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Last Revised 02/18/17
1. Apu Trilogy, India, 1955-59, Satyajit Ray
2. Au hasard Balthazar, France, 1966, Robert Bresson
3. Diary of a Country Priest, France, 1950, Robert Bresson
4. Ordet, Denmark, 1955, Carl Dreyer
5. Leolo, Canada, 1992, Jean-Claude Lauzon
6. Gospel According to St. Matthew, Italy, 1964, Pier Paolo Pasolini
7. My Dinner with Andre, US, 1981, Louis Malle
8. The Great Adventure, Sweden, 1953, Arne Sucksdorff
9. Fateless, Hungary, 2005, Lajos Koltai
10, Hiroshima Mon Amour, France, 1959, Alain Resnais
11. The Quince Tree Sun, Spain, 1992, Victor Erice
12. Wings of Desire, Germany, 1987, Wim Wenders
13. Broken Wings, Israel, 2002, Nir Bergman
14. Promises, US, 2001, B.Z. Goldberg
15. Smoke, US, 1995, Wayne Wang
16. I’m Not Scared, Italy, 2003, Gabriele Salvatores
17. Forbidden Games, France, 1952, Rene Clement
18. Searching for Bobby Fischer, US, 1993, Steven Zaillian
19. Unbearable Lightness of Being, US, 1988, Philip Kaufman
20. All About Lily Chou Chou, Japan, 2001, Shunji Iwai
21. A Place in the World (Un Lugar en el Mundo), Argentina, 1992, Adolfo Aristarain
22. Ordinary People, US, 1980, Robert Redford
23. La Promesse, Belgium, 1996, Jean & Luc Dardenne
24. Lamerica, Italy, 1994, Gianni Amelio
25. Stolen Children, Italy, 1992, Gianni Amelio
26. Therese, France, 1986, Alain Cavalier
27. The Man in the Moon, US, 1991, Robert Mulligan
28. Wild Reeds, France, 1994, Andre Techine
29. Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), UK, 1951, Brian Desmond Hurst
30. O Lucky Man, UK, 1973, Lindsay Anderson
31. Running on Empty, US, 1988, Sidney Lumet
32. Tokyo Story, Japan, 1953, Yasujiro Ozu
33. Boot Polish, India, 1954, Prakash Arora (Raj Kapoor)
34. Pixote, Brazil, 1981, Hector Babenco
35. The Search, US, 1948, Fred Zinneman
36. Ikiru, Japan, 1952, Akira Kurosawa
37. Black Orpheus, Brazil, 1959, Marcel Camus
38. The Red Balloon, France, 1956, Albert LaMorisse
39. Grand Canyon, US, 1991, Lawrence Kasdan
40. The Dreamlife of Angels, France, 1998, Eric Zorca
41. Z, France, 1969, Con. Costas-Garvas
42. Kes, UK, 1969, Ken Loach
43. Nobody’s Fool, US, 1994, Robert Benton
44. A Man Escaped, France, 1956, Robert Bresson
45. Dad (Oca), Slovenia, 2010, Vlado Skafar
46. The Cup (Phorpa), Bhutan, 1999, Khyentse Norbu
47. The Son (Le Fils), France, 2002, Jean & Luc Dardenne
48 Phoenix, Germany, 2014, Christian Petzold
49. Hero, US, 1992, Stephen Frears
50. Bus 174, Brazil, 2002, Jose Padhilla and Felipe Lacerda
51. Good Will Hunting, US, 1997, Gus Van Sant
52. Resurrection, US, 1980, Nicholas Petrie
53. Love Letter, Japan, 1995, Shunji Iwai
54. La Vie de Jesus, France, 1997, Bruno Dumont
55. The Spectacular Now, US, 2013, James Ponsoldt
56. Daniel, US, 1983, Sidney Lumet
57. Vertical Ray of the Sun, Vietnam, 2000, Tran Anh Hung
58. Barbara, Germany, 2012, Christian Petzold
59. A Bronx Tale, US, 1993, Robert De Niro
60. Ram Dass, Fierce Grace, US, 2001, Mickey Lemle
61. The Lives of Others, Germany, 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
62. The Passenger, Italy, 1975, Michaelangelo Antonioni
63. Milagro Beanfield War, US, 1988, Robert Redford
64. Tricks (Stzucki), Poland, 2007, Andrzej Jakimowski
65. Deep Breath (Le Soufflé), France, 2001, Damian O'Doul
66. The American President, US, 1995, Rob Reiner
67. JFK, US, 1991, Oliver Stone
68. Dave, US, 1993, Ivan Reitman
69. Sundays and Cybele, France, 1962, Serge Bourgignon
70. Taste of Cherry, Iran, 1997, Abbas Kiarostami
71. The Wild Child, France, 1969, Francois Truffaut
72. Good Men, Good Women, Taiwan, 1995, Hou Hsiao-hsien
73. Chunhyang, South Korea, 2000, Kwon-Taek Im
74. Keys to the House, Italy, 2004, Gianni Amelio
75. Close-Up, Iran, 1990, Abbas Kiarostami
76. Intimate Grammar, Israel, 2010, Nir Bergman
77. Medium Cool, US, 1969, Haskell Wexler
78. Woman in the Dunes, Japan, 1964, H. Teshigahara
79. Raise the Red Lantern, China, 1991, Zhang Yimou
80. My Name is Ivan (Ivan’s Childhood), Russia, 1962, Andrei Tarkovsky
81. Dead Man, US, 1995, Jim Jarmusch
82. Umberto D, Italy, 1952, Vittorio de Sica
83. The Tree of Life, US, 2011, Terence Malick
84. Mon Oncle Antoine, Canada, 1971, Claude Jutra
85. How Green Was My Valley, US, 1941, John Ford
86. Days of Heaven, US, 1978, Terrence Malick
87. The Kid with a Bike, France, 2011, Jean & Luc Dardenne
88. Local Hero, UK, 1983, William Forsyth
89. Cyclo, Vietnam, 1995, Tran Anh Hung
90. La Jetee, France, 1962, Chris Marker
91. Devi, India, 1960, Satyajit Ray
92. The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time?, US, 1982, Jim Brown II
93. Matewan, US, 1987, John Sayles
94. Trois Couluers Trilogy, France, 1993-4, Kristov Kieslowski
95. A Girl and a Tree, Slovenia, 2012, Vlado Skafar
96. The Wind Will Carry Us, Iran, 1999, Abbas Kiarostami
97. The River, France, US, India, 1951, Jean Renoir
98. L’enfant, France, 2005, Jean and Luc Dardenne
99. Rocket Science, US, 2007, Jeffrey Blitz
100. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, US, 1982, Steven Spielberg
101. Malcolm X, US, 1992, Spike Lee
102. East of Eden, US, 1955, Elia Kazan
103. Munyurangabo, Rwanda. U.S., 2007, Lee Isaac Chung
104. Lavventura, Italy, 1960, Michaelangelo Antonioni
105. Sweet Sixteen, UK, 2002, Ken Loach
106. The Natural, US, 1984, Barry Levinson
107. Letter to a Child, Slovenia, 2009, Vlado Skafar
108. The Long Day Closes, UK, 1992, Terence Davies
109. He Who Must Die, France , 1957, Jules Dassin
110. Miracle on 34th Street, U.S., 1947, George Seaton
111. Wonder Boys, US, 2000, Curtis Hanson
112. Hoosiers, US, 1986, David Anspaugh
113. L’Humanite, France, 1999, Bruno Dumont
114. It All Starts Today, France, 1999, Bernard Tavernier
115. The Warriors, US, 1979, Walter Hill
116. My Father's Glory/My Mother's Castle, France, 1990, Robert Yves
117. Wild Strawberries, Sweden, 1957, Ingmar Bergman
118. Viridiana, Spain, 1961, Luis Bunuel
119. Hud, US, 1963, Martin Ritt
120. The Jolson Story, US, 1946, Alfred Green
121. A Taste of Honey, UK, 1961, Tony Richardson
122. Where is the Friends Home, Iran 1987, Abbas Kiarostami
123. In This World, UK, 2002, Michael Winterbottom
124. Flowers of Shanghai, Taiwan, 1998, Hou Hsiao-Hsien
125. Tropical Malady, Thailand, 2004, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
126. Color of Paradise, Iran, 1999, Majid Majidi
127. All the Presidents Men, US, 1976, Alan J. Pakula
128. Nine Lives, US, 2005, Rodrigo Garcia
129. Vanya on 42nd Street, US 1994 Louis Malle
130. The Magic Flute, Sweden, 1975, Ingmar Bergman
131. Through The Olive Trees, Iran, 1994, Abbas Kiarostami
132. Moonlight Whispers, Japan, 1999, Yakihiko Shiota
133. Beijing Bicycle, China, 2001, Wang Xiaoshuia
134. A Midnight Clear, US, 1992, Keith Gordon
135. Two-Lane Blacktop, US, 1971, Monte Hellman
136. Beau Travail, France, 1999, Claire Denis
137. The New World, US, 2005, Terrence Malick
138. The Fugitive, U.S., 1993, Andrew Davis
139. The Green Ray, France, 1985, Erich Rohmer
140. Back to the Future, US, 1985, Robert Zemeckis
141. Home Before Dark, US, 1958, Mervyn LeRoy
142. Field of Dreams, US, 1989, Phil Robinson
143. Moonstruck, US, 1987, Norman Jewison
144. The White Diamond, Germany, 2004, Werner Herzog
145. Blow-Up, UK, 1966, Michaelangelo Antonioni
146. I’m Going Home, France 2001, Manoel de Olivera
147. Son of the Bride, Argentina, 2001, Juan Jose Campanella
148. Casablanca, U.S., 1942, Michael Curtiz
149. Sleeping Giant, Canada, 2015, Andrew Cividino
150. L’Enfance Nue (Naked Childhood), France, 1968, Maurice Pialat
151. Charly, France, 2007, Isild Le Besco
152. The Journey, US, 1959, Anatole Litvak
153. Quiz Show, US, 1994, Robert Redford
154. One Summer of Happiness, Sweden, 1951, Arne Mattson
155. Smiles of a Summer Night, Sweden, 1955, Ingmar Bergman
156. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, France, 2007, Eric Rohmer
157. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, UK, 1968, Peter Hall
158. Fireworks (Hana-Bi), Japan, 1997, Takeshi Kitano
159. Don't Die Without Telling Me Where You're Going, Argentina, 1995, Eliseo Subiela
160. Butterfly, Spain, 1999, Jose Luis Cuerda
161. Elephant, U.S., 2003, Gus Van Sant
162. Blissfully Yours, Thailand, 2002, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
163. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, U.S., 2006, Martin Scorcese
164. Twelfth Night, US, 1996, Trevor Nunn
165. Groundhog Day, U.S., 1993, Harold Ramis
166. Shane, U.S., 1953, George Stevens
167. The Graduate, U.S., 1967, Mike Nichols
168. Kramer vs. Kramer, U.S, 1979, Robert Benton
169. Meet Joe Black, U.S., 1998, Martin Brest
170. Life on a String, China, 1991, Chen Kaige
171. Van Gogh, France, 1991, Maurice Pialat
172. The Turning Point, U.S., 1977, Herbert Ross
173. Grapes of Wrath, U.S., 1940, John Ford
174. Sleepless in Seattle, U.S., 1993, Nora Ephron
175. Ballad of a Soldier, Russia, 1959, Grigory Chukhraj
176. In Between Days, U.S., 2006, So Yong Kim
177. Linda, Linda, Linda, Japan, 2005, Nobuhiro Yamashita
178. Point of Order, U.S., 1964, Emile de Antonio
179. In the City of Sylvia, France, 2007, Jose Luis Guerin
180. Couch in New York, US, 1996, Chantal Akerman
181. The Way Home (Jibeuro), South Korea, 2002, Jeong-hyang Lee
182. Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, Spain, 2013, David Trueba
Boy Erased (2018)
A superbly crafted film with a potent message
Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley and set in rural Arkansas, Australian director Joel Edgerton's ("The Gift") Boy Erased tells the moving story of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, "Lady Bird"), an 18-year-old gay college student and his struggle for self-acceptance in the face of rejection by those whose support he desperately needs. Raised in a fundamentalist religious environment that regards same sex relationships as sinful, Jared has an uneasy relationship with his parents, mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman, "Destroyer") and Dad, Marshall (Russell Crowe, "The Nice Guys"), a Baptist preacher. When Jared is raped in college by a fellow student (Joe Alwyn, "The Favourite") who spitefully informs his parents, the teen is given the option of being exiled from his family or undergoing what is known as "gay conversion therapy."
Uncertain of his own sexuality and needing his parents support, Jared acknowledges that he wants to change the behavior that he believes to be wrong and is willing to attend a 12-day conversion course that attempts to change a person's sexual orientation by using religion as a justification and coercive techniques as its method. The facility that he is sent to is called "Love in Action" and is run by the well-meaning but authoritarian pastor Victor Sykes (Edgerton, "Red Sparrow"). Like a Chinese re-education camp, those enrolled must follow rigid rules such as surrendering their cell phones and turning over any notebooks they may bring. They are also not allowed to discuss the details of the program with their parents or guardians who stay at a nearby hotel.
Sykes believes that homosexuality is a choice and that "tough love" techniques are effective in producing results. These techniques include forcing recruits to acknowledge their sinful ways and express anger towards their parents. They are also compelled to draw up a family tree showing which family members were sinful. This kind of borderline sadistic behavior is exemplified by counselor Brandon (Flea, "Baby Driver") who, on one occasion, prevents Jared from leaving the bathroom, calling him a "faggot." Using shame and physical abuse to intimidate, Sykes zeroes in on Cameron (Britton Sear, "Unfinished Business"), a quiet, heavy-set boy who will not acknowledge his "sins," bullying him by having family members beat him with a bible and immersing him in a bathtub until he nearly drowns.
Fellow converts Jon (Xavier Dolan, "Bad Times at the El Royale"), Sarah (Jesse LaTourette), and Gary (Troye Sivan, "The Laundry," TV series) support the program or, in Gary's case, just tell Sykes what he wants to hear until it's time to leave. Refusing to condemn his father, however, Jared retrieves his cell phone, calls his mother to pick him up, and bolts from the facility. As the troubled teen, Hedges delivers a sensitive and nuanced performance that has encouraged Oscar talk and Crowe and Kidman provide exceptional support. While Jared is a symbol, he is also a human being and his growth from a taciturn, compliant individual to one who stands up for himself and outwardly expresses his feelings is inspiring. The most compelling scenes, however, revolve around his relationship with his parents.
Edgerton is cautious about portraying Jared's dad as a villain and makes clear that the parents love for their son is real even if they have different ideas about what is best for him. In a pair of impactful scenes between Jared and each of his parents that take place four years later, Marshall realizes that a reevaluation of the ideas he has held his whole life may be necessary and Nancy moves from being a submissive echo of her husband to asserting herself not merely as a wife and mother but as a thinking individual who cannot close her eyes to the harm that is being done to her son.
Much progress has been made since the time not too long ago when being gay was considered by many professionals to be a mental illness that required drastic treatments such as castration, hypnosis, or electric shock. Even though virtually every leading health organization has denounced efforts to change one's sexual orientation, and reaffirmed that attempts to do so could result in serious health risks, gay conversion therapy is still flourishing and has been banned in only fourteen states in the U.S. In addition to being a superbly crafted film, Boy Erased delivers a potent message that may help these remaining states realize that the only fix that gay people require is acceptance, support, and unconditional love.
Beautiful Boy (2018)
Passionate and committed Oscar-worthy performances
Directed by Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen ("Belgica") and adapted for the screen by Luke Davies ("Lion"), Beautiful Boy is the heartbreaking story of Bay Area journalist David Scheff (Steve Carell, "Battle of the Sexes"), a devoted father who is relentless in his determination to save his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet, "Lady Bird") from his addiction to the potent narcotic Crystal Meth, but his powerlessness to effect change stirs up feelings in him of inadequacy and guilt. The film is based on David and Nic's real-life story as told in two memoirs, "Beautiful Boy" and "Tweak" that describe the bright and articulate eighteen-year-old high school senior's descent into a world of self-abnegation. Raised in an upscale home environment in Marin County, California, Nic did not lack for material or emotional support.
His only explanation for his addiction is that it was the best feeling he'd ever known, so he did not want to stop. The film, however, does not explore his emotional state any deeper and the impact on him of his parent's divorce and remarriage remains unexplored territory. It is clear, however, that there was a void in his view of the world that he was unable to fill in socially acceptable ways. David, a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine, maintains the cool detachment of a reporter: Interviewing sources, gathering information and data on Crystal Meth, but no amount of scientific study can get through to Nic. In numerous flashbacks, we see Nic as a young boy and the close relationship he had with his father - sharing a joint together and surfing at a California beach where David loses Nic among the waves, only to spot him joyfully riding a big wave.
Some flashbacks are displayed as overlapping images of the past and the present that reveal the impact of David's memories, but the timeline is often confusing. Though the main focus is on the father-son relationship, the film also makes clear the devastating effect that Nic's addiction has on the whole family. David's wife, Karen (Maura Tierney, "Semi-Pro"), their two children, Jasper (Christian Convery, "The Package") and Daisy (Oakley Bull, "Thanksgiving" TV series), and ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan, "Bridge of Spies") do not have much screen time but make their presence powerfully felt; Karen in a harrowing scene where she follows a runaway Nic in her mini-van, and Vicki when she refuses to follow her husband's direction to let go of Nic and allow him to find his own way. How much the children know or understand about Nic's condition is not addressed.
There is little plot and, while it can be frustrating to the viewer, the repetitive nature of abuse, recovery, and relapse that mark an addict's roller-coaster ride accurately reflects the cycle that most addicts experience. For Nic, many avenues to recovery are explored but nothing takes hold, neither going to rehab, attending college, or having a relationship with girlfriend Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever, "Detroit"). One of the rare scenes in Beautiful Boy that breaks out of this cycle, however, is when David attends an AA meeting where he and Karen listen to the story of Rose, a distraught parent (LisaGay Hamilton, "Take Shelter") who speaks with heartbreaking honesty about how she has had to disown her self-destructive child. It is a testimonial that moves them to tears, David fully comprehending that every fix Nic administers could be his last.
Both lead actors deliver passionate and committed Oscar-worthy performances. Steve Carell is sensitive and affecting in an understated way in his role as the beleaguered father, but he has a steely determination that belies his calm demeanor. As Nic, Timothée Chalamet delivers the same nuanced, emotionally mature performance that marked his Oscar-nominated role as Elio in "Call Me by Your Name." In a powerful scene in a café that the young actor handles with exceptional skill, David asks Nic, "Who are you?" and the boy lashes out at his father "I was this amazing thing," he tells him, "your special creation, and you don't like who I am now," suggesting not too subtly that his father's motivations may include feelings of embarrassment.
Beautiful Boy succeeds in offering an honest and authentic depiction of how the scourge of drug addiction can affect, not only the life of the addict, but an entire family and community. Groeningen's choice, however, to mainly focus on the effect of Nic's addiction on those around him rather than on the physical and emotional depths to which he has fallen dilutes any deeper emotional connection we may have to his character. Ultimately, the film's willingness to play it safe and avoid taking risks in both style and substance limits our ability to feel the full extent of the pain.
Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
Largely unfocused and filled with distortions
Michael Moore's latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9, is a clever name reversal of his 2004 documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" which took on the assaults on civil liberties resulting from the war on terrorism, and skewed the connections of the Bush family to Texas oil and the influence of Saudi billionaires, a very timely subject today. Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, It is the largest grossing documentary of all time, having earned $222 million dollars in world-wide box-office sales. The fact that it was strident in its tone did not affect its box-office success which grew in numbers the more the film was attacked by politicians and critics.
While Fahrenheit 9/11 was sprawling and scattershot, it was also a powerful cinematic experience filled with genuine human emotions as well as being highly entertaining. Much of Moore's latest film touches the same chords. It has some powerful moments that hit home but is largely unfocused and filled with distortions that are asserted only to bolster his agenda. After a montage depicting the shock many felt by Donald Trump's unpredictable 2016 victory, the film attempts to provide an answer to Moore's stated question, "How the F did we get here?" None of the answers, however, have much connection to the President but make for good theater.
While Moore's presentation of these issues is inspiring, unfortunately it is also disingenuous. The West Virginia teacher's strike that resulted from continuing anger over low salaries (ranked 48th in the United States) and the high cost of health care involved over 20,000 teachers and other public school staff, affecting approximately 250,000 students. Schools were shut down in all 55 West Virginia counties and the strike lasted nine weekdays amid numerous rallies and demonstrations. Through it all, the union could not have been more supportive, working at the grass roots level for two months to help organize the walkout including a daylong meeting with every single rep from all three unions from each of the 55 counties.
Moore, however, implies that the unions sold out the teachers by ordering them back to work, overlooking the fact that the teachers refused to go back to work only because they wanted more clarity on the issue of health insurance premiums and did not trust state Republicans to follow through on the raises that were promised. Not every teacher agreed that was the right course of action, buy they all stuck together out of solidarity. Other issues receive the superficial treatment as well. Moore implies that the ground was laid for Trump's election by the flaws of the Democratic Party establishment and singles out Barack Obama's willingness to compromise as President, ignoring the fact that the congress was in control by the opposition party and that, to get anything done, there was no alternative to compromise.
He blames the DNC and the superdelegates for Bernie Sanders loss to Hilary Clinton in 2016, even though Clinton had amassed enough votes through primary victories that she did not need the votes of any superdelegates to put her over the top. Moore points out that Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties in West Virginia during the primary but only received 18 out of 29 delegates. He does not mention, however, that Clinton won 31% of the overall vote. The film's segment on the water crisis in Flint resulting from the cost-cutting measure of switching the source from a clean source of water to the contaminated Flint River is powerfully done but marred by Moore's penchant for showmanship as he attempts to make a citizen's arrest of the Governor and sprays Flint water on Governor Rick Snyder's home.
Trying to blame President Obama and the Democrats for being insensitive to the crisis is not one of Moore's finest hours. Shown as sipping Flint water as an example of indifference, Moore ignores the fact that the President was simply reassuring the residents that Flint water was no longer a medical emergency and was safe to drink as long as it was filtered. Also ignored was the fact that Obama and various Democrats tried to get Congress to allocate funding for Flint - but the Republicans would have none of it. A measure passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama in December, however, did provide $170 million to address drinking water safety issues with part of the money set aside for new pipes for Flint.
The only thing that would have satisfied Moore was, in his own words addressed to President Obama, "Unless you're bringing the U.S. Army with you to save 100,000 of your fellow Americans, and unless you're going to arrest the governor of Michigan who has now killed more Americans than ISIS, you might as well stay home." Fahrenheit 11/9 is promoted as being a "Trump takedown," though there is not very much about Trump in the film except for some suggestive photos with daughter Ivanka and some pointed comparisons to Adolf Hitler.
In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine Moore said about President Trump, "No matter what you throw at him, it hasn't worked. No matter what is revealed, he remains standing. Facts, reality, brains cannot defeat him. Even when he commits a self-inflicted wound, he gets up the next morning and keeps going and tweeting," and added, "That all ends with this movie." If that were the case, I would personally nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize, but unfortunately the film most likely will have little effect outside of those already committed to the cause.
Sekala Niskala (2017)
A dreamlike tale of childhood
"I feel like I am the moon, so bright. But after a while, the brightness is fading away" - Tantra
The Persian poet Rumi said, "The nature of reality is this: It is hidden, and it is hidden, and it is hidden" In Bali, Sekala and Niskala refer to the everyday world we see through our senses and the deeper reality hidden from our conscious vision. Translated into English as The Seen and Unseen, Indonesian director Kamila Andini's ("The Mirror Never Lies") haunting second feature poetically explores both worlds through the vision of the twins, Tantri (Thaly Titi Kasih) and Tantra (Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena), her 10-year-old brother. The inseparable siblings are referred to in Balinese culture as "buncing" (boy-and-girl) twins, a symbol of "balance" in which they "complete each other."
In The Seen and the Unseen, Andini evokes a dreamlike tale of childhood that suggests the influence of Indonesian director Apichatpong Weerasethakul whose films of death and rebirth live on the border between the objective world and that of the spirit. Eliciting strikingly real performances from the child actors, the film explores the influence of tradition, the innocence of childhood, and the emotional strength required to cope with trauma. Revealed to be suffering from a brain tumor that is slowly shutting down his body, the film opens as Tantra is being moved to a hospital bed as sister Tantri and mother Ibu (Ayu Laksmi) look on, displaying profound grief.
In flashback, we see the twins running through the fields, planting rice, and Tantra providing eggs for Tantri to cook. Though she does not like egg yolks and he dislikes the whites, in a scene that seems to foretell the future, Tantri peels a boiled egg, but there is no yolk inside. When her parents move to the city to make sure that Tantra is provided with the best care, Tantri is left to seek her brother in her imagination. Shown from Tantri's point of view and enhanced by the music of Yasuhiro Morinaga, the film finds its center in the world of images using mystical songs, poems, and dances from the Balinese culture to express the sibling's emotional distress.
Helping to bring the film's mystical elements to life, the cinematography of Anggi Frisca provides a balance between the two aspects of reality as exhibited in a stunning "moon" sequence in which we see a full moon, a bamboo tower, and a spirit dancer. Making use of shadows, Tantri stages a puppet show from behind his hospital bed, singing about the moon goddess Ratih and the headless demon Kala Rawu. Ultimately, Tantri is only able to fully express her rage by dressing as a monkey using leaves and branches and performing a wild and uninhibited "Totentanz," a dance of death. In the dream world, a heartbroken Tantri tells her brother, "If only I could replace you, I'm willing to feel the pain. I'm willing to be sick," but the universe, which is always perfect, has other plans.
Absorbing and emotionally authentic
Georg (Franz Rogowski, "Tiger Girl"), a Jewish radio and TV technician fleeing from persecution in Germany en route to Marseilles, waits in a dimly lit café in Paris for a friend to show up. There is little atmosphere, no Rick or Sam to "play it again." When the friend arrives, the two men speak in muted tones about things associated with war: Occupation, forged documents, deportations, and the like. Though the word Nazi is never heard, we hear the blaring sound of police sirens moving up and down the streets while armed policeman wearing black suits and helmets stop people demanding to see their papers. So-called "illegals" are rounded up and rumors circulate that a "cleansing" will soon take place.
Based on the 1944 novel of the same name by German author Anna Seghers that mirrored her own experience escaping from the Nazis, all of the indicators in Christian Petzold's absorbing and emotionally authentic Transit persuade us that we are witnessing a drama set in World War II. When the film conflates the timeline to depict a modern day environment in Marseilles, France, however, we are deposited in a bewildering no-man's land of thwarted expectations. Buildings and dress are contemporary, yet transportation is limited to trains and ships, there are no hand-held communications devices, and transit visas are necessary to pass through certain countries. In the vernacular, the film is neither here nor there.
As narrated by an unidentified third party (Matthias Brandt, "Killing Stella"), when Georg is asked to deliver two letters to a writer secretly holed up in a nearby hotel, he discovers that the writer, a communist author named Weidel, has committed suicide by slashing his wrists. Ransacking through Weidel's possessions, he finds the author's German passport, the manuscript of a novel, two letters from his wife Marie, and a document offering a visa and safe passage to Mexico. Intending to bring the materials to Weidel's wife, Georg smuggles a dying man (Grégoire Monsaingeon, "K.O.") aboard a train headed to Marseilles, jumping off at his destination and leaving the dead man's body for others to discover. A modern Marseilles then becomes the film's focal point, a necessary destination for those coming and going and those trapped somewhere in between.
When Georg checks into a hotel, he is required to pay for a week in advance and is told incongruously that he must offer proof that he can leave or he will be considered an illegal. After he settles in, he visits the American consulate to obtain a visa to leave France which he believes will soon be occupied by unnamed forces. When the articulate but slyly suspicious consular official (Trystan Pütter, "Anonymous") assumes that Georg is the writer Weidel, he makes no effort to persuade him otherwise and willingly takes the boat ticket to Mexico that had been assigned to the man he is impersonating. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, Georg keeps bumping into Weidel's wife Marie (Paula Beer, "Franz"), the mysterious woman whose blue jacket and red blouse evokes the sultry Nina Hoss, one of Petzold's regulars.
In this hall of mirrors, Marie, unaware that her husband is dead, falls for Georg, the man who is impersonating him. Georg also becomes involved with the mute wife of the deceased man he brought back to Marseilles, and gets to know her young son Driss (Lilien Batman) whom he instructs in some soccer moves, takes him to a seaside playground, impresses him by repairing his broken radio, and sings him a poignant song from his childhood. It is all the more heartbreaking for Driss when Georg tells him he is going to leave for Mexico. Transit is a supercharged drama of human emotions and one of the best films of the year.
Rogowski, considered one of German's most "in-demand" actors, has an understated but powerful screen presence and is described by Petzold as a "great actor" who is able to balance "sadness and confidence, coldness and empathy" like "a dancer." Though Transit is without an overt political agenda, its comparison between the fascist world of the 1930s and 40s and today's anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of neo-Nazism cannot be mistaken. Petzold creates the maddening reality of a world where past, present, and future blend into one, a netherworld described in author Samuel Beckett's "Molloy" as being "without memory of morning or hope of night." While being "in transit" normally refers to the shipping status of an item one has recently purchased, in Petzold's universe, it is also the absence of belonging or, as in the Talking Heads' song played over the film's end credits, being on "the road to nowhere."
What They Had (2018)
Does not deliver the emotional heft that it promises
Moments of crisis can bring a family closer together but can just as easily rip them apart. In first-time director Elizabeth Chomko's What They Had, siblings Nicky (Michael Shannon, "The Shape of Water") and his sister Bridget Ertz (Hilary Swank, "Logan Lucky") walk a thin line between the two possibilities as they attempt to provide proper care for their elderly mother Ruth (Blythe Danner, "Hearts beat Loud"), a victim of Stage 6 Alzheimer's Disease. Set in Chicago, the film opens with vintage photographs and home movies of Ruth and husband Burt (Robert Forster, "Twin Peaks," TV series) in their youth. The next image we see is a bewildered Ruth getting out of bed in the middle of the night and walking out of her house into the abrasive cold, dressed only in her nightgown.
Although he has been through this many times, a frantic Burt phones Nick to ask for help and alerts Bridget in California who flies to Chicago together with her college-age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga, "The Nun") to assist in the search. After Ruth is finally located and brought to the hospital under observation, the family gathers around her to offer words of support. She effusively recognizes her children, giving them hugs and calling them "my babies," but refers to Burt as her "boyfriend," rather than her husband. The doctor recommends that Ruth be placed in a nursing home, euphemistically referred to as full-time "memory care," and also suggests that her husband live nearby in an assisted-living facility.
Burt, however, has other ideas. Citing his commitment to Ruth and the vows he took at their wedding, he insists that she remain at home with him. In a powerful performance by Forster, he denies the full extent of his wife's incapacity and stubbornly maintains that all she needs is a trip to Florida to get her head straight. While his judgment in the matter is open to question, it is clear that he is coming from love and what he sees as support and Chomko fortunately does not turn him into a villain. Bridget tries to appease her father but Nick will have none of it. Although he is unafraid of confronting his dad and does so throughout the film, his fear of being like his father is, at least, a restraining influence.
While the debate rages within the family over what is best for Ruth, Burt chides Nicky for not realizing that his girlfriend has lost patience while waiting for him to propose marriage and condescendingly calls him a "bartender" instead of a bar owner. Driven by her brother's confrontational style and his resentments over his belief that she was the favored child, Bridget slowly comes to grips with the fact that she only married her lackluster husband Eddie (Josh Lucas, "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House") to win her father's approval and is now stuck in a relationship that is empty and unsatisfying. Another subplot involves Emma's reluctance to registering for classes and return to college for the coming semester.
While emotional moments between mother and daughter surface, Emma's character remains undeveloped and the story line is simply dropped. Though What They Had does not deliver the emotional heft that it promises, outstanding performances uplift the film. Swank is effective in bringing the necessary vulnerability to her role without appearing to be self absorbed, and Shannon also gives one of his strongest performances as the belligerent son who does not hold back his verbal daggers pointed at whoever happens to be present. To her credit, Chomko lightens a grim situation with gentle humor. A deadly serious Nicky tells Bridget that his mother "hit on him" on their return from the hospital, a story to which Bridget can only respond with hearty laughter. Even a touch of humor of this kind is welcome to those who must deal with the heartbreak of seeing a loved one losing their grip on reality, day by painful day.
A quiet and intelligent film
If you feel that your body holds two distinct personalities, perhaps one public and the other private, you are not alone. Many people display different sides of their personality at different times. For most people, however, the condition, what might be described as the "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" syndrome, can be classified as being "psychological" in nature. In first-time director Bill Oliver's gripping fantasy Jonathan, however, the problem is definitely physical. As superbly performed by Ansel Elgort ("Baby Driver") who plays both roles, two brothers, John and Jonathan, each have distinct personalities but share the same body. Stabilized by a brain stimulation device that monitors their time, the two men maintain a rigidly controlled schedule that includes strict rules of behavior in order to survive.
Abandoned by their mother at birth, they are supervised by Dr. Mina Nariman (Patricia Clarkson, "Maze Runner: The Death Cure") who has studied the brothers since their childhood and is the author of an article in a scientific journal that describes their condition in detail. Alternating the hours when they sleep and are awake, Jonathan gets up every morning at 7 a.m., goes to work as a part-time draftsman in an architectural firm, then goes to bed at 3 p.m., getting four hours of sleep. At 7 p.m. John takes over his body and remains conscious for twelve hours, his entire life unfolding at night, barely seeing the sun during most of the year. Though physical look-alikes, John and Jonathan have different personalities. John is more casual and laid-back, more open with his emotions, and has a more vigorous social life.
Jonathan, on the other hand, is a more up-tight, straight-laced type whose hair is slicked back to give him the nondescript look of a business executive. To let Jonathan know what happened to him in the previous twelve hours, John leaves a video each night describing what he did during the time he is conscious. His talk normally consists of mundane activities such as shopping, paying bills, doing the laundry, and so forth, nothing very exciting to report in their circumscribed universe. Because we never see John outside of the video, however, we become more attached to Jonathan, though in truth, they are as dependent on each other as two people can ever be. For example, if John drinks too much or stays out all night, Jonathan feels exhausted and even hung over the next morning.
The brothers maintain the status quo until John breaks the rule that says that having a girlfriend is a non-starter. When Jonathan reports that he's been feeling a little tired of late, he hires an investigator (Matt Bomer, "The Nice Guys") to track John's night time activities and finds out that John has been secretly dating Elena (Suki Waterhouse, "The Bad Batch"), a young woman who works at a bar. Jonathan, furious over an action that he sees violates the terms and conditions that Dr. Nariman had set, presses John to end the relationship. Admitting his indiscretion, John is forced to explain his condition to Elena, sadly telling her that their relationship has to end. Though the air has been cleared, John becomes depressed, retreats into a shell and fails to respond to Jonathan's video messages.
To complicate matters even more, Jonathan establishes a relationship with Elena, straining his ties with John even more. It is only when a crisis point is reached that the only logical solution asserts itself. Jonathan is a compelling film but one that is hard to categorize. Though it has elements of science fiction, fantasy, and maybe even horror, ultimately Jonathan is more of a character study than anything else. Its focus is on the human element of the story and Oliver refuses to indulge in sensationalism or melodramatic plot twists that might appeal to a wider audience. It is a quiet and intelligent film that is basically about trust and the compromises required in sharing your life with someone you care deeply about. It is about loving people as if your life depends on it. In Jonathan's case, it does.
The Old Man & the Gun (2018)
A strong cinematic sendoff to Redford
Robert Redford ("Our Souls at Night") is an American icon and, in David Lowery's ("A Ghost Story") The Old Man and the Gun, has ostensibly made his final curtain call as an actor. Adapted by Lowery from a 2003 article in the New Yorker about Forrest Tucker by David Grann ("The Lost City of Z"), the movie is characterized as being "mostly true." Though it takes liberties with the real story, it is an entertaining crowd pleaser that gives a strong cinematic sendoff to Redford who just seems to be really enjoying himself. In giving life to a smiling career criminal who stole over four million dollars during his "career" as a gentleman bank robber, he has turned Forrest Tucker into a legend to be spoken of in the same breath as outlaws Jesse James, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid.
First jailed as a teenager, Tucker, an escape artist as well as a thief, escaped from prison according to his own account, "18 times successfully and 12 times unsuccessfully," a fact that may be fancy, but seems plausible in Redford's confident portrayal. The film begins with an introductory course on Tucker's modus operandi which he repeats in the course of multiple holdups throughout the Midwest. The polite old codger moseys up to a bank teller almost as if he is ready to ask her out on a date. Quietly displaying his gun (which he claims he has never used), he softly requests that she hand over all of the bank's money.
The teller, originally scared, becomes fodder for Tucker's charms who compliments her on the good job she is doing (presumably in efficiently collecting the money for him). Fleeing from the scene, he avoids the chasing police cars by stopping to help Jewel (Sissy Spacek, "The Help") a woman about his age whose car has broken down on the side of the road. Though he knows nothing about cars, it is a convenient place where Tucker can hide while the bumbling police cars sail by. Offering Jewel a ride, they hit it off in some of the best scenes of the film. Stopping together at a diner, Tucker learns that Jewel is a widow who lives by herself on a spacious ranch. When asked what he does for a living, he says that he is in sales and gives her a false name.
Even though she can see through his deceptions, she is powerless to avoid falling in love with him. When she does find out the truth, she still loves him unconditionally. For Tucker, however, she will always come in second to his first love, relieving banks of their cash on hand. Of course, being a shipping heiress in Miami who became Tucker's third wife, the real Jewel did not care much about the bank's piddly sums. The Old Man and the Gun is also the story of police officer John Hunt (Casey Affleck, "Manchester by the Sea") assigned to bring Tucker to justice. Hunt, like Tucker, has a "what's to get excited about?" attitude, but becomes increasingly determined to crack the case once he realizes that Tucker is part of what is referred to as the "Over the Hill Gang," consisting of cohorts Waller (Tom Waits, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus") and Teddy (Danny Glover, "Sorry to Bother You") who form a fearsome group of gentleman robbers.
Complete with topical songs and an overbearingly "cool" film score by Daniel Hart ("Pete's Dragon"), the film has a seventies look and feel that brings us back to the time when character studies were more in vogue than superheroes. Lowery has said, "I wanted him (Redford) to be the prototypical American outlaw. I felt that it needed to look as if it was made in a bygone era and that the archetype itself would work better if the movie felt like it was entirely cut from a cloth that was several decades old." In showing the easy social acceptance of Hunt's African-American wife, Maureen (Tika Sumpter, "Ride Along 2"), and their two mixed-race children Abilene and Tyler (Ari Elizabeth Johnson and Teagan Johnson), however, the film becomes nostalgic for a 1981 Texas that never existed.
While The Old Man and the Gun may give some viewers moral pause, it simply continues the Hollywood tradition of glamorizing outlaws in films such as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," once enemies of the law but today regarded as colorful folk heroes. Of course, at the end they all got their comeuppance, but breaking the law can be fun while it lasts. There are no moral distinctions in the film and critics have referred to Tucker's criminal activities as a "skill," a "hobby," or even an "art form."
Sounding like a volunteer at a homeless shelter, one critic states that Tucker is "a man who loved his work." Lowery asserts that he is "always attracted to these characters because of their spirit." For the director, the idea of "getting away with it" has a certain appeal and he compares it to his own life as a filmmaker who feels like "he consistently has to get away with it." For others, however, who do not look at robbing hundreds of people of their money as a fun thing to do, getting away with it is problematic.
Manbiki kazoku (2018)
Koreeda's empathy is displayed in the beauty of small moments
The great Japanese director Hiorkazu Koreeda ("The Third Murderer") continues his exploration of the true meaning of family In Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku), a quest he began in his award-winning 2013 film, "Like Father, Like Son." Winner of the Palme d'Or award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and the first Japanese film to win the award since Shohei Imamura's "The Eel" in 1997, the film is focused on marginalized people existing on the fringes of Japanese society who barely eke out a living by engaging in activities that skirt the letter of the law. It is the story of flawed people who have patched together a working "family" of outcasts who believe that the impulse to survive and create a nurturing environment is more important than strict adherence to society's norms.
The film opens in a supermarket where Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky, "After the Storm"), a middle-aged, part-time construction worker, is seen exchanging strange hand signals with a pre-teenage boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi), who seems to regard what is going on as a family outing. It quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary family shopping spree but an exercise in shoplifting, as we watch Shota casually throw items from the shelves into his shopping bag when no one is looking. Justifying their flouting of the law, Osamu says that if the goods are in the store, it means that they do not belong to anyone, and tells Shota that they are stealing the items only as a means of helping the family.
Much later when questioned about stealing by the authorities, sadly he says that shoplifting was the only skill he had to teach the boy. Osamu, as it is gradually revealed, is the head of a household consisting of husband (Franky) and wife Noboyu (Sakura Andô, "Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura"), teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka, "Tremble All You Want"), her younger brother Shota (Kairi), and grandma Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki, "I Wish"), all living in a small, cluttered apartment outside of Tokyo, scattered toys and knick-knacks everywhere, barely providing the family with enough room to eat and sleep.
The family, as it turns out, is one in name only, consisting of those who have been "picked up along the way," and brought together as a means of mutual support. We discover that it is not only Osamu and Shota that are engaged in dubious activity but the others as well. Noboyu works as an attendant in a laundry and pockets things people leave in their pockets. Aki contributes by working in a porn shop, performing sex acts for men who are hidden from her view, while grandma is a conniver who plays the pachinko slot machines, claims her deceased husband's pension, and collects money from his son from another marriage.
The family's lives change drastically when Osamu and Shota find Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a shivering little girl of four or five alone in the streets, seemingly abandoned. With her protection in mind, Osamu, who renames her Rin, brings the little girl home and discovers bruises on her arms that indicate she has been physically abused. Later, they see a news story on television about a child who is missing and how authorities are conducting an extensive search for her. Justifying their decision to hide the girl from the authorities, Osamu tells the others that it is not kidnapping unless you ask for ransom.
Osamu claims that they fear for her safety if she is returned to an abusive situation, yet he is not above using her as a decoy in markets as he and Shota engage in shoplifting. Through it all, Koreeda does not stand in judgment of his characters but simply observes the trajectory of their life in the tradition of Ozu and Naruse. When he moves into darker territory in the film's last section, its main focus remains on the humanity of the characters. When Nobuyo disposes of an item that is a painful reminder for Yuri about the family that abused her, she gives her a big hug, explaining that when people love each other, they give them hugs and do not hit them. In an exquisite moment, Yuri places her hand on Nobuyo's face who lets it remain there for a few minutes.
While Shoplifters contains elements that are painful to watch, what we take with us is Koreeda's empathy displayed in the beauty of small moments: The joy of trips to the beach, the sexual intimacy between partners that has been long repressed, and the expression on the faces of young children aware, perhaps for the first time, that they are loved.
The Sisters Brothers (2018)
The Smothers Brothers they are not
The Smothers Brothers they are not. Brothers Eli (John C. Reilly, "Kong: Skull Island") and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix, "You Were Never Really Here") Sisters, known to all as the Sisters Brothers, are deadly serious. Hired assassins who prowl the Old West looking for their prey, they operate at the behest of a mysterious figure known only as "The Commodore" (Rutger Hauer, "The Mill and the Cross") and go about their tasks with keen precision. Winner of the Silver Lion award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, Jacques Audiard's ("Dheepan") first English-language film The Sisters Brothers is a Western that has more on its mind than Cowboys and Indians. Though it has its share of violence, there is nothing of John Wayne in the film and, may I add, probably very little of the real West.
Written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain ("Rust and Bone"), the film is set in the Oregon Territory in 1851 during Gold Rush days. Based on Patrick DeWitt's novel of the same name, the film features the love/hate relationship between two siblings, the volatile and alcoholic Charlie and his more responsible brother Eli, also a killer but with a soft(er) side. While Phoenix does his usual workman like job, Reilly is the real standout in his first lead role, showing a gritty determination with a side of humor and a touch of melancholy.
The film opens with a barrage of gunfire as the two men raid a farm in the middle of the night. Their target is one man but there are six dead bodies at the end, prompting Eli to tell Charlie that we messed that one up pretty good (though he did not use that precise terminology). Always ready to stick it to his brother, Charlie declares that he will be the "lead man" on their next assignment. The brothers are far from incompetent, however, and have a reputation for being a two-pronged killing machine whose interests lie no farther than getting the job done. In their next assignment, the brothers are dispatched to track down, torture, and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"), a chemist and prospector whose invention of a device that is alleged to make gold sparkle and rise to the surface of a lake or river is coveted by the Commodore.
Enhanced by a delightful score by Alexandre Desplat ("Isle of Dogs"), the brothers ride their horses over gorgeous Western vistas shot by cinematographer Benoît Debie, ("Spring Breakers"), though it was actually filmed in Spain and Romania. Capturing Warm, however, has been left to John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Stronger"), an incongruously elegant detective who proceeds to strike up a friendship with the articulate prospector that saves him from torture and death at the hands of the Sisters. Although their friendship may be primarily about a business partnership, Warm entrances Morris with his talk of a utopian community in Texas where everyone is equal, there is no crime or violence and presumably, like in the Norwegian folk song Oleanna, "the cows all like to milk themselves and the hens lay eggs ten times a day."
Bickering most of the time and leaving a few dead bodies along the way, the Sisters find their way to California and eventually San Francisco where Eli becomes enamored with such modern inventions as flush toilets and toothbrushes, perhaps a signal that their way of life is coming to an end. Eventually meeting up with Morris and Warm, they try their luck at prospecting until greed, as it often does, gets in the way. Eli talks of quitting the life and returning to domesticity, perhaps opening a store with Charlie, but he will have none of it, saying that he has never known any other way of life and wants to keep doing what he's doing.
The Sisters Brothers takes place in a Western atmosphere we are unfamiliar with. The two men are not one-dimensional gunslingers and opportunists but real people who exhibit a degree of self-reflection. As the film progresses, a transformation occurs that lifts the film to another level. After a poisonous spider finds its way into Eli's mouth, Charlie is forced to care for him and the brothers bond in a gentler, more caring way. Though The Sisters Brothers attempts to attain a balance between action/adventure and dark comedy, its message of human connection and the longing for a more just society strikes a responsive chord in an age overflowing with cynicism.
Eighth Grade (2018)
A Sweet and Touching Film
All I remember from eighth grade was being shunted from the Glee Club to the Stamp Club because, as my music teacher said, "it would be a better fit for you." Better fit or not, it interfered with my plan to be a show biz star in the mold of Al Jolson. Unlike awkward pre-teen Kayla (Elsie Fisher, voice of Agnes in "Despicable Me 2") in 27-year-old director Bo Burnham's coming-of-age comedy/drama Eighth Grade, however, I had no smartphone, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube, or other social media with which to direct my existential dismay. Withdrawn, insecure, and lacking in self-esteem, Kayla is in her last week of eighth grade before she tackles the dreaded high school, even more of a challenge.
Voted by her classmates as "most quiet," Kayla does not talk much and apparently has no friends. She feels emboldened enough, however, to offer a series of instructional videos on Youtube called "Kayla's Corner," in which she gives advice to others on such subjects as being yourself, putting yourself "out there," and turning pretend confidence into the real thing. Stumbling her way through her delivery with a variety of "ums," "ers," "likes," "you knows," and "whatevers," (the way the director must believe all teens speak), the videos offer some good lessons. While they may not be reaching their intended demographic, they certainly hit home to an audience of one, namely Kayla.
Living with her divorced, overly solicitous dad Mark (Josh Hamilton, "The Meyerowitz Stories"), the sullen Kayla resists anything more than one-word answers to her dad's attempts at conversation, preferring to immerse herself deeply in her laptop and smartphone. She reluctantly agrees to attend classmate Kennedy's (Catherine Oliviere, "The Weaver of Raveloe") birthday pool party after an invitation from Kennedy's mom (Missy Yager, "Manchester by the Sea"), but ultimately probably wishes she hadn't. The condescending Kennedy sneers at Kayla's birthday present of a board game which Kayla insists is a lot of fun but fun doesn't seem to be present at that moment.
Her stoop-shouldered dumpy look and the fact that she is the only one without a bikini unfortunately does not attract much attention from the boys, except for Kennedy's cousin Gabe (Jack Ryan, "Moonrise Kingdom"), who is into underwater game playing. Kayla has her eye on Aiden (Luke Prael, "), but the boy who was voted "best eyes," does not have his best eyes turned in her direction. She perks up later when, at a high school orientation, she is assigned to be high school student Olivia's (Emily Robinson, "Private Life") "shadow" and feels confident enough to go to the mall with Olivia and her friends Trevor (Fred Hechinger, "Alex Strangelove") and Aniyah (Imani Lewis, "Star," TV series).
The good feelings are abruptly derailed, however, when she catches a glimpse of her overbearing father peering at her from an upper level like a hovering guardian angel. Her decision to turn down dad's offer of a ride home, however, leads to an even more dicey encounter with Olivia's friend Riley (Daniel Zolghadri, "Ready Player One"), a "truth or dare" aficionado. Remarkably performed with authenticity by Elsie Fisher, we applaud when Kayla takes some halting steps towards maturity as exhibited in her conversation with her dad late in the film. Though their talk lacks the substance of the similar father-son conversation at the end of "Call Me by Your Name," it is still an opening for both to expand their relationship.
Eighth Grade is a sweet and touching film that presents the characters and situations as they are without judgment or evaluation. (Unfortunately, eighth graders cannot see the film without a parent because of an R rating for language, though that might stimulate a dialogue between them). While Kayla comes across as innocent and needy and we root for her, unfortunately, her character lacks the nuance or depth that could have taken the film to another level. While we know that it is a struggle for teens to fit in and there have been reported incidents of anxiety and depression among middle school students, Burnham's portrayal of the eighth grade as being somewhat akin to Dante's Inferno ignores the fact that there are other things on the mind of many adolescents besides obsession with their "devices," and that true self-awareness can only begin when you take steps to become involved in things larger than yourself.
Estiu 1993 (2017)
A sensitive and nuanced hymn to childhood
Boxes are stacked in the living room of six-year-old Frida's (Laia Artigas) house as she prepares to go and live with her Uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer, "Anchor and Hope") and Aunt Marga (Bruna Cusi, "Uncertain Glory") after the death of her mother. Spain's submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2018 Oscars, director Carla Simón's autobiographical Summer 1993 (Estiu 1993) is a sensitive and nuanced hymn to childhood whose magic is interrupted by the sudden dark intrusions of the adult world. As the foundations of six-year-old Frida's belief in the world as a safe place are shattered, she must come to terms with living with a new set of parents in a rural Catalan village far removed from the city of Barcelona in which she grew up.
Calling on her childhood recollections, Simón's film consists of vignettes focusing on Frida's ability to adjust to her profoundly changed life. The relationship between Frida and her three-year-old cousin Anna (Paula Robles) alternates between the joy of spontaneous play, and Frida's acting out her grief in ways that threaten Anna's well being. From having fun playing in the bathtub to play acting as grown-ups and to joining a local Basque Carnival, the performances are so natural that they seem improvised. Though Esteve and Marga are warm people who are generous in their love, Frida is tentative and withdrawn. A visit to a doctor for testing show their concern about Frida carrying the AIDS virus (which it is hinted her mother died from), but the significance of the visit does not register on the child.
Emotions bubbling beneath the surface do not appear until a visit by Frida's grandparents Avi and Avia (Fermí Reixach, "Night and Day," TV series and Isabel Rocatti, "El dia de mañana," TV series). Prompted by her grandmother's focus on praying, Frida sneaks out of the house at night to leave gifts for her mother in the woods near the statue of the Virgin Mary, but confides in no one. The grandparent's visit is traumatic for Frida, however. Despite their disparaging comments about their daughter's lifestyle expressed in Frida's presence, she desperately wants to go home with them and has to be physically restrained by her uncle. As her anger begins to surface, Frida uses Anna as a target of her distress, telling her cousin that she has so many dolls because her parents loved her so much.
She also encourages Anna to jump into a pool with her even though she knows the water is above her head. In an even scarier incident, Frida leaves Anna by herself in the woods, telling her to wait there until she comes back. When she doesn't return, Marga panics while Anna falls and breaks her arm causing Marga to say that Frida is used to getting her own way and needs greater discipline, telling Esteve, "That girl has no morals." Having overheard the conversation, Frida decides to run away, heartbreakingly telling Anna that "no one loves me here." Led by Artigas' remarkably expressive performance, Simón guides the film to its stunning conclusion with a sure hand that avoids sentimentality, relying only on the resilience of childhood innocence and the impeccable strength of love to achieve its results.
On the Seventh Day (2017)
Turns from a slice of life story into a galvanizing sports movie
For many, playing a game of soccer on a Sunday afternoon is a pleasant way to spend time with friends before the next work week begins. For a group of undocumented workers living in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, however, a Sunday soccer game is more than that. It is an expression of community, of bonding, and of mutual support against the always-threatening disruption of their lives. Set in the summer of 2016, Jim McKay's ("The Good Fight" TV series) En el Séptimo Dia (On the Seventh Day) is a powerful look at the lives of eight Mexican immigrants who live together in a one room flat and who work six days a week as delivery men, construction workers, janitors, dishwashers, and street vendors, the type of people who rarely garner much attention in mainstream films.
The film, however, is without any overt political agenda. McKay does not portray the characters as victims, but as human beings who struggle to make a living and who, like everyone else, have moments of joy and sadness. Though the director is a white man in charge of a cast of non-professional Hispanic actors, José (Fernando Cardona), Artemio (Genoel Ramírez), Elmer (Gilberto Jimenez) and Jesús (Abel Perez) to name a few, his empathetic ability to penetrate and understand the lives of the people he works with makes the film essentially color blind. Using English and Spanish subtitles (sometimes both at the same time), the focus is on one week in the life of the soccer team "Puebla," named after the Mexican city most of the members hail from.
After winning the semis, the team has one week to prepare for the finals the following Sunday. Complications arise almost immediately, however, when Artemio, hurts his knee during the game and has to be replaced. Also, later in the week, their star player, the intense, poker-faced José, a delivery man for a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens, reluctantly tells the team that he will be unable to play. The restaurant he works for will be hosting an important party on Sunday and Steve (Christopher Gabriel Núñez), his straightforward but mostly uncaring boss, tells José that he expects him to show up for work. "All hands on deck," the skipper tells his subordinate crew.
Much of En el Séptimo Dia takes place in the South Brooklyn neighborhood built by immigrants and which now contains a diverse population of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and other Hispanics, as well as Chinese and Indians. It is lovingly captured by cinematographer Charles Libin ("Remote Control") who provides a look at the colorful streets against a shimmering backdrop of Manhattan's tall towers, the New York Harbor, and the Statue of Liberty. We see many shots of José speeding around the city often in a heavy rainstorm, dodging traffic, taking shortcuts, getting into conversations with people in the neighborhood and, above all, protecting his bike, his only means of livelihood.
As José works his way daily through his confined environment, he has to put up with surly business people, such as one who neglects to show up to receive his delivery, then later complains that the food is cold. Afraid of losing his job but not wanting to disappoint his team, José has much to think about during the week. With a pregnant wife in Mexico whose dream is to come to the States to deliver her baby (very unlikely today), an upcoming vacation, and a vague promise by his boss of a promotion and help getting his papers, José has to consider the practicalities as well as his loyalty to the team.
As the days progress leading up to the big game, the tension builds until the game itself turns the film from a slice of life tale into a galvanizing sports movie. When a Puebla's fan comes up with a borderline crazy idea, a possibility opens that would allow José to play in the finals and still keep his job. Though the answer as to whether or not it can work is "blowin' in the wind," a lonely mariachi singer laying down his weary tune on a fast-emptying city street tells us all we need to know about the promise and the danger.
Three Identical Strangers (2018)
From happy reunion to events much darker in tone
Though the story has been told before, (again recently in the New York Post of June 24th), seeing how three young lives were damaged in the name of scientific research turns the story from an interesting read into a visceral and ultimately heartbreaking experience. Tim Wardle's ("One Killer Punch") investigative documentary Three Identical Strangers traces the lives of triplets, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman, all born to a teenage girl on July 12, 1961 in Glen Cove, New York. Placed in different homes by the same adoption agency at the age of six months, neither children nor the adopting parents were told about any other family members, only that the children were part of a "routine childhood-development study" which would require periodic visits and testing.
Using archival footage, home movies, interviews, and recreations, the film traces the trajectory of the boys' life from their happy reunion after nineteen years to subsequent events that are much darker in tone. The boys discovered that they were members of a family of triplets almost by accident. When Robert began his freshman year at Sullivan County Community College, he was repeatedly mistaken for Eddy (who had previously attended the school) and who he soon learned was the twin brother he had never known.
The story of the reunion of the long lost siblings received wide attention in the newspapers and was spotted by David, the third brother, a student at Queens College, and the three were reunited in a tale so amazing that Shafran is quoted as saying, "I wouldn't believe it if someone else was telling it." The happy reunion becomes fodder for media talk shows as the three are interviewed by Phil Donahue, Tom Brokaw and others and display an abundance of charm and sincerity. Without mentioning any possible differences that might exist, they talk about all the things they have in common.
Posing in the same position on stage, they tell us that each of their families had an older sister, they all wrestled in high school, they all like the same color, smoke the same cigarettes (here's a nod to Marlboro), like the same type of women, and, presumably enjoy the same kind of fawning publicity. The rush of fame soon becomes a crescendo and the brothers even make a cameo appearance in the movie "Desperately Seeking Susan." With David and Robert providing the narration and with non-stop pop songs in the background, we follow their lives as they move in together and open a successful restaurant in Soho appropriately called "Triplets."
After a period of time, however, a family dispute, the nature of which is undisclosed in the film, ends in Robert leaving the restaurant and moving out. Little by little, disturbing events surface. As Bob Dylan's song goes, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." As told by journalist Lawrence Wright, the reporter who broke the story, we learn that all three brothers had emotional problems. Kellman and Galland had spent time in a psychiatric hospital and Shafran was on probation after having pleaded guilty to charges connected to a robbery. We also learn about Dr. Peter Neubauer, a highly regarded psychologist and Holocaust survivor who ran the research study, the Louise Wise adoption agency, and the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, all who played a role in the events surrounding the triplet's lives.
Wardle also includes the story of two other twins, sisters separated at birth by the same adoption agency. While there are important events described in the film that are best left for the viewer to discover, needless to say, they are very disturbing. Although some of the film's conclusions are little more than speculation and there are many things that are still not known (records are sealed until 2066), what we do know is enough to shake our faith in any scientific research divorced from considerations of humanity.
Un beau soleil intérieur (2017)
Seems to have a built-in mechanism for self destruction
"You don't have to go looking for love when it's where you come from" - Werner Erhard
Isabelle (Juliet Binoche, "Ghost in the Shell"), a divorced fiftyish artist, is attractive, urbane, and highly intelligent but her relationships seem to have a built-in mechanism for self destruction. The men in Isabelle's life offer her little except temporary physical pleasure and are pretty much ciphers (and not very nice ones at that). Loosely based on Roland Barthes' book "A Lover's Discourse: Fragments" with a screenplay by Christine Angot, Claire Denis' sophisticated comedy/drama Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) is lighter fare than normal for Denis, but it has its probing, self-reflective moments and Juliet Binoche, as usual, is an appealing screen presence.
Like many of us, Isabelle wants to find someone who fits her pictures but, as most of us discover sooner or later, life often does not fit our pictures. All of Isabelle's relationships start out to be very promising but eventually the decisions she makes about her partners seem to get in the way of her satisfaction. Whatever she thinks that she is looking for, she does not find it with either banker Vincent (Xavier Beauvois, "Django"), actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle, "Wedding Unplanned"), ex-husband Francois (Laurent Gréville, "A Perfect Man"), or any other potential beau for that matter. The film begins with Isabelle in bed with the married, pretentious Vincent. Things are looking a-ok until she decides that he is taking too long to climax, a fact she decides reflects badly on her.
Vincent asks her whether she has had more success with other lovers, but her response is a convincing slap in the face. She is with him when he bullies a bartender but she does not react. The next time he visits her in her apartment, however, she calls him an unrepeatable name, then tells him to leave and not come back. Instead, she hooks up with a young actor (Duvauchelle), also married, though with a better disposition. When she invites him in for a drink, they play endless games about whether he should stay or leave. When he decides to stay, they go through the motions together but by the next morning he concludes that things were better before they had sex and wishes that it had not happened.
The next one up is François (Gréville), Isabelle's ex-husband, who is concerned about their ten-year-old daughter after she tells him that her mother cries every night. This is not good news for her to hear and she uses it as a reason to end any chance for reconciliation. There are several more suitors that follow but Isabelle always finds something about them that she dislikes. She meets Sylvain (Paul Blain, "All is Forgiven") at a club who literally carries her away with pleasure as they dance to Etta James' beautiful "At Last." Unfortunately, Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès, "Chocolat"), an art gallery owner, convinces her that Sylvain is wrong for her because he is not a good fit for her circle. This provides cover for her to end yet another relationship, one that had barely even begun. There is not much left for her of course but to go to a clairvoyant (Gerard Depardieu, "You Only Live Once"), but his banter provides little certainty that she will find "the one." There are times in Let the Sunshine In when Isabelle has moments of happiness and optimism, but she can also come across as needy and, at times, almost desperate. Through the magic of Binoche's performance, Isabelle is a sympathetic figure and one that we root for. Her quest, however, has a touch of game playing to it and it seems that, for Isabelle, it may not be whether you win or lose but how you play the game.
Leave No Trace (2018)
About the power of self creation
Based on the novel "My Abandonment" by Peter Rock and adapted from a screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini, Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is the story of Will (Ben Foster, "Hostiles"), a troubled army veteran suffering from PTSD who lives with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, "The Changeover") in a camp they built themselves in the woods near Portland, Oregon. Like Granik's 2010 film "Winter's Bone" that chronicled the lives of people living on the margins in the rural Ozarks of Missouri, Leave No Trace is an uncompromising look at a non-conforming father and his young daughter living off the grid, doing their best to survive in a society they do not understand or wish to be a part of.
Opening in a heavily forested area in a large public park, cinematographer Michael McDonough ("Sunset Song") creates a mood of isolation far removed from the world of television, computers, and smart phones. Will and daughter Tom, remarkably performed by newcomer McKenzie, chop wood, play chess, cook their own meals, and train themselves to avoid being detected. There are no flashbacks and little backstory and it is left to us to guess how long they have lived there, what Will's military trauma was like, or what happened to Tom's mother. What is certain, however, is that they are not on a summer vacation. When they go into the city for groceries, the sudden contrast between the forest and the shrieking sounds of city life is instantly jarring. Buying groceries, however, is not all Will has come for.
Visiting the VA hospital, he picks up prescriptions for painkillers which he sells for cash to hangers on living on the outskirts of the park. It is his only means of support. His independent way of life is threatened, however, when Tom is inadvertently seen by a passing jogger who alerts the authorities and they are forced out of hiding by the police and their sniffing dogs. Separated, Tom is sent to a detention center for young girls, while Will must take a series of psychological tests where he has to confront thoughts and feelings that he had long suppressed. Before being torn apart, Will reassures his daughter that "we can still have our own thoughts," but it is unconvincing.
Though they are being "processed" and are in effect beholden to the system, Granik avoids the kind of scapegoating depicted in films such as the recent "I, Daniel Blake," which shows all government workers as ogres. Here they are real people who treat Will and Tom with respect and a grudging admiration. Father and daughter are eventually reunited on a farm where Will helps the owner Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober, "Sully") harvest Christmas trees. As they settle into their new environment, Tom learns how to ride a bike, Dale (Dale Dickey, "Hell or High Water"), a local woman, shows her how to approach a bee hive safely, they attend a church service, and Tom meets a young boy (Isaiah Stone, "American Honey") who invites her to a 4-H meeting where they are taught to train rabbits.
Though she is beginning to like it, Will is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with living in a community that requires him to give of himself to others. Still disturbed by night terrors, the look on his face suggests that he is just biding his time until he can return to the woods. Fueled by the atmospheric original score of Dickon Hinchliffe ("Little Men"), Leave No Trace unfolds without manipulation or sentimentality. Unlike last year's "Captain Fantastic" which romanticized living outside of "the system," it is less of a statement about freedom from a system that one deems oppressive than about a man who has found a way to cope but is psychologically closed off from others, unable or unwilling to engage in the demands of accepted social interaction.
The film does not exploit its characters or engage in "us against the world" messaging but reveals its inner truths with restraint and authenticity. Rather than showing the effects of a society in freefall, Granik makes us aware that there is still kindness left in the world. Though we can empathize with Will and Tom, we know too well that the universe is governed by impermanence and that eventually we all will have to let go of our attachments. To quote philosopher Henri Bergson, "To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." Leave No Trace is not only a film about survival but also about the power of self creation.
Les gardiennes (2017)
A work of compelling emotional force
In his film "Of Gods and Men," director Xavier Beauvois tells the story of seven Roman Catholic French Trappist monks kidnapped by radical Islamists from their monastery in a village in Algeria during the Algerian Civil War, and the sacrifices that people of good will in both religions were willing to make. Sacrifice is also a theme of Beauvois latest film, The Guardians, his first film shot in digital. It is a superbly realized and emotionally engaging film that dramatizes the strength and courage of the women left behind during World War I when all able-bodied men were fighting in the trenches. A quiet, contemplative film, it is beautifully photographed by Caroline Champetier ("The Innocents") who captures the bucolic loveliness of the Limousin area of south central France.
Now part of the new region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, it is the least populated region of Metropolitan France and most likely has not changed much since the years in which the film takes place. Based on a 1924 novel by war veteran Ernest Pérochon, Beauvois and his co-writers Frédérique Moreau and Marie-Julie Maille gradually reveal the impact of the war on one family whose two sons and son-in-law have left for the front. Supported by a moving score by Michelle Legrand ("The Price of Fame"), the film covers a period of five years from 1915 to 1920, the years during and following the Great War in Europe, one that would claim an estimated 45 million military dead and wounded and 7.7 million missing or imprisoned.
The film opens in 1915 in a combat zone where we see the bodies of dead soldiers lying in the mud. The scene abruptly shifts to the Paridier farm in France, a place of quiet beauty that stands in sharp contrast to the heartbreak of the battlefield. It is a difficult time for the farm run by widowed matriarch Hortense Sandrail (Nathalie Baye, "Moka") with the help of her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, "Yves Saint-Laurent," Baye's real-life daughter) and her elderly father Henri (Gilbert Bonneau). Beauvois shows the heroism of the women furrowing, seeding, harvesting, grinding wheat, and taking it to market. It is backbreaking work and will be years before combines and tractors are introduced.
As the men periodically return home on leave, it becomes clear that each of them is damaged in some way. Hortense's oldest son Constant (Nicholas Giraud, "Anton Chekhov 1890"), a former schoolteacher, tells his mother that he endured, "two years of hell, some people went mad," and says without any evidence that "after the war, it will be different." Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin, "My Golden Days"), Solange's husband drinks heavily and stands up for the humanity of the Germans ("they are just like us") in opposition to the feelings of the family and the community. Finally, it is Hortense's son Georges (Cyril Descours, "Red Sky") who carries himself with a certain pride and even arrogance.
Frustrated by the need for another person to help her run the farm during the harvest season, Hortense hires Francine, a twenty-year-old auburn-haired orphan, remarkably performed by newcomer Iris Bly. In addition to the chores, Hortense must contend with some rowdy American soldiers stationed in the village awaiting their orders, while also looking after Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux), Clovis's daughter from his first marriage. Complications arise when Francine and George fall in love, much to the chagrin of the much younger Marguerite, assumed to be the girl that George would marry. The friction between members of the family forms the centerpiece of the film and Beauvois weaves a complex and unpredictable story without resorting to melodrama.
Unfortunately, when the town's rumor mill goes into high gear spreading all kinds of rumors, Francine's future is left on shaky ground. Even more disturbing is the sad news from the front delivered by a local official who just appears at the door. As events unfold, we are drawn closer to each character, able to relate to their hopes and sorrows as if we have known them all of their lives. Though The Guardians is a film of subtlety and restraint, it is also a work of compelling emotional force and one of the year's best films.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
It is inspiring to be reminded of what kindness and love is all about
When we think of radicals and revolutionary figures of the sixties, names like Ché Guevara or Stokely Carmichael might come up, but probably the last person we would think of would be Fred McFeely Rogers, the soft-spoken writer, producer, and star of the long-running children's television program "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" (1968-2001). Yet the theme song that opened each show, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" with its line, "I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you," was a pretty radical idea to those who did not relish having some folks being their neighbor. Rogers' lifelong devotion to building an alternative community that could serve as a model of inclusion for children and adults to emulate is movingly documented by Oscar winning director Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom") in Won't You Be My Neighbor?
The film is an inspiring tribute to Rogers, a pacifist and former ordained Presbyterian minister who, over a period of more than thirty years on television, stood for the idea that there is a divine spark in all of us that needs to be nurtured. Looking at Rogers' life and career through the eyes of those who knew him the best, those interviewed include his wife Joanne, his two sons John and James who describe the challenge of having "the second Christ as a father," cast members David Newell (Mr. McFeely), François Clemmons (Officer Clemmons), and Joe Negri ("Handyman"), and guests such as acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo-Ma.
Rogers was originally drawn to educational television as a result of his disdain for the demeaning and violent cartoons that marked children's television programming at the time. While his show was usually lighthearted, he did not shun controversial topics such as death, feeling blue, divorce, and assassination which he talked about with the children after Bobby Kennedy was killed. While Neville does not go into any depth about Rogers' personal or political life, it does single out his stand against the Vietnam War, his bringing an African-American teacher and a group of black students into his home and, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, his invitation to a black police officer (Clemmons) to be on his show during which they sat and talked together with their feet in a wading pool.
Also documented is Rogers' 1969 testimony before the United States Senate requesting a $20 million grant to continue funding PBS after their budget had been cut because of the Vietnam War. At the hearing, he won over the reluctant Rhode Island Senator John Pastore by reciting the lyrics to the song "What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?" After listening to the words, Pastore declared, "I think it's wonderful. I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million." Teased by classmates for being overweight as a boy (they called him "Fat Freddie"), Rogers never forgot the pain of being an outsider and had to deal with his own problems of self-esteem and depression his whole life.
Rogers' wife Joanne tells us that he used his puppets including Daniel Striped Tiger to reflect on his most vulnerable feelings, one of ten voices that he used on the program. One of the most moving sequences is his conversation with Jeff Erlanger, a severely disabled ten-year-old, in which they talk openly about disability and the sadness that often accompanies it. To make sure we know that he was not a saint, Neville recounts how Rogers told Clemmons not to be seen frequenting a gay bar because the show would lose sponsors, but also makes clear that he eventually came around to fully accept him regardless of his sexual preferences.
The centerpiece of Won't You Be My Neighbor? is not politics, however, but Mister Rogers' ability to touch the lives of children and make them feel special, many of whom responded to him with lifelong affection. Accused of promoting a feeling of entitlement in each child, Rogers said, "Only people who take the time to see our work can begin to understand the depth of it." Professor Michael Long, the author of the 2015 book "Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers," says that he spent his life assuring children that no matter what they look like, no matter who they were, no matter where they came from, deep within them was something that was lovable and capable of loving." Especially today when some children are being used as political pawns, it is inspiring to be reminded of what kindness and love is all about.
First Reformed (2017)
A priest torn between hope and despair
In a day where some churches feel that the larger donation you make, the closer you will be to God, and where the biggest donors are the ones despoiling the planet, there are several choices you can make: Blow yourself up and take some transgressors with you, accept it and internalize your despair, or find grace even in the most unlikely places. That is the dilemma facing Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, "Maudie") in Paul Schrader's ("The Canyons") First Reformed, the story of a lonely, tormented priest seeking redemption for the sins he believes threaten the world. In his latest film, the writer of such iconic film classics as "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," and "The Last Temptation of Christ" pays homage to austere filmmakers of the past such as Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky while adding his own touch of melodrama.
Like Travis Bickle, the mentally disturbed loner in "Taxi Driver" who turns to violence thinking it will make the world a better place, the gaunt, sickly Toller wrestles with how to respond to the possibility that the Earth is facing environmental catastrophe. Shot by Alexander Dynan ("Franca: Chaos and Creation"), the film begins as the camera zeroes in on a pristine white Dutch Reformed Church in upstate New York. Toller is the pastor of the church that was once part of the network known as the Underground Railroad, a safe house used to protect slaves headed to Canada. Unfortunately, the church now has sparse attendance and is more of a souvenir shop and tourist attraction than a place of worship.
A nearby church, Abundant Life Ministries, led by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, "Barbershop: The Next Cut"), and Ed Balq (Michael Gaston, "Bridge of Spies"), a wealthy conservative industrialist, constitutes the main support for First Reformed and is the biggest donor for their 250th anniversary celebration. Searching for the meaning of life after his son was killed in the Iraq War, Father Toller carries with him the burden of having persuaded the boy to enlist and the sadness of his marriage breakup after his son's death.
He writes daily in the journal that he intends to burn after one year, conveying his thoughts and feelings about his struggles, his words conveyed to us in voiceover. Meaning comes to Toller in the person of Michael (Philip Ettinger, "Indignation"), an environmental activist who has just been released from prison for protesting assaults on the environment. Toller's meeting with Michael was arranged by his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried, "Love the Coopers"), a young pregnant woman frightened because her husband says that he wants to "kill the baby," a disparaging reference to abortion. In a riveting discussion with Michael, in which the activist details scientists concern for the future ecological stability of the world, Father Toller discovers that he is uncertain about his own feelings and struggles to understand why Michael does not want to bring a child into the world.
He is soon convinced, however, that God is angry about how humans are treating the planet and is ready to translate his feelings into action. The problem becomes more urgent when Mary discovers a suicide vest that Michael has built and confides in Toller that she is frightened about what his plans may entail. As Toller's health deteriorates, Reverend Jeffers and Esther (Victoria Hill, "Boys in the Trees"), the leader of the choir at Abundant Life and a former relationship, become concerned. Toller must now come face to face, not only with his health issues, but with the ramifications of a sudden traumatic event.
As the relationship between Mary and Toller become closer, in one scene, they lie face to face and experience a levitating spiritual epiphany, a lovely journey that takes them far beyond the Earth and allows them to put the stars in their pocket, capture Orion and dance among the Pleiades. As Schrader describes it, it is "that parallel world that we know is there but can't see . . . a world right next to these characters, running right alongside of them, which they can almost reach out and touch." Unfortunately, the experience is fleeting and the depressed Toller contemplates a radical way out. First Reformed is a bleak film but it is one that challenges us to confront issues that many filmmakers would rather avoid - what does it mean to be human?
Does our life have any meaning other than the one we ascribe to it? As the distraught priest, Ethan Hawke brings a tender humanity to the role, capturing the essence of a man torn between hope and despair. Perhaps the film that it most resembles is Robert Bresson's 1951 masterpiece "Diary of a Country Priest," based on the novel by Georges Bernanos. In that film, the Curé d'Ambricourt, a young Catholic priest assigned to a small country parish, is dying of stomach cancer and can only consume bread and wine. Rejected by his flock who think he is a drunk, the priest never loses his faith, the purity of his spirit, and his love of God, ultimately achieving the luminous awareness that grace is everywhere.
Like the Curé, Reverend Toller is challenged to discover that basing one's actions on anger and self pity cannot solve the world's problems, and that it is only love which is, to quote author Kevin Williams, "the very essence of being, the single point of infinite light, and the very life force of the universe."
In Lucrecia Martel's masterfully hypnotic Zama, the sensuous and seductive Luciana Pinares de Lueñga (Lola Dueñas, "Can't Say Goodbye") says that "Europe is best remembered by those who were never there." If Zama is any indication, we might also conclude that South America might be better remembered if the Spanish conquistadors were never there. Based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto (recently translated into English) and set on the coast of Paraguay in the late 1700s, Martel's first feature in nine years explores the tragic legacy of European colonialism in South America through the gradual descent into madness of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho, "The Promise"), a bureaucratic functionary of imperial Spain existing on the periphery of power.
Perhaps reflecting the arrogance and entitlement that Martel has suggested characterizes Argentina's middle class, the prideful Don Diego is stuck in an isolated settlement in Asunción while waiting for a transfer to Lerma, the capital of Argentina's Salta region where he hopes to reunite with his wife and child. Zama feels that he is performing an important function for the Crown and that his services should be rewarded with a transfer, though his birth in the Americas and not Spain is against him. It is a transfer that seems, however, to be beyond his grasp. The film opens as Zama dressed in full colonial regalia and three-cornered hat stands on a beach looking out at the Paraguay River like an actor rehearsing to play George Washington.
The air is filled with sounds of ruffled grass, the flow of water, and the buzzing of insects, only interrupted by an occasional electronic tone that signals Zama's growing stress. As a group of naked Indian women covered in mud talk to each other along the shore, Zama hides in the grass to observe them, but is discovered and chased away by one of the women who calls him a mirón, roughly translated as "voyeur." Though he responds violently, Martel says that it is easy to identify with Zama because he is an "imperfect, weak, almost bad character" and because she feels that "there is much more humanity there than in heroes."
Colonialism hovers in the background in every scene. White men and women wearing ostentatious wigs looking like time travelers from the court of Marie Antoinette are catered to by black servants, discharging their duties without emotion. In one scene, as Luciana is playing cruel games fending off Zama's desires, she is being fanned by a mute black servant. Trapped in a gloomy settlement close to the jungle and its warlike tribes, Zama's position becomes steadily more untenable and a feeling of failure is evident in his demeanor. He is even rejected by the indigenous woman with whom he has had a child and is reprimanded by a superior after an altercation with a junior officer (Juan Minujín, "Focus"). It is even more painful for him when he finds out that the officer in question has been sent to Lerma as punishment.
Realizing that he may never get his transfer, Zama joins a posse looking to find and kill the mysterious Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele, "Filhos da Pátria" TV series) who has become the go-to scapegoat for the colonizers, but his increasingly hallucinatory adventure leads only to Zama's further despair. Martel asserts that the film tries "to disturb our perception as viewers." Like her earlier films, "La Cienaga," "The Holy Girl," and "The Headless Woman," Zama challenges us to look past its ambiguity and lack of a coherent narrative to discover its slowly unfolding treasures. While Zama is a film about failure, its mixture of pride, pathos, and the absurd suggests they have much in common.
Celebration of a life
Co-directed by Julie Cohen ("American Veteran") and Betsy West, RBG is a celebration of the life and career of 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also known as the "Notorious R.B.G," a reference to the famous rock star "The Notorious B.I.G., and the title of a book about her by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. The documentary is a tribute to the accomplishments of the diminutive and pixieish woman whose legal career has promoted the cause of gender equality, abortion rights for women, laws governing search and seizure, and other social issues. The film does not pretend, however, to offer a balanced, objective perspective of Ginsburg's strengths and weaknesses as a jurist or examine any valid disagreements with her legal opinions. The only negative discussed is (what some consider to be) her inappropriate comments about a 2016 Presidential candidate.
The film opens with some carefully selected name-calling from unseen accusers who call her a variety of pejorative words such as "vile," "wicked," "zombie," and "witch," words you would normally only see strung together in a presidential tweet. Interviewed are former President Bill Clinton, Playwright Arthur R. Miller, Finist icon Gloria Stein, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, as well Ginsburg's children: Jane, a professor at Columbia Law School, James Steven, a music producer, and granddaughter Clara Spera, a graduate of Harvard Law School who refers to her grandmother as "Bubbie," an endearing Jewish term. The film highlights major aspects of Ginsburg's life including her confirmation hearing in 1993, her 56-year-marriage to the late New York tax attorney, Martin D. Ginsburg, her two-time battle with cancer, and her struggle for acceptance as a woman at Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, and her frustration in seeking to find employment as a law clerk after graduation.
Though the film has a serious purpose, views of Ginsburg doing push-ups at the gym, attending the opera, talking to high school students wearing Ginsburg T-shirts, and watching a spoof of her by comedian Kate McKinnon on "Saturday Night Live," provide a lighter side to her personality, one that we rarely see. She even jokes with the late arch-conservative jurist Anthony Scalia, and makes a humorous comment about her falling asleep at the State of the Union address. After her tenure as a law professor (one of only twenty female law professors in the country) at Rutgers University, Ginsburg became active in the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, and the most compelling part of the film is the discussion of some of the landmark court cases she was involved with.
In her capacity as general counsel for the Project, she argued and won five of six cases before the United States Supreme Court. When she argued her first case, she said, "I knew that I was speaking to men who didn't think there was any such thing as gender-based discrimination, and my job was to tell them it really exists." The cases include Frontiero v. Richardson (1973) which challenged a statute denying a married female Air Force lieutenant the right to receive the same housing allowance as a married man. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), she represented a widower denied survivor benefits under Social Security, opposing the statute that allowed widows but not widowers to collect special benefits while caring for minor children.
In one of her arguments, she quoted Sarah Grimké, 19th century abolitionist and attorney, who wrote in an 1837 letter, "I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks." After being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, her opinion was a determining factor in allowing women to attend the Virginia Military Institute for the first time. She also authored the majority opinions in United States v. Virginia, Olmstead v. L.C., and Friends of the Earth Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc.
Though she considered herself to be cautious in her approach to the law, when the court made a sharp right turn, her dissenting opinions presented a counter argument to the majority. Among others, her voice was heard in Bush v. Gore (2000) which decided the 2000 Presidential election, and in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), a decision that found Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be unconstitutional. It is clear from RBG that Ginsburg's appeal has gone far beyond her legal opinions and that she has now become an icon to millions of people throughout the world. Emma Goldman once famously noted that she did not want any part of any revolution that did not let her dance. Ruth Bader Ginsburg's lifetime of support for human rights has allowed many to dance, some for the first time.
Challenging but fails to stir us emotionally
The desire to transcend the environment in which you were raised and choose your own direction in life is central to Disobedience, a clash between religious orthodoxy and the desire for sexual freedom. Adapted from Naomi Alderman's novel of the same name, it is the first English-language effort for Chilean director Sebastian Lelio whose critically acclaimed, "A Fantastic Woman," won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2018. Co-written by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz ("Ida"), Disobedience stars Rachel Weisz ("My Cousin Rachel") as Ronit, the daughter of Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser, "Allied"), an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who suddenly collapses and dies after delivering a sermon about mankind's unique ability to be the chooser.
Her father's death prompts Ronit to return from New York where she is forced to confront the London community that she left many years ago after an altercation with her father over her sexuality and fears that she would be persuaded to get married against her will. The film opens in New York with Ronit taking photos of a man tattooed from head to foot, ice skating in a rink by herself with a glassy look in her eyes, and engaging in sex with a stranger in a public bathroom. When she returns to England for her father's funeral, she is greeted with obvious distance by the insular community who has not forgotten the circumstances that caused her to leave, though there are no overt expressions of intolerance.
Nonetheless, Ronit is greeted warmly by her cousin Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola, "You Were Never Really Here"), a student of her father, who invites her to stay in his house. Tension soon surfaces, however, when Ronit is introduced to Dovid's wife Esti (Rachel McAdams, "Game Night"), her former lover, who married at the suggestion of Ronit's father but whose pretense to be something she is not is deeply problematic. We do not discover the connection between the two women at first, but it is easy to see that Ronit is not the only one who has brought baggage to the house. Attention is all on Ronit at a dinner party where she challenges assertions that a young woman should be married and have children.
Unfortunately, only Dovid and her aunt Fruma (Bernice Stegers, "Suite Française") show any understanding. Esti is quiet and withdrawn, but emotions hidden beneath the surface seem ready to be unleashed. This in fact occurs when Esti accompanies Ronit to her father's house after Ronit learns that the house has been left to the synagogue rather than to her as part of her inheritance. Just happening to turn on an old radio which just happens to be there, the song they hear, "Love Song" by The Cure, contains such unsubtle lyrics as "Whenever I'm alone with you / You make me feel like I am home again" and "However far away / I will always love you."
Predictably, the song triggers repressed feelings and they kiss and embrace for the first time in many years. When Dovid discovers their relationship, after openly expressing his anger, he is forced to address the conflict between his love for Esti and the orthodox teachings about homosexuality. Related to that is the question of free will and choice that the Rav raised in the talk before he died and one that Dovid forcefully addresses at a gathering. Ultimately every character in the film has hard choices to make, perhaps because they neglected to make them years ago and settled for what was convenient. Yet, in the recognition and ownership of the choice that must now be made, the characters true freedom of action is recognized and celebrated.
Disobedience is a challenging film that reaches us on an intellectual level, but ultimately fails to stir us emotionally. While there are moments of excitement and spark, a lovely score by Matthew Herbert, and the spiritual power of Hebrew chants and songs hallowing the name of God, we never really get to know the characters who are more like symbols than actual human beings. Even considering its ultimate heartbreak, last year's "Call Me by Your Name," a film that contained a similar relationship, seemed to balance its sense of loss with humor, vitality, and passion. Disobedience, on the other hand, is too full of "significance," and is enveloped in a dirge-like shroud as if joy was forbidden by religious decree.
Walk with Me (2017)
Nothing exists beyond the present moment
"When you can hold the pain of the world in your heart without losing sight of the vastness of the Great Eastern Sun, then you will be able to make a proper cup of tea" - Chogyam Trungpa
Chinese Zen master Wumen Huikai said "You do not define the truth, you simply enter into it." That could be a metaphor for Walk with Me, a joyous documentary about Zen Buddhist teacher, writer, and spiritual leader Thich Nhát Hanh who was called "an apostle of peace and nonviolence" by Martin Luther King Jr. who also nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Written and directed by Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh and three years in the making, Walk with Me was filmed at the Plum Village monastery in Southwest France established by Hanh in 1982 after being exiled from his native Vietnam for his campaign of nonviolence protesting the Vietnam War.
The film is not a traditional documentary containing interviews with colleagues or academics offering a historical perspective, but rather an immersive and meditative experience that erases the line between observer and participant. It captures the life of the monastic community as they prepare meals, perform sitting and walking meditation, pray, and participate in chanting and singing. The monks and nuns have surrendered all of their personal possessions, and needless to say, there are no distractions such as cars, smart phones, smart reporters, tourists, or television. Aside from the daily rituals and chores, there is in fact nothing to do, there is only to be.
Employing an unhurried pace that may challenge some viewers, the film invites us to slow down and practice "mindfulness," the central core of Thich Nhát Hanh's teaching which refers to being present to each moment. According to Hanh, nothing exists beyond the present moment. Space and time are concepts of the mind and reminiscing about the past or speculating about the future does not bring us any closer to discovering who we really are. To make sure that no one forgets, a bell rings every fifteen minutes to remind everyone to stay focused on the moment and not perform tasks automatically. So that we know that enlightenment is always a work in progress, a young man standing in a line of monks in silent contemplation, fidgets, yawns, and rubs his head in a way suggesting he would rather be somewhere else.
Though there is little actual teaching in the film, there is a touching sequence where a little girl tells the Zen master that her little dog has died and she wants to know how to stop feeling sad. Thich Nhát Hanh tells her to look at the cloud above her and to see that when it passes, it turns into rain and that nothing ever dies. It just changes form. Providing an illuminating context, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch ("Doctor Strange") narrates portions of Thich Nhát Hanh's journal Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-66 with a background of stunning images of the vineyards in the Dordogne Valley as choreographed by Francis and Pugh. The power of the music composed by Germaine Franco and performed by Sister Trai Nghiêm is deeply moving and I cried when a visitor to the monastery is triggered by the overwhelming beauty of the music and breaks down in tears.
Surprisingly, the film shifts gears, moving from the solitude of Plum Village to the honking taxicabs and street preachers of downtown Manhattan as the monks prepare for a talk by Thich Nhát Hanh during a promotional tour. The visit to New York gives some monks the opportunity to visit their families that they only see every couple of years. While in New York, they visit a women's prison where inmates ask questions about how they handle the absence of money and the lack of sexual intimacy in their lives. There is also an unexpected reunion when an old friend recognizes a monk that he knew many years ago in the city in which they grew up.
One of the most inspiring moments is a nun's visit with her elderly father in a nursing home, leading him in prayer and breathing exercises. Although Walk with Me does not probe very deeply beneath the surface, it is nonetheless a fitting tribute to a man revered by millions who is now in his nineties and recovering from a debilitating stroke.
Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly talks about "a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. We have hints," he says, "that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power." In these days when hope and despair are constant companions, Walk with Me brings us closer to the experience of our true nature, allowing us to access, if only briefly, that unhurried serenity and the inner silence that, in Kelly's phrase, is "the source of all sound."
The Endless (2017)
The Gods Must be Crazy
Ignoring Thomas Wolfe's observation that "You can't go home again," brothers Justin (Justin Benson, "Dementia") and Aaron Smith (Aaron Moorhead, "Contracted: Phase II"), as an expression of completion, return to a California cult from which they had escaped ten years ago. Written and directed by Benson and Moorhead, The Endless is a low-budget psychological drama that juggles elements of horror and science fiction, unfolding in a world where reality is malleable and where past, present, and future exist simultaneously. Opening with a quote from legendary fantasy/horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, "The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," the film plays with time loops and apocalyptic visions, but its basic element is the relationship between siblings Aaron and Justin and their desire for mutual support.
Living in poverty and adrift in a world that offers little satisfaction for them, Justin and Aaron become nostalgic for Camp Arcadia when they discover a mysterious video tape with a message from Anna (Callie Hernandez, "Alien: Covenant"), a woman they knew at the commune. Reminded of the sense of security they felt at the camp, the friendships they made, and especially the good food they can almost taste, Aaron suggests that they visit the commune for one day and a skeptical Justin agrees to keep his brother happy. Their return is full of some trepidation as they recall stories about a "death cult," but when they arrive and find that very little seems to have changed and no one seems to have aged, they believe that they have made a good choice.
As things turn out, however, they probably wish that they had taken more time to consider their decision. Hal (Tate Ellington, "Straight Outta Compton") greets them first and welcomes them back to the camp. (He says that he's not really the leader, just someone who talks more than the others). They also meet "Smiling Dave" (David Lawson Jr., "Resolution") who never speaks presumably because he drilled a hole in his skull to find God, Jennifer Danube (Emily Montague, "Fright Night"), a woman who leaves notes all around requesting quiet, Tim (Lew Temple, "Kidnap") who forgives Justin for spreading false rumors about the camp after he left, and a perpetually angry fellow named "Shitty Carl" (James Jordan, "Wind River") whose own hanging corpse keeps him company in his shed.
Almost immediately, the brothers take part in bonding rituals, performing magic tricks with adept Shane Williams (Shane Brady, "Spring") and participating in a tug of war with an immeasurably long rope that connects to something in the sky that we can only imagine. With the insistent music of Jimmy Lavalle setting a menacing tone, all the fun and games soon morph into eerie happenings, governed by an unseen entity. Birds fly in a pattern in one direction, then instantaneously reverse course and fly in the opposite direction, huge trees decide to fall to the ground without warning, a tiger meanders through an opening in the woods, and other nerve jangling events including the sighting of totems, metallic dragon demons, and a monolith they carved on a tree or stone many years ago. One might sensibly conclude that the Gods must be crazy.
While it may be too facile to say that the time loops are endless, Benson "explains" them this way, "So when you cross into one past, you come to a different loop each time. If you want to be really specific, the radius or diameter of the circles they form, as it gets bigger, the loop gets longer and as they get smaller, the loops get smaller" - or whatever. In spite of the weirdness (or perhaps because of it), Aaron wants to stay another night and then another and the conversation between the brothers about whether to stay or leave becomes central to the film. The not overly friendly cosmic force, however, has something to say in the proceedings and no matter how much the brothers try to leave, they find themselves right back where they started.
The Endless is not a typical in-your-face horror film that leaves blood splattered in your lap, but a much more cerebral experience in which the characters are people you can recognize from your own life, people that you can care about. Although some of the scares come across as being contrived and unconvincing, there are enough thrills to keep you involved from beginning to end. Though its message of forgiveness resonates as does the growing connection between Aaron and Justin, to fully understand its message, stay tuned for the inevitable sequels. They could be endless.
Lean on Pete (2017)
Charley mirrors our own longing to connect
When I first heard about British director Andrew Haigh's ("45 Years") Lean on Pete, it sounded like a warm, cuddly drama about horses, perhaps an updated version of "The Black Stallion." The film, however, as I quickly discovered, is not about horse racing or even about horses. It is an odyssey of a 16-year-old boy (Charlie Plummer, "All the Money in the World") who becomes attached to a doomed horse and undertakes a desperate quest for support in a world that has suddenly left him alone, attempting to make sense of an America that has lost its moorings. Charley is, in poet John Banville's words, "all inwardness, gazing out in ever intensifying perplexity upon a world in which nothing is exactly plausible, nothing is exactly what it is," a boy without a past or a foreseeable future.
Based on a novel by Willy Vlautin and set in the Pacific Northwest, Charley lives with his single and much traveled dad (Travis Fimmel, "Maggie's Plan") who has come to Portland to work as a forklift driver. Unlike the quiet, polite Charley, Ray is blustery and macho, but there is no doubt about his love for his son, although he often leaves him alone. Abandoned by his mother as an infant, Charley's only other family is Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott, "20th Century Women") with whom he lost contact many years ago after she had a conflict with Ray over Charlie's upbringing.
Out jogging to acquaint himself with the neighborhood, the boy discovers a seedy looking racetrack and strikes up a friendship with a cynical, small-time horse owner who is not averse to cutting ethical corners to make a living. Earning a few dollars by assisting Del (Steve Buscemi, "The Death of Stalin"), and jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny, "Beatriz at Dinner") doing odd jobs around the track, Charley forms a bond with one of Del's disposable horses, a five-year-old quarter horse named Lean on Pete whose normal position in a horse race is dead last.
The worldly-wise Bonnie tells him, however, not to get attached to any horse saying that they are not pets, a truth that Charley realizes when he observes horses at the end of their racing days being shipped to Mexico to discover what a slaughterhouse looks like. Charley's world turns dark when his dad is severely beaten by the husband of one of his girlfriends and he is forced to earn enough money to keep up the household. As Ray's condition worsens, and Lean on Pete is slated to be sent to Mexico, Charley steals the horse in Del's truck in the middle of the night and takes to the road, seeking to find his way to Wyoming to look for Aunt Margy, without knowing anything about her whereabouts.
After Del's ancient truck breaks down, cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck ("A War") keeps us close to the sagebrush and flatlands of Eastern Oregon as the boy and his horse (to whom he confides his innermost thoughts) travel together on foot, coming into contact with both the hard working underclass of American society and the dregs who prey on the innocent and trusting.
As Charley moves from town to town, half-starving and disheveled, a child grasping onto any means to stay alive, he is forced into taking revenge on Silver (Steve Zahn, "Captain Fantastic"), a homeless man who steals his money in a drunken rage, but it is only one in a series of incidents that test his mettle and define who he is. A feeling of sadness pervades Lean on Pete, yet, like life, it is always filled with the possibility of renewal.
Charley's struggle to fit in a world that no longer welcomes him mirrors our own longing to connect, to find someone to care about and care for, to discover, as poet Carl Sandburg put it, "a voice to speak to us in the day end, a hand to touch us in the dark room, breaking the long loneliness." It is Charlie Plummer's beautiful and subtle performance that carries the film and grants us access to our own innermost experience of what it means to feel isolated in a world that we can no longer call our home.