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The Souvenir (2019)
9/10
A chronicle of a relationship that is no longer nurturing
3 July 2019
The Souvenir follows Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne, "I Am Love"), a young film student in London during the 1980s as she navigates to adulthood through a minefield of obstacles. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, The Souvenir is based on the memories of writer/director Joanna Hogg ("Exhibition") culled from her own vaguely remembered experiences in film school. Cinematographer David Raedeker ("A Christmas Carol") uses desaturated colors to display tantalizing but only marginally connected images that fleet in and out, giving the viewer the feeling of waking up from a dream and remembering only bits and pieces.

Living with bohemian students in a London flat just across from Harrods department store, Julie's financial struggles as a student belie her well-to-do background in Knightsbridge but she has no difficulty calling upon her mother Rosalind (Julie's real-life mom), played by the gracious Tilda Swinton's ("Avengers: Endgame") to ease her financial strain. Vulnerable and unsure of herself, Julie wants to transcend her limited life experience and direct a film about the dying shipbuilding industry in the town of Sunderland, focusing on a working-class family whose sixteen-year-old son has just lost his mother. Her teachers, however, tell her to find a story closer to her own experience.

When raising the question of a budget, someone from film school condescendingly tells her, "I don't suppose you really have to think about budgets in Knightsbridge, do you?" Her life changes suddenly when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke, "The Musketeers," TV series), an older man who tells her at a party that "We're all as real as each other," a statement that lifts her spirits and draws her to him. Appealing in a pin-stripe suit, the mysterious Anthony tells her that he works in the Foreign Office but there is nothing to suggest the story is true. Nonetheless, she sees him as a mentor, falling into the bubble she had so much wanted to avoid. When he tells her that she is lost, her mind tells her that she has been found. They go to the opera together, dine at upscale restaurants, and visit the Wallace Collection, an art collection in London.

The collection, which is open to the public, houses an enigmatic painting named "The Souvenir" by the 18th-century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard that depicts a young woman with her pet dog, carving letters onto the trunk of a tree. "She's very much in love," Anthony says but Julie detects other emotions such as the woman's determination to make her presence felt. Julie's relationship with Anthony goes from friend to lover and it is not long before he moves in with her, buys her expensive lingerie, and takes her on a trip to Venice. She remains flattered by the attention she has received, yet her passivity and lack of emotional expression make it difficult to know what she is thinking at any given moment.

Julie's idyllic odyssey is challenged when she finds bruises on Anthony's arm but does not give it further thought until Patrick (Richard Ayoade, "Paddington 2"), one of Anthony's friends, tells her a disturbing fact about him, something that neither Julie nor the viewer could have imagined. Though confronted with the terrifying revelation that providing emotional support for a damaged person can be a challenge beyond her capacity, she still loves him and remains by his side, keeping a watch for his return each night and amping up her resolve to stay centered while riding a roller coaster of emotions.

Byrne's understated and mostly improvised performance is a revelation and a perfect complement to Burke's turn as the charming but strangely secretive Anthony. While unreliable as autobiography, (Hogg says, "It's harder to now know what was true and what wasn't") The Souvenir is a powerful film that will especially resonate with those who may have some painful memories about their own process of growing up.

Unlike Alfonso Cuaron's award-winning "Roma," which is rigidly structured and literal in its recollection of past events, The Souvenir is intimate, impressionistic, and bathed in a gauzy sense of unreality, yet, in spite of its soft focus, it lives in your mind. As pianist Igor Levit said about music, "It has no limit, it's like air - you can't touch it. It only exists within your own imagination." If you are perplexed, stay tuned, "The Souvenir, Part Two" has just begun filming.
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8/10
Crazily magical
11 June 2019
John Chester ("Super Soul Shorts", TV documentary), a nature cinematographer, and his wife Molly, a private chef and food blogger, had always dreamed of buying a farm and moving out of their cramped Santa Monica apartment, yet there was always a reason to put it off. The catalyst that changed their life forever, however, was a black dog named Todd that they rescued from deplorable living conditions.

In their home, however, Todd suffered from severe separation anxiety and insisted on barking the entire day when left alone, much to the chagrin of their neighbors and eventually their landlord who gave them an eviction notice. Somehow they found an investor (no details given) and were able to fulfill their dream by purchasing 130 acres of land in Moorpark in Ventura County, California 50 miles north of Los Angeles. It was, however, a land ravaged by the worst drought in California in 1200 years.

In John Chester's often moving documentary, The Biggest Little Farm, John and Molly transform the dry, drought-stricken patch of land into a viable organic and biologically diverse farm they named Apricot Lane Farms. Gorgeously photographed by Chester and four other cinematographers and supported by the music of Jeff Beal ("The Bleeding Edge"), the film shows how, with the guidance and spiritual assistance of consultant Alan York, an expert in biodiversity, the Chesters strengthened the health and vitality of farm soil and, over a period of eight years, planted 10,000 orchard trees, 200 crops, a variety of plants and animals, and 76 varieties of stone (pitted) fruits.

The family's experience of living in the paradise of their dreams came to an abrupt halt two years later, however, when they awoke to the reality that they had unwanted visitors, commonly known as pests. Fruit was being eaten by birds causing the loss of 70% of their crop, snails were destroying the tree trunks, gophers were attacking the roots, and chickens were being killed by coyotes and workers had to use their time to pick snails off of trees, dispense with dead chickens, and, in spite of his ethical concerns, John was compelled to shoot a coyote. When their lows became very low, York was there to advise them to be patient, telling them that the ecosystem, like life, is cyclical and will eventually find its balance.

Unfortunately, York died in 2014 from a virulent form of cancer but John, mirroring York's worldview, was able to get in touch with what he referred to as the "rhythm of things." "Stuff that should have us running for the hills now? It's just the rhythm," he said. "Like, this is the year of the gophers, or this is the year of the tumbleweed, this is the year of morning glory. Some things you have to react to, but for many, you just have to stay really quiet, calm and watch." After five years, by using insects, plants, and other animals to fight pests without having to resort to pesticides, the rhythm he waited for had arrived.

Bees eventually returned, owls tackled the infestation of gophers, guard dogs were brought in to keep coyotes away from the chickens, and John, through the help of the Internet, learned how to attend to sick animals. This especially came in handy when Emma, a pig they had nurtured over the years, developed a fever and refused to eat, becoming seriously ill after having given birth to seventeen piglets. With the assistance of her litter of piglets, however, not to mention a rooster known as Mr. Greasy, John and Molly were able to bring Emma back from being close to death, enabling her to begin eating again.

While Apricot Lane Farms is not a small mom and pop operation but a multi-million dollar enterprise that currently employs sixty workers, it is clear that the Chesters (whose family has grown to include a little boy) are dedicated to the environment and the power of regenerative farming. "Farming, with its scale," John said, "has detached people from how crazily magical this all is." While the issue of climate change is not openly discussed, references to raging forest fires point to the immediacy of the issue.

Beyond fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, however, The Biggest Little Farm raises fundamental questions about the nature of our relationship to the earth: Do we consider ourselves as separate from the natural world or an organic part of it? Is the earth important only for its utilitarian value, or does it have value in and of itself? Can we extend our compassion to include all living things? The future of our planet may depend on the answers to these questions.
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All Is True (2018)
4/10
Neither edifying nor convincing
11 June 2019
John Madden's 1998 film "Shakespeare in Love" proposed a secret love affair as being the inspiration behind Shakespeare's most popular play, "Romeo and Juliet." The film's widespread success revealed the public's longing to find a real human being behind the name of the iconic poet and playwright who composed at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and five long narrative poems, but whose life story we know little about. Written by Ben Elton, the latest attempt to shed some light on the subject is Kenneth Branagh's All is True, a film that focuses on the poet's last years in Stratford-upon-Avon after his premature retirement in 1613. While it is a work of speculative fiction, by borrowing the mysterious alternative title of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII," Branagh implies (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) that the film reflects true events.

All Is True opens as Shakespeare (Branagh), vowing to never write again after the Globe Theater burned to the ground in 1613, returns to his Stratford home after an absence of 21 years. From the outset, the feeling tone is one of wistful sadness enhanced by shots by cinematographer Zac Nicholson of autumn leaves drifting slowly to the ground. One almost expects to hear Frank Sinatra in the background singing "September Song." Taking a page from his most famous play "Hamlet," William is visited on his arrival by the ghost of his son Hamnet (Sam Ellis), who died at the age of 11 and who offers his father some of his poems to read. Saddled with a prosthetic nose and hairline, Branagh resembles a figure being geared for display at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

Though historically not in evidence, Shakespeare is shown being welcomed by the townsfolk with a reverence usually reserved for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is greeted coldly, however, by his wife Anne, played by the great Judi Dench ("Victoria and Abdul") and his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), but with slightly less chill by daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson). Accused by his wife of not mourning Hamnet at the time of his death, William insists that he did mourn Hamnet but Anne retorts, twisting the knife, "You mourn him now. At the time you wrote 'Merry Wives of Windsor'" (a farcical comedy). Judith's resentment is said to stem from her belief that her father thinks that "the wrong twin died," while Susanna cannot help but notice William's disdain for her marriage to local physician John Hall (Hadley Fraser), a man of strict Puritan leanings.

Tormented by the death of his son whom he believed was a promising poet whose writing showed "wit and mischief," the film proceeds episodically through William's lonely planting of a garden in Hamnet's memory, his strained relationship with his wife Anne, and his conflicts with his two daughters. Shakespeare emphatically tells his younger daughter Judith that she should marry and provide him with a male heir. Though he rages that his talent made the family very wealthy and was not appreciated, he later begins to understand the price they paid for his genius. One of the film's high points is the exchange during an unlikely visit to Stratford by the prettified 3rd Earl of Southampton, played by the forty-years-too-old Ian McKellen ("Mr. Holmes").

The Earl brings up his identity as the "fair youth" of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pointing out that "it was only flattery, of course," to which the Bard responds, "Except, I spoke from deep within my heart." "But I was so young and pretty, then," Southampton responds. When they take turns in reciting Shakespeare's immortal Sonnet 29, asserting the great author's tender feeling towards the Earl, we at last get a glimpse of Shakespeare's true greatness. While the film has considerable pleasures including striking performances by Dench and Branagh, basically, All is True exists primarily as a vehicle to promote the traditional view of Shakespeare's authorship, now coming under attack from various quarters, most prominently from the growing interest in other candidates.

Contrary to its perceived intention, however, the film is neither edifying nor convincing in its attempt to put a human face on a cipher who lacks history, personality, or indeed any semblance of a biography, and whose life story, as it has come down to us, has no connection to the many-faceted genius revealed in the plays and poems. Ignoring the fact that Shakespeare was a tax evader, money lender, profiteer, and grain hoarder, Branagh and Elton envision Shakespeare as a genius capable of any literary feat imaginable. In one scene, an aspiring writer asks the Bard how he accomplished what he did without any schooling past the age of 14, without traveling outside of England, or having ready access to the immense learning evident in the plays.

The answer is right out of the Stratfordian playbook of miracles, "What I know . . . I have imagined," he says, asking us to accept that Shakespeare's knowledge of philosophy and astronomy, theology and the law, foreign languages, music, medicine, and court intrigue all came from his vivid imagination. In its attempt to make the implausible plausible, however, Branagh dumbs Shakespeare down enough to persuade us that he is just a "storyteller," an ordinary fellow after all, with domestic problems just like the rest of us. At one point, William proclaims with un-Shakespeare-like banality, "I've lived so long in imaginary worlds, I think I've lost sight of what is real." We might also say that is true of the traditional Shakespeare biography.
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Long Shot (2019)
7/10
Enough plausible moments to keep us entertained
15 May 2019
When 38-year-old Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen, "The Disaster Artist"), a sloppy and unkempt-looking journalist, falls for Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron, "Tully"), a highly sophisticated, intelligent, and political savvy politician, we know that we must be in fantasyland or in a Jonathan Levine ("The Night Before") comedy. While Levine's Long Shot challenges believability, there are enough plausible moments to keep us entertained, however, depending of course on our tolerance for specific raunchiness and general run-of-the-mill grossness. Written by Dan Sterling ("The Sarah Silverman Program" TV series) and Liz Hannah ("The Post"), in the film's opening, the bearded liberal Flarsky does his best Black Klansman imitation by posing as a skinhead at a meeting of the "White Nation."

Flarsky bellows "F-the Jews" in the most unconvincing fashion, but before he can say "Sieg Heil" and have a swastika tattooed on his arm, he is unmasked as a Jew and dives for the nearest exit which he discovers at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Expecting to be received as a hero by his publication, "The Brooklyn Advocate," Flarsky is told that the paper has been sold to a right-wing media conglomerate whose CEO Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis, "Black Panther") bears more than a slight resemblance to Rupert Murdoch. Rather than waiting around to be fired, Flarsky quits his job and is consoled by Lance (O'Shea Jackson Jr., "Straight Outta Compton"), an old friend from college who attempts to raise his spirits by taking him to a World Wildlife Fund dance party where Boyz II Men are performing.

At the party, Flarsky spots Charlotte Field (Theron), the glamorous woman he remembers as being the babysitter he had a crush on when he was thirteen years old. It turns out that Field is now the U.S. Secretary of State who has just decided to run for U.S. President in 2020 (she must have thought that there weren't enough candidates). Her opportunity presented itself when President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk, "Nebraska"), her Trumpsky-like boss who was a former TV star, decided to pack it all in and return to the more culturally appreciated role of being a film star.

To its credit, Levine shows us how Field has to be almost perfect in every aspect if she is going to defeat a strong male candidate. Focusing on the image women are compelled to present to the public, Field hires Flarsky as her speechwriter on the advice of Katherine (Lisa Kudrow, "Neighbors"), her image consultant, in order to add some humor to her too-serious persona. Before you can say "Flarsky and Hutch," the two are off on a whirlwind tour around the world to promote her environmental initiative, (the "seas, bees and trees" project) which she wants to have 100 countries sign onto, though details of the initiative are blowin' in the windmill.

Visiting Hanoi ("Sorry for what we did to your country," Flarsky tells them), Buenos Aires, and Stockholm where her trusted advisers Maggie and Tom (June Diane Raphael, "Blockers") and Ravi Patel, "The Black String") dress Fred up in a traditional Scandinavian get-up that looks slightly ridiculous. In spite of the best efforts of her staff to prevent it, however, the professional relationship between the unlikely pair inevitably morphs into something more, something that those familiar with Hollywood romantic-comedies will have no trouble predicting. Though Field has to fend off romantic overtures from the charming, but superficial, Canadian Prime Minister James Steward (Alexander Skarsgård, "The Legend of Tarzan") (Justin Trudeau should sue), it seems like no one can compete with Flarsky for her affection.

While they are not exactly the lovable next-door neighbor types, their relationship does have chemistry and we root for them to rise above the material the script saddles them with. Things get really dicey, however, when the Secretary conducts important State business during a drug-induced high, a scene that most definitely will appeal to parents trying to prevent their offspring from using drugs. Thanks to the magic of the movies, however, everything just seems to fall into place for the odd couple who even shrug off the effects of an embarrassing video that surfaces during the campaign of Flarsky performing solo.

While the relationship between candidate and speechwriter is often tender, especially a scene in which Flarsky sheds a tear while both are observing the Northern Lights, these moments are unfortunately buried under a ton of F-words and more than a few crass and offensive scenes. With everything going on in our political life today, a relevant satire would have been most welcome. Unfortunately, Long Shot only comes close a few times to scoring any significant satirical points. While its spoof of Fox News hits the target, most of the humor feels like it was written by a horny pre-adolescent. Satire can be powerful when it has wit and intelligence. While the film does flirt with a contemporary edginess, it lacks a coherent message and ends up being "all things to all men (and women)."
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High Life (2018)
10/10
Examines the limits of human behavior under extreme conditions
1 May 2019
In a mission from which they have little chance of returning, a group of condemned prisoners elect to undertake a voyage to the deepest regions of outer space to attempt to harness the energy of a black hole and, as one of the convicts explains, turn their shame to glory. French director Claire Denis' ("Let the Sunshine In") first English-language film, High Life, is science-fiction minus the expected alien warlords, lightsaber battles, or dazzling special effects. The film, according to Denis, is not about conquest but about isolation and what it means to be human. It is a film that examines the limits of human behavior under extreme conditions. Much of it is not pretty.

Co-written by Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau ("Bastards") and Geoff Cox, and photographed by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux ("Personal Shopper"), the film takes place far outside the solar system, near the Milky Way. Unlike the compliant society of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," the travelers aboard the unnamed floating penal colony are untethered to any social norms, often aggressive, even brutal in fulfilling their immediate needs. Without a linear narrative, Denis keeps us guessing as to when events are taking place and is not in any hurry to connect the dots. In time, however, the experience becomes so immersive that it almost doesn't matter.

High Life opens in a lush garden that might just as well be in your back yard as in the heavens. Here, fruits and vegetables grow alongside exotic plants, providing food and oxygen to the entombed crew. Though there is a row of hanging space suits in the ship's rust-colored corridor, the only person we see is a man on the outside of the ship ostensibly replacing a part. Against this backdrop of infinite blackness, the cries of a baby are heard. The cry interrupts the man's job and returns him to his immediate task of raising a child in space: Preparing baby food, teaching her to walk, letting her know with determination what the word "taboo" means, and informing her in no uncertain terms that her crying is "going to kill me." The plea, however, falls on deaf ears.

In a film that has many disturbing images, the interaction between Monte (Robert Pattinson, "The Lost City of Z") and his infant daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsay) evokes an exquisite tenderness. In spite of the unrevealed crimes that have brought him to this point, the emotional strength displayed in Pattinson's striking performance is the only anchor we have to hold onto. Even on a voyage to nowhere where solitude threatens to overwhelm, the expression of his love for the child - how he holds her, looks at her, and comforts her is deeply moving. Denis explains, "His (Monte's) friends are dead and his life no longer has any meaning. But the baby forces him not to commit suicide. In a way, she obliges him to become a man again - to share and communicate."

Each day Monte sends a status report, asking for and receiving another twenty-four-hour grant of life support - from whom or what is not clear. In flashback, we see the other passengers of the spaceship, now long gone and much of the film describes their interaction. Among the women are Doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche, "Ghost in the Shell"), Boyse (Mia Goth, "Suspiria"), Nansen (Agata Buzek, "The Innocents"). The men consist of Chandra (Lars Eidinger, "Clouds of Sils Maria"), the mission's captain, Tcherny (André Benjamin, "Semi-Pro"), who takes care of the greenhouse, and the slightly unhinged Ettore (Ewan Mitchell, "The Last Kingdom" TV series) who meets a gruesome fate. Though how each one of them meets their fate is not spelled out, there is a memorable scene where the cryogenically frozen remains of others are thrown off the ship, dangling in space until resuming their voyage to eternity.

Dibs is a scientist who fits the stereotype of the "mad scientist." In Binoche's recreation, Dibs is a woman of enormous energy with big ideas. Though sex is forbidden on board, the spaceship has a room called "the F-Box," which contains what can only be described as a sex machine and the film offers a lengthy sequence of the naked Dibs writhing in pleasure and pain with the help of a silver dildo. Trying to escape her criminal past, she believes that it is her mission to create babies in space, albeit the perfect child, as penance for her crimes. As each male crew member donates his sperm, the women on board are impregnated, but the babies are immediately taken away before they can be nursed.

The resulting scientific data about being born in space are relayed back to Earth, but to what end is uncertain. The only resistant one is Monte. Selflessly guarding his privacy, his sperm is extracted by Dibs when he is sleeping and planted in Boyse, the most rebellious of the crew. On the surface, High Life is barely a cut above despair, yet underneath a heart is beating. Though Monte is the one person who avoids connection, he is the only one left on board with someone to care for, an infant who depends on him for survival, requiring him to transcend his emotional deadness and discover hidden reservoirs of compassion.

As the ship approaches a black hole and the texture mysteriously changes from black and white to color, Monte asks his now teenage daughter Willow (Jessie Ross, "The Frankenstein Chronicles" TV series) the enigmatic question, "Shall we?" Like the wild dance of Galoup in Denis' "Beau Travail" which seems to exist outside of space and time, the question "Shall we?" evokes the dance of love, inseparable and timeless. In the poet Rumi's phrase, "All that is profane becomes sacred again."
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Araby (2017)
10/10
Intimate and Poetic
22 April 2019
According to Yann Martel, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel "Life of Pi," "stories are important because everything is in how we perceive it and nothing is really real until we say it is." The story told in Brazilian directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa's ("The Hidden Tiger") intimate and poetic Araby (Arábia) may not be "important" in the usual sense of the word, but it is a very real and universal one. The film chronicles the personal struggle of Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa, "The Hidden Tiger"), a factory worker in Ouro Preto, Brazil in the state of Minas Gerais, as he tries to redeem his life from a poor choice he made when he was younger.

Its title taken from a James Joyce story in "Dubliners" and reinforced by a joke told by a co-worker, the film opens as André (Murilo Caliari), a teenage boy living with his younger brother near an old aluminum factory, rides his bike down a lonely country road to the sound of Jackson C. Frank's beautiful 1960s song "Blues Run the Game," a cry from a similar traveler who lost his way. Looked after by their aunt Márcia (Gláucia Vandeveld, "Subybaya") while the boys' parents are "traveling," André is told to collect Cristiano's belongings and bring them to the hospital after he collapsed on the job. It is here that that Araby begins again, reconstituting itself as a road movie.

As narrated by de Sousa from the diary that André discovers among his possessions, Cristiano describes the one year, four months, and twenty-six days he spent in jail as a result of a car theft and his subsequent time on the road in small towns in Southeastern Brazil looking for odd jobs to stay alive. "I'm like everyone else," he writes, "just that my life was a little bit different. It's hard to choose something to tell," he says, "because in the end all we have are memories of what we went through." What Cristiano remembers constitutes the core of the film: The people he meets on the road, his political awakening, and his love affair with Ana (Renata Cabral), a secretary at a textile factory where he worked. "Everyone had a story," he writes, "Even the quiet ones."

There are no dramatic peaks and valleys but brief, poignant stories - vignettes that shed light on the daily experience of millions of laborers all over the world. The stories are punctuated by exquisite Brazilian, Tunisian, and American folk songs such as those of Brazilian composer Renato Teixeira, Tunisian musician Anouar Brahem, and Frank's "Blues Run the Game," which we hear more than once in the film. In his journal, Cristiano describes his work as a tangerine picker, handyman at a brothel, paver, trucker, and worker at a steel mill, all depicted with a dreamlike quality in which everything is understated, bordering on the surreal.

Even an incident where his truck runs over someone or something walking on the road late at night is murky and unclear. We hear a thump and then see Cristiano, fearful of going back to prison, burying something in the ground. Although there is variety in the circumstances of the people Cristiano meets along the way, they are bound together by a feeling of alienation and a search for "home." There are some good times, however - banter with friends, tall tales true or invented, card games, and the songs that hide the blues. One of the focal points of the film is Cristiano's relationship with Ana which, like many of his experiences, begins promisingly but ends unhappily after Ana's miscarriage and their realization of how different they are.

A chance meeting on a tangerine plantation with an aging man named Barreto (José Maria Amorim) stirs Cristiano's political awareness as he learns that the old man was once a labor organizer who fought for workers' rights. "We sow so much, but reap so little," Cristiano says prophetically. Finding out that no one on the farm is being paid, he complains to his boss who tells him that he has no money to pay his workers and, as Cristiano quits, he takes some tangerines with him to sell or eat on the road. When he finds an outlet for self-discovery in a theater group and is told to write something important about his life, he begins to put into words what he has been unable to express verbally.

Though Araby reminds us of social-realist films by Italian neo-realists and those of Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it is more a film about the human condition and of one person's search for release from mental, physical, and emotional adversity. While the release is hard to find, the film lends a sense of nobility to his quest. As Cristiano's mood darkens, however, and his "hard travelin" gets harder, he tells us that he feels "like an old, tired horse." Realizing that the anchor that he has looked for to shield him from the long loneliness has become more elusive and his desire for "home" has become acute, it is clear that the blues have run the game.
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8/10
Celebrates the Complexities of Life
11 April 2019
In his 1948 study "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," Dr. Alfred Kinsey reported that everyone is bisexual to one degree or another and that this can be measured on a scale from 0 to 6. While sexual fluidity has grown in acceptance, it has not yet been explored in film to any great degree. Canadian director Keith Behrman's Giant Little Ones, however, in his first film since his 2002 indie "Flowers and Garnet," celebrates the complexities of life and relationships in the story of popular teenagers Franky Winter (Josh Wiggins, "Walking Out") and Ballas Kohl (Darren Mann, "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" TV series). Best friends since childhood, their relationship is severely tested when they engage in oral sex after heavy drinking at Franky's 16th birthday party, an incident that leads both to question their orientation.

The experience, which would normally be quickly buried, is inflamed when a fearful Ballas, hearing rumors and worried about having his masculinity challenged, betrays his lifelong friendship with Franky, spreading stories around the school that Franky was responsible for what occurred. The seduction scene is shown so quickly, however, that it is uncertain as to what actually took place. All we see is a darkened room and the movement of bodies under a blanket. A confused Franky becomes the target of abuse from his classmates, abuse that threatens his self esteem and puts a damper on his relationship with his girlfriend Cil (Hailey Kittle, "Falling Water" TV series), who had expected to lose her virginity on the night of Franky's birthday party.

The only support he finds is in his sweet relationship with Ballas' sister Natasha (Taylor Hickson, "Everything, Everything"), whose own experience of bullying left her fearful of becoming close with another person. Franky's struggle for self-acceptance is also helped by his humorous relationship with Mouse (Niamh Wilson, "Saw V"), a trans friend who is there for more than comic relief. She personifies for Franky what it means to own one's sexuality and not be overburdened by what others think about her. Also lending support is Franky's father Ray, (Kyle MacLachlan, "High Flying Bird") who left the home to move in with another man.

Protective of his mother Carly (Maria Bello, "Lights Out") and resentful of his father's sudden departure, it requires a long time for Franky to be willing to allow Ray to support him, but eventually, in a scene made real by MacLachlan's compassion and Wiggins raw sensitivity, a deeply-felt conversation takes place and is one of the film's high points. While Giant Little Ones succeeds in moving the needle in a positive direction, it nonetheless falls prey to some of the more clichéd aspects of the coming-of-age genre such as high schools filled with affluent, white students, actors who look closer to thirty years old than fifteen, stereotypes of alpha male high school jocks, and a host of badly undeveloped peripheral characters.

The heart and the message of the film, however, transcend its limitations. Franky's growing ability to just be himself without having to fit into a rigid category is an important one and, to its credit, it is an ambiguity that Behrman does not find it necessary to clear up. Like the poet Charles Bukowski, Franky could say, "Something in me relaxed, smoothed out. I no longer had to prove that I was a man. I didn't have to prove anything." Like a rocket in a fireworks July, the flares that Franky and Natasha fire into the sky do not soar upwards in a straight line but bend in noticeable arcs before bursting into a bright red flame.
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9/10
An informative and often inspiring film
2 April 2019
As a boy growing up in Washington Heights, Manhattan, I spent many weekends walking the streets of New York, particularly the Bronx which I walked almost from one end to the other. My small effort, however, pales in comparison with the accomplishment of 37-year-old Virginia native Matt Green who has been walking every street in New York's five boroughs since 2011. No stranger to adventure, in 2010, Green walked across the U.S. from Rockaway Beach, New York to Rockaway Beach, Oregon, a journey of 3100 miles that took five months.

Directed and photographed by Jeremy Workman ("Magical Universe"), son of Oscar-winning documentarian Chuck Workman ("Precious Images"), and produced by Jesse Eisenberg ("Now You See Me 2"), Green's New York odyssey is documented in The World Before Your Feet, an informative and often inspiring film that captures the pulse of the city that never sleeps.Matt's hundreds of photos, meticulous research, and essays about interesting sites are a treasure trove of New York City lore and perhaps an essential guide for every future tour of New York City.

Workman followed Green for three years, a journey that, when completed, will add up to more than 8,000 miles if you include the parks, bridges, cemeteries, and beaches as well as the hidden corners and swamps that he traversed. While the film does not closely examine the character of each neighborhood he visited, or explore the contrast between the lives of the well-to-do and those living on the margins, it is still an impressive trip and Matt is an outgoing and engaging host who has done his homework on the city's odd characteristics and historic sites. Though he does not refer to himself as being homeless, he is dependent on friends for places to stay and on those who need a cat or dog sitter which he seems to have an inbred talent for.

Having saved some money, Matt claims that his spending is limited to $15 a day and his meals often are limited to rice and beans. We follow Green as he visits the oldest (over 400 years old) and tallest tree in the city, a historic building that for a short time in the early twentieth century served as a birth control clinic run by Margaret Sanger, numerous 9/11 posters and murals, barbershops that contain a "Z" in their name, and former synagogues that became churches when Jewish residents moved to other parts of the city. We also visit the grave of Harry Houdini and colorful characters such as Charles "Mile-a-Minute" Murphy who tested his notion that he could travel a mile a minute directly behind a Long Island railroad train.

We visit with his supportive parents and two of Matt's past girlfriends who seem wistful about the obsession that drove a wedge between them and ended their relationship. Along the way, Matt meets a cross-section of New York's 8.6 million (2017 census) residents: Working people, children in the playgrounds, people just walking on the street, or hikers who have similar goals. We meet Jamaican Garnette Cadogan who talks about how he has to sanitize his image as a black man to appear non-threatening, for example, he wears glasses, always carries a book, and stays away from identifying ethnic apparel such as "hoodies." We do not learn very much about Matt's motivations but we do know that he was a civil engineer who became tired of sitting behind a desk and felt that life was passing him by.

We also know from The World Before Your Feet is that he and his brother were involved in life-threatening events that became the catalyst for Green to recognize the impermanence of all things and shift his focus to being present to each moment. What ultimately is driving Green may be unknown, even to him, but we can get a hint of what motivates him by considering the words of Chris McCandless, an American hiker who set off to test if he could survive alone in the wilds of Alaska, "The joy of life," he said, "comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun." For Matt Green, his new and different sun has become a daily experience of spiritual awakening, an awakening that he is now able to share with the world.
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9/10
A powerful and provocative film
1 April 2019
"These things cannot be long hidden: The Sun, the Moon, and the truth" - Buddha

Dan Reed's ("Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks") gripping two-part documentary Leaving Neverland is not an easy watch, nor was it meant to be. While it may not ultimately be considered to be great cinema, it is a powerful and provocative film that is likely to leave you emotionally drained. The film chronicles the odyssey of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, now in their thirties and forties, who claim that they suffered sexual abuse at the hands of pop music superstar Michael Jackson beginning when they were children and continuing through adolescence. The convincing accounts of both men, supported by family members, constitute the entire film with the late Michael Jackson presence felt through photographs, videos, and correspondence.

For the record, Jackson's estate denies the allegations made in the documentary and are now suing the film's producer and director. Robson and Safechuck's stories are perfectly corroborated, however, even though they met Jackson years apart and under very different circumstances. Robson from Australia and Safechuck from Simi Valley, California were aspiring performers looking for a breakthrough opportunity to advance their careers. Wade was a fan of Jackson from a very young age, learning to mimic his dance steps and performing moves from "Thriller." Safechuck, while not a huge Jackson fan, also wanted to have a career as an entertainer.

When the seven-year-old Wade won a dance contest by performing tracks from "Bad," he won the opportunity to meet with Michael Jackson when the singer visited Australia. For Wade, their, performance together on stage was a dream come true. On a subsequent visit to the U.S., Robson was invited to Jackson's Neverland Ranch near Santa Barbara, California and quickly became one of Michael's favorites. At the ranch, Wade had unlimited access to amusements: toys, games, movies, candy, almost anything they wanted and he bonded with Michael in a fantasy of unlimited pleasure. In fact, their friendship became so much a part of Wade's life that his mother and sister moved to Los Angeles so that Wade and Michael could be together anytime he wanted.

For Safechuck, it was a different path but the destination was the same. Jimmy, then nine, appeared in an iconic Pepsi Cola commercial in the 1980s in which Jackson was also featured. The commercial led to a friendship with both Jimmy and his family in which Michael took them to Hawaii on vacation, invited them to his Encino estate, and eventually visited their home in Simi Valley. When Jackson confessed to Safechuck that he was lonely and didn't have any other friends, the suggestion of having a "sleepover" was not far away, much to the chagrin of Jimmy's mother. According to Robson, physical contact began gradually with hugs and kisses but soon escalated into "sexual stuff," as graphically described in the film. What went on, however, does not fit our pictures of what abuse looks like.

As Wade and Jimmy tell it, they did not see their having sex together as abuse. Michael told them that this was the way people express their love for each other and they believed what he told them. According to Safechuck, Jackson even simulated a marriage ceremony, complete with a diamond ring and wedding vows. On the other hand they were told that if anyone ever found about what they were doing together, they would both go to jail for the rest of their lives, a very contradictory message. Though they loved Michael and felt that he loved them as well, they were cowed into silence and did not feel it necessary to tell their parents what was going on behind closed doors. The film describes how Michael attempted to poison the boys' relationship with their parents while, at the same time, staying close to them to make sure that Wade and Jimmy would always be accessible.

Unfortunately, the parents did not ask questions and trusted Michael enough to believe that what was going on was playful and innocent. When they discovered the truth, however, their feelings of guilt were devastating. Although both men testified for the defense at Michael Jackson's 2005 trial for sexual abuse, Robson describes how fear played a major role in the lies that he told in court and later to his therapist. It was only when both had their own kids that they realized the true nature of what they had gone through and became clear that their job as parents was to protect their children.

The second part of the film deals with the process in which the two men begin to cope with their feelings of anger, shame, self-hatred, and guilt. For them, there is no closure and there may never be. They know that it will require years of work to understand what lay behind decades of suppression and denial. Whatever position you come away with from the film, Leaving Neverland is an important documentary, even a necessary one, and should be widely seen and discussed. It is a disturbing experience, however, and no effort is made to hide the fact that the pain will remain for those involved long after the film is forgotten, yet it is a subject that transcends Michael Jackson and has a broader relevance to the issues taking place today in the arts, schools, churches, and families.

While not dismissing the devastating damage that Jackson caused, we should also not overlook the contribution that he made to millions of people around the world, whose love for him has not diminished over the years. We should also not fall into the trap of calling him a "monster," but realize that he was a human being who was deeply flawed but with whom we share a common humanity. Forgiveness of the abuser may or may not occur for Robson and Safechuck, but if the process ever comes to that stage, it will not be the end of healing but only the beginning. While the film suggests that love can exist side by side with pain, the challenge for them and for us is to go beyond the pain and remain open to the possibility of a world of purity, innocence, and grace.
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9/10
About human creativity and the context in which it is created
14 March 2019
While it is generally agreed that imagination plays a prominent role in artistic creation, it is apparent to all but some academics and literary biographers with a particular agenda, that art cannot exist in a vacuum but also must have a social, historical, and biographical context. Prominent German artist Gerhard Richter said that "when we see a work of art, it is a manifestation of wounds that the artist suffered and decided to turn into something beautiful." One of five films nominated in the Oscar's Best Foreign Film category, German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's ("The Tourist") masterful Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor), is a three-hour plus work that spans three decades of German history from the 1930s into the 1960s, tackling the issue of the origin of human creativity and the context in which it is created.

Set in Berlin, Dresden, and Dusseldorf, Never Look Away, the director's first German work since his Oscar-winning 2006 film "The Lives of Others," is inspired by the life of the artist Richter who, as a child, experienced the firebombing of Dresden and the murder of his beloved aunt in the Nazi's Eugenics program. Taking us from the period before, during, and after World War II to the division of Germany, the Soviet control of the East and the building of the Berlin Wall, the film tells the story of a young artist struggling to find his voice in a political atmosphere that prizes conformity and service to the State over an artist's discovery of their own truth.

Exquisitely photographed by acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel ("Unforgettable"), Never Look Away opens in a museum in Dresden in 1937 where there is a so-called "degenerate art" exhibit featuring many of the modern artists that Hitler detests for impinging on the purity of German culture. Kurt Barnert (Cal Cohrs, "Path"), a young boy with soulful eyes, takes in the art of Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and other artists the Nazis consider decadent. The boy, an aspiring painter, visiting with his free-thinking Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl, "Wild"), admires the paintings even while the tour guide (Lars Eidinger, "Clouds of Sils Maria") has something disparaging to say about all of them.

When Kurt says to his aunt, "Maybe I don't want to be a painter after all," Elizabeth tells him that everything that is true is beautiful and to never look away from truth and reality. On the way home, she persuades the drivers of assembled buses to sound their horns in unison so that she can physically express the blaring sound in a whirling dance that is as beautiful as it is surreal. After an episode witnessed by Kurt in which Elisabeth plays the piano in the nude, then attempts to recreate the sound of a particular key by banging an ashtray on her head, the young aunt is diagnosed with schizophrenia and forcibly removed from the home as Kurt, told to never look away, becomes a reluctant witness.

Assigned to SS doctor Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, "Bridge of Spies"), Elisabeth is condemned to become part of a Nazi mass sterilization program in which mentally ill and physically disabled women are subject to sterilization and murder, a program that it is estimated killed over 100,000 women deemed unfit to produce children. Fast-forward a few years, the adult Kurt (Tom Schilling, "Woman in Gold"), deeply affected by the death of his aunt, attends art school in Dresden, now a part of Soviet-controlled East Germany where he meets and falls in love with Ellie (Paula Beer, "Transit") who bears a striking physical resemblance to his Aunt Elisabeth. it is only later that he learns that Ellie's father is the same Nazi doctor who condemned his aunt to death by marking an "x" on her chart with a red pencil.

Compelled to produce the social-realist art demanded by the GDR, Kurt and Ellie flee to Dusseldorf in the West along with Ellie's father who no longer receives the protection of a Soviet commandant he once assisted in a crucial moment of his daughter's childbirth. The autocratic doctor, who insists on being called "Herr Professor," wants to prevent Ellie from becoming more deeply involved with Kurt whom he considers weak and inadequate, and is prepared to go to considerable lengths to do that when Ellie becomes pregnant. Accepted into the avant-garde Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Kurt embraces the kind of artistic freedom that had been denied to him under both the Nazis and the Soviets.

Presiding at the Academy is Professor Antonius Van Verten (Oliver Masucci, "Look Who's Back"), a stand-in for Joseph Beuys, the mentor of an entire generation of German artists and himself considered one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century. Elevated by the powerful score of Max Richter ("Mary Queen of Scots"), Never Look Away is a rich and compelling film that raises difficult questions about the true source of artistic inspiration, offering hints but no easy answers. While there are moments in the film that flirt with melodrama, to its credit, it does not shy away from expressing both the physical and spiritual aspects of art and life in terms that are both intimate and universal.

When Van Verten comes to look at Kurt's work, after telling him the backstory of his own artistic redemption, the teacher's only comment on his work is that "it is not you." After he has the experience that everything in the world is connected and that by freeing yourself you can liberate the world, Kurt realizes that it is only when he is ready to confront the demons of his past that he will be able to express through art, the ineffable truth and beauty of his life.
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Capernaum (2018)
10/10
Voice of the Voiceless
24 January 2019
They are children of the streets. You can see them in the slums and marginalized neighborhoods of every major city in the world - begging, selling trinkets or other wares, carrying heavy loads for some uncaring employer, or just hanging out. Without papers that prove their identity, they cannot go to school, find work, qualify for a passport, or even receive treatment at a hospital in case of emergency. Many do not know when or where they were born and have never celebrated a birthday. Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and one of five films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's ("Where Do We Go Now?") masterful and deeply affecting Capernaum focuses on the street kids of Beirut, Lebanon whose daily life is marked by a struggle to survive against odds stacked against them.

The film's title refers to a "disorderly accumulation of objects," a name appropriate for children who are regarded as objects, not people. Labaki spent years researching the film by talking to hundreds of children and their parents, often visiting detention centers and areas of the city off-limits to the public. One of her conclusions is that some people should not be parents. "I would go into these shacks," she says, "and see kids who were left alone all day. You start to ask yourself, what kind of mother leaves her child alone, with nothing to eat for the entire day? I would see a mother breastfeeding tenderly" she says, "and then minutes later, she would turn around and smack her child." The main focus of the film, however, is on Zain (Zain al Rafeea), a Lebanese boy of uncertain age who looks like eight but is thought to be twelve. He is serving a five-year sentence for stabbing a victim whom he describes as a "sonofabitch," much to the judge's (Elias Khoury) consternation.

Represented by his lawyer (Labeki), Zain is suing his parents, mother Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad) and father Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef), for bringing him into the world without being able to offer any affection or adequately provide for his care or safety. As Zain, al Rafeea is not only a charismatic actor but an authentic one, a boy who, as a Syrian refugee, has been working as a delivery boy since age 10, living through similar traumas faced by his character in the film. Capernaum opens in a courtroom. As the scruffy, foul-mouthed boy is led into the room in handcuffs, we are taken back to events leading up to the present moment. While the lawsuit at first appears frivolous, the heartbreaking story that ensues makes it seem reasonable. Running errands for a local shopkeeper, taking part in his family's scheme to sell the drug Tramadol to prison inmates, and taking care of his many brothers and sisters, Zain knows nothing about the joys that childhood has to offer.

Especially close to his 11-year-old sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam), he is distraught when she is sold into marriage and runs away headed for a town near the beach. On the bus, a strange-looking man (Joseph Jimbazian) dressed in a Spider-man costume (calling himself Cockroach-man) leads him to a raunchy amusement park. It is here that he meets undocumented Ethiopian immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her one-year-old son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), a child she keeps hidden from her employer and the authorities for fear of deportation. Working to save enough money to buy a new forged ID card from the sleazy trader Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), Rahil shows kindness by bringing the hungry Zain to her ramshackle home.

Here she provides free room and board for his service as a babysitter for Yonas, whom he passes off as his brother (irrespective of the difference in their skin color which he attributes to his mother drinking too much coffee when she was pregnant). Though Zain cannot escape his impoverished circumstances, in bonding with Yonas, he finds that touch of caring that has always eluded him. When Rahil disappears after a visit to Aspro, however, a heartbroken Zain has to care for the little boy by himself, once again taking to the streets, wheeling Yonas around in a makeshift cart built from a skateboard and a cooking pot. Under the guidance of cinematographer Christopher Aoun ("Kalveli: Shadows of the Desert"), it is an indelible image.

Reinforced by Khaled Mouzanar's haunting score, Capernaum touches a universal chord. Like the biblical city of the same name where, according to the New Testament, miraculous healing took place, the film does not wallow in misery but offers a glimmer of hope and a common humanity. While it is dark and often hard to watch, Capernaum gives us the opportunity to listen to the "voice of the voiceless." It is a voice that must be heard.
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The Favourite (2018)
8/10
Delightful skewering of the aristocracy
20 January 2019
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos ("The Killing of Sacred Deer") whose previous films have expressed a rather jaundiced view of humanity has found a most appropriate target for his cynicism in his "mainstream" comedy, The Favourite, the story of sickly 18th century British monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, "Murder on the Orient Express") and the greedy confidants who compete for her affection and power. The film is mostly fictional and Lanthimos has warned us that, "anyone who comes to this movie looking for a history lesson is in the wrong movie." If you think, however, that its depiction of the debauchery prevalent in Queen Anne's court is exaggerated, perhaps you are unfamiliar with the history of the Tudor monarchs who made use of murder, torture, incest, child abuse, and the burning of heretics to solidify their power.

Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara ("Doctor, Doctor" TV series), and shot by Robbie Ryan ("The Meyerowitz Stories"), the film is presented in eight parts (each given a cutesy title) and filled with the "light" music of Bach, Handel, Purcell, and others to provide that 18th-century touch. Olivia Colman delivers a powerful and convincing performance as the frail, gout-ridden queen who cannot get around without crutches and eventually a wheel chair and has to rely on Lady Sarah, (Rachel Weisz, "Disobedience"), the wife of military commander Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss, "The Madness of George III"), and eventually the upstart Abigail Masham (Emma Stone, "Battle of the Sexes") for physical and emotional support.

Abigail, a distant relative of the queen, who arrives at the palace caked in mud after a fall, asks for a touch of generosity but ends up as a lowly servant. Nonetheless, the resourceful maid moves rapidly up the court ladder while telling us (before we discover for ourselves), "As it turns out, I am capable of much unpleasantness." Both confidants of the queen soon engage in a bitter power struggle that leaves us longing for any likeable characters in the film. While The Favourite posits a lesbian love triangle, female sexuality is relevant only as a weapon rather than an element of the heart. Queen Anne herself cuts a pathetic figure as she takes care of seventeen rabbits in her quarters, sadly representing the number of children she lost through miscarriages, still births, or early childhood deaths.

While not in the best of health or state of mind, Anne still yields considerable clout (often through Lady Sarah) as she faces off with the overmatched Tory leader Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult, "X-Men: Apocalypse") over whether or not to increase the land tax to pay for the continuing war with France (he's opposed). The only other male character of note is young Baron Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn, "Boy Erased") who courts and eventually wins Abigail's hand in marriage. The film, however, is mostly about female empowerment but, in this case, there is only a difference in degree between male and female ruthlessness and the pigeons that are shot and killed on the palace grounds do not distinguish whether the bullet came from the hand of a man or a woman.

The verbal game playing is replete with quotable witticisms, sexual innuendos, and gratuitous insults. Much of it, however, is simply crude and filled with the anachronistic overuse of the "c" and "f" words. There is, however, much to admire in The Favourite. The physically ornate interiors of the palace are graciously designed by Fiona Crombie ("Mary Magdalene") while the black and white period costumes created by Sandy Powell ("Wonderstruck") present a believable 18th century atmosphere. The best part of the film, however, is the Oscar-worthy performances of Colman, Weisz, and Stone who take pleasure in their palace intrigue and in their delightful skewering of the aristocracy.

As for the purpose of all these shenanigans, director Lanthimos explains in an interview: "I wanted to make all that (the bigger picture) quite simpler so that it's a film that feels relevant to us today, so you could imagine this happening anywhere in the world or anytime or place. Pare down the politics so it's easier to understand the repercussions that come from the decisions that these three, or the actions that these three women take." The question must be asked, however, whether the world needs another reminder that cynicism is not the most productive ground of being in which to live one's life, whether displayed by men or woman, aristocrats or commoners, presidents or film directors.
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8/10
You don't need to be rich or Asian to enjoy this film, but it helps if you are crazy
27 December 2018
You don't need to be rich or Asian to enjoy this film, but it helps if you are crazy. Unless you sneaked aboard NASA's InSight Lander, you may have heard that John M. Chu's ("Now You See Me 2") satirical Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood film since 1993's "The Joy Luck Club" to feature a predominantly Asian cast. Fortunately, that is not the only reason it is worthy of our limited attention span, especially if you are keen on emeralds, tuxedos, champagne, and other fluffy distractions from politicians run amok and cheery end-of-the-world predictions.

Adapted by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim from Kevin Kwan's international bestseller of the same name, the world of Crazy Rich Asians is not only abounding in opulence but also in ridiculously attractive stars such as Henry Golding ("A Simple Favor"), Constance Wu ("All the Creatures Were Stirring") and Gemma Chan ("London Fields"), among others. Happy is what is reflected on Rachel Chu's (Wu) face when her boyfriend Nick Young (Golding) asks her to go with him to attend the wedding of his friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang, "I, Frankenstein") and his fiancée Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno, "Annihilation") in Singapore and (not incidentally) also meet his family.

Little does Rachel know, however, that she is about to confront a real-time version of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Reality dawns on her when, instead of squeezing into seat 37D on the airline, she finds herself lounging in silk pajamas in a private first-class suite that Nick explains away as a perk resulting from his family connections, the extent of which the unsuspecting NYU economics professor is soon to find out. To make the goings-on more real, Nick gives Rachel a primer on certain members of his family. Among them are Nick's brother Edison (Ronny Chieng, "The Daily Show" TV series), a functionary in the family business, and his wife Fiona (Victoria Loke).

There is also cousin Astrid (Chan), who has some issues with her husband Michael Teo (Pierre Png, "Nothing to Lose"), and his "cheatin' heart" and Colin's friend Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang, "Patriots Day"), the brains behind the groom's gaudy bachelor party held on a cargo ship in international waters. Also getting in on the sub-plot thing is Nick's vengeful ex-girlfriend, Amanda Ling (Jing Lusi, "Survivor"), but this one goes nowhere. Nick and Rachel are warmly greeted when they arrive in Singapore by Colin and his fiancée. It is not until the next day, however, when Rachel meets her supportive but decidedly over-the-top college roommate Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina, "Ocean's 8") that she finds out just how wealthy Nick really is.

Given a tour of the family's answer to Versailles Palace, Rachel discovers the full extent of her boyfriend's "old money." Before she can say "count me in," however, she is met with icy hostility by Nick's mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, "Morgan"), not exactly Cruella De Vil but a proud woman who values tradition and status and would have probably had Shakespeare (the Stratford version anyway) wait in the vestibule during a 16th century literary gathering. Mom expected Nick to return to Singapore from the U.S. to assume control of the family business, but did not expect his partner to be quite the emancipated type.

It seems like Eleanor who wants only the best for her son has some serious considerations about his girlfriend's family history and American-style values (read gold digger). It is only when Eleanor discovers some hitherto undisclosed information about Rachel's family, however, that the ice hardens and turns into steel. While Crazy Rich Asians will never be mistaken for a film of profound meaning, it is more than the typical artificial Hollywood romantic comedy and brings unique warmth and humor to the table. Besides its entertainment value which is considerable, Crazy Rich Asians actually has a great deal to say about the conflict between a family's plans for their children's future and their offspring's own sense of where they want to be headed.

The film especially makes us aware of the differences in values and the changing social norms between traditional Chinese families and Chinese-Americans. At any rate, there is a lot of fun, loud music, cheering, dancing, and the like to offset the serious mother-son drama of thwarted expectations. If nothing else, it is way better than the Food Network in offering tantalizing looks at some luscious dumplings. Add to that, the fact that Nick's beloved grandmother Ah Ma (Lisa Lu, "2012") tells Nick that she likes Rachel's nose. Now that's rich.
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Burning (2018)
9/10
Brilliantly performed and impeccably directed
7 December 2018
Outwardly unexpressive but inwardly volatile, Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in, "The Throne"), a young delivery man, aspires to be a writer but does not write. He asks himself, "What kind of story can I write?" but he is an outsider looking to the world to provide a story for him. "To me, the world is a mystery," Jongsu claims, but his attempts to unravel it only lead to his becoming more tightly wound. By providing an undercurrent of tension and increasing anxiety, Lee Chang-dong's ("Poetry") Burning (Beoning), his first film in eight years, evokes the sense that something is very wrong, something in the air that cannot be defined but one that only the viewer can discover.

Loosely based on the short story "Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami, a work that references a 1939 story of the same name by William Faulkner, the film is set in the rural South Korean countryside near Paju City close to the North Korean border. Here, where Jongsu maintains his father's livestock farm while his dad faces trial for a violent outburst against a state official, state propaganda can be heard through blaring loudspeakers. The haunted look on his face lightens when he runs into Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), an old school friend conducting a raffle in front of the store he is delivering to. Dressed in a mini-skirt, Haemi is warm and outgoing in her greeting though she tells Jongsu that his remark that she was ugly led to her having plastic surgery.

Graciously, however, she invites him for dinner and some love making back in her apartment, albeit without much passion. About to embark on a trip to Africa to study the Kalihari Bushmen, Haemi asks Jongsu to look after her cat, appropriately named "Boil." He actually never sees the cat in her apartment, however, even though the food he lays out is gone every morning. The cat may or may not exist, nor are we certain that anything else in the film exists. In one scene, Haemi demonstrates her ability as a mimic by peeling and eating an imaginary orange, telling Jongsu that all it requires is the willingness to forget that the orange is not there.

Weeks later, Haemi returns from Africa and asks Jongsu to pick her up at the airport, but without explanation, she arrives with a mysterious Korean, Ben (Steven Yeun, "The Walking Dead"), an apparently wealthy dilettante who drives a silver Porsche and lives in an upscale apartment. When Jongsu asks Ben what he does, he replies only that he "plays," prompting Jongsu's remark that South Korea's is filled with "Great Gatsbys." Oddly Ben also admits that he has never cried in his life. "I can't remember ever shedding a tear," he says, "so there's no proof of sadness." Ben, who lives in the exclusive Korean district of Gangnam, regularly entertains friends and invites Jongsu to join him, but the young man remains at a distance, eyeing the intruder and his vague relationship with Haemi with jealousy and suspicion.

Jongsu's discovery of a drawer in Ben's luxury apartment filled with a variety of female trinkets and other miscellany only raises more suspicion. One evening, Haemi, with arms stretching to touch the setting sun, performs an uninhibited dance she learned in Africa which depicts the "Great Hunger," the need to penetrate the meaning of life. When Haemi falls asleep, the two men smoke pot together and Ben confesses that he is an odd habit of burning down old greenhouses, a hobby that he says brings him ecstasy, like "a bass sound that rips to the bone," a sound reflected in the relentless score by Mowg ("The Witch: Part 1 - The Subversion")

Warning Jongsu that "time takes away what isn't properly valued," things become even stranger when Jongsu receives repeated phone calls with no voice on the other end and Haemi is suddenly nowhere to be found. As Jongsu becomes more and more combustible in his search for Haemi, he feverishly attempts to unravel the riddle by staking out all the area's greenhouses in the blue light of early morning, but his quest remains elusive. When Ben tells him that there's "no right or wrong, just the morals of nature," the film prepares us for its startling conclusion.

In Burning, Lee makes us aware that, for many people, life is a party to which they haven't been invited. While the film has an element of class privilege and economic struggle, it is also a film that, under the surface, has a residue of undirected anger. According to Lee, "the film references the anger and helplessness of young people today, and their sense that there is something wrong with the world that they don't quite realize or understand." Brilliantly performed and impeccably directed, like many powerfully realized works of art, Burning will keep you pondering its implications for a long time.
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Green Book (2018)
9/10
Warm and human
7 December 2018
Martin Luther King's message that people should be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character came one year too late to reach the folks encountered by black Jamaican jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, "Hidden Figures"), in his 1962 concert tour of the segregated Deep South. In Peter Farrelly's ("Dumb and Dumber To") warm and human comedy/drama Green Book, Shirley undertakes the journey together with Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Moretnsen, "Captain Fantastic"), a night club bouncer who is known to his Italian mob pals in the Bronx as Tony "Lip." While Tony was hired to do the driving, his main job, unacknowledged though it may be, was to provide physical protection for Shirley from any unwanted encounters with the locals south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Inspired by a true story (isn't everything?) and co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the film's title refers to the "Negro Motorist Green Book," a guide used for many years by black travelers looking for hotels and restaurants in the Deep South where they could feel safe from discrimination and physical harm. Needless to say, neither the hotels nor the restaurants have many stars in the latest Michelin guide. We are first introduced to Tony who is working at the legendary Copacabana, a mob-connected New York nightclub known for its ability to attract name entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. When the Copa closes for renovations, Tony is open to an offer to become a driver for Doctor Shirley whose ostentatious living quarters above Carnegie Hall, to quote former U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, "staggers the imagination and converts vanity to prayer."

Racism is not foreign to Tony's outlook on life as shown when he throws the glasses used to serve water to black workmen in the garbage. Even though the tour will take him away from his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini, "A Simple Favor") and his two small children for eight weeks, Tony promises to write often but will need some assistance from his cultured employer. As two Cadillac's make their way along the highway, one containing The Don Shirley Trio's cellist Oleg (Dimiter D. Marinov, "A Picture with Yuki") and bassist George (Mike Hatton, "Vigilante Diaries"), and the other the reserved and tightly-wound Shirley in the back seat and the chatty, uninhibited driver in the front.

Though the two have little in common, their witty interplay on the road expands Don's horizons as Tony provides samples of Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin and, after much resistance, introduces him to the gourmet pleasures of Kentucky Fried Chicken (heaving their bones out of the window). Meanwhile, Don offers Tony some assistance with his grammar and teaches him about Orpheus and his demons, neither of which he needs to know to do his job. When they leave Pennsylvania and Ohio and head for Raleigh, Macon, Memphis, Little Rock, Baton Rouge, and Birmingham, however, things are no longer a laughing matter.

The pair get their first dose of reality when they hit their first Green Book" stop, the run-down Carver Courts Motel to which Tony offers the relevant comment that "it looks like my ass." While Don maintains his haughty above-the-battle demeanor, it soon becomes obvious that much of his persona hides a gnawing loneliness that becomes more evident as the two make progress on their journey. Encounters with the police and a confrontation with unfriendlies in a bar are just the tip of the iceberg and Don is forced to rely on Tony's considerable skills as a Bronx tough to get him through some physically threatening moments.

The irony for Shirley is that he is a much sought-after artist who performs for wealthy white audiences but is prohibited from eating in the same restaurants, using the same bathrooms, or sleeping in the same hotel with those who pay good money to hear him play. Though the film suggests that these abominations are things of the past, we know better. During the performances, however, there is no black and white, no rich and poor, no coons or queers, only the exquisite power of the music which transcends hate and, at least for those few moments, reminds us of our common humanity and the fields of gold we all play in together. They are moments that can help us, as American poet Langston Hughes puts it, "to shatter this darkness, to smash this night, to break this shadow into a thousand lights of sun, into a thousand whirling dreams of sun!"
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Boy Erased (2018)
10/10
A superbly crafted film with a potent message
13 November 2018
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.
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Beautiful Boy (I) (2018)
8/10
Passionate and committed Oscar-worthy performances
9 November 2018
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.
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6/10
Largely unfocused and filled with distortions
27 October 2018
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.
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9/10
A dreamlike tale of childhood
23 October 2018
"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.
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Transit (I) (2018)
10/10
Absorbing and emotionally authentic
15 October 2018
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."
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What They Had (2018)
8/10
Does not deliver the emotional heft that it promises
12 October 2018
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.
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Jonathan (2018)
8/10
A quiet and intelligent film
12 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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8/10
A strong cinematic sendoff to Redford
8 October 2018
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.
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Shoplifters (2018)
9/10
Koreeda's empathy is displayed in the beauty of small moments
8 October 2018
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.
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8/10
The Smothers Brothers they are not
25 September 2018
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.
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