Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time: A Review

Natasa Stork, in Lili Horvát’s Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Careful what you wish for; you may or may not get it. This is more or less the premise of the rather improbably titled Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Hungary’s entry to Best International Feature Film for the 93rd Academy Awards and Lili Horvát’s second feature film. Horvát’s story centers on Marta (Natasa Stork), a neurosurgeon returning to her home country for a visit. At the start of the film, she is seen in abstract, apparently naked from the waist up, seemingly relaxing after what may seem a night of passion, and later on, discussing her return with a therapist (Péter Tóth). Such disjointed scenes indicate that we may be witnessing something that has happened already, especially when Marta herself states that, “I wanted something so bad I forgot I dreamed up the entire thing.”

As Marta’s story unfolds, we learn that some time ago she and a colleague, Dr. János Drexler (Viktor Bodo) met at a symposium in New Jersey. Both seemed to have fallen hard for each other and made a pact to meet at a certain location in Budapest. When Marta abruptly leaves her life in the USA — which on the surface seems already out of character for her — she actually shows up at the meeting location. Alone. Soon after, she desperately tracks Drexler down to the hospital where he works. To her dismay, he claims to have never met her. Undone, she faints dead away in the middle of the street.

However, Marta, instead of returning back to the US, decides to stay. We don’t exactly know why — certainly this could have been a fluke, which as embarrassing as it is, would grant her the chance to pick herself up and move on. Marta rents an apartment near to the hospital where Drexler works and even lands a job there. If all this seems a bit too creepy and “fatal attraction-like”, it is, and it’s not. Horvát takes the story elsewhere, although not too far from Drexler. Marta initiates a tentative affair with a much younger man (Benett Vilmányi), which manages to bring a spark of interest in Drexler.

Preparations is a bit ambiguous in what it decides to reveal and conceal about Marta, which is just how I like my cinema. Perhaps all this did happen or was a figment of Marta’s own mental state — which would be ironic, being that she is a neurosurgeon. However, a final minute turn of the screw muddles up whatever aspirations Horvát was attempting to portray, and this leaves the movie a bit flat. Even so, Horvát has crafted a layered character study of a woman who perhaps should know better than to follow her folly, and who may or may not be herself re-creating the same scenario with an unsuspecting bystander who also falls for her.

Preparations is still playing in virtual platforms and if you are in New York, Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the Film Forum.

Grade: B

Power to the People: The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Judas & the Black Messiah

In a way, it seems we haven’t really left the 60s. When we constantly see news footage about law enforcement barreling against civilians for performing quiet protest, and then you see the Black Lives Matter movement, you can tell there is still a racial divide, still, a dissonance between what people want as opposed to what those in power — good or bad, elected or shadily elected — have to offer. The difference in both, however, couldn’t be clearer: the riots of the 60s sought to end racism. Black Lives Matter continues the fight and has also been seen as a fringe movement by ultra-conservatives who would still prefer to live in an America that has not existed for half a century if not more.

It’s taken me a longer than usual time to come to these two movies to review them after having seen both of them almost back-to-back. I sometimes wonder if I do have anything else to say about events that transpired before my time. I can only lend a critical eye to the chaos that the nation was embroiled in due to politics, war hounds, paranoia, and the first great wake-up call between those who had a view of a more peaceful, less racist world, and those who would rather keep it that way, the elite always beyond reach, the masses always kept under strict observance of the law, and anyone who would dare step out was deemed “an enemy of the people”.

Two narratives take place almost side-by-side, both in reaction to a war that was going nowhere, and a society steeped in racial divide. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 can’t really be reviewed by itself — well, I guess it can, but hear me out — because one of its players navigates its waters, and that player is Fred Hampton.

The Rise and Fall of Fred Hampton

Controversial in all aspects, Hampton, a Black Panther leader in the Chicago chapter, was seen as a threat by the virulently racist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and seen as a savior to his fellow African Americans (and minorities who would unite with him to fight systemic racism). His part in Judas and the Black Messiah takes center stage in the fact that Shaka King attempts to give us an observational glimpse into the life that Hampton lived, a life that at 21 was already too old and wise, and tragically cut short by the Chicago police (and Hoover’s paranoid racism).

In both movies, Hampton’s story frames the stories of others, and perhaps that is intentional. The Trial of the Chicago 7 concerns itself with the seven eight anti-war activists on trial for having participated in violent clashes with the Chicago Police at the Democratic National Convention, accused of incitement to riot and conspiracy crossing state lines. Hampton has a few key scenes in which he attempts to discredit the charges brought up to fellow Black Panther Bobby Seale. In Judas and the Black Messiah, we become privy to Hampton’s life not just through Hampton himself but through the man who infiltrated the Panthers in exchange for serving a jail sentence. That man is William “Bill” O’Neil.

It’s no secret that law enforcement agencies utilize players to infiltrate a group seen as a threat to National Security. Usually, those players happen to be of the ethnicity or religious make-up or beliefs of the group in question and can provide more information than if it were through more conventional means. O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield, finally coming into his own) plays the mostly straight role here, a man caught in the tangles of petty crime who now has to report to an FBI handler (Jesse Plemons, delivering perfectly coiffed creepy) who in turn is also reporting to the head of FBI, Hoover (Martin Sheen). His infiltration into the Black Panther Party of Chicago has the purpose of getting crucial intel meant to dismantle the threat, and thus, restore order into an already chaotic city.

The tricky part of becoming an informant is that getting in deep into any group and learning its secrets means ascending ranks within the group while pledging allegiance to its ideology. O’Neil has stated in interviews that he had no fealty to the BPP. However, throughout Judas and the Black Messiah, King suggests otherwise without overplaying his hand. O’Neil’s transformation from a simple background foot soldier gathering data for murky superiors to someone who commits the ultimate act of betrayal — not without an expression of total horror at to the depths that he has sunk — is unbelievably complex. You hate him, yet you feel sorry for him.

Hampton, through David Kaluuya’s acting, comes magnetically alive even when his deep-set eyes indicate perpetual sleepiness, a somewhat disconnect from the life that has placed him here. The movie does give Hampton ample ground to get a nuanced development without turning him into a saint, and even then, he remains a bit unknowable. His speeches are a force of nature. Compare that to scenes where he reveals himself as a deeply feeling man capable of giving a mother a moment of comfort. Scenes with Deborah Foreman (Dominique Fishback), while warm, suggest he was an intensely shy individual. There’s almost a Shakespearean quality to how his character manifests itself as he barrels forward, unaware of the betrayer standing next to him.

The Trial

While Hampton wove his way through the minefield that was Chicago, The trial against eight activists was taking place. This trial, meant to set an example to future activists, became a media circus, and Aaron Sorkin cleverly gives the movie enough of that feeling which delivers a sense of how ineffectual Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) was in handling his court, and how effective the men on trial, in particular, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, scene-stealer), were in mocking a system that was already dead in the water.

Sorkin’s movie serves as a documentary if you will about the end of an era, although even then I feel I may have said something rather dull. The story of how these disparate people came together for one mega event and somehow found themselves facing a common enemy (the establishment itself) is riveting material for many a view or a read. The fact that due to his color alone, and his association with the BPP, Bobby Seale (Yahuya Abdul Mateen II) found himself not just on trial but treated with a savagery that has to be seen to be believed. It is by far the most cringing moment in the film, and one that brings forth images of innumerable African Americans who have been treated as little more than animals by a society keen on keeping a foot firmly planted on their necks. One could see that one scene as a bridge between the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and the recent upsurge of white on black violence, again, inflicted by anyone with a uniform or a badge.

Where The Trial of the Chicago 7 probably suffers is in the trial itself, and its last minutes in which Eddie Redmayne, who plays Tom Hayden, falters a bit in delivering a convincing stance. Perhaps I’m nitpicking. It just seemed a bit too pat if you will, a move meant to seal the trial on its deserved high note. Other than that this is a terrific picture, rife with razor-sharp dialogue (again, a Sorkin trademark), and memorable turns by its entire cast which let’s face it, is rather large.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix. Judas and the Black Messiah played for a month on HBOMAX but is still in theaters until it moves back to virtual platforms. Of the two, I would favor the latter in the sheer complexity of its two lead characters, men caught in a web of power and racial paranoia much greater than they could ever anticipate.

The Trial of the Chicago 7: B+ Judas and the Black Messiah: A

Belated Reviews: Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow

An incursion into existential horror spins into butter in Amy Seimetz’s second feature film.

Nine years ago I came upon a little-seen indie that played at the IFC called Sun Don’t Shine. I knew nothing about the actors (Kate Lyn Shiel and Kentucker Audley) or its director, the also-actress Amy Seimetz. What I do recall is experiencing something close to a noir film disguised in a road movie based in Florida, with the barest thread of a plot — a couple on the run from a crime that continues to stalk them. It was solid while ethereal, with a clear homage to Terrence Malick, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. In her debut movie, Seimetz managed to make what would have been a more brutal story feel almost weightless with fragile performances by its two leads. I liked it and hoped to see more from Seimetz.

Late last year I heard some buzz that Seimetz had released her follow-up, She Dies Tomorrow, and that audiences were polarized. Some praised its atmosphere filled with fear of the unknowable, others were scratching their heads. I held out until I was done with festivals, which was by then the tail end of the year. Walking in, I knew nothing other than the title and that Seimetz was working with a slightly larger cast, many who have worked with her as actors or on Sun Don’t Shine.

What I encountered was a film that announced itself rather shrilly, with Mozart’s Lacrimosa blaring at me with the force of a slap in the face. It is a piece that recurs in several intervals. The heroine of the piece, Amy (Shiel) mopes around languorously, sometimes in dread, sometimes in a fugue state of pitch-black depression. She seems caught in a vortex that she cannot escape. She is absolutely convinced that she will die, tomorrow. Her friend Jane (the always reliable Jane Adams) comes to her succor, to no avail. Then we focus on Jane, suddenly rapt and moody, enveloped in dark colors and perpetually in pajamas. When she crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday party — a party in which the rather outré topic of dolphin sex is the theme of the evening — she virtually stops the party in a manner that would make Debbie Downer seethe with depression and a “Wah-waah.”

It’s safe to say that once Jane leaves, everyone else starts to act as though they’re in the final, downbeat scenes of the most existential nightmare. Are all of these characters, people we barely know, also afflicted with the malady of impending death? When we return to Amy, she is still alive. And then, the movie decides to turn its head away from its J-Horror inclinations in which a terror leaps from person to person, and stops short.

She Dies Tomorrow felt — and still comes to mind — as though in concept, it would have made for a rather surreal entry into nihilism. As it is, Seimetz never develops her concept, or her characters, and lets them carry their non-personas into teary resolutions drenched in regret and ill-earned maudlin. Fear of the unknown, of what lies in the doors into the afterlife, is real and as old as time. It is why the Egyptians made sure to create death ceremonies of their dearly departed. You could even argue that this is why we as a modern society favor exercise and living green, prolong our stay and delay the inevitable.

However, Seimetz, coming out of a horror remake that made her more widely known as an actress, leaves it stillborn. So much could have been developed had she cared more for the terror that knowing your time comes with an exact expiration date brings. Movies like The Ring (both the Japanese and the American versions) took that fear and ran with it. This movie, sadly, deflated before it even had a chance.

Grade: D+

Netflix Finds: The Invisible Guest (A Contratiempo)

Here we have a movie that should have been released formally before getting acquired by Netflix right after its world premiere at Fantastic Fest. It’s a shame, and no offense against Netflix, but had I known of this movie I would have front and center in a movie theater.

But, details, timing, it doesn’t matter. Netflix still holds streaming rights to Oriol Paulo’s The Invisible Guest (Contratiempo), where. it sits awaiting a click and a view. Paulo’s movie arrives drenched in Hitchcockian suspense from its opening sequence in which we get introduced to Adrian Doria (Mario Casas), a high-tech businessman caught in a nasty situation involving his now-murdered girlfriend Laura (Barbara Lennie). Doria stands accused of her murder, and his lawyer has contacted a no-nonsense, high-power attorney, Virginia Goodman (Ana Wagener), to defend him. Goodman, upon arriving at Doria’s apartment, reveals that the prosecuting side has found a credible witness who will testify against Doria, so he must tell his side of the story quickly and not omit a single detail to her.

Doria tells his story to Goodman, who, hawk-like and incapable of missing a beat, listens. We get a delicious cat-and-mouse game of storyteller and witness, but with the stakes so high, The Invisible Guest traverses the gamut of noir and whodunit as it had done this before and then some. It becomes next to impossible to establish a clear identification with anyone since both Doria and Laura become complicit in a horrible act of fate, the “setback” of the title. Through Doria, we see a man trying his best to save the skin from flying off him. However, Paulo has other designs on his story’s and he drops little crumbs to the audience just to see who pays attention, and who is simply watching.

No one does suspense as the Spaniards do, and Paulo’s The Invisible Guest is proof of my statement. His movie unfolds rather straightforwardly until what we are watching, what we are being forced to witness and accept, gets thrown out the window and we are left with a different reality. Savvy viewers might figure most of it out rather around the hour mark, but it doesn’t matter. Paulo’s story veers deep into Agatha Christie filtered through a Brian de Palma lens soon after and never bothers to look back to retrace its steps. And in the maelstrom, we have the accused and his defense attorney, measuring each other with pens that act like knives and glances that act as daggers.

The Invisible Guest is a thriller that oozes high-end, high-concept gloss and boasts strong performances by Casas, Wagener, Barbara Lennie, and Jose Coronado.

Grade: A

P.S.: As a side note, there have been a few remakes made from the ashes of this remarkable film. Just last year The Invisible Witness from Italy made its rounds in virtual release, and Netflix also hosts its Indian remake Badla. My advice: stick with the one that matters.

Saint Maud: Movie Review

Here is the movie that I re-launch my film page after an unsuccessful transfer of 900 reviews from another hosting site effectively erased them from online view. [Eventually, I’ll attempt to publish at least some of them to the best of my abilities, but for now, onwards with the first of this new incarnation.] Saint Maud is the movie I have been salivating over for almost 18 months following my first glimpse into its chilling, unsettling trailer one September evening in 2019 following its Toronto Film Festival premiere as I sat in a movie theater watching Mike Flanagan’s It: Chapter Two.

Of course, on the heels of having finally seen this via EpixNOW (it is playing in very limited cinemas), I realized that this unique horror movie would be its own horror-show to review. I’d have to approach it with delicacy and tact and avoid disclosing any plot points for anyone who has not yet seen it and is waiting for the Prime release not linked to an Epix membership. Nothing brings on the wrath of a moviegoer than to skim through a film review that basically explains the entire movie and effectively slashes the experience for you until it’s in tatters. Ergo, I’ll keep in mind and venture gingerly ahead.

I do find it a bit strange that although this movie is just out of the oven, not many people have seen it or even know about it–it is getting no television promotion, unlike Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland which I saw last September via the New York Film Festival. Even some avid movie-goers are in the blind about this picture, something I find a tad strange. Perhaps the shadow of 2020 still lingers on, but what do I know about film releases — I just see them and report.

Off we go.

Saint Maud tells the story of a devoutly Catholic hospice nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark, previously in Love & Affection) who becomes the caregiver of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is an American former dancer of considerable fame who has since been rendered disabled following a terminal disease that is wasting her away. As it can happen to many who have lost their livelihood and feel as though life played them a nasty trick, Amanda reveals herself to be rather vinegary. An early scene in which Amanda spots Maud’s Mary Magdalene pendant which Maud wears rather openly posits her to make a snide comment. The comment would have offended the wearer of the pendant, but Maud is different. A woman who seems to have been struck by divine inspiration, Maud identifies Amanda’s apparent worldliness as a challenge to reform her.

Maud takes it upon herself to take utmost care of Amanda and to her defense, she does become a pretty efficient nurse. The movie blends the physical and fragile, barely-there sensual sequences of palliative therapy with the confessions of both women in a rather enveloping manner that suggests a density to this relationship. You get a sense that these two women are together not by chance, but something else. Prodded on by Amanda, Maud discloses the nature of her faith and her connection to God. Meanwhile, Amanda confesses to having fears of oblivion and what lies beyond death. It is this fear, masked by a cynical smirk and the need to draw into herself every last drop there is to her dark place, that cements Maud on a quest.

However, Maud herself seems to be in her own dark place. [And why wouldn’t she? It is a psychological horror in the vein of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona had Persona dug in deeper into its nurse’s black heart.*] Maud seems to be preternaturally attuned to the dense, decaying atmosphere around her created by both Amanda’s light being slowly snuffed out and her own inner self, reflected as her need to serve and thus, save. Her presence, while not overpowering, dominates the film by her sheer languidness. There are moments of impending dread whenever she is alone (which is constant; Maud is alone even in a crowd). It seems that a much greater force, which seems to be growing within and around her, will finally give way and do what it must.

It is this force that eventually starts to gain traction and manifest itself as the vortex Maud keeps seeing. Not many horror movies are so connected to a character’s mind. Many are content with presenting a character’s plight and the hidden (or sometimes, not so hidden) forces gathering around their lead character, pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the abyss. Maud does that, true, but it manages to do so from her own perception. She wishes to do good, but Hell is a road paved with good intentions.

Rose Glass’ first feature film is a total knockout drenched in hues of chiaroscuro. I don’t think that there is a single shot that doesn’t threaten to swallow its characters whole through sheer truncation of color: as previously mentioned, Amanda’s house already seems Gothic by proxy, bathed as it is in velvety textures of blacks, ambers, and forest greens. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel — Hereditary comes to mind as another movie with rich, warm colors framed by a pervasive sense of black — however, decadence and claustrophobia never looked this richer.

This is the type of movie that lovers of slow-burn movies will revel in. If this is your cup of tea, then Saint Maud definitely lives up to its hype and has been worth the wait as it was for me. Anyone expecting jump scares and over-the-top narratives, however, should look elsewhere; this would not be the movie for you. As for me, I will say Glass’ movie is extremely unsettling and made me ponder on the power of the inner voice and how it can sometimes have an intention all its own for days.

Grade: B+

Mostlyindies.com is back, but…

Image by AV Forums

I guess I didn’t plan this accordingly. I got a bit blindsided with the impatience of getting away from my previous hosting site and their Ultimate Plan which was priced a bit too steep for me that I didn’t stop to think about backing up my work. In the end, I lost a total of 400 entries, many which contained multiple reviews as I tend to go to at several film festivals throughout the calendar year. However, on the plus side, it’s not like these writings were at the level of, let’s say, Pauline Kael or Dorothy Parker. [Perish the thought! I think I may have heard them rolling in their graves, the poor dears.] No, many were downright perfunctory and I’d even say borderline awful. I’d blame the fact that I can believably sit down and do movie marathons for both new releases and home video releases as well as what’s playing on art-house apps like MUBI or Criterion, so in the end, unless it’s a classic that requires a bit more analysis, the reviews are kept to the point, concise, and at a word limit of about 500 – 700 per film.

Lesson learned — back up your work. On the bright and busy side, you would think that February would be a dead or slow month for movies but with festival features releasing direct to streaming platforms left and right it seems that the niche is saturated more than ever. Not sure how this one, this Accidental Cinephile, will manage. Opening February 12 — tomorrow, as per this writing — there are a bundle of movies opening, from Lee Isaac Chung’s critically acclaimed Minari (which made its premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last December for a one-week run), Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, and the much-anticipated film by Rose Glass… Saint Maud. Still playing on virtual platforms are five entries for Best International Feature Film for the 93rd Academy Awards: Italy’s Notturno, directed by Gianfranco Rosi; Hungary’s Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time by Lili Horvát (2014s White God); Filippo Menechetti’s lesbian-themed drama Two of Us, representing France; Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!, Russia’s submission, and Denmark’s Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (2013’s The Hunt).

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