phyllida Lloyd’s domestic drama Herself, in which Lloyd attempts to speak for the many women trapped in violent marriages with abusive husbands and a system that continually fails them.

LatinX cinema proved to be as rich as ever, with thought-provoking documentaries like Michelle Alberdi’s The Mole Agent from Chile and Anabel Rodriguez Rios’ Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, from the aforementioned country. The Mole Agent sneaks up on you, its roots firmly planted in gentle comedy laced with moments of nostalgia until it reveals its true nature, and you realize you’ve been punched in the gut. It is as heart-wrenching as anything I’ve ever seen about the system of senior citizens who’ve been placed in homes, to be left, forgotten. On the other hand, Once Upon a Time… Venezuela denounces a system of corruption that has reduced a thriving community in Lake Maracaibo to nothing.

Chloe Zhao’s presence in cinema has continued to steadily grow since her debut movie Songs My Brother Taught Me. Nomadland, the best movie in my opinion of 2020, is a delicate character study of a woman (Frances McDormand at her most subtle) dispossessed of a home, roaming the nation, independent, seeking… nothing, really, but the experience of unattached, rootless freedom. A story based on real people who also play themselves in Zhao’s film, allows us to see how people who either did not survive the market crash of 2008 or simply decided to part ways with the material live the last remaining days of their lives.