Category Archives: Festival Circuit

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.