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MOSTLY INDIES Best of 2019

Image from WBGO

Another year, and just like that, the decade is over and gone. I’ve been watching movies now for a little over 40 years. Dear readers, this is a lot of cinema to take in over an entire lifetime, which is why December and the first half of January tend to be rather sparse in entries. Last month I barely saw three new movies (not including repeat viewings of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, The Irishman, It: Chapter Two, and the re-release of Béla Tarr’s seven-our epic Sátántangó from 1994 which from what I understand, has never received an official, true release other than one at MoMA, and a special screening at the 57th New York Film Festival, which itself spawned a one-week show a the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Of all the movies I’ve mentioned, this one is the one to view. A picture that despite its running time demands at least a second viewing, Sátántangó is mesmerizing as it is punishing. Seeing an unincorporated little place in Hungary fall prey to the machinations of an outsider posing as a Messiah is at times equal parts darkly comedic and a vision of Hell if there ever was one. This is not a movie to see on DVD, but now, with the advent of streaming, once it comes out, do give it a look even if you have to pause during the [two] intermissions.

And because every time a year ends, lists become inevitable. I see at least a movie a day so this is going to be a daunting task because there are many that might have made it, but others somehow, took that little extra and came to the forefront. So here we go, the best of the best, from 30 to 1, as seen per yours truly.

30. ATLANTIQUES

Mati Diop, Senegal

“What starts as a movie steeped in social realism quickly (and quite deftly) morphs into something else entirely. Diop doesn’t provide a tidy answer past what she presents, but her debut movie (which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, no easy feat) is a strong sequence of visuals verging into the magical that could fit in any coastal town, where men who have gone to sea may not be at rest.” — Mostly Indies, October, 2019.

29. LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Bi Gan, China

“This will be a film for those who love obscure stories that go into darker regions of narration and throw logic out the window. Patience is absolutely required to watch Bi Gan’s film. If you don’t you will walk out and not bother to look back. If you do sit down, do so with an open mind, and let its imagery take you. In that respect, yes, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a sumptuous, brilliant exercise in trippy visuals. It’s just one that offers no real characters, not much substance, and even less logic.”

28. THEM THAT FOLLOW

Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, USA

Them That Follow is a terrific buildup of sheer tension, a juggling act that the directors handle extremely well.Nothing in the movie—even and especially its characters’ decisions to let faith alone guide their actions—seems out of place.”

27. THE MOUNTAIN

Rick Alvertson, USA

The Mountain, as a whole, is a slow moving dream where everything is seen under a dull, cold camera lens. Alvertson removes all the (…) color from the era and instead goes for a palette of dirty hues that render the movie an exercise in darkness with little chance of escape — the thing that insane asylums were known for. It is grounded by strong performances by Jeff Goldblum (in a second-banana role, he’s actually the most ‘normal’ if you will, of all people, treating his own detached inhumanity with a cool casualty that promises only dark), and Tye Sheridan, in a difficult role that asks he communicate only shell-shock and a thousand yard stare.”

26. MONOS

Alejandro Landes, Colombia

“[Alejandro] Landes presents a tableau that has all the risk of flying off the rails into unbearable depravity and exploitation, especially in its scenes involving [Julianne] 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.

25. CLEMENCY

Chimonye Chikwu, USA

Alfre Woodard delivers a haunting performance as Bernardine Williams, the prison warden who has come to carry out death sentences with frightening casualty. Watch how she handles an inmate on death row as he pleads for his life, and how she starts to question her own beliefs and ultimate purpose.

24. QUEEN & SLIM

Melina Matsoukas, USA

“Prepare to be outraged. Melina Matsoukas’ feature film debut Queen & Slim arrives with a roar and goes out in a blaze of injustice.”

23. THE TRAITOR

Marco Bellocchio, Italy

The Traitor is, by far, one of Italy’s strongest entries following 2013’s The Great Beauty — compelling from start to finish, when we learn the fates of everyone. If anything, the one thing I could see in both men — one fictitious and one who died a little under 20 years ago — is the haunting sensation of regret. The biggest difference is that while Jep Gambardella’s one regret is that the could never find the essence of beauty, Buscetta laments not having been there for his sons, and their absence from his life haunts him throughout the entire film. It is an anguish that Favina’s eyes alone register once all is said and done, and everyone has met their fates behind bars.”

22. VITALINA VARELA

Pedro Costa, Portugal

“Arriving late to her husband’s funeral, she [Vitalina Varela] is introduced emerging from the plane in nothing but her bare feet. It’s a striking introduction because it leads to defining who she is: a woman that has nothing, who simply exists. Vitalina the actress holds the entire picture together with her fiercely and mostly silent performance.”

21. BEANPOLE

Kantemir Balagov, Russia

Beanpole is another slice of despair and nihilism and the inability to take matters into ones’ hand to find anything resembling happiness.”

20. GLORIA BELL

Sebastian Lelio, US/Chile

Forget her Oscar for Still Alice; this is the one performance that should have garnered Julianne Moore the statuette. Her Gloria is a consummate optimist and one who is not afraid to live life on her terms, but look closely at her expression, her gestures… even as she dances, there is a deep, deep sadness just quivering underneath as she navigates life alone. Lelio’s camera alone is a love-letter to mature womanhood in all its glory.

19. ASH IS PUREST WHITE

Zhangke Jia, China

I’ve come to believe that director Zhangke Jia likes to put Zhao Tao under enormous stress by making her take parts in which her character undergoes some incredible transformation by making the wrong choices or falling for the wrong man. In A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart, as in Ash is Purest White, she always winds up in a prison, be it literal or symbolic (as in Mountains May Depart). But can she command the screen.

18. TRANSIT

Christian Petzold, Germany

I loved the fact that Petzold took a story based in 1940s Germany and transposed it to modern times, which somehow seems to add to the mystery surrounding the characters played by Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski.

17. SYNONYMS

Nadav Lapid, Israel/France

“[T]his 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.”

16. THE SOUVENIR

Joanna Hogg, UK

“What I found at first somewhat off-putting, then increasingly meaningful, was the way Hogg positioned her scenes, staged from a somewhat distant point of view, as if she herself was an observer through a time capsule and was trying to analyze what was transpiring through the increasingly dysfunctional relationship that is Julie’s and Anthony’s. How else would you look back to your own life and see the mistakes you made? Hogg never questions it, but simply, recreates it and lets Julie and Anthony clash.”

15. JOKER

Todd Phillips, USA

“Take away the superhero / comic book facade and you have a tragedy of epic proportions, plain and simple.”

14. THE NIGHTINGALE

Jennifer Kent, Australia

The Nightingale is not an easy film to see. This is a movie marked by acts of incredible violence against women and Aborigines alike, and after Clare’s own horrific sequence, there will be one more that happens twice, almost daring the audience to look away.”

13. UNCUT GEMS

The Safdie Brothers, USA

Adam Sandler. That is all.

12. HOTEL BY THE RIVER

Hong-Sang Soo, S Korea

“The use of black and white not only mutes the story’s emotional center down to internalized reflections and barely felt notations, but it also gives the film a chilly feel that gives the story its somewhat somber note somewhat reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films from the late-80s, particularly September and Another Woman.”

11. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD

Quentin Tarantino, USA

Tarantino loves cinema. Let me rephrase that — Tarantino IS cinema, Alpha and Omega, from dusk til dawn. This is his most mature work, focusing on an era of free love, the changing face of cinema, and the lingering ghost of what was to happen at Cielo Drive, and it’s all glued together by the ghost of Sharon Tate.

10. MIDSOMMAR

Ari Aster, USA

If this is Aster’s version of a breakup, I would only wonder what would he do with a divorce. Florence Pugh, again proves she’s an actress to contend with, even in a genre film this sumptuous.

9. I LOST MY BODY

Jéremy Clapin, France

“This is not your garden-variety crowd pleaser, and for Clapin to bring so much beauty into a movie that would be pressed hard to find a crowd shows commitment to the art of animation and making a compelling, tragic story that manages to find a glimmer of hope during the cold of rejection.”

8. PAIN & GLORY

Almodovar, Spain

Another director who is deeply enamored with the art and visuals of cinema pure, this time bringing one from the deepest of his own bowels, a veiled autobiography in which Antonio Banderas channels Almodovar and allows us to see the frailty behind the maestro.

7. AD ASTRA

James Gray, US

“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.”

6. HIGH LIFE

Claire Denis, France

“The irony of the title — a constant in Claire Denis’ body of work — refers to something luxurious, grandiose, epicurean. Life is grand and expansive.”

5. THE FAREWELL

Lulu Wang, US/China

“Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is simply a beautiful love letter to her own China, a fragment of her own self, her past, and potentially, her future, seen through the eyes of a family coming to terms with the death of its matriarch. Watch the performance of Awkwafina: it’s a revelation to see her carry this awful weight of displacement on her perpetually hunched shoulders.”

4. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Celine Sciamma, France

A carefully placed finger will immortalize a love story for the ages in Sciamma’s carefully controlled romance that is exploding in color and pregnant in emotions waiting to be acknowledged. Adele Haenel, in one scene only, reveals an entire life and love lived, enjoyed, and ultimately lost to the ravages of society’s norms.

3. PARASITE

Bong-Joon Ho, South Korea

All I have to say is this: if you are going to displace someone from their home, make sure that they don’t have a reason to come back.

2. THE LIGHTHOUSE

Robert Eggers, USA

Robert Pattinson, who also appears in High Life, and Willem Dafoe (who absolutely needs to be given an award already!) battle wits, hate each other, need each other, and ultimately destroy each other, and it is marvelous to watch in glorious, rich black and white.

1. THE IRISHMAN

Martin Scorsese, USA

One question will linger long after the final credits of Scorsese’s work. “What kind of a man would make a call like that?” And then you have DeNiro, sitting alone in an old person’s home, the door ajar, listening to activity, no one to come visit him, everyone whom he knew and work with dead and long forgotten, and only he knows the secrets of where the bodies are. If that is not hell, I don’t know what is.

Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN puts a modern spin into an old tale; The Safdie Brothers’ UNCUT GEMS is a tornado of electric energy with Adam Sandler at the center, controlling it all.

Consequence of Sound

[These last two reviews are coming in a bit late in the season since I saw both movies over the Christmas holidays and after that decided to take a bit of time off to gather myself into the New Year, so I do apologize for being late.]

I’m going to feel a little bit like a heel for saying this, but while I admire Greta Gerwig as both a writer and a director, I’m not sure that this was the turn she should have taken in her nascent career. I’m not saying that she can’t direct a period piece — this one is proof positive that she’s very capable of as the production values are extremely high and the movie itself looks equal parts fresh and vivid in its flashback scenes while also acquiring a more adult look as it delves into its more present, adult themes.

However, this is the fourth adaptation of the well-known novel by Louisa May Alcott. After seeing Katharine Hepburn, fresh off her (then, considered) groundbreaking debut in A Bill of Divorcement and her Oscar-winning performance in Morning Glory, paying Jo, and Elizabeth Taylor suitably playing the vain but sensitive Amy in the 1949 version, to the okay 1994 version in which Winona Ryder took on the Jo role and was flanked by Susan Sarandon to the left as Marmee and Kirsten Dunst (again suitably), as Amy, this one comes as more of a dare than an actual need to tell a tale.

Let’s be honest — I like Gerwig, and she has an entire career behind the cameras ahead of her, smiling down, filling her with deserved accolades. Ladybird was a massive success because it felt more authentic to Gerwig as the story felt unique to her and her alone. Remember Frances Ha? If you look closely, you can practically see the movie that Ladybird became in its final sequences. When Frances moves to New York to become a dancer and can’t seem to find her way, that in essence is Saorise Ronan’s character down to the details, and both movies are glued in spirit to Sacramento, which become focal points — one to the actress Gerwig herself became, and the other for her heroine.

I’ve come to realize that every director who needs to prove they’re capable of more has to direct either a period piece or an epic. It’s almost a rite of passage. Every blockbuster director had indie roots — even Sam Mendes and Christopher Nolan began in tiny features. Heck, look at Scorsese! So Gerwig, of course would want to fill her own shoes out, and retell Little Women but with a much more modern slant. If you think of it, the story has not aged well. However, Gerwig, a woman walking in a minefield made by men, makes her two main heroines reflections of resilience and adaptability that defies their own stature as women living in the 1800s. Yes, Alcott never married and by her own account was not into men — which explains Jo’s sudden decision to break with Laurie. However, Jo’s not a dimwit — she finagles a suitable amount plus percentages to make sure her book leaves her very well off and finds love in the end (because, again, let’s face it, like Tracy Letts’ character Mr. Dashwood, people love happy endings. Amy of course would be the one to come off shining like a rose — she more than any of the March sisters would have known the value of charm and smarts and marrying well (although she also manages, through Aunt March, to find her own niche in the art world). Even Marmee manages to get in a subtle modernistic spin on her own, voicing her opinions while remaining strictly on the side of the maternal.

Little Women is strictly fan service for the fans of Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the same name. It’s often beautiful to watch, and let’s face it: the women — the aforementioned Ronan, Florence Pugh (a standout, as usual), Emma Watson in a rather staid role and tepid storyline, and newcomer Eliza Scanlen as the doomed but strong in spirit Beth are all uniformly correct. Laura Dern makes her role into more than what the book Marmee was, Meryl Streep as Aunt March is, well, solid but predictable, and Timothee Chalamet, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, (the redoutable) Chris Cooper, and Louis Garrel all have their moments. Another newcomer, Jayne Houdyshell as Hannah, also has some pretty solid moments. So there. It’s good, but mainly as fan service.

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler, if you ever read this and I highly doubt you will since I’m not an Ebert or a Rex Reed, I just want you to know what you did in Uncut Gems was absolutely mesmerizing. Please — for the love of all that is good in cinema! — stop making those dreadful movies that are draining your talent dry and leaving you probably a few million richer, but destroying your craft as an actor. You’ve got so much to give as a quality, hi-octane performer. I’ve seen you in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories, New and Selected. You’ve got it in spades. If you don’t do anything else, stick with the Safdie Brothers who know movies. Those dudes aren’t afraid to tell compelling character studies that look almost like action movies where the plot hammers through the canvas and into your brain as though it needed to pummel you oijnto submission and leave you, dazed, wondering what the fuck did you just witness, but still begging for more.

What you did with Howard Ratner, a man who displays equal parts vulnerability, insecurity, and clueless levels of stupidity based on an addiction to the win, is really something that left me gaping. No wonder his buddies want to rip his face off, as he constantly juggles two women and a rock that he wants to bleed dry. This is the stuff of 70s cinema when antiheroes ruled and a good time often came with a heavy price. In his prime, Pacino would have probably done a louder version, closer to A Dog Day’s Afternoon, and while that’s not a bad thing, you did one better by keeping Ratner even keeled, and occasionally exploding in the center of the vortex that was his life.

That is all.

A Haunting Love Told in brushstrokes: Celine Sciamma’s Unforgettable PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Imager from Youtube.

Every year the New York Film Festival brings about 30 new World, US, and North American premieres which get shuffled along with retrospectives, documentaries, and a new section, Projections, in which smaller films, usually by new and/or rising directors, also get their own screening, It’s usually a gargantuan task for someone like me to pencil in about one to two movies a day during a 17-day stint and often it’s just nigh impossible. Plus, with some of them colliding with others, and the Film Society’s rather tight schedule of screening a movie at least twice (that is, until demand becomes overwhelming and they are called upon to open more slots for viewers hungry for first dibs, well before the mainstream can get to it), it can sometimes be a losing battle and one has to throw in the towel and catch at least a portion of the festivities and, like in the case of Celine Sciamma’s new movie, wait for its proper release.

I was lucky. Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t hit theaters until mid-February, 2020, which is criminal. I don’t know why it couldn’t have just stayed in theaters during December, when it made its one-week appearance for Oscar consideration. The screening I went to at the Angelika was packed to the gills — there was barely a seat left in the house where one could place ones drink and coat. That alone shows the power and allure this movie, Sciamma’s first incursion into period piece and a masterstroke at that, has had on its audience. I arrived about 20 minutes before seating, and already there were audience goers lavishing praise on the film, commenting on this being their second time viewing it to “capture the essence of art rendered on cinema”. It made me jealous; I sat there sipping my espresso thinking had I only made other choices, had I only not seen only wish I had seen it at the Alice Tully, but it conflicted with the screening of Liberté. [Not that I regret it.] Oh, well. Quel dommage.

Up to now, Celine Sciamma had been known almost primarily for her coming of age stories set in today’s time. None of her movies (Tomboy, Girlhood) hinted at the ambition, the sheer scope, that she showcases in her current movie (which is probably why I also may have decided against it). Reader, when Portrait of a Lady on Fire premieres next month you owe it to yourself, if you love movies as much as I do, to skip the graveyard of horror, action, and dull comedies to go see this movie alone. If you don’t even as much as see another one, that’s okay; all is forgiven. What Sciamma does with a deceptively simple story of tragic love goes far, far beyond what Todd Haynes did with his very own Carol (and I loved that movie to the point that it became my favorite for 2015).

Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes place at the end of the 1800s. Marianne (Noémie Berlant), a young Parisian artist, is hired to paint the portrait of Hëloíse, (Adèle Haenel), a young woman living in a remote area off the coast of Brittany who is betrothed to marry an Italian nobleman. The assignment itself isn’t complicated at all as this was the custom of affluent people about to enter into the institution of marriage; however, upon arrival, Marianne is notified that Hëloíse has been notoriously difficult to paint, as she doesn’t want to marry. Her mother (Valerie Golino) informs Marianne that she will then have to paint the portrait by memory alone and act as a companion to Hëloíse who must not be informed by any means that her portrait is being done.

Noémie Berlant as Marianne in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

The story itself could hinge on this premise alone and for a while it does, but Sciamma is more attuned to slowly revealing a narrative in which both Marianne and Hëloíse start to reveal aspects of themselves, which naturally brings them closer together. When it becomes clear that Marianne is now starting to feel a fraud because a) Hëloíse is a woman she has to lie to, constantly, in order to glean as much visual information as she can in order to terminate her assignment, and b) feelings start to develop. How clever, an insightful, of Sciamma, to not only place two women in a time period when even the possibility of a same-sex attraction could be seen as criminal, but one that because of their isolation from glaring eyes starts to become stronger than the symbolic painting itself. Portrait of a Lady on Fire often looks and feels very Bergmanian, with characters talking with pauses, the camera placed at an angle from their faces that express oh-so much.

Image from IMDB.com

It also moves at a deliberate pace of a thriller even though there is really no mystery at all. Even so, Sciamma’s movie is drenched with the aura of portent (and deservedly so) that it will come across as a puzzle, most pointedly because of Hëloíse herself, who first gets introduced from the back, wearing a black hooded cape, and goes from pregnant, moody silences to sudden, jerky movements as when she attempts to rush towards the cliffs in a mock gesture of suicide (her sister, caught in a similar predicament, threw herself off and died). And what could be that brilliant white vision of Hëloíse that Marianne continues to have at regular intervals throughout the picture?

Dear reader, if you enjoy movies that move slowly, but with purpose, who reveal their cards one at a time, who don’t adhere to what you would be guessing should happen and take off into unknown territory which itself grounds the story in a romance steeped in fate, lush sensuality, and the sudden, overwhelming notion that this could all end in a crushing halt, then this is the movie for you to view, digest, and enjoy. The colors are alive in Sciamma’s movie in ways that make it look, itself, as painting in movement (as opposed to the use of hyperrealism to make every color an experience in Giallo). Adèle Haenel, a French actress (and Sciamma’s former girlfriend) has never been better, doing next to nothing but letting her own presence narrate the entire movie. Noémie Berlant carries the heavy dramatic load since she is almost always on screen, silently rendering her work of art with a meticulous delicacy that often seems as though she were “creating” her own vision of Hëloíse. Portrait of a Lady on Fire also contains one of the single most striking final shots –itself a work of art and I don’t mean to sound cliche — I have ever seen committed on film. It is so overwhelming in emotion that I felt as though I would drown in my own tears and choke from the pain I felt in my throat. If love were this deep, and rendered eternal through a clever positioning of a finger in a book… I would live forever.

I will call Portrait of a Lady on Fire one of France’s highest achievements in cinema and a movie that years from now will feature well up there with the movies of Renoir, Truffaut, Demy, and Tourneur. Go, go, go see it, you owe it to yourself to do so. It premieres February 14, 2020, in select cinemas.

THE REPORT presents a horrifying picture of American extremism that needs to be studied… and then never repeated again.

The years following 9-11, as I recall, were ones of almost open Islamophobia, fear of bombs in trains, fear of anyone looking ‘suspicious’ holding a cell phone. Many of us smarted hard after the Towers fell, many of us even left the city to seek areas of less risk. [I personally know more than 10 people who moved well outside the NYC area, some clear across the nation, and one even to Hawaii.]

What we didn’t know was the near extreme reaction that the CIA would have, and the lengths that it would go to not just enforce their war on terrorism but to the lengths that they would also go to keep that disclosed while those in charge, those behind the programs of torture meant to extract “the truth” from jihadist suspects, would themselves be rewarded for their actions and today command their own security enterprises.

Adam Driver, an actor who’s on a winning streak following his appearances in BlacKKKlansman, The Dead Don’t Die, and the Oscar hopeful Marriage Story, leads an all-star cast as Daniel Jones, a former FBI employee and Senate staffer assigned by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to look into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes. That investigation starts ballooning into an exhaustive, corrosive scrutiny into the torture techniques that were employed by the CIA to extract information — despite proof that these did not produce any intel. As the investigation continues, staffers alongside Jones start to unravel, tensions mount, pressure from anyone within arms’ length of being in that report start to slowly tighten the noose on both Jones and Feinstein (who does what she can to protect Jones), until it seems that perhaps, all this work may not yield anything at all, or will be lost under the umbrella of redaction, leaving only an empty skeleton.

Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns are masters of bringing an abstract into the fore and basically turning it into the main character. In The Report, all we care for is this mammoth document, and that it sees the light of day to expose a dark, dark place of American extremism. All the characters in this labyrinthine plot merely serve in deference to The Torture Report, so any inner lives any of them may have is nearly redacted as well, leaving a rather effective thriller that provokes, nauseates, and also serves as food for thought. Despite the lack of characterization, both Driver and Bening do wonders to keep you riveted even when it never rises to the nail-biting tension that last year’s The Post, itself linked to All the Presidents Men, did.

HONEY BOY is Shia Lebouf’s love letter to… Shia Lebouf.

Image from The Observer

Let me start by saying, the promos are misleading. The pie in the face imagery seems like something pulled off of some of the shots of Booksmart, and while I didn’t take issue with that, nothing could have prepared me for the untenable bag of insufferable cruelty masking as a cohesive narration that Shia LeBouf, an actor who at one point I thought had great potential, unleashes on his audience. This is something that tends to occasionally pop up in independent cinema: among the clever new entries and occasional borefest man the 1,000 coming of age stories there is one that is none of them. It’s about pain, and anguish, and the horror of surviving it, and while I don’t mind a good story being told, once in a while we get something so painful one feels almost dirty after the credits roll.

That experience is Honey Boy.

I don’t want to eviscerate the movie because it seems to, at least in concept, to have been born from Shia LeBouf’s own painful story of growing up basically parentless while he worked as a child actor. A lot of actors have had horror-parents that pushed their kids to the utmost limit while cashing in on their fame and then shoving their acts of theft down their terrified kids’ throats with the logical explanation that if it wasn’t for them, the monster parents, those kids wouldn’t even be alive.

And that’s a sorry, unforgivable situation, one that I struggle with because abuse is abuse no matter how you color it. Once kids are subjected to any level of abuse, it will always be an uphill battle to escape that nightmare and hopefully emerge intact by virtue of spiritual fortitude at the end of the tunnel. Note that I say the word hopefully, because more often than not, the scars remain, and the child now becomes just as bad as the abuser, or repeats a cycle by marrying into it, or, as in Shia LeBouf’s case and as acted by Lucas Hedges in a performance and role that should have been expanded more on, acting out. That, in short, is just pain begging for attention and unable to express itself other than acts of mindless rage,.

The movie focuses on LeBouf’s alter-ego Otis (Noah Jupe as a child; Hedges as a young adult) and his often contentious relationship with his walking train-wreck father (Shia LeBouf). As an adult, Otis finds himself coming out of a violent altercation with the police and having to go into therapy to potentially remedy his situation. HIs therapist (Laura San Giacomo) suggests Otis revisit the past (like most therapists always do; find the source of the pain and then through immersion, get past it). We flash back to when Otis was a 12 year old at the mercy of his deadbeat father who believes himself to have been a lost prodigy of sorts and is not above stealing Otis’ earnings, or upheaving the boy’s life to serve his needs. Otis starts a tentative relation with an older woman he calls Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), which does not go over well with Otis’ father (or let’s say, Otis’ father’s unbelievably massive ego).

Undeterred, Otis attempts on more than one occasion to understand the sordidness of his life and in all builds up to a boil when he confronts his monster-father. That does not go down well, and Otis is left, again, destitute and helplessly codependent on his father.

The worse part of Honey Boy is that, even though it is autobiographical, it makes no attempt to resolve this untenable situation between father and son, and while the indie crowd might have applauded it for not going into easy resolutions, at one point one has to wonder, who did Shia LeBouf make such a horrible movie for? It brought me back to another, equally repulsive movie I saw years ago by Asia Argento, The Heart if Deceitful Above All Things, itself based on JT Leroy’s (Laura Albert’s) novel of the same name. That one was even crueler. Honey Boy serves as neither great cinema nor story telling; the characters flit in and out without any narrative purpose and we get only Shia LeBouf letting his father off the hook at the end (this is not a spoiler) and Otis in limbo. You can watch this for an experiment in how much torture you can stand. I just wouldn’t recommend it if I had any say in it.

The Last of November releases: KNIVES OUT, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, QUEEN & SLIM, and I LOST MY BODY

Image from The Atlantic

I’m starting to wonder if the murder mystery is back in style because since last year’s apt but less than stellar Murder on the Orient Express, the genre seems to be experiencing a slight revival with the addition of not-quite-murder-mystery-but-genre-adjacent Ready or Not, Death on the Nile (due next year), and Rian Johnston’s Knives Out, still playing strong in theaters all over the country. Knives Out comes with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a whodunit. You get the gigantic mansion that must have at least thirty rooms on top of hidden tunnels and secret spaces. You get a family that has little love for each other and their patriarch, famed murder author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The family has come together for — what else? — a family reunion. When you meet them, they couldn’t be more disparate, from alpha daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s a CEO mogul married to a louse (Don Johnson), bland brother Walter (Michael Shannon), shallow lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette), and playboy grandson Hugh Ransom (Chris Evans), who’s basically there for the hell of it. None of them have any love for the old man and all of them are after his money.

And then there is Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombey’s nurse.

To truly appreciate Knives Out, you have to focus in on the position that Marta occupies in this house of cards as she will be the focus of the narrative, not the others. As Harlan Thrombey’s nurse, Marta enjoys a relationship that one could say goes a bit past a simple caregiver and moves into that grey territory called a surrogate daughter. Seeing them interact, you can basically tell these are two people who almost finish each other’s sentences. Now, for the Thrombey’s, she’s “family”, sure, but you realize it’s all show as they treat her like a commodity and can never quite get her ethnicity right. The former will figure heavily into what part she plays here, since her mother is an illegal alien, the movie takes place in the Trump administration, and well… we have a problem with a young woman working as a nurse who has a mother who didn’t come here legally, who would be, in fact, deported at the snap of fingers. Especially when Harlan turns up dead the following morning, his throat slashed from ear to ear.

Another movie would have kept the whodunit factor right up until the last 30 minutes or so, but Knives Out has another story to tell, and again, it will involve Marta. We learn much more about Harlan’s premature demise, which has its own set of rules which Marta must follow to the letter. It’s then that Knives Out becomes more of a how than a who because it now places a seemingly powerless woman in a game of life and death where she now holds the cards and they are all Aces. It still holds quite a bit of surprises, however, and it works to the movie’s favor that it never spills into silliness (so anyone expecting the slasher crazy of Ready or Not might be a bit disappointed). Even so, this is a clever, well-thought out picture that respects its genre and sneaks in a few moments to As of the performances, they are a mixed bag: as I said, the strong point is Ana de Armas (and to see her interactions with Plummer is the movie’s heart). Jamie Lee Curtis does what she can with a small role as does Johnson, Chris Evans kind of telegraph it a bit thick; Daniel Craig almost steals the show with his Benoit Craig. While Michael Shannon and Toni Collette both play against type (he’s a weakling; she’s a paper-thin head-in-the-stars guru with a penchant for money), they don’t quite register as much. The rest of the cast, which features Lakeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell (recently seen in It: Chapter Two), and Edie Patterson don’t register as much, but that is to be expected when a movie like this features a large ensemble.

When I heard of this movie earlier in the year I thought that this was going to be yet another biopic of the now legendary (although he would be the last to admit it) Fred Rogers, a man with whom all of America owes his childhood to. Clever marketing, because it worked; when I saw this the day after Thanksgiving the theater was packed and it was barely an early morning showing. I saw people with their kids, entire families, in couples or singles, but it was clear: everyone was there to see a movie from the man who gave us Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

We weren’t disappointed. True, the subject matter is not the center of gravity of the narrative. When the movie starts, we see an award-winning journalist from Esquire magazine, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) getting into a violent altercation with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) at his sister Lorraine’s wedding. This is followed by an assignment by his editor (Christine Lahti, in a welcome small part) to write a short 400-word blip about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for the magazine. Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to meet Rogers at WQED for an interview and is baffled by Rogers flat-out Zen attitude on life. Lloyd thinks this to be an act — surely a man who plays a part on a kid’s TV show can be like that in real life, right? There’s got to be a catch here. Even the most hardcore entertainer eventually reveals his cards.

However, Rogers has none. In a later interview Rogers does open up and hints that his relationship with his sons was a bit… difficult due to being the sons of Fred Rogers. When Rogers flips the tables on Lloyd using a stuffed animal, he hits a nerve. A big one. It will show up later when Jerry, who has been trying to make amends with Lloyd, shows up at Lloyd’s place and introduces the woman he left his mother for. Needless to say, the event goes extremely south, Jerry lands in the hospital, and this will leave Lloyd in a state of unresolved limbo where he’s torn between the wounds of the past and carrying on the scars from that past into the present and future.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is so good in its quiet but poignant little story of two men affecting each other in life-enriching ways that it runs the risk of being overlooked as “too zen”, or “safe, but didn’t we have that documentary last year already?” I personally don’t care, this is a movie about people we need more of, people who understand the concept of forgive and forget, of helping others in need, and of bringing harsh truths without using lacerating language (but not sugarcoating them either). Tom Hanks instantly disappears into the role of Fred Rogers and he’s so good that, again, he may be overlooked in favor of other, more impactful performances in a supporting role.

Marielle Heller’s second film (after last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?) establishes her as a director of note. This very well could have been a sentimental by the numbers, but she clearly understands both the nature of the article (that eventually became something over 10,000 words and made the front page of Esquire) and of its topic. She also has great respect for Rogers the man and the educator and manages to cleverly insert elements of Mister Rogers Neighborhood into the narrative in ways I found truly touching. I’m looking forward to what she may be directing next. Go see this movie and leave with your heart exalted and a better appreciation for making amends.

Image by EurWeb

Prepare to be outraged. Melina Matsoukas’ feature film debut Queen & Slim arrives with a roar and goes out in a blaze of injustice, This is a newsreel of the latest in a series of hostile encounters between African Americans going on with their lives and officers too eager to gain brownie points and stats in their badges who continue to perpetuate the myth that black men and women must be subjugated at all times, and if there is clearly no evidence of them having done anything wrong, then evidence — justification for the stop — must be produced. The plot is simple as it is harrowing: a criminal defense attorney (Jodi Turner-Smith) and young man (David Kaluuya) meet for a dinner date that doesn’t promise anything relevant. On the way home they get stopped by an officer who happens to be white. The officer makes Slim, the young man, get out of his car as he performs his routine inspection. When Slim does not comply since he was simply driving Queen (Turner-Smith) home, events begin to escalate and become hostile. Queen intervenes, getting shot by the officer. In trying to defend Queen, because by now the officer is out of control, Slim shoots the officer.

A moral conflict ensues: Slim wants to report the event, but Queen, who is law-savvy for obvious reasons, informs Slim that just by being black they would be thrown in jail, and chooses to go on the run. They begin a trek across the country, going south where they hope to find a way to evade capture while deciding what their next move might be.

All throughout the film we keep rooting for Queen and Slim to somehow find a way to make their truth known — after all, they weren’t career criminals. Much like the African-American couple in Crash, these are regular people facing racism in America, a country with deep-seated problems between Whites and Blacks going back hundreds of years.

It’s why I had an issue when promotional advertising and even a character in the movie itself compares Queen and Slim to the “Black Bonnie and Clyde”. I would go out on a limb to perhaps find a similarity with the couple at the center of Badlands, but that couple also was also violent from the get-go (and also based on real-life killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. The only other reference I could glean from Matsoukas’ punishing yet poetic road movie is Thelma and Louise, another story of two people caught in unfortunate circumstances who also decide that taking the road is better than facing any excess baggage coming with the consequences.

Melina Matsoukas clearly has a strong voice and wow, does she use it! This is a movie that had to be made, Absolutely. It is a love letter to all of the Eric Garners, the Trayvon Martins, all who faced the horrible end of a loaded gun because in this country, when you’re black, and made to show license and registration or you’re simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, you are already marked as guilty even when it’s blatantly clear that you are not. Both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya give standout performances that describe two people progressively finding a spiritual bond that will ultimately end in sacrifice. Hopefully the Academy will acknowledge at least one of them, because my God are they good.

Image from Netflix

Moviegoers, this one broke my heart in two. I don’t tend to see many animation films mainly because a) Pixar and Disney tend to focus on sending a message movie, and that’s boring, b) I’m a little over anime and some of these rather wild stories that I can’t connect with sometimes. Of course, nothing would have prepared me for a movie that not only dabbles in the strange, but also carries with it a heavy dose of sadness right from the opening sequence and into its shattering end.

So, imagine you’re a hand that comes to consciousness inside a lab. You realize that you were once attached to a body. You don’t recall how you got here in the first place. However, blind instinct to return to your place of origin takes over and you make your escape into the unknown. That is one half of this visually stunning picture directed by Jérémy Clapin (in his feature debut, and while I’m at it, my God have there been no shortage of strong to impressive film debuts this year!). The other half involves a young North African young male, Naoufel (voiced by Dev Patel in the English language version, who has found a job a a pizza delivery guy that delivers in 30 minutes or less. However, one delivery to a young woman named Gabrielle takes a bit longer than expected; the encounter, mainly through intercom, has a bit of pregnancy to it. Naoufel is intrigued by the young woman and wanting to get to meet her, takes on a job as an apprentice to a wood craftsman who turns up (after scouring all over for any info on her) to be her uncle. Eventually the two meet, but Naoufel makes a terrible mistake.

He tells her he was the pizza delivery boy.

While all this is happening we go back to the hands trek across town. What is remarkable about the way Clapin approaches the topic of a severed hand trying to find its way back to its owner is that it treats the hand as a completely integrated character full of emotions, hopes, and desires. One encounter with some hungry rats in the Metro is a high spot, as is one where the hand soars through the skies on an umbrella. Meanwhile, in the present, Naoufel’s revelation has taken a halt when Gabrielle freaks out at his confession and disappears.

Eventually, through clever flashbacks and some symbolism of a fly-motif that recurs throughout the movie we come to realize what happened to the hand and who it happened to, and its there that we root more for the hand to reattach itself. When that moment arrives the movie reaches its emotional peak. I’ve never seen an audience react so strongly — so emotionally — during a scene so surreal. This is not your garden-variety crowd pleaser, people: and for Clapin to bring so much beauty into a movie that would be pressed hard to find a crowd shows commitment to the art of animation and making a compelling, tragic story that manages to find a glimmer of hope during the cold of rejection,

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, A zombie-experimental mash-up.

Still from The Guardian

Just when you couldn’t get another zombie-movie, and with Zombieland: Double Tap still in its last throes in theaters (as of late November), here we get a surprise import from Japan that is sure to satisfy those who like their horror with a healthy dose of the chuckles and a meta slant. Shin’ichirô Ueda’s movie One Cut of the Dead, now available to stream on Shudder, doesn’t invent new grounds, but it offers quite a bit in terms of the fictional suddenly becoming real. A director of art films goes into a closed-off military base where “horrible experiments were made on people” — itself perhaps a nod to Japan’s own checkered past going back to World War II — to film a zombie film, and before you know it, his stage becomes itself invaded by zombies hungry for the entire cast.

It’s all done in a rather impressive shot lasting 40 minutes in length and ends in the Final Girl having disposed of her beau. What the movie then becomes — we then realize — is its own movie within a movie, with the director yelling “Cut!” which then throws us out of the horror narrative proper, and back into the making of the movie per se, from conversations with producers to get it done to finding the cast to then settling down to the actual location in order to start filming proper, which leads us then to the final third of the movie, which is where it delivers on its premise on showing us how it somehow became a meta-horror picture in the first place.

One Cut of the Dead is, honestly, nothing new in the zombie genre. But for a picture to take such a tired, overdone theme and subvert it unto itself to create a rollicking comedy filled with moments of choreography and improvisation, now, that’s something I can bite into. Give it a look see. You’ll be glad you did.

GET OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS! – 40 Years Later

Image from YouTube

Sometimes you need someone like director Bertrand Blier to give French romantic comedies a surprise jolt of energy and his 1978 outing, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs!, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture in 1979, doesn’t just do that — it basically spits out its contempt in large, bold letters over a neon-lit billboard. Reader, this is not your typical movie in any way shape or form.

From the word go, where we get introduced to a married couple in a Parisian restaurant. The husband (Gerard Depardieu) is afraid he cannot make his wife happy. She (Carole Laure), meanwhile, sits there, bland and next to comatose, barely even uttering a line, as passive as a houseplant. Husband, determined to make her happy, practically dives into the deep of what seems to be madness and uncontrollable delirium, bringing in outsiders more than happy to help. Sounds nutty? Nope, this is barely the start. Enter the man (Patrick Dewaere, who died too soon) who will become the wife’s paramour with the complete, absurd blessings of Depardieu. Meanwhile, the wife? Still silent, knitting her grey turtleneck sweaters which every cast member will at one point use, a sly wink to their interchangeability. What we don’t expect is that, through Dewaere’s school, she will meet the man who will finally make her happy. And that man, dear readers, is none other than one of Dewaere’s students, a young 13 year old boy played to precocious perfection by Riton Liebman.

It’s quite a surprise to me that nowadays movies have to age their underaged characters to meet approval requirements when in the 70s having a character like Christian (Riton) fall in love with Laure’s character and establish a true connection was more or less okay. Perhaps because Blier’s movie often skirts the edges of farce and pure surrealism, audiences then seemed to accept its premise without question. The movie is not without its flaws; at times it seems Laure is there to be desired, since she has barely any lines and merely remains a passive player in the ludicrous dreamed that is her life amongst the men who navigate her spectrum. However, as a whole, this is one of France’s crazier productions, one that is not devoid of the message of what it is for a person to find a romantic connection in the unusual while everyone around them screams and acts like chicken who have lost their heads.

A Swirl of Comedy and Tragedy in Taika Waititi’s wonderful blend Jojo Rabbit

[Image by Vanity Fair]

Here we arrive to a movie that I’d been putting off for almost a month now mostly due to the fact I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see another Holocaust movie, even if it was a comedy, even if it was someone given to the absurd like Taika Waititi. It’s not that there have been a huge list of Holocaust satires — you would have to go back to Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece The Great Dictator or something more recent like Mel Brooks’ The Producers for something that outlandish — but I wasn’t just in that kind of mood, to see something that yet again touched the topic of the Third Reich. Even if it was for laughs.

So as the movie started, I saw myself getting thrown into a wicked intro in the style of Beatlemania in which I saw stock footage of German women openly weeping at the mere presence of Adolph Hitler, whom they revered as if he was Christ the Saviour Himself. It’s blsartantly funny, but hints at the mania that spread itself over the Germans looking for something to believe in, in this case, a new leader who could correct the problem. Right away I was aware that Waititi was about to introduce a special kind of story, and not just a ha-ha movie played for cheap laughs at the expense of caricature.

Once that is over, we get introduced to Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who has joined the Nazi Youth in order to serve Deutchland, but who can’t muster the courage to kill a chicken. And it’s not for lack of trying; Jojo simply seems unfit for this type of recruiting; his only motive to join seems to be his imaginary friend who happens to be the Fuhrer himself (Taika Waititi). An accident at training forces Jojo to remain at home at the behest of his doting mother (Scarlett Johannson), where he finds out that someone is hiding within the walls of his house. That someone is a teenage girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, quite the standout), who was a friend (and dead ringer) of Jojo’s sister. Elsa also happens to be Jewish, and hiding one is a capital crime. Jojo’s mother somehow convinces him that Elsa might just be a ghost, but Elsa and Jojo form an uneasy acquaintance based more on curiosity of each other which leads to some truly unexpected developments and discoveries.

Jojo Rabbit is a movie that starts as something closer to What We Do in the Dark and and slowly reveals its true cards much later. For a chunk of the film’s initial run the tone is flatly satirical verging on the ridiculous and the laughs will come in droves one after another. Once the movie veers away from the silly — like seeing Sam Rockwell as a variation of the character he played in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as he trains his protégées into being killing machines when its clear no one seems to know what the hell they’re doing (in this sense the movie also does a sly nod to M.A.S.H) — it becomes something much more dramatic, more urgent. Elsa, while safety hidden, is still in mortal danger of discovery, and the war is creeping ever closer to Jojo’s front door. And why is the Gestapo stopping at his house?

Like I said, this is a movie that has big themes that place it more aligned with Germany Year Zero and Schindler’s List while still keeping a tone closer to the positive. There are scenes of incredible beauty due to their simplicity — one of them, which got to me the most, has Jojo following a robin’s egg blue butterfly down the street, which could be an analogy of him slowly falling in love with Elsa. Another one just comes out of nowhere, and it is tragic as it ids horrifying even when it is telegraphed rather early with one set of unfortunate characters who stepped up to Nazi Germany. Its this one that veers the film right into the middle of the horror of war and its aftermath as Germany self-destructed. Its not as though it would have come as surprise; still, when it happens, if you cannot produce a single tear, well…

Jojo Rabbit, while still in the key of satire, delivers a knockout emotional blow by placing the power of friendship over the evils of hatred, and that to me is more than enough.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, Not Very Strange, Too Much Melodrama, but Stanwyck Makes it Work.

[image from YouTube]

Whenever I would hear about Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers I would get the impression of a work of great complexity layered by loads of character development and dark plot machinations. Perhaps because I’ve become used to seeing Barbara Stanwyck play hard-as-nails women on the screen even in her early period that I would expect her to practically drive the plot to the ground with her sole presence as she did in Double Indemnity. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers it takes a while for her character to enter the story proper as we’re given an extended prologue in which the young Martha Ivers, played by Janis Wilson, receives the blunt end of harsh treatment from her elderly aunt (Judith Anderson). When their animosity reaches a head, and the aunt buys her ticket to the Promised Land without knowing it, Martha and her tutor’s son Walter (who was a witness to the murder) keep their secret to themselves.

Years later, we meet Martha as an adult, now a powerful woman married to Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his film debut). There isn’t much love in this marriage, or let’s say, Walter loves Martha but Martha really could not care less. Enter Sam (Van Heflin), an old friend with whom Martha was going to run away with in order to escape the oppression of her aunt. Walter immediately suspects Sam is in town because he knows what happened that fateful night. Sam on the other hand revisits old haunts and comes by a young woman on parole, Toni (Lizabeth Scott). The two hit it off and Sam decides to help her out, make an honest woman of herself. In the interim, Sam also reconnects with Martha. This definitely does not go well with Walter who remains convinced Sam is out to get him, and has Sam be the victim of a set-up by blackmailing Toni. The ruse fails; Sam remains in town, remains with Toni, but still feels compelled towards Martha.

For the most part, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers works solely a a melodrama; noir it is not. The story is just too sloppy to be taken seriously, with enough head scratching moments as to why does Sam remain in the story when the story has far moved past him, or why is Toni, a marginal character at best, even included as a cog in the wheels of Iverstown. It seems to me that, because of the rise in popularity of noir (in all but name; film noir proper would not be called as such until the 1970s) demanded that there be a foil with perhaps dubious alliances to add a crack in the story. Toni is the only character not tied to any of the events from Martha Ivers’ younger years; she has nothing really to offer the story other than the appearance of a red herring.

Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

The only saving grace of Milestone’s silly movie is the presence of his threesome. Cast against type Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas make strong impressions of men caught under the bonds from the past and Douglas especially makes the most of his emasculated persona. Stanwyck is not at her best here; that would have been in Double Indemnity (as I mentioned above). Her Martha Ivers is merely one-dimensional, a woman in love with power more than anyone else, but who doesn’t really commit any action of savagery to warrant her own depravity. For a chunk of the movie all Stanwyck does is enunciate her lines with precise chilliness, convey a vague sense of menace, and that’s all. When she suddenly proposes Sam to do the unthinkable it kind of comes a bit forced, but okay, this was the 40s and movies were not as complex then as they are. Even so, I have seen many movies from this time period and even those called “women’s pictures: featured women with strong characters and solid motives. I just didn’t quite see it here, and that just makes the movie not much else than a footnote in 1940s cinema.

And that is a shame. The story is good, meaty even, but too much time is spent on recreating the past, and even more time on bringing these four people together, that by the time this happens there isn’t much more story to tell and events seem to happen to force the story into a violent resolution between Stanwyck and Douglas. Even so, an okay movie with Stanwyck is better than nothing, right?