Tag Archives: war

MONOS: Movie recap, 2019 Chicago Film Festival

The betraying landscape of Alejandro Landes’ film “Monos”.

Alejandro Landes’ hallucinating version of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ sheds light on the horror of child soldiers in Colombia.

MONOS, Colombia. Director: Alejandro Landes. Starring: Julianne Nicholson, Wilson Salazar, Moises Arias, Sofia Buenaventura. Language, Spanish, English. Runtime, 102 minutes. A Sundance, Berlin, Cartagena, and New Director-New Films premiere. Release date: September 13, 2019. Rating, A+

Welcome to a world where childhood exists only as a dim memory, and all hopes and ideals have been squashed. Alejandro Landes’ equally austere, lush, and frightening Monos is a fall through the rabbit hole into a place in the world where the conflict of those left behind has generated offshoots of perverse humanities who seek total anarchy, often without a clear explanation. The opening sequence is one of incredible, queasy deception. We get introduced first to the landscape, untouched and glowing in greens and blues, coated in mist and mysteries. Soon we see a group of adolescents enjoying a game of sports while blindfolded. We’re not sure why these kids happen to be in a place where no other people seem to be around, but progressive shots start to reveal a darker scenario.

These aren’t your regular kids, not one over the age of 18; these are human killing machines placed here because of unknown forces, serving a cause as-yet unrevealed to them. In this remote terrain they endure unbelievable tests of endurance, and learn the ways of the gun as they prepare mercilessly for war. Who could the enemy be, we don’t know, but we do know and witness a volatility in these unformed personalities that under normal, quotidian circumstances, would be less inclined to savagery, and more inclined to the usual: sports, movies, video games, dating, and hanging out in malls.

Not in this scenario. Under the iron-grip of Mensajero (Wilson Salazar) they rule the land, unleash their pent-up anger against each other in explosive ways, and pay homage and servilitude to their squad leader Pie Grande (Moises Arias), a wiry teen with a chilling stare and predatory stance. It also happens that amongst the teens is an American woman only refered to as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). What could she be other than their prized hostage, is the first of several exclamation points. How did this unassuming woman who clearly has a family find herself in this mess? We never get to know her, but it doesn’t matter. It’s clear that the stakes are already at a fever pitch with her fleeting first appearance. When she appears again, it is to read them the news, and we get the impression that these kids, who can kill without any remorse, have no education. Her third appearance is even more disturbing as the kids force her to participate in the violent hazing of a teen who has turned 18. This one scene comes forth as vicious as brutal, and were it not because of the cinematography that often softens bestows a sense of nightmarish unreality, this could very well be some horror video from LiveLeak.

It is when a cow consigned to the group dies, followed by one of their own, that the cracks begin to show and the group starts to implode under the pressure. And it’s not a surprise: even with the most rigorous training, who could expect these teens to know how to manage even a simple task, let alone a conflict that goes beyond their very limited intelligence? Landes, with his almost surreal setup, makes his point clear: without the nurture, all these kids can do is live moment to moment. One exchange between one girl and Doctora is almost too painful. The girl confesses she wants to dance inside the television. However, the girl’s flat voice indicates she’s well aware that is not an option for her. All she’s known is the way of bloodshed.

Landes presents a tableau that has all the risk of flying off the rails into unbearable depravity and exploitation, especially in its scenes involving Nicholson as she battles for her life and attempts to keep her sanity. However, in leaving some of the horror to the imagination, and also bringing forth an unlikely hero like the gender non-comforing Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), he still manages to paint a horrifying canvas of innocence perverted at the hands of unseen pupeteers. Monos, at times, is extremely uncomfortable to watch, and keeps us squirming, breathing shallowly, waiting for the moment some form of closure can take place. It doesn’t quite wrap things up, but then again, given the reality of child soldiers in Colombia, would any other kind of ending suffice?

OPENING NIGHT, 55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: LAST FLAG FLYING

LAST FLAG FLYING

USA
Director: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 120 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies’ grading: A+

Opening night at the 55th New York Film Festival is such a wonderful, fun-filled event. I’ve been going now five years now, and I love how every time it seems as though it was the first — you’re surrounded by men and women of all walks of life, some are in the arts, some are patrons, some just movie buffs like you or me who just want to experience the screening of a future release before hand and sit there, amazed, at the artistry and performances involved.

I was a little surprised when Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying was announced as the film that would open the festival; I knew nothing about it, but I thought, “I’m not too sure this is the type of movie that should be shown on opening night; it seems like it would belong elsewhere.” How wrong I was; from the moment that the film proper begins and focuses on the quiet figure of Steve Carell as he stands in front of a mostly empty bar somewhere in Norfolk, Virginia, I knew I was in for something truly remarkable.

Carell is Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, a mild mannered former Marine living in New Hampshire who’s come to Virginia at the end of 2003 to visit his ex-Marine buddy Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), who runs a drinking hole that’s gone to pot. Of course, a man like Shepherd wouldn’t just walk into a place like this for the hell of it, and soon the men are talking of times gone past. Shepherd asks Nealon to come with him to see another friend from their Marine days, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) who’s long left his military days behind and has become a pastor. Mueller is less than thrilled to see these two men show up on his church, but it’s a last minute revelation at dinner that Shepherd reveals his true motives for contacting his two former friends.

Shepherd’s son was killed in combat in Iraq (he’s also lost his wife to cancer), and needs their support in his time of need. Nealon is more than happy to escape his momentary boredom, but it takes a little convincing from Mueller’s wife for him to go on and ensure Shepherd’s son gets proper burial. So, a road trip ensues, landing them first in Arlington where the body has not yet arrived, then in Maryland where they get informed that Shepherd’s son did not die in heroic circumstances but the government and military still feel to bury him as a military war hero. It’s here where Shepherd, up to this moment as quiet as a mouse, takes his own stance to bury his son not in Arlington, VA, but in his own New Hampshire town, and not in his military uniform, but his graduation suit.

The story from here on takes a couple of turns before it arrives to its final destination, first involving an Nealon’s and Shepherd’s attempt to DHL the casket back up North that a hilarious left turn, the official trip on an Amtrak train in which the men, accompanied by Private Washington (J Quinton Johnson, holding his own with the older men), a former friend of Shepherd’s son who’s been tasked with escorting their safe arrival, and a pit-stop in New York City in which the men, previously unaware of the advances of technology, buy themselves cellphones, a sequence that again demonstrates how in command Linklater is with the handling of comedic dialogue as a pause before the final dramatic act that starts with a short visit to the mother of another soldier (played by Cicely Tyson in an affectionate short 5 – 10 minutes of screen time) to the end of their journey.

Now, the performances by the three leads here are by far some of the best I’ve seen in their careers. Cranston, the actor who gradually turned his mild mannered, bespectacled chemistry teacher in Breaking Bad into a demonic force of nature, gets the lion’s share of scenes and dialog as Nealon, a man who’s still got an unquenchable fire inside and doesn’t give a shit what you think of him. Fishburne is right on point as the Rev. Richard Mueller, once known as a total motherfucker who now would rather live in peace and provides the movie with much grounding.

However, it’s Carell, the quiet, almost childlike character at the center of the story, that I want to talk about. Walking into this movie, erase everything you’ve seen him in — the loud comedies, the creepy guy in Foxcatcher. He’s gone. Carell, playing a man who was dealt with a lousy deck of cards, who’s lost everything, is so, so still and dignified in the face of suffering, that even a gesture as a smile lights his entire face up. I’m even going to go out on a limb to compare him to Chaplin in the final scene of City Lights,, but imagine him doing this during the entire film, his ego completely removed, letting the other two men be the perfect counterpoints. That, my friends, is acting.

Last Flag Flying opens in theatres November 3.






THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE

 

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Czech Republic / UK / USA
Director: Niki Caro
Runtime: 122 minutes
Language: English

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

The Holocaust is the reluctant gift that keeps on giving, and I mean that with no disrespect. Seventy years after stories of bravery under extreme duress continue to make appearances in unique narratives that only fortify the notion that despite the atrocities committed against a targeted group of people solely for the reason of being Jewish, there were people who stood up and deftly managed to turn the tables against xenophobia. In the Trump age, where the threat of our nation reverting to barbaric methods of separation and discrimination, these serve as a reminder of what could happen if we become sheep and follow a mad leader blindly into oblivion . . . but that’s for another piece.

 

Niki Caro’s new movie focuses on a part of Poland we may not have been previously aware of: its zoo, and how it became a rather unique player in the fight against the Nazis. Antonina and Jan Zaminski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heidelbergh) run the Warsaw Zoo rather successfully — life couldn’t be better. The film’s opening sequence have the look and feel of something straight out of Disney: we see Antonina riding her bicycle as a baby camel follows her around the grounds while Jan works away quietly but clearly content. It’s an establishing scene — cemented by another in which Antonina interrupts her own dinner party attended by the rich and powerful — among them Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, repeating his Nazi role from Alone in Berlin) — to deliver a sick elephant baby back to life that tells us the kind of person she is: kind, caring, selfless.

 

However, war breaks out, the Nazi’s invade Poland, the zoo becomes a base of sorts for Nazi soldiers headed by Heck, and most of the animals perish — some rather cruelly at the hands of the Germans. Having little choice, the Zaminskis now have to walk an incredibly fine line in order not just to keep their place (and relative security) but to use the zoo to help Jews to escape certain death. It’s a bold move, and the movie never lets you get too comfortable. This is a risky gamble that could implode at any given second, especially since Heck, who has developed an attraction to Antonina (who has to play along if she is to carry out her part of the plan), drops in unannounced for visits.

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife suffers from its own isolation in that it never gives you the full scope of the horrors of war — we do hear bombings, yes. However, some of the more impacting images feature the innocent and vulnerable: a rape victim (Shira Haas) whom Antonina nurses back to life, and the unforgettable image of little children’s hands reaching up to Jan who has to help them board a train that we know is headed to a concentration camp. Chastain, dolled up in a perpetual Norma Shearer wig and a thick Polish accent, doesn’t achieve the emotional greatness that Meryl Streep did when she tackled her own horror story in Sophie’s Choice, and her character is probably a bit too perfect to be credible, but perhaps I’m being somewhat cynical. Even so, this is a crowd pleaser, solid, and entertaining.






HOUSE OF HORRORS: Under the Shadow and The Invitation

undertheshadow

 

Whoever said horror was a genre gone South clearly hasn’t been paying attention. I mean let’s face it, for every Annabelle or Paranormal/Last Exorcism rehash that (allegedly) attempts to scare the living daylights out of you and succeeds only in either a) putting you to sleep, b) screaming a the television to characters too stupid to live or c) actually contemplating throwing your smart TV out the window in a fit of rage and rushing out into the night to commit some act of mayhem (inside your head, never in the flesh, we are all Walter Mittys at heart, heh-heh), there often comes one or two smaller ventures either straight out of Sundance, SXSW or other film festivals and sneaks into select art-house theaters. There these movies, dripping atmospheric dread to spare and leaving any CGI or green screen effect to a bare minimum (a throwback to Lewton and even J-Horror), singlehandedly manage to creep right under the skin and stay with you as if they were a cinematic version of Morgellen’s disease.

And that’s a good thing. No one wants to see a movie, no matter how good it is, and barely even recall it days later. If and when you see a horror movie that vanishes into thin air moments after the credits roll, call it a night and watch some creepy pastas on YouTube.

From Iran and currently showing at the Montclair Film Festival after having debuted at Sundance, SXSW and New Directors/New Films in March comes is Babak Anvari’s debut feature film Under the Shadow, a truly eerie story of an oppressed woman dealing with a mysterious force from outside in wartime Tehran. Shideh is an unconventional Iranian woman: she won’t use the chador in the house, she exercises to Jane Fonda VCRs (the story takes place in the late 80s), and she’s given support to a liberal cause. It’s the cause that has landed her in hot water when reapplying for medical school. Because of this, the doors to a higher education close on her. Her husband fares better, being called off to war to work as a doctor and leaves Shideh alone with her daughter Dorsa.

Once alone, whatever was out of kilter starts to manifest itself: Dorsa’s doll goes missing. Outside, missiles fall upon the city, leaving terrorized residents to seek protection from fallout in basement shelters. A missile actually manages to fall into Shideh’s apartment building, landing on the floor above, but ominously does not go off. It does, however, leave a crack in her ceiling . . . and with it, something invisible and ominous starts to manifest inside Shideh’s apartment, with unknown intent.

When it becomes clear that the must leave the apartment, Dorsa’s doll goes missing and Dorsa herself starts talking to an unseen person. It’s here when Babak Anvari ratches up the tension with some truly frightening jump-scares along the way, all the while keeping the story’s location grounded in Iranian reality (for example, an attempt by Shideh to leave the house with Dorsa from the unexplained presence which seems to be getting stronger within the minute lands her in the wrong hands of the law because she did not have her chador on. In many ways, Under the Shadow could very well, like The Babadook, be a horror allegory encompassing female oppression at the hands of forces outside her control. While the heroine in Babadook was fighting a metaphysical manifestation of her own grief, Shideh seems to be fighting against her country and it’s anti-woman laws itself. under the guise of a disembodied thing seeking to come in and wreck havoc.

Under the Shadow is a strong debut and a well-composed visual piece. Even at its brief run — a mere 80 minutes not counting end credits — and treading over familiar horror tropes, it doesn’t feel stale or go for cheap shocks, and takes its own time to get the wheels rolling. It’s amazing what lighting can do to a place: Anvari slowly turns Shideh’s apartment from a relatively safe haven into dark corridors, pools of shadows, and I on more than one occasion kept myself at the edge of  my seat waiting for something. I didn’t know what — I just knew something could appear, anywhere. That to me makes a horror movie memorable, and this picture is dread in the flesh.

[Under the Shadow as of this writing doesn’t have a release date.]

invitation

Imagine you’re invited to go to a gathering with friends. Once you get there, you get a sense that despite how nice, pleasant, and polite everyone seems, something is not right. Imagine that your hostess also seems to be playing up the “everything is perfect” role — almost to a shrill fault — even when you can clearly see that it’s an act from a mile away.

Will and Kira (Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi) are en route to the Hollywood Hills to meet up for a dinner party thrown by his former wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). We get some backstory that Eden and Will lost their son and Will hasn’t seen Eden since, and even before he and Kira arrive he seems on edge. Almost as if summoned, they strike a coyote with their vehicle and Will has no choice but to beat it to death with a blunt object.

Once at the party, things proceed smoothly, but Will continues to be something of an odd-man out. It is understandable since this was his former home and memories linger rather vividly, but there’s an odd giddiness to it all that seems off kilter. A party guest unwittingly becomes the receiver of Eden’s out of nowhere violence early on, but she continues to behave almost in a state of a high. And then, David brings out a video that seems to be selling a concept of a cult and suicide. What’s going on here? Some are intrigued, and one guest who leaves early, upon seeing how intent David and Eden are into presenting this alternative belief to their guests, expresses her discomfort into what seems to be a cult belief. And there is a guest no one knows from, a man who charmingly tells everyone about his wife’s death.  And a girl who continuously tries to throw herself onto Will and looks . . . a little loopy.

Director Karyn Kusama keeps everything very much under control for a long stretch of her story but the sense of dread reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby permeates the entire mise-en-scene. As the party changes gears ever so subtly from simple to sinister and even we question if Will is all there or perhaps about to suffer some mental breakdown, Kusama suddenly yanks the rug from under you and the gloves are off. The Invitation’s slow escalation takes a hard turn left and as all the pieces fall into place, the real reason for them all being there explodes in everyone’s faces. This is a very good horror film that points the finger at the dangers of drinking the Kool Aid; it’s tense, moody, and equal parts terrifying because it presents a situation that could and has happened before.