JOKER: A Special Presentation at the 57th New York Film Festival

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. [image from CNET]

JOKER: Country: US / Canada. Director: Todd Phillips. Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Language: English. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Hannah Gross. A 57th New York Film Festival Special Presentation. Release Date: October 4, 2019. Runtime: 122 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A+

This review contains spoilers.

There’s been much publicity about Joker, now playing in theaters. Some of it is good (all involving Joaquin Phoenix’s performance where he slowly morphs from an ineffectual man disconnected from the world into a monster in clown attire). Some of it, however, delves into the truly ridiculous, and I refuse to give into what the movie is not about — namely, the excessive depiction and/or ideation of violence, of which this picture has not one scene. It would be a waste of time, and Joker is too good a movie, too keen a character study to reduce it to a mess of gore and mayhem. Frankly, and I’ll say it, whoever saw Joker and walked out so horrified because it was disturbingly violent that they had to go on and write that this picture may lead to repeat incidents like the one in a certain theater in Colorado probably needed views on his or her page or wanted to stir up some trouble. This, dear reader, is what sensationalism is based on and it’s as old as time. Exaggeration sells. Tabloids have perfected embellishment to an art form. If I’m a rising movie blogger and I need to go viral I’m definitely going to make sure my posts are so out there, so filled with vitriol, that you have no chance but to see it and gape. That is what has happened with Joker, and to be fair. while there are some violent moments in its narrative, nothing in it approximates anything you won’t see in the news, Discovery ID, or any slasher / horror movie for that matter. Even Joker’s inspiration, Taxi Driver, blows it out of the water, and today, is considered a de facto classic.

Without further ado, here is what Joker is about. It depicts an alternative origin story of Batman’s arch nemesis, and that story centers on the sad spiral into darkness of one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who, safe to say, probably never had a chance to co-exist peacefully in the modern world. His introduction is that of a victim of theft in the middle of Gotham City, a man with a disorder that makes him laugh inappropriately, as he tries to scrape a living as a party clown who wishes to make people laugh as a stand-up comic. If that isn’t pathetic enough, he still gets blamed by his boss for allowing the theft to happen. A meeting with his therapist sheds some light into his state of mind, which is very negative. Adding to that is his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who seems immersed in her own world of fantasy, frail and unable to fend for herself. A coworker later gives Arthur a gun for self-defense, an act that will backfire badly later on once Arthur gets fired from his job for bringing that very same gun to a children’s hospital. Arthur, in short, has no friends, no social life, nothing to lighten up the burden. The sole glimmer of hope comes in the form of a neighbor, the beautiful Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who he meets fleetingly in the elevator as they exchange awkward pleasantries and whom he invites to watch him perform a comedy routine.

[image from the LA Times]

Sophie’s presence alone may have been a saving grace for Arthur, but he seems to be a magnet for events that seek to diminish him as a person. Funding for his medical therapy has ceased, leaving him a ticking time bomb. His dream at the start of the movie is to be a guest on Late Night with Murray Franklin; that dream will take a disastrous, defining turn when Franklin (Robert De Niro) openly mocks Arthur’s attempt to tell a joke during a failed comedy act (which has gone viral). It’s only when three corporate drones who happen to be from Thomas Wayne’s (Brett Cullen) firm show up on the subway one night to taunt a woman, when all of that inner rage that has been testing inside becomes unleashed in one fell swoop. Arthur’s laughing disorder kicks into overdrive, which attracts the attention of the three goons who decide to take matters into their own hands. Just when it seems as though once again, life and fate have descended on Arthur like a ton of bricks, he surprisingly reacts, injuring two fo the men in self-defense. The third man runs away, terrified, into the dark subway station, with Arthur in calm pursuit. Arthur then corners the third guy, and coldly executes him, vanishing into the night.

We now start to see a darker version of Arthur Fleck emerge as he starts to feel more “confident”. While Wayne condemns the shootings and makes light of those at the bottom of the social pile, calling them clowns, protests emerge from the woodwork with people now donning clown faces to resemble the mysterious killer. Arthur is starting to enjoy this newfound status. However, this sense of having some power, some control, comes to a crashing halt once Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Wayne claiming Arthur is his long-lost son, the fruit of an illicit affair she had. Arthur attempts to visit the Wayne mansion and has an all-too-brief encounter with Bruce Wayne before Alfred comes between them. This leads Arthur to a confrontation with Wayne himself who reveals some unexpected information which Arthur confirms when he visits Arkham State Hospital. The information, alongside Wayne’s own rejection, is so crushing one can’t but wait for the inevitable. What little Arthur had tethering him to humanity has now been effectively severed. Arthur is less than the clown he projects; he is no one, nothing, and almost like a bookend to Joaquin Phoenix’s last movie, he was never really there to begin with. He never mattered.

Of all the origin stories, this one is the story that I have to say gets me the most. It is profoundly nihilistic, dripping in agony, a movie that dares you to feel sorry for this character (and you find that at times, you do). Superheroes often have traumatic entries into their new personas, but Joker, as a standalone origin story, is well apart from the rest because it almost makes his rebirth into something that was fated. However, this time, the man inside isn’t a courageous hero but an emasculated incel. Joker presents an origin story about pain disguised as a smile or an attempt at a laugh, and nothing can be more schizophrenic and pay more homage to the two masks of comedy and tragedy than Arthur Fleck’s descent. Throughout the entire movie Joaquin Phoenix moves around as if even movement itself causes him misery; there isn’t a moment when the character seems to be at ease. His world is deeply diseased and has no door to escape. His laughing disorder comes through as a gasp of pain and desperation. This is a man constantly crying out for help, and no one seems to be paying attention. No one comes to his aid.

Take away the superhero / comic book facade and you have a tragedy of epic proportions, plain and simple. I can see this character with eyes of compassion because how many of these lone, crazy killers have come forth after having somehow slipped through the cracks? How many of these walking wounded continue to fail to find any solace and live in constant fear and self-hatred and delusions? It even makes me wonder, can madness then not only be genetic but environmental? We now know Arthur Fleck has no family to speak of but an unstable mother; can lack of nurture, abuse, and manical delusions indeed be responsible for shaping a psyche like the man who slowly transforms into the Joker?

The answer, quite simply, is yes… and no. There are horror stories of horribly abused people who come out to the surface; this is clearly not that story. Arthur has made his choice because quite literally he has never been given a chance to be anything else but a failure. When he stands up on top of the vehicle towards the end of the movie and paints his Glasgow smile, I found it to be probably the most horrific moment in the entire film and I admit that this is where I wept, not in sadness, but in horror. It is the proverbial awakening of a monster in full force, aware, omnipresent, and capable of incredible savagery. This is, by far, Joaquin Phoenix’s best performance so far and one that elevates a pulp character based on a silent movie (The Man Who Laughs from 1924) into something terrifying. It’s a fitting entry for a character like Joker, and one that may divide audiences alike or bring people together to discuss. I personally think that Joker takes the concept of a man driven mad and completely runs with it, even hinting that perhaps he might be related to the Batman himself — a conceit I would have gladly accepted since it raises the question of the good within evil and evil within the good, split into two different people pushing against each other perpetually.

Now, onto the more technical aspects of Joker. I’m pretty happy with the way Todd Phillips presented his story. Period. I can’t fault him for having used Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as templates to find a platform for Arthur Fleck’s story, and to be honest, I have to disagree with critics who accuse Joker of following both stories a bit too on the nose. Joker is its own story of despair told in vivid colors and gritty detail, one that will ask a second viewing to get the nuances of the character study. The use of music is truly a stand-out: Stephen Sondheim;s Send in the Clowns, and Jimmy Durante’s Smile get incredible mileage, and the use of a stairway (most likely the kind found in the 200s in uptown Manhattan) depicts the fall and rise of the Joker like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the first scene, we see a defeated Arthur dwindled into nothing agsainst the looming apartment buildings that frame the stairway. He seems almost unable to climb one more step… and yet, he does. The next time we see Arthur, he’s almost channeling Gene Kelly, dancing and shimmying down like he were in his own musical as he goes for his grand entrance at Murray Franklin’s show.

I guess I could go on and on but I will leave it up to you to go see this incredible movie, and don’t read too much of what the media wants to instill: a fear of controversial, high quality motion pictures in which sometimes, a bad guy is born because he was born to be bad.

BRIGHTBURN: Good concept, but a bit too eager to go nuts.

[Image from IO9]

BRIGHTBURN. Country: USA. Director: David Yarovesky. Screenwriters: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn. Language: English. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Runtime, 90 minutes. Release, May 24, 2019. Home Release: August 20, 2019.

Mostly Indies rating: B–

Earlier in May, a little movie called Brightburn suddenly showed up in several multiplexes (mainly AMC) and with next to no promotion, no commercials, nothing. It went to score rather respectably in the box office, making back its budget in its opening weekend and emerging quite the winner despite a lack of back up of seasoned critics. I will admit that I sometimes tend to avoid pictures like these because there is a risk that they will either be truly terrible and go straight to video merely a month later, and who wants to waste even 90 minutes plus promos to sit back and watch an atrocity play in front of you? Yeah, me neither. [It’s why there will be a conspicuous lack of Fs and barely some D ratings here at Mostly Indies because… well… I just won’t.]

So I did the logical and decided to wait for its release. Now that I’ve seen it in the middle of an insane film festival I can say that this one’s not that bad, not even close. Brightburn tells the story of Superman — or at least, it uses the blueprint of the Superman mythos — and flips it like an omelette. Let me explain. So at the start of the movie we get Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elisabeth Banks and David Denman), a married couple living in rural Kansas. Right from the start their lives are upended when a meteor crashes onto their property. Curious to see what it is, they go out, and soon we learn through home video that they’ve become the parents of a baby boy named Brandon (Jackson A, Dunn). Brandon is whom they found in the ruins outside their house.

Flash forward a few years, however, and Brandon, who’s at the threshold of puberty, starts to sleepwalk around the house and is attracted by something locked behind closed doors in the shed. Elements of violence start to emerge from nowhere in his personality and he begins to display unusual feats of strength. A crush on a schoolgirl yields incredibly creepy results, found drawings underneath Brandon’s bed paint a picture of emerging, disturbing attractions, and before you know it, Brandon seems to be morphing into a rather scary psychopathic young boy bent on getting what he wants and at any cost and he has the nascent superpowers to use them at will.

Much of the success at Brightburn depends on the fact that it is extremely economical and makes use of its budget rather well, to the point that you would think a lot more money had gone into it. [It only cost a little north of 6 million to make.] Its pacing is on the faster side, but not too much that you miss any character development. Banks and Denman create a believable couple facing something straight out of a nightmare and their reaction, from denial even at the face of evidence to eventual recognition works because most parents often believe their children, monsters or not, are the best. [And if you don’t believe me, take a look into another couple facing a son they soon start to realize they don’t recognize anymore in the outstanding movie Luce (now on home video). And in that one, the mother, played by Naomi Watts, actually hinders an investigation by hiding crucial evidence, a thing that comes to haunt her in the end.]

I just wish that Yarovesky would have allowed his movie to create a little more suspense in its scenes involving Brandon, once he starts stalking his neighbors. Some of the scenes happen in a manner that look a bit too flat and don’t leave for much tension. An early confrontation in a diner between Brandon and the mother of a girl he’s attracted to feels rushed (despite some gore). Yet another sequence, while unbelievably gory, also fails to have any build up but just “happens”. See, to me, horror movies in general should invoke a creepy buildup that places its characters in an increasingly arena of danger. The deeper they wade in, the more we realize they are in for a nasty surprise. Here, much of what happens does so in a prompt, efficient manner, and it made me feel a bit flat.

Other than that, Brightburn is a slick little horror film that can stand on its own without the Superman lore. If you took that away you’d have The Bad Seed with the gender flipped to male. Its just a bit too eager to get to the gore and that is what may take from its impact of a boy gone wrong.

IN THE TALL GRASS: A Netflix Release

IN THE TALL GRASS. Country, Canada. Director: Vincenzo Natali. Screenwriter: Vincenzo Natali, based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Cast: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie, Jr. Harrison Gilbertson, Rachel Wilson. Runtime: 101 minuets. Release Date: October 4, 2019. On Netflix.

Mostly Indies Rating: C

With so much material on his hands it’s more often than not that a writer of the stature of King will in some ways repeat himself thematically, if not do outright re-writes of previous works. His novella In the Tall Grass, co-written with his son Joe Hill, seems to suggest yet another incursion into cult horror in the middle of nowhere.

From its opening sequence the film’s premise follows the same as the one in Children of the Corn in both story and original movie with the sole exception that while that one consisted of a forgotten little place overrun by children who worship some god of the underworld, this time, there are no people around but a strange expanse of impossibly tall grass in which a strange rock, possibly the remnants of a meteorite, stands still but gleams in malevolent energy eager to meet the unsuspecting for a little fun in blood sacrifice.

The unsuspecting are a set of two families. The first, a brother and sister duo, Cal and Becky (Avery Whitted and Laysla De Oliveira), who stop while on the way to San Diego because Becky, who is pregnant and needs to relieve herself, has just heard the cries of a boy lost in the middle of the tall grass. Against her better judgement, and because she also overhears what seems to be the boys mother (Rachel Wilson) telling the boy to not to call anyone in, she and Cal set into the grass to locate the boy, and soon realize that time and distance seems to be playing tricks on them. What seemed to be a few feet now seems to have stretched farther out, and soon, both she and Cal are hopelessly lost in this never ending sea of green. However, the movie doesn’t limit itself to people lost within grass: soon Becky encounters Ross (Patrick Wilson), who’s also searching for his family, while Cal meets the boy, Tobin (Will Bule, Jr., a young actor with a striking resemblance to Elijah Wood at the start of his career some 20 years ago). Tobin at first seems a bit shifty. Remember, this is the Stephen King universe. Kids in his stories can be either preternaturally self-reliant and thus, trustworthy, or basically the Devil himself and must be avoided at all costs. Tobin provides some insight into what might be happening behind the plates of grass, which then cranks the story up a notch into weirdness. It all comes to a head when Becky’s boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) also finds his way into the endless meadows as he searches for her. Eventually, all the characters converge into one somewhat open area, and Ross reveals he’s not the nice man he once may have been before he entered the grassy field. Time bends, becomes elastic, and then all hell breaks loose once the power behind the stone jutting from the ground takes its hold on the hapless cast.

For the most, In the Tall Grass is pretty effective in establishing a streamlined version of common King tropes. You will have tragic, subservient wives meeting gruesome ends. You’ll have the plucky heroine who tries her best to manage her way into the nightmare she’s literally walked into. You have your couple of untrustworthy characters who seem to be prey to a larger power — in Cal, you have the brother who loves his sister a bit too much, and in Ross, the archetypical father-villain who in Patrick Wilson finds the perfect actor as a handsome man with the winning smile and a glint of crazy just behind the eyes. Some of the inclusion of multiple timelines seem to exist only in an arbitrary fashion, but if you don’t care about too much logic you should be able to enjoy the premise well. Where the story’s thin premise buckles at the seams is when it presents the creatures haunting the field, and the curious drawings on the rock. It’s a common trop In King’s work, to show the monster in the closet; on cinema, however, less is always more, and omitting this detail from the story would have made it a bit more chilling. As it stands, this is an above average piece of work, with handsome cinematography and solid acting, but not a tremendously compelling work of horror.

A Small Town Prepares for War in the Neo-Western BACURAU

[Image from Cinevue]

BACURAU. Country: Brazil / France. Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Screenwriter: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Language: Portuguese, English. Cast: Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Karine Teles, Antonio Saboia, Sonia Braga, Udo Kier. Runtime: 130 minutes. A 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate Selection. US Premiere: October 1, 2019. US Release Date: January 1, 2020.

Mostly Indies rating: B+

Bacurau will come to many as a welcome left turn for director Kleber Mendonça Filho who last hit the American theaters with his cry of outrage called Aquarius in which Sonia Braga bravely fought unscrupulous real estate developers from taking away her house. Thematically, the story of Bacurau is basically the same, but this time, the setting that both directors (Juliano Dornelles co-directs where before he served as production designer) place the setting in a forgotten little place in the middle of nowhere, where the land stretches forever, and people live in harmony together, celebrating life and loss with sensual bravado. It’s a place that more often than not won’t be found on the Google map, but one that developers — again, those pesky bad guys — are eyeballing for future development.

The place is Bacurau, and Teresa (Barbara Colen) arrives just in time to learn that the village’s oldest denizen, Carmelita (Lia de Itamarca) has passed away at 94. The town, far from mourning, is celebrating — all except Domingas (Sonia Braga), the town’s doctor who also serves as the town’s Earth mother. But that’s not the plot point… if anything, this only serves to introduce its quirky characters and their sense of extended family. What introduces the plot proper is the arrival of a shlubby mayor running for office who treats the villagers of Bacurau with incredible condescendence, and conveniently fails to supply the place with the necessary elements to allow the villagers a dignified life.

Once he leaves, the pressure starts to mount: two motorcyclists (Karine Teles and Antonio Saboia) arrive to town, seemingly just touring the land. However, they will bring a sinister plot just behind when it is revealed that they are part of a group of American renegades led by Udo Kier (who hams it up big time as if he were in a B-movie) looking to hunt people for bloodsport. Their arrival signifies a turn for the violent when some of them go rogue and in one chilling moment commit an act of murder so heinous, so horrifying, that I’m glad that the directors stuck to their guns and kept it, if in fact to punctuate that these aren’t your average killers and that Bacurau is set for an epic battle against pure, psychopathic evil.

If you can get past the clunky dialogue that was given to the actors playing the Americans — and it is truly, unequivocally awful; I’ve never seen such talk even in bargain basement grade F movies — Bacurau can be wicked fun. You will love how the village joins forces to combat these human invaders (the movie throws in some flying saucers as distraction, which add some comic relief). Let me just say, it gets messy in Bacurau. Very messy. There’s an approximation to the type of movies Tarantino or the Coen brothers tend to make, complete with a killer scene in which a two villagers creatively dispatch two Americans while in the nude. [That scene received a huge explosion of applause at the October 1 screening at the Alice Tully.] Sandwiched within the madness is a terrific showdown that takes place between Sonia Braga’s character and Udo Kier’s. You keep waiting to see what in the world will happen, since he’s come to lay his claim and anyone who saw Aquarius knows she’s not afraid of confrontation. It all reaches a critical pitch, and serves its story of the old, the traditional, the historic, preserving itself against the new, with a kind of zeal only seen in the craziest of Westerns.

Past and Present, Vodou and White Privilege, Clash in Bertrand Bonello’s ZOMBI CHILD

[Image from Cinevue]

ZOMBI CHILD. Country, France. Director, Bertrand Bonello. Screenwriter, Bertrand Bonello. Language, French, Creole. Cast: Louise Labecque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Sayyid El-Alami. Runtime, 102 minutes. Part of the 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate. Venue: Alice Tully Hall. US Premiere, October 1, 2019. US Release date: TBA.

Mostly Indies: C+

After experiencing back-to-back disappointments with his 2014 film Saint Laurent and his 2016 Nocturama, I was a bit hesitant to approach Bertrand Bonello’s incursion into the horror genre with his current work Zombi Child, an incursion into art-horror that attempts to merge Haiti’s tradition of turning civilians into zombies to reinforce slavery, blended somehow with a sheltered all-girl’s school, because I wasn’t sure how well he would treat the subject matter of what is part of Haitian religion and its own culture without turning it into something a bit silly or fetishistic.

The result of Bonello’s movie is equal parts historic recreation mixed with elements that seem borrowed from Val Lewton’s own I Walked with a Zombie (1944) or Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), and in that is good in my book. From the start, Zombi Child kicks off rather eerily, with the depiction of an unknown bokor preparing the drug that will be used for nefarious purposes against an unfortunate. That unfortunate turns out to be Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), who collapses in the middle of a street in an unknown Haitian town and gets buried soon after. Only that he is not dead, Bonello films a chilling shot from Narcisse’s point of view as he silently and passively listens to the dirt falling onto his grave, only to find himself enslaved in the fields working for a black master.

The film then cuts to the present and zooms into an all-girl boarding school, where (predictably) the girls are mostly ignorant of the outside world. Amongst them is a young Haitian girl, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), who while accepted in a clique of girls who love to listen to trap music and discuss literature, is also seen as a bit of a freak, mostly because she has been heard making strange noises in the girl’s bathroom at odd hours. Another girl, Fanny (Louise Labecque), seems to be going through an existential crisis of love as she mourns the loss of a former boyfriend, Pablo (Sayyid El-Alami). Conversations between Fanny and the other girls of their clique lead Fanny to discover Melissa’s Haitian heritage and seek her aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) out for something unspeakable.

For the most part, Zombi Child seems to be split down the middle with its two disparate storylines which merge into a final, satisfying third. Its Haitian scenario is truly an atmospheric nightmare in which Clairvius, drugged beyond his wits, works the fields and wanders aimlessly through streets, slowly piecing back his life together. The French story sags quite a bit, and serves as a (very) slow ascent up the rollercoaster, giving us bits and pieces of information about the two most salient girls, before revealing to us not just what one is about to engage in, but that the other may have been a product of some unholy union and carries that in her own veins. It’s an intriguing piece of cinema, not quite horror but close, in which the cultural and political heritage of one country informs and colors another, and its incursion into a fantastic and horrifying climax serves as both expungement of a trauma by one girl, and the reaffirmation of another girl’s own culture.

Lost in Paris, Tied to the Past: Nadav Lapid’s SYNONYMS

SYNONYMS (Synonymes). Country: France, Israel, Germany. Director: Nadav Lapid. Screenwriter: Nadav Lapid. Cast: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Yehuda Almagor. Language: French, Hebrew, English. Runtime: 122 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate. Release Date: October 25, 2019 at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

Mostly Indies rating: A

It seems that every year there is that one movie that manages to somehow polarize people and emit hisses and boos from the audience. I’ve now seen not one but two of them, the first being Albert Serra’s Liberte (last night at the Walter Reade) and Nadav Lapid’s film Synonyms at the Alice Tully. Mind you, I didn’t think that this film would prompt such a reaction from the audience once credits rolled — I’ve seen other films that have garnered even more intense reactions, like 2016’s Elle and Raw, or earlier this year when I saw Midsommar, which despite gleaning glowing reviews from critics and Yours Truly, did not exactly find itself loved by the crowd I sat with on preview night that giggled and cackled in scenes that well… you know.

Synonyms is a difficult film to digest, It will polarize moviegoers who will either understand its meaning or feel completely repelled by the anti-hero’s sheer stubbornness and negation of self which near the end reaches a level of almost hysterical blindness. I almost don’t even want to give it a “rating” per se because I fear that in doing so I am somehow being unfair to the story itself, which is just as important and poignant as the tragic story of Edmund in Roberto Rosselini’s Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero). How can I judge a director who is attempting to retell is own life experience into a two hour movie? It would be rather lofty of me to say that perhaps this was a misfire, that I liked The Kindergarten Teacher better, that perhaps some closure at the end would have made more sense, and on, and on, amen.

When we begin the film, we see Yoav (Tom Mercier) from behind, through the lens of a camera that follows him urgently as he makes his way across a busy Parisian street and into the empty apartment where he is squatting. Soon later, he is naked, emerging from the sleeping bag he uses, and going into the shower to take a bath. The second he is done and ventures back out he realizes someone somehow snuck into his apartment and stole all of his items, leaving him basically destitute. Yoav frantically runs out of his place, going from door to door, pleading, screaming for help. No one comes out, He almost–almost!–ventures out into the street but instinct kicks in, and he goes back to his place, into the tub, into the cold water, and seemingly, decides to let fate take care of him.

[Image from Haaretz]

It is here when two neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louuise Chevillotte) emerge from their places to provide succor. [Why they didn’t open the door earlier remains a mystery, but then, the final shot somehow will repeat the same indifference to the cries of help from neighbors if this might be an inconvenience.] The first thing that Emile notices is that Yoav is circumcized (which is one of the several comedic observations that happen throughout the film). They debate taking Yoav to the hospital but he regains consciousness, and Emile in an act of kindness (laced with a transparent homoeroticism) donates him some of his clothes and also gives him some Euros to survive on.

In a way, Yoav becomes “born again”. He recounts to Emile, with whom he bonds with, his life in Israel, a country Yoav describes using some choice words, not one of them good. Emile, skeptical, refuses to believe a country could be that bad, but Emile is your stereotypical entitled young man with a trust fund living in the city, pursuing his dreams. Yoav, on the other hand, is a damaged soul, one that was once molded by the Israeli military and who left in search ion a better life.

The irony of his appearance in Paris can’t be denied: in a time when there has been a rise in anti-Semitism in France, Yoav has arrived there ostensibly to erase any trace of his former life in Israel, obsessively learning French from a Larousse he carries with him at all times, Strangely, he works for Israeli Embassy, where he makes the acquaintance of some Israeli guys who seem to behave as if they belonged to some fight club. These acquaintances, who only appear during the middle portion of the movie, serve only to paint a clear picture of anti-Semitism; in one scene, while Yoav observes, one of his friends heckles passengers while humming the Israeli national anthem and proclaiming “I’m Jewish.” It’s an uncomfortable sight, for both the passengers and the Israelis who Yoav is acquainted to, because it is a sad reality that the immigrant is always seen as “the other”, “the invader”, and someone to basically, ignore at all costs, perpetuating the cycle of us versus them.

It’s in the final act when Synonyms starts to reveal the impasse between cultures, and cultural alienation. Yoav has begun, it seems, to date Caroline (complete with Emile’s blessing, which again, seems to be happening with some unspoken, ulterior motives). Caroline states at one point, “When I saw you naked in the bathtub I knew we’d end up together,” which makes me believe she does not see Yoav as a person she’d like to be with but a fetishized version of a man. Her motives to approach and resolve why Yoav found himself in the predicament at the start of the film seems to cement the fact that she does not and will not get to know him. Yoav, sadly, is already too damaged and too “macho” a character to fully explore his own self. He almost gives into Emile early on, but think that too would have ended badly.

Adding to the mix is that Yoav has found work on the side as a model, which in this case is synonymous with some shady work for a pervert with an iPad who subjects Yoav to undress, lie down, touch himself, and then reach orgasm but speaking in Hebrew. The scene is painful to watch because not only is Yoav being degraded, he’s also being forced to look into his own heritage and debase himself with it, which in a way, could be seen as the ultimate act of self-loathing and the denial of self. His cries in Hebrew of “What am I doing here?” which the videographer takes as ecstatic are particularly hard to watch, and then, to close it all, Yoav meets the videographer’s girlfriend, who happens to be from Palestine, and who flatly tells him she will not speak to him, point blank, because as we know… Israel and Palestine do not mix.

Synonyms does bring the past full circle with the appearance of Yoav’s father (Yehuda Almagar), who only wants to make sure that his son is well. However, by now, it has become clear that while Hoav is taking classes to become “assimilated” into French society, his own identity has become blurred. Nadav Lapid brings this disassociation to a painful head when Yoav basically loses it when attending Caroline’s concert, and now finds himself painfully locked out of his own apartment, That Lapid ends his movie in this way speaks volumes to the message he wants to convey. More often than not, those who emigrate to other nations and don’t conform to that nation’s expectation usually find themselves shut out, pariahs, trying desperately to fit in while being rejected just the same.

Tom Mercier gives an electric performance as Yoav, a man who is obsessively tries to blend in with a society that does not accept him (or at one point, sees him as a curiosity, when he ventures into a club to play Techotronic’s 1988 hit Pump Up the Jam). His mannerisms and body language suggest someone lost but who is all reflexes, closed off, suffering in silence, The rest of the cast seem to be a bit stale, perhaps a bit predictable version of entitled individuals who for reasons tilting towards curiosity and fetichism help an immigrant out, but don’t or can’t provide any real support. As I said earlier, this is a very difficult film that presents a harsh reality for anyone not fitting the norm and should be watched right up to its exclamation point ending.

Making Love? out of Nothing AT All: Albert Serra’s LIBERTÉ at the New York Film Festival

Still from Albert Serra;s Liberte [Image from BFI]

LIBERTE, Country: France, Portugal, Spain. Director: Albert Serra. Screenwriter: Albert Serra. Cast: Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth, Theodore Marcade, Baptiste Pinteaux. Languages: French, German, Italian. Runtime: 130 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate and US Premiere. Release Date: TBA.

Mostly Indies Rating: A

Caveat emptor: this film may provoke walkouts. Venture forth with an open mind.

Not since discovering Pasolini ages ago while in college have I come across a film so unabashedly transgressive and willing to push the limits of eroticism to a point when it blurs the line between the imagined and the real, and then the real and the pornographic, and finally, the pornographic that seeks to titillate and the one that verges on the grotesque as Albert Serra’s Liberté. However, for someone like yours truly who at one time was actively involved in the leather scene (minus wigs and makeup), I could say upon viewing his movie, with an arched eyebrow and an expression of worldly cynicism, “Alrighty! That just happened. So much ado for naught. In my world this would be just another regular Saturday night at the dungeon. Not as messy as going outside into the woods and getting dirty, and that is exactly how I prefer it.”

However, in 1774, the time when the events of Liberté takes place, dungeons didn’t exist for consensual purposes and if you were sent to one, it was usually against your will and you pretty much died there, forgotten among the rats and other undesirables of France right before the Revolution of 1789. Just ask Sade, who mastered the art of writing his own brand of transgressive fiction, and who saw the life of day and freedom, oh, never, for most of his life, and until his death in 1814. Forgotten until the 1940s when his work was discovered tucked away, which is probably how he liked it anyway.

So, let’s go to the aforementioned events. You could summarize them in one sentence: One evening, libertines expelled from the court of King Louis the XVI gather in the depths of the forest with a German noble (played by Helmut Berger, the only marquee name of the cast of mostly unknowns) and engage in consensual debauchery.

And that’s it. The entire two and a quarter hours of Liberté is a series of vignettes taking place deep in the countryside (which could offer a sense equal parts privacy and transgression as they could be discovered at any time by a passerby). Some are light, merely verbal exchanges pregnant with a heavy Sadean influence.

In one particular scene somewhat in the middle of the movie two women engage in a discussion, mostly off-screen and in voiceover, about what to do with a weak man. One of them states how she would go by humiliating him over and over because she detests weakness in a man. When the other asks how would she present her affront to God, she replies that she wouldn’t care, and would love to receive “his perversion.” It is a highly erotic exchange, because while you don’t see anything happen and most of the scene is in the dark, your mind is on overdrive, imagining not just the act of humiliation, but that of possible retribution and the woman on the receiving end in ecstatic bliss as she receives her comeuppance. I’m pretty sure Sade would have chuckled at the very idea of not just perverting the divine, but also receiving bliss from it.

Other exchanges, however, are increasingly graphic in content. Here is where you either stay to the end (Albert Serra did ask the audience to stay until the final shot, because there have been walkouts in Cannes and other venues where Liberte has been screened), or decide you just can’t and throw in the towel, never to see Serra’s chosen ending. I wouldn’t go and classify any of these scenes as particularly erotic, but three are a standout; the humiliation of a blonde virgin tied to a tree and doused in buckets of milk. [At least I hope it was milk.] The scene involves only the images of the actress, restrained, her body glistening. The second involves one of the French Duc’s (Marc Susani) getting flogged until he shrieks in pain and ecstasy, and then the same Duc as he gets berated by the Madame de Dumeval (Theodore Marcade).

Now, for the crucial part: is this film recommendable? I would say yes if you dare, once it gets released in cinemas. [It has been acquired for distribution; its release date unknown at the time of this writing.] Nothing happens that is not so awful you can’t see it — and frankly, I have seen war movies and thrillers with more bloody content than anything that transpires here. Much of Serra’s film is strictly auditory as it is, so while two characters (or more) may be involved in a scene of consensual sex, we may hear loud shrieks and moans from a distance and wonder what the hell could be happening. The setting, strictly nocturnal, is perfect for Liberté, and only until the rather weird final scene in which daylight happens (yes, that is all), does light filter onto the trees while the sky remains dark. Liberte is an unclassifiable, but strangely beautiful, abstract exercise in nihilism and freedom posing as a period film indeed.

Opening Night at the 57th New York Film Festival: THE IRISHMAN

[Credit: Slashfilm]

THE IRISHMAN. Country: USA. Director: Martin Scorsese. Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian, based on the book “I Hear You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Kathryne Narducci, Stephanie Kurtzuba. Release Date: November 1, 2019 (limited), and November 27, 2019 (Netflix). Language: English, Italian. Runtime: 209 minutes. Venue: Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.

Mostly Indies Rating: Instant Classic. A+

I’m going to say it. The Irishman is, bar none, quintessential Martin Scorsese, a director intimately acquainted with the dark, tortured heart of the underbelly, and who continues to find new ways to tell compelling stories that will make you laugh out loud and cringe in horror at the same time. If he chose to stop making movies and go out into the sunset, this would be the perfect vehicle to end a career that has now spawned six decades and a body of work that many would kill to possess. This is, no doubt, a director’s masterpiece, an artist at the very peak, expressing a familiar story that feels vivid and crisp, full of energy, life, and ultimately, sadness.

Reader, this is why we go to movies. We want visceral stories of people caught in circumstances mainly of their own doing, maybe or maybe not learning their lessons. Stories don’t need to be only about heroes and The Irishman does not contain a single one, Back in the days of Unions and when the mob ruled the world, men “did things”, took late night trips to work, and neglected family in the name of prosperity, power, politics, and the American Dream.

Sheeran “The Irishman” ‘painted houses’, which came to be known in mob terminology as something quite different involving a visit, an armed gun, and blood splatter on a wall. Sheeran, per his confession to Charles Brandt who wrote the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” (which gets displayed in titles over a black screen, a wink to Jean Luc Godard’s experimental style) started small, as most future gangsters did, acting as a truck driver and early on in one of the film’s flashbacks makes the fated if you will acquaintance of Russell Bufalino (Pesci, who coming out of retirement, this time only employs his watchful eyes as a means of using violence as a necessary thing, and does so to incredible effect). Sheeran soon found himself ascending the ladder of prominence in the underworld by being a ruthless killer-for-hire, one you just did not cross with if you knew what was good for you.

A quartet of giants: Scorsese, Pesci, Pacino, and De Niro, at opening night of The Irishman in its World Premiere.

Today, however, instead of being a lethal weapon, Sheeran gets introduced not by an act of violence but by soft doo-wop music as the camera snakes into an old person’s home where he now resides, alone, waiting for us to tell his story. Scorsese moves Sheeran’s account in furious back and forth manner, often punctuating a flashback scene with another shocking image from another event, as the movie then segues into a lengthy trip to Detroit to cover for the murder of a rather notorious teamster.

That notorious teamster is none other than Jimmy Hoffa, and played by the lion that is Al Pacino. Larger than life, Hoffa comes into the narrative about 45 minutes in to quite easily take over the story from Sheeran, who stands by quietly, acting as friend and advisor, merely serving as the power behind the throne. Pacino plays his Hoffa as a man who, despite the changes in power, will not relent, and doesn’t even comprehend that perhaps his time has passed, a thing that seals his fate. It is an electric performance that could easily go over the top (and in one scene when Hoffa loses it as his well-known battle with then Sen. Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston), he almost resuscitates his caricature of power in Dick Tracy), and it is one that I think is guaranteed to garner Pacino a Best Actor Oscar.

There is so much energy in Pacino’s portrayal that when he makes his untimely exit an hour before closing credits, the movie threatens to lose some steam. [After all, this is not only a movie about the murder of Hoffa but the aftermath of a life of crime. Sheeran has confessed in his account to Brandt that he was the one who killed Hoffa, which is still up to much debate. It doesn’t really matter; Sheeran isn’t exactly telling us the pure truth from the word go: he just serves as the mouthpiece to tell a long-winded, serpentine story to match the fashion that he gets introduced in the lengthy first shot of the picture.] If The Irishman does lose some of its energy it is mainly due because many of its characters are now aging and dying in jail and the ones we met at the beginning entered the stage with a hilarious time stamp of how they died, which was usually, in a rather bloody manner. Maybe crime does not pay after all.

Now, for the technical: much has been said about Scorsese’s use of VFX to bring the actors either to look younger (as he does with De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel) or older (Cannavale). I can’t say that the technique threw me out of the story one second, even when some scenes in which Pacino or De Niro get into physical altercations might betray the actors’ age. It just feels organic to the entire product,

Another thing I want to point out is the way Scorsese has embraced the mundane into his epic story. Early on, the drive to Detroit features Kathryne Narducci (who plays Pesci’s wife) vocally expressing her need to have rest stops to catch a smoke. Later on, another car drive yields a conversation about fish that ventures into the style of Tarantino.

However, most notably is a running narrative featuring Sheeran’s interaction with his daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a young girl and Anna Paquin as an adult). All throughout, the mainly non verbal role watches Sheeran, wide eyed and communicating so much, as she comes to realize her father may be involved in much more than “just work.” It’s a sequence that ends in pain for Sheeran once the inevitable happens and he is left alone to walk on crutches and need the aid of a home attendant.

This is probably when the last and most painful of the many layers of skin gets peeled back in The Irishman. Once we reach this level of the nadir of a gangster, who even now refuses to disclose where the bodies are buried, we realize how nihilistic Scorsese’s film was all the time. All that buoyant music that plays in the background, those flashy Cadillacs and lavish parties, all the appearance of power for power’s sake has been reduced to one last moment in which a broken shell of a man now sits alone, facing the camera, with no one to tell his story, and much less, no one to care for him.

A Voyage of Self-discovery and an escape from delusions is the heart of Ad ASTRA

AD ASTRA. Country, USA. Director: James Gray. Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross. Cast: Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee-Jones. Release Date: September 20, 2019. Language: English. Runtime: 124 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A–

Ever since the beginning of time mankind has not only dreamt of one day being able to leap out of the comfort zone of our gravitational pull and out into the vast, endless depths of space and beyond, but it has also been haunted by the lingering questions, “Are we alone?” “Is there someone, something out there?” “Can we possibly be the only intelligent life form floating in a pebble around a distant yellow star?” It is why the power of some cults have led some unfortunate people into believing that they don’t belong, that they need to return to their roots, and those roots are not a part of this Earth but from a far away galaxy where superior beings await. It is an undercurrent that continues to pop up in James Gray’s handsome movie Ad Astra, the fact that some well-intentioned men can fall prey to folly and end up on the dark side of the Moon.

One such man who has been on the fringe of delusion is Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, in a rare performance calling for restraint). Roy, estranged from his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) due to work, finds pleasure as an astronaut working high above the heavens because he relates to solitude, so much that when a power surge, the latest in a series of surges that have been slamming the Earth and causing havoc, knocks him off his station, he doesn’t as much as do an eye blink, and remains unbelievably calm throughout his free fall. He comes to learn from US Command SpaceCom that the surge is blasting from The Lima Project, a station in the orbit of Neptune which was heralded by Roy’s famed astronaut father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and of whom nothing has been heard of for16 years. SpaceCom wants Roy to travel to Mars, escorted by an old associate of his father, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), to (possibly) establish contact with Clifford if in fact he is still alive, and resolve the issue of the persistent and dangerous surge.

This of course is easier said than done, and in typical space adventure, there are some stations of the cross to walk through, some related to the location at hand (such as the pirate ambush on the Moon), other related to the deadly power surge that has now left a ship in distress and with some deadly cargo aboard, The arrival on Mars brings forth some crucial information about Roy’s mission and the true intentions of SpaceCom, which then propels Roy, who finds himself forbidden to continue en route to Neptune, to literally blast his way through and against his very own sense of preservation, complete his own trek which is to find out what in fact became of his father, and perhaps find a reason behind his abandonment.

It is all a terrific buildup to the piece de resistance, the final encounter at Neptune, and how pregnant in symbolism it is. I wonder if Gray himself realized that placing the Lima Project in the planet of illusions and addiction is almost as central to the story as that of Roy confronting his own path of self-destruction. The scene in fact is more eerily reminiscent of the confrontation scene between — hear me out — Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. One has already accepted and embraced that he does not belong; the other, who still has ties on Earth and realizes how much he misses his life there, has to make a terrible choice in order to save his humanity, Its the archetypical tale of the man who has to murder his own shadow self in order to return to life.

Plots and symbolisms aside, Ad Astra is a solid good yarn that doesn’t really try to emulate the films Gray claims to have been inspired by (2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now) but instead opts for telling an internal tale of a man trying to find himself and his way back by the guise of interplanetary travel. It’s not a perfect film — the Moon sequence has some questions that I felt needed resolution and at times the voice over can be a bit much, but overall, it looks and feels as though much thought went into it in order to leave a discerning audience satisfied. Ad Astra might not quite deserve its own lofty title, but as a whole, I have to say, it had me hooked.,

A Return to DOWNTON ABBEY, Upgraded for the Big Screen

DOWNTON ABBEY. Country, UK. Director Michael Engler. Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes. Based on the PBS series of the same name and characters created by Julian Fellowes. Cast: Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Imelda Staunton, Harry Haden-Paton, Raquel Cassidy, Robert James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Lesley Nicol, Brendan Coyle, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips, Max Brown, Susan Lynch, Simon Jones, David Haig, Philippe Spall, Douglas Reith, Perry Fitzpatrick. Language: English. Release Date: September 20, 2019. Runtime: 120 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A+

It had to happen. Even though it ended four years ago amidst much drama and fanfare and lots of Kleenex, the series we know and came to love, Downton Abbey, came to an end, and left us Anglophiles with not much to hold on to. While Masterpiece Theatre consistently has brought to life countless shows, some with their own spin-offs, none it seems has resonated with so much verve as Downton, an exploration of (what else?) upstairs and downstairs life at the turn of last century, something that R. F. Delderfield could write in his sleep.

This time, director Michael Engler pulls out all the stops. Even when every episode had the characteristic of a one-hour movie and often was treated with much care and cinematic attention to detail, when we see the movie that is Downton Abbey, we are in for quite the experience. A letter, a very important letter, is on its way to Downton, and its travel is treated with enormous suspense, with the music by John Lunn waxing and waning so beautifully you can’t but help but hold your breath, Once it is clear where it’s headed, cameras floating over the hills reveal the majestic castle, and thus begins the wistful, melancholic, rich theme we have come to know and love. The camera continues to move and pan and zoom in and out, giving us snippets of life at Downton, with Andy (Michael Fox) receiving the letter, Daisy and Mrs Patmore (Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol) going about in the kitchen, in and about the many, many rooms, where we see Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) discussing business (as it’s clear she’s the one who runs the house). It is a remarkable way to introduce practically everyone who lives and works in Downton, and if you are new to the story, it probably doesn’t require you to have seen the series, as Fellowes has left his people intact, with some slight changes. Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) now runs the house as butler alongside Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and is actually a nice guy. Retired butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) tends to his garden. Other than that, it is business as usual: the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) continue to exchange barbs (although, let’s be real, those two love each other in the same way Lady Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), for once, happily married, don’t. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who had attempted life in the US, is back. Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode)? Absent, mostly. The Bates’ (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt)? Check. Lady in waiting Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy? Check.

Missing, but mentioned? Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond), and that’s okay, We have new people to introduce, and that letter I mentioned is precisely why Downton begins that way. It turns out that the letter is coming from none other than Buckingham Palace itself. The King (Simon Jones) and Queen (Geraldine James) are coming to visit, since they are performing a tour around the country’s royal residences as a move to espouse the importance of the monarchy. Man the harpoons! Everything has to be picture perfect down to a science. Not having it is Daisy, who voices her more modern opinion that this is all a colossal waste of time, and of course, we side by her, but of course, we don’t really care, because let’s face it, Downton.

Also not quite having it but willing to suffer is Violet. The Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is also Robert’s cousin once-removed and there has been a falling out over an inheritance that has left the families all estranged.

Interestingly, the real drama starts once the King and Queen’s staff arrive. Richard Ellis (David Haig), the Page of the Backstairs, behaves in a manner that is so offensive he reduces Barrow into absolute timidity. Lady Mary has no other choice but to bring the reliable Carson back, but even that has no effect on the Royal Staff who continue to act as if they own the house and none of the Downton staff even exist. This puts a monkey wrench in the plans of almost everyone involved: Mrs Patmore sees her cooking will not be put to service, Mrs Hughes finds herself relegated to the background, and basically everyone is forced into a corner. In the meantime, Anna Bates who really needs her own show where she plays a Miss Marple character, has put her sleuthing to good use, this time with a Royal Staff employee with a penchant for legerdemain.

Midway up the stairs, Tom Branson has been approached by a stranger with ulterior motives, and Branson finds himself somewhat out of place with the sheer spectacle of it all while he also serves as a counselor to Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) who finds herself trapped in a marriage to an abusive man and he also finds possible love with Maud Bagshaw’s maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Busy man.

Interestingly of all is Barrow’s own storyline. Barrow is the only downstairs character who other than being basically a bitter bitch through the entire show never quite had a storyline that would be satisfactory. He makes friends with one of the King’s footmen (Max Brown). It’s only too bad that Fellowes doesn’t take the opportunity to make this meeting a bit more pregnant with some foreboding of times changing the same way he is so verbal with Daisy’s snarling against the attention to pageantry. But, perhaps had this been a three-part miniseries or an official sixth season, that would have been a bit more fleshed out.

Yes, this happens.

There is not a thing I can really say against the movie version of Downton Abbey (other than some plots move at cannonball speed and everything gets touched with such a light tone as to leave the viewer as though he saw it all through an impressionistic fog, but caught only the most salient of the best of the menu. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount of attention to period pieces, detail, gowns, lighting, because again, this isn’t your average 40 inch screen. The writing is often on point and of course, the best and bitchy lines go, hands down, to Maggie Smith, Probably a minor quibble is the way Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville seem to have reduced their characters down to befuddled spectators on the side just enjoying a life of pure privilege, but that is just a side observation. Judging from box office receipts, it looks like America really, really loves royalty, castles, and intricate family plots involving heirs toe and whatnot that only serve to remind that this is a life that once was privy to a handful. Do not be surprised if we in 2021 or 2022 see a further iteration of Downton.

So many art-movies, so little time.