Category Archives: Women in Film

Tackling loss in two very different ways: PIG and REMINISCENCE

The topic of loss — and in essence, the loss of a loved one — is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year there you can count on a movie or two that tells the story of a character, or set of characters, dealing with the loss of a loved one, the loss of innocence, the loss of a time gone by. Most recently, Chloe Zhao presented her magnificent Nomadland and single-handedly gave Frances McDormand a role so meaty, so juicy, that when the movie was over, and all you saw was her POV of the road ahead, you cried and cheered and kept wanting more.

Recently a movie called Pig came out, starring Nicholas Cage. Admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on seeing this movie because the poster made it seem as though it was yet another horror or revenge movie (and he has been known for doing both, and making something of a career resurgence with it in movies like Mandy or Color Out of Space). Pig, however, is… a bit different, and it left me quite speechless.

Not since the days of Leaving Las Vegas, which gave Cage his first (and so far, his only Oscar), have I seen Cage give such an understated performance in a film. Remember, Cage has a slight (okay, let’s call a spade a spade) tendency to bellow out his lines and telegraph emotions so far out into the bleachers you would grasp a clear picture of how sad or angry he is in the depths of space. When Pig starts, and throughout the entire run of the movie, Cage physically and emotionally embodies suffering in silence. So mute is the character he plays that we actually hope to hear him talk just a little bit more.

Playing Robin Feld, a former legend of a chef whose loss of his wife years ago left him completely stunted, Cage emerges from what seems to be a shack deep in the Oregonian forest to go about his business. Accompanying Feld is his beloved pet pig, Feld has a partnership with a twenty-something businessman named Amir (Alex Wolff) to whom he sells truffles, which go on to get sold to high-end concept restaurants. One day, unknown assailants attack Feld and steal his pig, leaving him destitute. Feld reaches out to Amir to help him find his pig… and here is the crux of the movie, which unfolds in some rather unexpected ways.

Look at that adorable face!

First-time director Michael Sarnoski fools the audience to think we are about to watch a movie about a man not only getting his prized pig back but also leaving a trail of mayhem behind him. His movie gives Cage ample opportunity to go through a progressive reveal of his personality which has remained stunted since the loss of his wife. There are no major reveals here, but the wife’s presence, like that of the pig of the title, hovers heavily throughout the entire story which takes us on a journey into darkness and pain, unlike any other movie I have seen and eventually gives us a fine portrait of a man wanting to recover his last connection to something, even when that connection is an animal. The movie also gives you a little bit of ambiguity between Amir and his powerful father (Adam Arkin). It remains implicit that the father seems to be thwarting Amir’s own entry into the business, but the movie never quite spells it out for us — rather, it lets us decide what exactly is the crux of their dysfunction, and if it may stem from the loss/absence of Amir’s mother.

Side story and all, this is, ultimately, Feld’s story, which binds them all, and Cage demonstrates why he is, despite his weird output of shabby movies, one of our best actors. Take the slightly chuckle-inducing title and you have a shattering drama of near-silent proportions, beautifully shot, atmospherically perfect, and one that ends in a cathartic moment of mourning while Springsteen sadly sings “I’m on Fire.”

Reminiscence should have been a comedy or a cheeky homage. Not this.

Less successful is Lisa Joy’s debut movie Reminiscence. Considering her output with Westworld (and that the HBO series also carries some key actors over to this movie), I was flummoxed to see her not just fail, but fall flat on her face in delivering a compelling mystery that links a man (Hugh Jackman) and a woman (Rebecca Ferguson) together in a downward spiral of love lust and betrayal.

Jackman is Nick Bannister, a private investigator of the mind (okaaay…) who operates a machine, not unlike the ones in Westworld alongside his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton, criminally underused here). With this machine, Bannister seems to be operating an underground memory market that delivers clients’ memories to them for a fee. In the world of science fiction, this seems to be fair enough, but memories can be tricky, and sometimes downright impossible to decipher.

Joy’s already lofty script doesn’t care to answer those questions. Instead, she barrels full steam ahead and introduces Ferguson as Mae, a femme fatale so obvious she may as well be telegraphing it with the force of a banshee in the night. Mae is a lounge singer with an agenda. [Here’s a question. Why do femme fatales always have to have the requisite role of “lounge singer” and need to appear as a variant of Jessica Rabbit with the Veronica Lake hair? Are we still in the 40s?] Bannister, upon seeing Mae sing, doesn’t just melt, he goes full Tex Avery, all giant eyes and a river of hearts escaping his chest as a 16-ton anvil flattens him to a tortilla.

Really, Bannister?

Here is the problem. When Mae appears, she brings not a single gasp with her. Where the camera would normally highlight a woman’s entrance and her movements, Mae never registers a single thing. She’s just a regular, pretty woman. Vapid, with a vaguely foreign accent for kicks, but does that make a memorable femme? Nope. Think of Bergman in Casablanca, Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Anne Revere in Detour, Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Even Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. These are women who have you stand up and take notice of their presence alone. In Westworld, Tessa Thompson plays both Charlotte Hale and a lethal version of Dolores Abernathy. She exudes equal parts smoldering (but cold) sensuality and steel menace in both roles. Thompson, instead of Ferguson, would have been ideal — and she would have saved an unsalvagable movie. She has the silky voice that hides iron; she has the allure, and she can definitely carry her own self so that whoever watches her, will remember her. On the other hand, Ferguson, as Mae collapses even before she enters the scene, or as I prefer to say, before the scene portentously introduces her.

Ferguson, through no fault of her own, since she is merely a player, hurts the movie far more than she should. Hers should have been a small but crucial part. Laura, she is not, and it shows. What Bannister sees in her is a mystery all its own that deserves its own documentary or movie. It’s almost an insult to a performer like Jackman to reduce him to a slobbering mess of tears who can’t control himself. Even Fred MacMurray, never a great actor but intoxicated with Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, had some self-respect and went down nobly.

For Joy to then hinge the entire plot — which involves a heap of other things, such that cringe-worthy voice-over narration, the world of the criminal underbelly, and a land baron who’s placed a waterlogged Miami in a divide from the have and have nots — on a badly named woman who seems to be in every single plot development is ridiculous. Lofty, yes, perhaps ambitious, but a disaster, nevertheless.

Take away all the science-fiction gobbledygook and you have a basic noir. Why Joy needed to add so many extra layers that do not work is beyond me. In concept, this seems to work, but then, for kicks, let’s just go with the concept of memory. Do you remember things in chronological order? Even people with excellent memories have slips, which make them unreliable narrators of their own experiences. Joy seems to have brought Westworld sensibilities into a story that should have been more human. Her androids in Westworld have complicated memories because they’ve been implanted to program that way, in chronological order, with cleverly placed gaps to delete whatever was “problematic” and could deviate them from their storylines.

People don’t behave that way. Even the cheapest sci-fi story knows that. Memories are shape-shifting things, fit to mold themselves to whatever we prefer them to be. They are hardly the elaborately choreographed dance routines that Joy presents here, and while the concept is interesting it saps the main story from all its energy. And Reminiscence, in trying to keep the concept of memory alive, does the worst a movie could do, which is to repeat scenes we’ve already seen, over and over. Meanwhile, we are left with about three-quarters of the story left, and no care or interest whatsoever in what comes next, who does what, or how it even ends.

In all fairness to Joy, I know she did not set out to make a terrible pastiche of every noir movie known to man. No director ever does. Perhaps separating herself from the show would help? While bringing in Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan feels like a good choice she mirrors their stories (and fates) to their android counterparts from the show. Another thing that isn’t helping might be the Nolan association — too much of that seems to be distracting rather than enriching. But what do I know; I didn’t create this movie, I’m sure there was significant studio interference as there always is, and this is the end result. All you can do if you love movies, and love noir, is go and watch a good one. Even an okay one. Just not this one.

SFIFF: Censor

One of the aspects I enjoy the most from the horror genre is the manner in which it uses imagery to convey a deeper brushstroke. Prano Bailey-Bond’s movie Censor is a neat hat trick in which the director focuses on the same media she is using to tell a story about mourning. She focuses the spotlight on her heroine, Irish actress Niamh Algar, whom she then has play a movie censor who has to determine what snippets of horror movies are a bit much and need to be excised in order for the movie to be palatable. Think of her as the person or team behind ratings or standards and practices. If a scene is too gruesome, she’s onboard to command that it be edited out.

It is when Algar’s character, who by the way has the unfortunate and schoolmarmish name of Enid Baines for a reason, receives news from her own parents that her sister, who went missing years ago, has been declared dead when Censor starts to build up the dread. Enid, who already takes her job a slight too seriously, starts to have bad reactions to certain scenes, and some memories which she seems to have had repressed come to the forefront in menacing ways. Enid watches a movie sent to her and sees someone who resembles her sister down to a science (had her sister grown up, that is). Convinced that the woman, her sister, is still alive, Enid begins to find a way to get her back, and with that, her grip on reality begins to crumble.

Censor is a sharp piece of movie-making that manages to convey how a tight grip on one’s psyche can merely be an illusion. Enid, the lone person whom we can hold on to here, is a tight drum dressed in antiquated attire, her brown hair in a bun, eyes behind studious glasses. She seems to have survived something horrific from her childhood, and this job, which lands her in hot water with the public at one point, comes with the promise of escaping a dour reality and progressively delving into something darker, richer, and more exciting.

Watching Censor, I couldn’t but keep getting references to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio — and no, this is not a cheap comparison to that film. Strickland’s movie also dealt with the act of creating a horror film and often employed visuals and sounds that were often chilling. Censor executes a similar act with the editing process, but also with sequences that reenact a traumatic moment that Enid simply has not processed correctly. I loved that the movie, shot in drab colors (except when presenting its horror movies which are lit in bright neon tones reminiscent of Giallo), progressively comes brightly lit itself. It is as though Bailey-Bond herself was using the editing process as a way to make the film itself shed its old skin and reveal the screaming horror underneath.

I also loved the slow progression of its story. There is only one jump scare during the entire film, and it arrives completely justified. I would even say that it becomes essential that Enid get that sort of visceral shock, because it shakes her out of her weird reverie. Once the violence arrives, it feels as though a can of black, emotional worms have been released. Only that this time, they come drenched in neon and a sense of complete disorientation that Bailey-Bond employs to maximum effect down to the film’s last scene.

Censor will arrive to US cinemas in June of 2021.

Grade: B+

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+

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.

Rendezvous with French Cinema: Slalom and Summer of ’85

A teenage ski prodigy navigates sexual abuse in Chàrlene Favier’s zeitgeist drama Slalom, and François Ozon returns to his earlier oevre in Summer of ’85. Also seen at the Philadelphia and Seattle International Film Festival.

Prepare to be repulsed by Slalom. I came into it naked and unprepared for the levels of insidiousness that the character played by Jérémie Renier’s ski instructor character Fred would impose on his protege Lyz (a compelling, but sometimes maddening Noée Abita). From the word go we are drawn into Lyz’s harrowing story in which she, a skier with the potential to win big, becomes the unhealthy target of Fred’s obsessive training style which borders on the transgressive and would label him a criminal in the US (if reported). From the moment he lays his eyes on Lyz, her fate is set. Vulnerable, her isolation from her never-there mother (Muriel Combeau) makes her an easy target to mold to his standards of what he deems perfect. A predator who operates so casually on his instinct, perhaps because he’s been operating freely without any supervision, he treats Lyz like cattle, ordering her to undress in order to get her measurements. Lyz, strangely, acquiesces, perhaps because she hasn’t realized how love-starved she is. That we get to see progressive acts of transgression in which Fred eliminates the natural and logical boundaries between himself and Lyz in order to get her under his total control becomes almost unbearable to watch. This is an ugly movie to watch. It is also doubly important not to shy away from it. Too many men (and shockingly, women) in power have got away with these acts of degradation with the excuse of being a harsh teacher. Favier displays it all on camera, shot in shades of mostly chiaroscuro. We can only look and be outraged. A ferocious debut. [B+]

François Ozon has, for the better part of the past decade, been moving away from his early queer movies which were a bit lighter and experimental in tone and embracing a darker side. I think the moment that his cinema changed was in 2000 when he released Sous le sable (Under the Sand) and began to create narratives ripe with queer sensibilities but without being necessarily gay or lesbian, the exception to that trend being 8 Femmes (8 Women).

Summer of ’85 is based on the YA novel Dance on my Grave by Aidan Chambers. Summer tells the story of 16-year-old Alexis Robin (Felix Lefebvre), who’s on the verge of being arrested for being a suspect in the death of his 18-year-old friend David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin). Much of the movie transpires in extended flashback sequences as Alexis starts to tell his story which proceeds to let us in on how he met David, and what exactly happened between the two.

Much of Summer of ’85 moves rather rapidly, almost as if Ozon himself were trying to gloss over the rough pages and let us in only on the meat of the situation rather than trying to let the situation itself breathe on its own. That in many ways is fine — the chemistry between Lefebvre and Voisin practically leaps off the screen. The problem lies in that while their progressive evolution from simply friends to something more intimate is rife with suspense and erotic tension, once the inevitable happens, the movie veers into a forced situation involving a female British tourist. That in itself takes the story into unexpected terrain, and we are left with a somewhat unsatisfying coming of age with an ending so tacked on it almost looks like it could belong in another movie.

On the plus side, Summer of ’85 is a gorgeous view — from the scenery to its two young male leads who are polar opposites but fit together like a glove to a hand. Voisin resembles a young Nicolas Cage at the start of his career with his deep-set, soulful eyes and swagger. Lefebvre is more internal, and because he has the more difficult part, he has to evolve from an insecure, dependent young man to someone who could effectively be on his own and find the right guy. Ozon brings in frequent collaborators Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Melvin Poupaud in supporting parts — she as David’s clueless mother; he as Alexis’ teacher. [C+]

Slalom is available to stream on virtual cinema. Summer of ’85 will have its US release on June 18, 2021.

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+

In Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (O Febre), a Man is Caught Between two Incompatible Realities

I think it’s safe to say we never truly left the culture of colonialism. Ever since Europeans came to the New World to conquer and explore we’ve been conquering ever since. In Maya Da-Rin’s quiet little movie The Fever, the ever-expanding web of colonialism continues to spread over the landscape like an invisible wildfire that no rain will ever quench. Under the guise of industry, we see the center character, a taciturn man named Justino (Regis Myrupu). He stands, impassive like a British general, the faintest of smiles drawn on his otherwise blank slate of a face, as the cargo stop he works for continues to buzz around him, powered by its own mechanisms. We will get to know this man and even then, still remain a bit mystified by his unknowability, throughout the movie’s lean but rich 90-minute run.

Justino has two lives: the one at work as a supervisor for the aforementioned cargo stop, and the one at home. At work, he is casually referred to as The Indian, a nickname Justino seems to have accepted without a fight. At home, he is a kind, gentle husband and gives into tender moments of storytelling with his infant grandson, while occasionally making comments I as a Latino man heard my own father say one too many times. Those comments, which usually start with the ubiquitous “In my time…” only affirm the fact that Justino is a man probably caught in the past when “things were different.” Now, he simply supervises and has fallen to fainting spells that have not gone unnoticed by his employers. Needless to say, job security and unions are nonexistent in Manaus, and Justino gets a veiled threat that he may lose his job if his spells continue.

The reason for his spells is no spoiler. His daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto) works in a hospital and is studying to become a doctor. Once she gets accepted to go to college, Justino reacts with incredible passive-aggressiveness (as any parent would do). As the events of the story move on we see Justino, caught between the impersonality of his job, which now also introduces a white Brazilian colleague who in every subsequent scene reveals himself as a racist and dreamy fugue at home where Justino allows himself to relax and live in relative comfort within the protection of the rainforest. A subplot of a creature set loose in the forest leads Justino to close encounters with it, and Da-Rin’s exploration of ambient sounds grants The Fever a tone of the otherworldly.

For a first movie, Maya Da-Rin’s movie is a small treasure that mostly sticks, and slightly doesn’t. Her narrative is organic, never rushed, never forced. Scenes flow in the way the jungle that surrounds Manaus does. An early sequence involving an old indigenous woman in the hospital where Vanessa works reveal Brazil’s mistreatment of those it would rather forget (a thing that actually seems to be a global attitude), and this short scene mirrors the events in Justino’s own life as a cog in the machinery that cares little for him as a person, more so because of his indigenous roots. Myrupu gives a meditative performance that seems effortless and lived-in. Whether this is due to his own experience — I can’t tell — I enjoyed seeing the actor on the scene simply telling me Da-Rin’s story as if he were confessing.

The Fever is still available via virtual cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Grade: B

Rendezvous with French cinema: My Donkey, My Lover, and I

I’m not really sure why I chose to watch Caroline Vignal’s Anne dans les Cévennes, which received the pretty atrocious title of My Donkey, My Lover, and I for English-speaking audiences. As I mentioned in my writing about Little Girl, Unifrance and FSLC have been delivering some of the most unremarkable French movies I’ve seen in a while. It is truly rare when one of them sticks after making its debut in RWFC. Can anyone remember any movie that really stuck with them after the film festival? I’ve been going for almost 10 years and I can barely count to five without stretching it. François Ozon’s In the House comes to mind. While it delves into the many trappings of French cinema — a casual attitude towards sex and seduction comes to mind — this was a truly spellbinding mystery. Of course, when you see who penned it, you find that it was Juan Mayorga, and Spain is well-known for its twisty tales.

But I digress and realize I have to go back to the movie in question. Anne and les Cevennes is, no shock here, a very French sex comedy. It centers on Antoinette (Laure Calamy, seen earlier this year in the movie Sibyl), a teacher carrying on with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe). Vladimir is married, and she’s okay with it. Once she finds out that he’s not going to spend the weekend with her but with his wife and family at the Cevennes National Park, she impulsively decides that she’s going to be a part of it, too. Does she think this through? Of course not, or this wouldn’t be a comedy, would it?

She takes off after Vladimir, caution to the wind, and winds up shacking in a bed and breakfast and having to drag a donkey through the park. It is to note that she doesn’t get just a donkey but one that is described as a bitch to handle. Undeterred, she soldiers forward, hoping to catch a glimpse and perhaps steal a kiss from Vladimir. Easier said than done. Vignal uses Calamy’s comic talents to great advantage as she tries to keep up with her tour group (and Vladimir, who is still nowhere to be seen). From here on, Calamy’s Antoinette becomes more and more sympathetic if and only because we realize before she does the futility of what she’s getting into because she’s simply too clueless to realize it. It will take finally confronting not only Vladimir but the entire family for her to realize perhaps this isn’t what she wanted.

I’m actually going to say that while Antoinette has a few moments when she could find love, her sole companion, the mute donkey in question, slowly becomes her main focus. It’s quite funny, and charming, to see her slowly warming up to the animal who also seems to have a mind of its own. Her relationship, dysfunctional as it is, manages to slap Anne awake into finding a new reality for herself rather than pining away for an unattainable man. It’s quite a surprise, to see that all the time I was looking for one aspect in this unassuming sleeper comedy and found another, stronger aspect.

And with that, I have to say, this is a refreshing little comedy with some rather weird undertones — technically, Antoinette is stalking a family, which is bizarre, to say the least. Even so, the movie is screwball in tone and always keeps the viewer engaged in Antoinette’s mindset and emotions without delving too much into the dark. I don’t think there will be an audience for My Donkey, My Lover, and I, but there is always the chance it will get screened on virtual platforms sometime later this year or in early 2022.

Grade: B

Herself, a mostyindies review

The topic of abused women has lined the narratives of many films. Lifetime has built an entire empire around women in danger, either from a violent man or a predatory female. Very few, however, tackle the issue from a less sordid perspective such as Herself. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!) and written by Claire Dunne, who also stars, Herself is not just a harrowing tale of domestic abuse, but also the quiet, compassionate account of how a battered woman with next to nothing manages to stand on her own two feet rather than be just another number waiting for government assistance.

The concept of a house as a symbol of safety gets a double significance when, on the day of Sandra’s worst fight with her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Richardson, supremely repulsive and mercilessly violent), she has her daughter deliver a message hidden inside a doll house to a stranger. That message, to call the cops, saves Sandra from a violent fate, but rather than placing her in a safe environment, it also leaves her fairly destitute and humiliated. Finding a decent place becomes a nightmare in the one scene where she enters what is frankly, a shit-hole apartment. She then seeks government assistance to find public housing, which also lands in a thud when she gets reduced to a number and an indeterminate future which Sandra simply can’t hold on to.

Help does arrive from unexpected sources, and then the movie shifts from largely abandoning the terrible shadow of Gary and immersing Sandra in the comfort of good people. For Sandra, it’s a stroke of luck that may sound a bit too pat to believe, but this isn’t a movie about what can believably happen (although I have seen many a story in which people come together from all walks of life to help a person in need). Herself is a movie about a woman refusing to be a battered wife, an unfit mother, and the ultimate victim of a society that already treats women like her as undesirables. Sandra, as low as she has fallen, isn’t about to wait for anyone to resume her life. Thanks to the internet, she finds a tutorial on how to build her own home — her little piece of heaven — and goes after it with a vengeance,

In her first movie in almost ten years since [the aforementioned] The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd veers off into Ken Loach territory to tell a story about the forgotten tinted in hope. She’s not idealistic — images of Gary and a severely battered Sandra peek in through the narrative as a reminder of what the fallback could be, should she return to her past. Also, having Sandra dance a delicate line of diplomacy between the forces would tear her apart from her daughters and the man just waiting, off-screen, creates a sense of constant tension even in the movie’s sunniest sections.

A lesser movie would have gone for a more black and white confrontation between Sandra and Gary. The criminally under-viewed French movie Custody, available on Prime, also focused on an abused woman in a particularly brutal manner, and like that one, Herself deftly keeps the climactic scene off-screen in a way that reminded me a bit of Rebecca (1940). While frustrating, it is a dark turn that the movie must take in order to secure Sandra’s own freedom. In doing so, we don’t get overwhelmed by whatever violence would have taken place, but are horrified at what could have been, the rage that instigated it.

Herself is not a movie I can say I enjoyed — as I said, the off-screen menace remains for most of the movie, and we are privy to see Sandra suffering bouts of panic attacks — but as for a look into the life of an abused woman and how she fights back, it is a must-see.

Grade: B+