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Undine (2020)
Skirts the edges between romance and fantasy
7 October 2020
Loosely based on the 19th century novella of Friedrich de la Motte Fouque about an aquatic spirit who must marry a knight to gain a soul, but has to kill him if he is unfaithful, German director Christian Petzold's ("Transit") Undine weaves a tale that skirts the edges between romance and fantasy. Reuniting the stars of "Transit," Paula Beer ("Never Look Away"), winner of the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival and Franz Rogowski ("A Hidden Life"), the film seems like a risky departure from the director's recent work about people caught in the traumatic events of contemporary European history, yet it propels his ideas about timelessness and the notion that the past is always present, even though the form may change.

Set in present-day Berlin, a city that was ironically founded on water, Undine, opens a door to the past with its repetition of the lovely Bach's adagio from his Concerto in D Minor. Beer is Undine, a free-lance historian and museum guide who lectures international groups on Berlin's Urban Development project located on Berlin's Museum Island, connecting the city's ties to its past. In particular, she talks about the city's Humboldt Forum project, a partial reconstruction of the demolished 18th century Berlin Palace, explaining that the castle was demolished during the Socialist era and is now being reconstructed.

Without prior knowledge of the fairy tale, which Petzold may assume we all know, Undine's nature is unclear. She looks and acts human, although there is strangeness about her silences and long, penetrating looks. According to the director, "she is a little bit like a ghost, like a phantom." Petzold does not reveal Undine's true nature but clues to her real self emerge when her aloofness and seemingly robotic manner begin to define her presence. In the opening scene, Undine sits outside a Berlin café with her boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz, "A Regular Woman"). Johannes threatens to leave her for another woman but is reminded that if he leaves her, she will kill him. Only a half hour later, she runs into Christoph (Rogowski), an industrial diver who has a warm, outgoing personality and Johannes is temporarily forgotten.

After an aquarium tank explodes, they lie together on the floor in a pool of water, dead fish, and broken glass, staring into each other's eyes. As he picks pieces of glass from her blouse in a scene that is romantic, surreal, and comic, his caring gives her a sense of what it feels like to be loved. Of course, the irony here is that he works underwater, while she, a water spirit, lives and works on land. Though their romance is real, Petzold declared, "They were like two dancers who get very close, but like in tango, they still keep a certain distance, which shows the respect they have for each other."

The chemistry between them is strong, however, and their relationship can be enjoyed with or without knowledge of the story's mythological roots. Working underwater, after confronting a giant catfish ostensibly without fear, Christoph sees Undine's name displayed on an ancient arch deep beneath the surface and takes her diving on their first date to see her name. She momentarily disappears before floating to the surface, her diving apparatus stripped allowing Christof to further bond by resuscitating her. According to legend, if Undine returns to her roots, she must remain there. She is, however, a rule breaker who is not beholden to either legend or men.

Undine is challenging to unravel but in its essence, it is a tribute to the strength and independence of women or, as a recent popular song might put it, to "the power of love." As Petzold describes it, "Struggling against domination, Undine exists only through men. Then along comes a man, a proletarian, an industrial diver, who interferes with the curse. He is not suspicious; he's innocent and for the first time seems to see her primarily without any sexual desire and without wanting to dominate her. This is new for her, and a path to a new world seems possible."
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Fatima (2020)
Evokes a renewed sense of mystery
26 September 2020
"And a little child shall lead them" - Isaiah 1:16

On May 13, 1917, three children, 10-year-old Lúcia (Stephanie Gil, "Terminator: Dark Fate") and her younger cousins Francisco (Jorge Lamelas) and Jacinta (Alejandra Howard, "Cleo" TV series) were tending their family's flock of sheep at the Cova da Iria, the family pastureland in the Portuguese village of Aljustrel on the outskirts of Fátima, when they had a striking vision of a Lady (Joana Ribiero, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote") dressed in white near a small oak tree. Claiming that she came from heaven, she asks the children to return to the same place on the thirteenth day of each month for the next five months, promising that a miracle would be performed that will convince the people of the village of her appearance and receive her message of peace. She also gives the children personal messages that could only be revealed later.

Written by Barbara Nicolosi, Valerio D'Annunzio and Marco Pontecorvo and taken from Lúcia's memoirs, Fatima, directed by Pontecorvo ("Partly Cloudy with Sunny Spells"), son of director Gillo Pontecorvo ("The Battle of Algiers"), peeks beyond the boundaries of the known in his retelling of the fact-based 1917 sighting of the Lady identified as the Virgin Mary, first brought to the screen in 1952 in "The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima." The present story is told from the point of view of the three young children, especially that of Lúcia who bears the main task of convincing the community of the authenticity of her visions.

The film is book-ended by a fictional conversation held at the Carmelite convent in Coimbra, Portugal in 1989 between a now elderly Sister Lúcia (Sônia Braga, "Bacurau") and Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel, "The Irishman"), a skeptical Professor of Religion. Though the flashbacks attempt to put the visions in a modern day context, the experience of the children unfolds in real time and they deliver performances that are real and beautifully realized, especially that of Gil whose beatific smile is enough to convince us of her divine revelation. According to Pontecorvo, "Lúcia, for me, is . . . someone that can see beyond and can get in touch with another level in a way that not all of us have the possibility of doing."

Unlike many Hollywood films in which spiritual events are artificially enhanced by CGI effects and heavenly sounding music to create a "spiritual feeling," Pontecorvo's depiction of the Lady is of a real woman who walks barefoot on the mud, not a fuzzy image floating in the air. Filmed entirely in Portugal by cinematographer Vincenzo Carpineta ("Let's Talk"), Fatima creates a striking sense of place and time. It is the time of World War I and a weary world prays for peace. The villagers gather daily in the town square to listen as mayor Artur Santos (Goran Visnjic, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") reads the names of local soldiers who have been declared dead or missing. Lúcia's family hopefully await news from the front about Lúcia's brother Manuel (Elmano Sancho, "The Black Book"). People struggling with the loss of a loved one receive little comfort, however, from a hardline anti-clerical government.

As Lúcia struggles to overcome the disbelief of her mother, Maria Rosa (Lúcia Moniz, "Hero on the Front") and her father Antonio (Marco D'Almeida, "Night Train to Lisbon"), she must also deal with the outright hostility of the mayor, the local pastor Father Ferreira (Joaquim de Almeida, "The Hitman's Bodyguard"), and the bishop (João D'Ávila, "The Easy Way"). During one of Mary's visits at Fátima, the children experience a vision of Hell with all its accompanying charms such as an ocean of fire, devils, and shrieking souls, but the Lady tells them that her visit was a way of saving the tormented souls in Hell. Despite the children's belief in what they had seen, they are pressured by her parents, the church, and the secular officials to recant and admit their story was just a made-up game.

On October 13th, however, a perceived miracle took place before an estimated 50,000 people who testified that the midday sun suddenly appeared like a silver disk, then began "to rotate, dance, and whirl like a pinwheel." Wobbling across the sky, it plunged towards the earth as people screamed and looked for a place to hide and then sighed in relief and amazement as the sun re-ascended towards its rightful position in the sky. Today, the basilica of Our Lady of Fatima stands near the Cova da Iria as the Lady requested and draws thousands of visitors each year. In 2017 Pope Francis canonized Francisco and Jacinta, both of whom died in the flu epidemic of 1918, while Lúcia's canonization is still pending.

Fatima is a lovely film that, unlike previous versions of the story, explores the inner life of the characters and portrays the Marian visits without being preachy. What the visions represent is beyond the scope of this review, yet, as Anne Baring says in her book, "The Dream of the Cosmos," "the passionate longing of the human heart has always been to press beyond the boundaries of the known, to break through the limitations of our understanding, to extend the horizon of awareness."

Marian apparitions as well as other visions of the "Divine Feminine," according to a Newsweek magazine article in 1997 article, have numbered at least four hundred in the twentieth century alone and have been reported from antiquity down into modern times at times appearing as Isis, Kali, Durga, and Ishtar as well as the Virgin Mary. Fatima challenges our normal consensus view of reality and strives to evoke in us a renewed sense of mystery regardless of our religious or secular beliefs. Allowing us to see the world through a broader lens, it points us towards a new connection with the cosmos.
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First Cow (2019)
A haunting tribute to intimacy and friendship
28 July 2020
Kelly Reichardt's ("Certain Women") First Cow is a song to nature, a tribute to intimacy and friendship, and a solid rebuke to Hollywood's image of the gung-ho masculinity of the Old West. As the director laments, "The heroism of masculinity, white masculinity, it never dies. It just doesn't die, that image in filmmaking always gets a roar of applause." In First Cow, however, Reichardt quietly explores a male friendship that is built upon kindness and mutual acceptance and offers a vision of an American dream not yet corrupted by self-interest or exploitation.

Based on the 2004 novel "The Half-Life" by Jonathan Raymond ("Night Moves") and adapted by Raymond and Reichardt, First Cow is set on the Oregon frontier sometime in the early 1800s. Shot in a boxy 4:3 ratio similar to the Westerns of the 1950s, the cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt ("Meek's Cutoff") and a haunting score by William Tyler reveals the pristine beauty of the Oregon wilderness as well as the primitive conditions in which most trappers and explorers lived. At the beginning of the film, a quote from poet William Blake, "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship" sets the tone as the opening shot introduces us to a barge slowly making its way down the Columbia River, which is where the story takes place.

In a brief prologue set in the present, a young woman (Alia Shawkat, "Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town"), out walking with her dog, discovers a human skull partially buried in the dirt. Upon digging, she uncovers the skeletons of two men holding hands. Without further explanation, the scene then shifts to the beginning of the nineteenth century as Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro, "Overlord"), a cook for a team of trappers at the Royal West Pacific Trading Post discovers King-Lu (Orion Lee, "Only You"), a Chinese immigrant hiding naked in the woods. After providing the fugitive with clothes and shelter, we learn that Cookie is from Maryland where his mother died when he was born, and his father died shortly after and he's been on the road ever since.

King-Lu is from northern China and claims that he is running away from the Russians who are seeking to revenge the killing of one of their own. After some time has passed, the two men find each other again inside a bar at the trading post and develop a close, if unlikely friendship. When they witness the arrival of a cow with huge, soft eyes (the breakout star of the film) that belongs to wealthy landowner Chief Factor (Toby Jones, "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"), King-Lu devises a scheme to secretly milk the cow late at night and use her milk to bake honey-covered biscuits which they market to the occupants of the settlement, starved for anything that reminds them of home. Chief Factor noticeably remarks when biting into one of the biscuits, "I taste London."

The enterprise is successful and perhaps is reflective of the idea that a successful commercial venture in our society requires a certain degree of larceny. This notion is reinforced by King-Lu who proclaims that, "We have to take what we can when the taking is good." His plan is to accumulate enough money to go to San Francisco and set up a business while Cookie dreams of opening a hotel for travelers and a bakery. When Cookie is persuaded by Chief Factor to bake a "Blueberry Clafoutis," a special British desert to impress a visiting Captain (Scott Shepherd, "X-Men: Dark Phoenix"), Factor discovers that the dish requires milk and, in perfect Sherlock Holmes fashion, puts two and two together, sending Cookie and King-Lu on the run for safety.

Like most of Reichardt's films, First Cow requires patience and a willingness to explore character development at the expense of a fast-paced narrative. While the film is not religious, the presence of spirit is felt in its journey among the rivers, the woods, and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and in a narrative attentive to mankind's need for friendship. In Reichardt's 2006 film, "Old Joy," one of the characters shares an old Chinese proverb that "sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy." While our society is often permeated by the sense that our joy is wearing out and that we are in danger of losing our connection to other human beings, Reichardt's sensitive and haunting film renews our understanding of the deep and abiding companionship we can still share with each other - in moments of beauty and tragedy,in an age that feels closer to the end than the beginning.
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Pursuing a leap of faith
11 May 2020
Winner of the Critics' Week Grand Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, I Lost My Body is an animated film about the attempt to recover a part of one's self which was once vibrant and alive, but is now hidden. Directed by Jérémy Clapin in his first feature film and nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2020 Oscars, I Lost My Body is the story of a disembodied hand severed in a tragic accident which takes on a life and personality of its own as it seeks reunion with the body it lost. Though the hand has no outward means of self-expression, we hear the sounds it is hearing and seem to know what it is feeling and thinking.

Produced by Marc Du Pontavice ("Oggy and the Cockroaches" TV series) and adapted from the book Happy Hand by Guillaume Laurant ("Amelie"), according to Clapin, the film is "really showing how to find yourself and . . . how you have to survive, how you have to deal with fate and destiny." Like a soul seeking to reunite with its source, the severed hand undertakes a desperate journey through Paris. As the score of Dan Levy sets an almost mystical tone, we are witness to the hand as it confronts sewer rats, flies through the air holding the handle of an umbrella, dodges subway trains and highway traffic, and escapes from a garbage truck and even the mouth of a hungry dog.

Amidst all of the grit, there is also a tender scene when the hand picks up a pacifier from the floor of a Paris bedroom near a baby's cot and gently puts it back in the baby's mouth, two helpless things seeking comfort from the other. The hand remembers the boy named Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris, "Sous X") and the joy and sadness of his life and we revisit the past in black and white contrasted with the present in muted colors. Now a teenager, Naoufel once had a rich life full of promise - a family who loved him but died in an accident, and the dream of becoming a pianist or an astronaut, or both.

Set sometime in the 1990s, in the opening scene that portends a later discussion of destiny, Naoufel's dad tells the boy how to catch flies. "Aim for the side," he says, "Don't go for where it is, but for where it will be," but the lesson is hard to learn. In other flashbacks, we see a sullen Naoufel after the death of his parents struggling to live with adoptive parents who care little about him, sleeping on a single mattress on the floor of an unfurnished room, and working as a pizza delivery boy, always scolded by a grumpy boss for late delivery.

On a rainy night, while delivering a pizza, he crashes his bike, scattering remnants of pizzas over the sidewalk, and the dinner he is about to deliver ends up, as Naoufel puts it, looking "like one pizza on top of another that has been chewed." When he talks over the intercom in an apartment building to the young woman on the 35th floor waiting for her pizza, however, something in him awakens, something that had long been dormant. After vigorously complaining about the pizza being late, Gabrielle (voiced by Victoire Du Bois, "Call Me by Your Name") tenderly asks Naoufel if he was hurt when he crashed his bike. Surprised at her concern for his well-being, he longs to find her again.

Discovering that she works at a library, he checks out some books just to see her, then applies for a job as an apprentice working for Gabrielle's uncle Gigi (voiced by Patrick d'Assumçao, "Marianne" TV series), a carpenter close to retirement. Unaware of his ulterior motive the boy is hired and provided room and board. Convinced that he has won over Gabrielle, the two stand on a balcony overlooking Paris and talk about letting go. Naoufel tells her that he believes everything is written in advance and that we think we can change things but it is just an illusion. The only way we can change things, he says, is to do something unpredictable, something completely irrational, transcendent, outside the boundaries of reason, the "Leap of Faith" attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

Gabrielle then asks him what you do after you've taken the leap and "dribbled past fate?" and he says, "You run blindly and keep your fingers crossed." Sadly, when she realizes that he fooled her uncle just to get close to her, she turns away and leaves him alone on the roof. Running blindly and keeping his fingers crossed, Naoufel tries to fool destiny. Pursuing that leap of faith, he seeks the realization that we can create our life anew each moment, and that we may lose our body, but can never lose who we really are.
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The male presence still dominates
27 February 2020
There are no men in Céline Sciamma's ("Girlhood") Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) but the male presence still dominates. Set in an isolated home on the Brittany coast in the eighteenth century, it is the story of an "impossible" relationship between two women in an era that rejected their form of sexual expression. Told with an understated passion, the lovers, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, "The Unknown Girl"), the daughter of a countess, and artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant, "Paper Flags"), are bound by the rules determined by the patriarchal society in which they live, and the full expression of their love is burdened by the knowledge that it is doomed to end.

Though the film is without stories of taboo, struggle, and self-abnegation and the language often feels contemporary, Sciamma says, "This movie is not about wondering if such a relationship would be possible - it's not, and they know it. But I wanted to show how luminous and how satisfying it could be. We all know what society thinks - I don't need to repeat it." Powerfully supported by cinematographer Claire Mathon ("Atlantics"), Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins in present time and unfolds in flashback. When a student of art instructor Marianne discovers the painting of an elegant young woman with fire consuming the bottom of her dress, the film takes us back to the circumstances that generated the mysterious painting.

Dripping wet from having to rescue her pallet that fell overboard on her voyage to Brittany, Marianne waits in the reception room of a large chateau, placing her wet canvas near the fireplace to dry, smoking a pipe, and helping herself to bread and cheese from the kitchen. She has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse, but her subject's angry refusal to sit for a portrait reflects her defiance of her mother, La Comtesse, (Valeria Golino, "Daughter of Mine") and her wishes for her to wed a Milanese nobleman (whom she has never met) if he approves of her portrait. She is told by the young servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami, "Happy Birthday"), that Héloïse's younger sister had been promised to the same suitor, but has just fallen from a cliff and died, an event Sophie considers a suicide.

Pretending to be her walking companion, Marianne joins Héloïse on her daily walks, closely observing her every feature, then painting her at night from memory in a hidden corner of a room illuminated only by candlelight. During their first walk together, we only see the back of Héloïse's head until she suddenly begins to run towards the cliff, swiftly pursued by Marianne who is uncertain if she is going to jump or just admire the scenery. Upon reaching the edge, however, Héloïse turns towards the camera, her hood blown off by the wind, revealing her blond hair and the sublime expressiveness of her face, alive with idealism but burdened by the sadness and lack of freedom that defines her life. "I've dreamt of that for years," she tells Marianne. "Dying?" Marianne asks. "Running," she responds.

The attraction between them is obvious from Marianne's furtive glances, but it is uncertain how - and even if - it will make itself known. According to Sciamma, "The journey of the gaze, the fact that it's stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then . . . we don't even know who's looking at who makes it really physical and organic." Marianne, however, must comply with the artistic rules, conventions, and ideas of the day even if they render her portrait inert, which Héloïse is not reluctant to point out. Their relationship only begins to grow when the subject begins to return the artist's glances and surprisingly agrees to pose for her.

Discarding her first painting, Marianne begins again, and it is clear that her new painting will be transformed by their growing bond. Obligingly, her mother goes away for five days, leaving the two alone with Sophie. In a telling sub-plot that reinforces Sciamma's theme of a women's right to choose, Sophie is found to be three months pregnant and Marianne and Héloïse deal with the choice she has made with loving care and concern for her well being. Music also plays a large role in the film. One day, the three encounter a large group of village women who are participating in a feminist community ritual, singing the Latin lyrics, "fugere non possum," which means "I cannot escape," a metaphor perhaps for the plight of women in that era.

Though the fate of her relationship is sealed, like Elio's tears by the fireplace in Gaudagnino's "Call Me by Your Name," Héloïse's reaction to hearing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" for the first time at a concert is a poignant moment of beauty and power. If Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a heartbreaking film, the pain is rewarded by the knowledge that happiness lies not in months or years but in indelible moments that will always remain with you. The film may or may not allow you to come to terms with these moments, but the tears it evokes can be healing.
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Honeyland (2019)
For and against man made climate change
16 February 2020
The familiar saying attributed to Charles Dudley Warner that "Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it" is turned upside down by Japanese director Makoto Shinkai ("Your Name") in his latest animated film, Weathering With You (Tenki no Ko). The film is a follow-up to Shinkai's "Your Name," one of the highest grossing anime films of all time and is focused on young love engaged in a determined battle against the power of nature. Set in Tokyo during a record-breaking rainstorm that has lasted for months and has caused widespread flooding, it is the story of a young girl known, according to Japanese legend, as"weather maiden," one who has the power to affect the weather through the force of her prayers.

Supported by cinematographer Ryosuke Tsuda ("Beautiful Bones: Sakarako's Investigation," TV series), each individual rain droplet is gorgeously displayed on every surface, and the sound of the rain on walls and glass reverberates throughout the theater. Shinkai's exquisite attention to detail highlights well-known Tokyo landmarks, people walking on streets knee deep in water, and luminous bands of sunlight bathed in ambient colors. While the film is a fantasy that soars to realms beyond the reach of our earthbound senses, Shinkai also underscores the film's relevance to the relevant issue of climate change.

"I want people to feel," he asserts, "as if this is something taking place in our world right now. It's not a piece of fiction that has nothing to do with you and I - it's happening here and now." The film, however, also has its dark moments which are accentuated by ominous black clouds. These include stolen guns, prison escapes, police chases, pimps, and prostitution, not exactly family friendly. The film begins as teenager Amano Hina (voiced by Nana Mori, "The Anthem of the Heart"), visiting her dying mother in the hospital, becomes obsessed with a streak of light that illuminates a Shinto shrine on the top of a nearby dilapidated building.

Praying for sunshine to end the rain, Hina runs to the shrine but is suddenly whisked to a dimension in the sky that is beyond our sense perception, beautifully illuminated by Shinkai. Coming back to earth, we meet Morishima Hodaka (voiced by Daigo Kotaro, "Battle: Roar to Victory"), a 16-year-old runaway as he tries to survive on the streets of Tokyo after barely escaping being drowned during a ferry ride into Tokyo. Lacking street smarts, Hodaka is lonely and frightened until he finds a job working for Keisuke Suga (voice of Shun Oguri, "Diner"), the man who saved him on the ship.

Suga gives him room and board in exchange for doing research into sensational stories for his magazine. As the fates would have it (or the requirements of the script), Hodaka's first assignment is to interview people who claim to be able to stop the rain. He is drawn to Hina's apartment where she lives with her little brother Nagisi (voice of Kiryu Sakura, "Love's Stoppage Time") and together they develop a scheme to monetize Hina's talent. Setting up a website, they appeal to potential customers who need sunny weather for weddings, birthday parties, and other specific events in their lives.

Sadly, however, Hina finds out that the legendary "weather maiden" loses power each time she affects the weather and must eventually sacrifice herself for the common good. Hodaka, who has fallen deeply in love with Hina, however, has other thoughts and the film raises the issue of the conflict between the needs of the individual versus that of society, hinting that teenage love may be worth the sacrifice of the planet. While Weathering With You suggests the important idea that humans can control the climate, the film ultimately lacks a coherent message.

An elderly woman tells Hodaka that, thousands of years ago, Tokyo was just a bay filled with water and that what we are seeing today is just nature moving through its fluctuating periods that far outstretch the lives of humans. Shinkai says. "Humans can't control the weather." "At the same time," he muses, "that's not quite right either, as humans have definitely changed the weather. I don't come to a clear conclusion on this but the issue definitely lies at the heart of the film." In other words, Shinkai basically wants you to be entertained, and if you want to take away a message from the experience, there are plenty to choose from.
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Makes a sincere effort to strike a balanced approach
8 February 2020
N the last few decades, films about workers and the labor movement in American cinema have been few and far between. Documentaries such as American Factory, however, can begin to shed light on the problems facing workers in the 21st century world of global capitalism. Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert ("Making Morning Star"), American Factory is one of five nominated films for Best Documentary at the 2020 Oscars and the first Netflix film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama. The film follows the fortunes of Fuyao, a Chinese corporation that took over a closed G.M. plant in Moraine, Ohio in 2014, a closure that left thousands of workers unemployed.

One of the largest manufactures of glass products in the world (Fuyao's products are used in car windshields and windows in major car companies such as Honda, Volkswagen, and Ford), there was a great deal of optimism when Fuyao arrived. Fuyao Chairman, self-made billionaire Cho Tak Wong promised that there would be 5,000 new hires over the next few years, welcome news to many who had been out of work for years. At the opening ceremony, Wong announced that he planned to bring in Chinese managers to train both newly hired American workers and Chinese employees to help in their mutual adjustment to their new jobs, an announcement that heralded the promise that workers of different cultural backgrounds could form a common bond.

When Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown reminded the assembled crowd that America has always relied on unions to further the goals of the working class, however, the first hint of conflict surfaced. Adamantly opposed to unions, one American Fuyao employee said he was going to prohibit Brown from ever again coming to the plant and threatened to kill him if he does. Wong said that "If we have a union, it will impact our efficiency, thus hurting our company. It will create a loss for us. If a union comes in, I'm shutting down." Despite the initial optimism, even setting aside the idea of unions, issues between the two cultures soon become apparent. Under the new ownership, there were 11 industrial accidents during the first year and safety had become less important than meeting ambitious production quotas.

Though no obvious examples of racism are displayed, little understanding of cultural differences is shown and management decides that Americans are fundamentally lazy. "They dislike abstraction and theory in their daily lives," one manager warned, complaining about how difficult it is to train "slow" American workers with their "fat fingers." One Chinese employee says that she gets to see her children only once a year and complaints begin to be heard by Americans about working conditions. One worker says that her house was foreclosed on. "Ever since then, I have struggled to try to get back to middle class," she notes, adding that she is currently living in her sister's basement.

Another worker complains that, with G.M. she made $29 dollars an hour. At Fuyao, however, she is only paid $12.84. "Back then," she says, "if my kids wanted a pair of new gym shoes, I could just get them, I can't just do that now." To attempt to smooth over the conflict between cultures, transplanted Fuyao employees listen to stories of Americans' honesty and are told that in this country, "you can even joke about the President and no one will do anything to you." Also, a group of supervisors are selected to visit the Chinese plant in Fuqing, but it only serves to underscore the differences. Chinese employees are shown engaging in morale-building exercises including songs and dances and we see them line-up daily as if they are preparing for boot camp.

Some visitors remark that the space between lines of production is too narrow to be safe and are taken aback when they watch Chinese workers slowly remove broken glass using only their hands. They note that in China employees work 12-hour shifts, with one day off a month and live together in close quarters, often six people to one apartment. Chairman Cao remarks, "The point of living is to work. Don't you think so?" perhaps the most current answer to the riddle of life's meaning. Needless to say, getting home in time to eat dinner as a family is not a high priority. There is no discussion in the film, however, about whether American workers should try to emulate the Chinese standards or if the Chinese should become less rigid in their workplace approach.

When the campaign to organize a union gets underway, a worker walks through the factory carrying a sign telling people to vote "yes" on the union, but he is unceremoniously escorted out of the plant. As the organizers begin to build support, the company hires a labor-relations consultant whose only job is to convince the workers not to join the union. Unfortunately, in the struggle for who controls the lives of the workers, perceived job security and submission to authority wins out and the proposal to form a union is resoundingly defeated.

Though there are no heroes, there are also no villains in the film and American Factory makes a sincere effort to strike a balance between employee's desire for better working conditions and management's goal of maximizing profits. What is apparent is that the current system is not focused on the needs of workers and Fuyao confirms our worst preconceptions by spying on its employees, letting go those who are known to be union sympathizers, and scheduling regular meetings designed to instill trust in management. Unfortunately, the growing specter of automation in industry may make all the cultural differences in the world irrelevant.
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Little Women (2019)
Little Women could have been better without the gimmickry
2 February 2020
Writer/director Greta Gerwig ("Lady Bird") puts a contemporary spin on Louisa May Alcott's nineteenth century classic novel in Little Women, now in its eight film version. Alcott's semi-autobiographical story about four sisters growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during and after the Civil War stands out for its warmth and celebration of family, its exquisite period costumes, and for its strong message of female empowerment, rare for its day. Unfortunately, while previous versions adhere to the sequence of events described in the novel, Gerwig takes liberties with the chronology, mixing scenes of past and present, tinkering that only serves to create confusion and undercutting what is essentially a coming-of-age drama which relies on our understanding of character growth and development.

The film begins with the March sisters as grown women. The free-thinking, independent-minded Jo March is the central character, an aspiring writer who may be a mirror for Alcott. Unlike the 1994 version which, according to one critic, "invites your attention, slowly and elegantly," the latest iteration seems to be happening in warp speed, creating an atmosphere of high spirits and calculated energy. In the opening scene, Jo, in a heartfelt but somewhat subdued performance by Saoirse Ronan ("Mary Queen of Scots"), is living in a boarding house in New York doing odd jobs to support her family.

When Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts, "Ford v. Ferrari"), editor of the magazine, the "Weekly Volcano," agrees to publish her first story, Jo tells him that she is promoting the book for a friend and wants it to be published anonymously. The editor says to tell her friend that if she wants to be a successful writer, her stories must end with the female character being married or dead, not a promising choice for some people. Jo has become fond of boarding house acquaintance Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel, "Planetarium"), a language professor from France, but her inability to handle his criticism of her work causes him to disappear for most of the film. We meet Jo's sister Amy (Florence Pugh, "Midsommar"), in Paris to study painting, accompanied by her sharp tongued Aunt March (a delightful Meryl Streep, "Florence Foster Jenkins").

Aunt March tells her that the most important thing she can do is marry a wealthy man. Being that women at the time could not vote or hold well-paying jobs, could not own anything if they were married, even their children, this was a practical idea leading Amy to conclude that marriage was an "economic proposition." Even so, Amy has her heart set on dilettante Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, the March's good looking and super-wealthy next-door neighbor played by a wild-haired Timothée Chalamet ("The King") in an earnest yet unconvincing performance. There are two other sisters in the story, Beth (Eliza Scanlan, "Babyteeth") and Meg (Emma Watson, "Regression") but they are peripheral characters that are not well-developed.

Meg has fallen in love with John Brooke (James Norton, "Flatliners"), Laurie's former tutor whom she will eventually marry, while Beth, a talented pianist, is engaged in a fierce battle with scarlet fever. While Jo is the most independent of the characters, other paths are respected as well. "Just because my dreams are different from yours doesn't mean they're less important," Meg tells her. While in Paris, Amy runs into Laurie and is not shy about her feelings for him but she has a consuming passion to first prove herself as an artist. "I want to be the best or nothing," she says at one point.

Though Jo turns down's Laurie's pleading marriage proposal and rejects the life of being a wife and mother (Alcott never married), she later shows her vulnerability when she admits to her mother Marmee (Laura Dern, "Marriage Story") that she is lonely. The film then flashes back seven years to Christmas in New England when the girls were teenagers, the only visible clue being that their hair is shorter. With their father (Bob Odenkirk, "The Post") involved in the war, Marmee teaches the young women about the rewards of kindness for those less fortunate when she brings a Christmas breakfast to a family in need.

In one of the most exuberant scenes in the film, the teenage Jo engages in a wild dance with Laurie, whom she has just met at a party. When the girls are rehearsing a play, they invite Laurie to join their club and be accepted as part of the family, something he relishes. In one of the narrative's most iconic moments, Amy, angry at her sister for not taking her to the theater with her and jealous of her friendship with Laurie, consigns Jo's manuscripts to the flames when she is not at home.

When Jo returns she is devastated and furious but, when Amy falls into a crack in the ice and is rescued by Jo and Laurie, she is forgiving and Amy is sorry for her childish behavior. The scene emphasizes the warmth and camaraderie of the sisters, showing how a family can rise above petty grievances and provide mutual support. It is a reminder of how good Little Women could have been without the gimmickry.
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Atlantics (2019)
A haunting and poetic experience
2 February 2020
To French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the ocean is a "holy temple," a shimmering presence that reflects the economic and social aspirations of people seeking a better life. Repeated shots of ocean waves and brilliant orange sunsets create an eerie mood in her first feature Atlantics, Palme d'Or nominee and winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes. Shot by Claire Mathon and set in Dakar, Senegal, Atlantics focuses on the plight of immigrants who travel from Senegal to Spain, a dangerous and arduous journey that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates has claimed the lives of approximately 19,000 migrants since 2013. The film, however, is not a political screed but a multi-level drama that includes elements of romance, class struggle, a police investigation, as well as horror-fantasy, all combining to create a haunting and poetic experience.

The film begins as a group of young men working on a new construction site in Dakar angrily confront the manager about not being paid for their work. They tell him "Families depend on us!," but the manager cannot help - the boss is away and there is no money to pay the workers. Central to the film is the relationship between Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), one of the young construction workers, and his 17-year-old girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). The two meet near a beach and passionately kiss, promising to talk later in the evening but, by the time Ada arrives at the local bar, she finds that it is filled with women who have been abandoned by their boyfriends who have set sail for Spain.

Souleiman has left with the other men, traveling in a small boat without saying goodbye. Ada, as well, also has hidden the fact that she is already engaged to the wealthy, vacuous Omar (Babacar Sylla), a man she does not love. The arc of Souleiman's relationship with the young Ada evokes Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," a love that is haunted by beauty but thwarted by destiny. After the men leave, however, unexplained events begin to occur in Dakar - the marriage bed in Omar's house catches fire the night of his wedding to Ada and Issa (Amadou Mbow), the police detective charged with investigating the fire, is suddenly plagued by a mysterious illness. We also learn that the police force is beholden to the businessman Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene), who withheld pay from his workers.

It is at this point that the film takes a turn into the occult as the men, presumably drowned at sea, come back to Senegal to possess the bodies of the women they left behind. Appearing as women, they order Ndiaye to pay millions of dollars in money he owes them and to dig graves for those who died. While the introduction of the occult seems out of sync with what has transpired to this point, Diop says that the supernatural is an integral part of the reality and traditions of everyday life in Senegal. According to the director, "Ada comes closer to herself, freer when she starts to notice the men in her town have disappeared and turned into spirits. It's almost comforting to her that there is another world that creeps out at night. It is a meditation on night."

While Atlantics calls attention to immigration in West Africa, it is clear that similar dramas are unfolding all over the world. Though there have been many films about the immigrant experience, few have been told from the point of view of the women left behind. For Diop, the story is a means of re-establishing her own African identity. "I found out later," she says, "that writing this character of Ada was a way to live the African adolescence I didn't have a chance to live. I lived my adolescence in Paris, in a very white environment - which was fine, but I think that all the episodes, all the periods I didn't spend in Senegal as a mixed girl, I needed to find it back. I have a very strong link with the character. I invent and create, and it's really a way for me to live a parallel life." It is also a way for us to share an intimate connection with the people of Senegal and with all immigrants who never made it to the other shore.
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The Two Popes (2019)
Surprisingly entertaining and quite moving
4 January 2020
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles' ("The Constant Gardener") The Two Popes is not only a master class in acting, but a film that sends a strong message that people who disagree and do not even like each other can learn to listen. Written by Anthony McCarten ("Bohemian Rhapsody") and beautifully shot in Argentina and Italy by cinematographer César Charlone ("American Made"), the film is an account of the relationship between the ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins, "Noah") and the liberal Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote"), the future Pope Francis. Despite their flaws, Meirelles humanizes the two men, showing that, whatever their past mistakes may have been, they can meet on common ground.

Although their conversations are fictional (we do not know if in fact they ever met), according to Meirelles, "the lines were taken from interviews or books." Whether true or not and I have no reason to doubt it, the dialogue has such a feeling of authenticity that we do not question that it is coming from a deep place inside the two men. The film opens on a humorous note when Bergoglio attempts to order a plane ticket on his smart phone, but his unfamiliarity with the device leads the airline representative to think that it is a prank call and hangs up on him. We then flashback to 2005 and the death of Pope John Paul II, a beloved figure in the church for 26 years, followed by the accession of John Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, a man dedicated to upholding traditional Catholic theories and practices.

Since Bergoglio had submitted several requests to resign from his duties as cardinal, he is now summoned to the Vatican where the new pope explains that his resignation would be interpreted as a rejection of his own leadership and he refuses to consider it, deflecting and distracting at every opportunity. As the two men share opinions about the state of the Catholic Church (using several languages that include Latin, Italian and Spanish), Benedict struggles to understand the Argentinean's point of view and, at one point, exclaims, "I disagree with everything you've said!" though the conversation continues without rancor. It is a discussion that is revealing and even inspiring.

The centerpiece of The Two Popes is the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict in 2013, the first pope to voluntarily vacate his office since Pope Gregory XII relinquished his title as a result of factionalism in the church in 1415, known to history as "The Great Western Schism." The 85-year-old Benedict's resignation is attributed to old age and failing health, yet may have also been related to the accusations of priests' inappropriate relationships with altar boys and the VatiLeaks scandal, in which the Pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, had leaked confidential documents exposing Vatican power struggles. While the issue of abuse by priests is brought up by Benedict, it is not dwelt on and the pontiff's remarks on the issue are muted, perhaps a questionable decision.

To highlight their differences in a lighthearted way, we find out that Bergoglio likes ABBA, a Swedish pop group, especially their song "Dancing Queen," while Benedict prefers classical piano and the Austrian TV program "Kommissar Rex," which I guess means that he likes dogs and cops. Differences aside, with the retiring pope's support, Bergoglio is elected as Pope Francis in 2013 and his address to the gathered throng in St. Peter's Square demonstrates his warmth, humility, and commitment to social justice. As they eat pizza together, however, both men are open about real or perceived past transgressions. Pope Francis is still looked upon with disdain by some in Argentina because of his role in not doing enough to oppose the military junta during the country's "Dirty War" in the 1970s.

At this point, the film flashes back to Argentina in the 70s when the young Bergoglio (Juan Minujin, "Zama") refuses to take a stand when his fellow priests are arrested and tortured by the military dictatorship. Similarly, Benedict is haunted by his decision to join the Nazi Party in the 1930s, a fact he is constantly reminded of. While The Two Popes has been touted as an in-depth conversation between two esteemed men of the church, a promotion that does not sound very promising, given the quality of the performances and the overall production, the film is surprisingly entertaining and quite moving. Though its focus is on the church, it has a universal appeal. According to the director, "Tolerance is a commodity that we're missing." It is a message that is very relevant for our time.
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A Hidden Life (2019)
Reminds us of the power of moral and spiritual commitment
4 January 2020
In its depiction of the life of an Austrian farmer who refused to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler or to fight in an unjust war, Terrence Malick's ("Song to Song") nearly three-hour film, A Hidden Life, reminds us of the power of moral and spiritual commitment. Based on the exchange of letters between Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, "The Young Karl Marx"), and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner, "The Ground Beneath My Feet"), it is a sublime portrait of a man compelled to call upon his last reservoir of strength to maintain his commitment, knowing that his act of conscience will do nothing to stop the war and will put his family and his own life at risk.

The film opens in 1939 in the village of St. Radegund in Austria where Franz lives a simple life with his wife and their three daughters. Devout Catholics, they live in a close-knit community, gathering in the local pub on Saturday nights and in church on Sunday mornings. In the rich poetic style Malick is known for, we see fields of grain, pristine flowing streams, awe-inspiring mountain vistas, and children running and playing, as gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Jörg Widmer ("The Invisibles") and enhanced by the music of James Newton Howard ("Red Sparrow"). To remind us of the context, we view grainy newsreel footage of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, an event that foreshadowed the start of World War II less than two years later.

It is clear to Jägerstätter that every able-bodied Austrian man will be forced to sign an oath pledging their allegiance to the Führer but Franz, whose father fought and died in World War I, asks Fani, "Oh my wife, what has become of our country?" In 1940, Jägerstätter is conscripted into the Wehrmacht, but is twice sent home on the grounds of his "reserved civilian occupation" as a farmer. He refuses to obey a third order, however, recalling a dream in which he saw a train carrying hundreds of Hitler Youth to their death as a warning of the evil of Nazism. In his writing Jägerstätter says that, for him, "to fight and kill people so that the godless Nazi regime could conquer and enslave ever more of the world's peoples would mean becoming personally guilty."

Since a referendum was held on April 10, 1938 in which an astonishing 99.73 percent of Austrians voted in favor of joining the Third Reich, it is not surprising that Franz receives little support from his neighbors or from the local priest (Tobias Moretti, "Cold Hell"). A religious man, Franz turns to the Diocesan Bishop of Linz, Joseph Calasanz Fliesser (Michael Nyqvist, "Frank & Lola") for support but is told by the Bishop that it is not his task to decide whether the war was righteous or unrighteous. In a powerful scene, a man (Johan Leysen, "Claire Darling") who paints murals of a happy Christ on a church ceiling laments the fear that has kept him from painting Jesus' suffering on the cross.

In prison, Malick captures Jägerstätter's humanity when he helps a prisoner get up from the ground after a beating and when he sneaks an extra slice of bread to a hungry prisoner. When one of Franz' final judges played by the late Bruno Ganz ("Amnesia") suggests that the prisoner's principles will change nothing and that if he signs the oath he will go free, Franz smiles and says that he is already free. Though his mother, friends, and relatives try to change his mind, only Fani stands by him saying, "If I hadn't stood by him, he wouldn't have had anyone at all." It is only later when he is in a Berlin prison, condemned to die as a traitor, that she begs him to sign a loyalty oath.

Malick's point of view, however, is clear and unmistakable as stated in the quote from author George Eliot shown in the film:

"For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

54 years later, on May 7, 1997, Jägerstätter verdict was annulled by the District Court of Berlin and his martyrdom was officially confirmed by the Vatican ten years later. His beatification took place in St. Mary's Cathedral in Linz in October, 2007 and he is now referred to as Blessed Franz Jägerstätter. How many people in power today who face the same accounting will be remembered for their acts of conscience?
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Beanpole (2019)
An intense examination of damaged people
8 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
During World War II, the German blockade of Leningrad cut off the city from the outside world for three years, an act that took the lives of over one million people. While the world has largely focused on the causes and details of the siege, little attention has been paid to how survivors coped with their trauma, suffering which the Russian leadership did their best to hide. Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and the award for Best Director in the "Un Certain Regard" category at Cannes, 27-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov's ("Closeness") Beanpole (Dylda) focuses on the relationship between two young women who have returned to Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) from the front in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Brilliantly performed by Viktoria Miroshnichenko as Iya Sergueeva, a nurse nicknamed "beanpole" because of her height and slender frame, and Vasilisa Perelygina as Iya's mercurial friend Masha, it is an intense examination of damaged people desperately trying to find some peace and connection during a time when the world no longer values it. Russia's official submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Academy Awards, the film was inspired by Nobel Prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich's "The Unwomanly Face of War," a devastating chronicle of women's experience during the war. Beanpole opens in a hospital for wounded soldiers after the war, many whose bodies are so desperately shattered that they long for death. Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev, "Angels of Revolution"), one of the most badly injured, is paralyzed below his neck and pleads to the nurses for death, but it is not possible under the law.

Iya has a supportive relationship with her superior Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov) and works with him to secretly euthanize patients who will not recover from their wounds. Suffering from post-concussion syndrome, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Iya is subject to sudden seizures, spasms in which she cannot talk or move and is unable ask for help. Her condition tragically manifests itself in an extended sequence that is most difficult to watch. The atmosphere of decay is underscored in a scene in which the patients at the hospital play a game with Masha's young son Pashka (Timofey Glazkov). When they ask him to bark like a dog, he only stares at them without expression. "How would he know what a dog is like," one man says. "They've all been eaten."

The focus of the film is on the relationship between Iya and Masha, one that is based both on mutual need and sexual attraction but also contains an element of exploitation. As photographed by cinematographer Kseniya Sereda, the film is shot in faded pastel colors of red, green, and ochre rather than in black and white which the material might suggest. As Balagov explains, "The green that we use is also about being alive, but the ochre symbolizes the wound. And red is also the color of rust and blood." When Masha returns from the front where she remained to seek revenge for the death of Pashka's father, she is intent on having another child which she believes will heal all of her internal wounds from the war.

Sadly, the number of abortions she had during her time at the front prevents her from having any more children and she demands that Iya bear her a child with a surrogate. Masha's exploitation of her friend strikes a jarring note and the look on Iya's face when she is forced to do something against her will threatens to destroy her relationship with the only person she can turn to. Using men to fill a void in her life, Masha develops a relationship with Sasha (Igor Shirokov), the son of upper-class Communist bureaucrats. Assured that he loves her, they plan to marry until a visit to his parents in their mansion outside of the city prompts Masha to confess a disturbing truth about her life. In one of the film's most striking moments, Sasha's mother Lyubov Petrovna (Ksenia Kutepova) clashes with Masha, telling her what she sees as the truth about Sasha's intentions.

Beanpole is an intense, impeccably acted examination of repressed emotions and spiritual emptiness in a world in which normalcy is an outdated concept. In an astonishing scene, Masha asks a neighbor, a seamstress, (Olga Dragunova, "Closeness") if she can twirl in a green dress the seamstress is fitting. As Masha spins faster and faster, however, the delight she experiences turns into an outpouring of grief. While Beanpole is bleak, it is made with such consummate skill that it is not depressing. With its humanism and compassion and its willingness to tackle issues such as feminism, bisexuality, and abortion, Balagov challenge to Russia's conservative social outlook and patriarchal society gives the film a surprising political edge. It also makes clear that Balagov is one of the best young directors in film today.
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For Sama (2019)
Testifies to the dedication and courage of those who remained in Syria
8 December 2019
"The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress" - Frederick Douglass

The war began peacefully. In 2012, university students and others launched peaceful protests against the regime of Bashar-al-Assad whose government had been in power since 1971 and had failed to institute promised reforms. When government soldiers fired on demonstrators and killed children who painted posters against the regime, the protests escalated into an armed rebellion. Since 2012, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed, more than one million injured, and over 12 million displaced from their homes. After seven years of what is in part a civil war, a religious war between Shiite and Sunni groups, a fight against Islamic militants, and a power struggle between major powers, there is no end in sight.

Directed by 26-year-old journalist Waad al-Kateab and British filmmaker Edward Watts, the documentary For Sama is a gift made by Waad to her young daughter Sama, born during the revolution. Winner of Best Documentary at Cannes, the film chronicles the genocidal siege that took place in the city of Aleppo between 2012 and 2016 carried out by the Assad government with the support of the Russians. Shot by one who not only witnessed it but also experienced it, it is a harrowing film that is hard to watch, but one that testifies to the dedication, resiliency, and courage of those who remained and attempted to carry on with their lives.

al-Kateab said, "I felt a great burden of responsibility to the city, its people and to our friends to tell their stories properly so they will never be forgotten and no one can ever distort the truth of what we lived through." The film is not presented in chronological order but weaves backwards and forwards in time. According to co-director Ed Watts, "The flashback allowed us to move between the light and the dark, which is much closer to the truth. That's what Waad was saying: Even in the dark times, there was all this humor, love, and affection. That flashback structure allowed us to reflect that more truthfully as a piece of cinema."

The initial protest, coming soon after the "Arab Spring," was filled with enthusiasm and promise, but it was a hope that was soon dashed by the government's determination to eliminate any pockets of resistance in the country by any means necessary including the use of chlorine gas. When more than 40 bodies of those opposing the government show up in the river, the struggle takes on a sense of urgency. Waad and her husband Hamza, a doctor, support the resistance to the constant shelling by government troops and bombing by the Russians, maintaining the only hospital left in Aleppo after eight of nine were bombed. In a memorable scene that only hints at the toll the war took on children, a young boy displays cut-out portraits of friends who have left the city, later adding those who stayed and lost their lives.

The film does not hide or try to spare us from the destruction and chaos or from the often losing struggle to stay alive. We hear the bombs exploding with a ferocity that will tear your soul. We see people running and hiding, and witness the aftermath of weeping or silence. Hamza and his friends establish a hospital to provide medical services after some of their friends are killed or wounded in the bombing. In an amazing scene, a doctor tries everything to bring an apparently stillborn baby into life - shaking, slapping, massaging the infant until a heart-stopping breakthrough occurs and the tears are not those of grief but of joy. Even after their hospital is hit by bombs, Waad and Hamza refuse to give up hope and vow to remain to assist those still in Aleppo and to continue the struggle for freedom.

In the midst of war, Waad and Hamza rejoice in the birth of little Sama, but there will be a time when Waad will regret bringing Sama into the world. For Sama digs deep to show us the human element behind news reports of terrorists, suicide bombers, and chemical warfare. The documentary is not only a journal of war but also one of love. Watts sums up his goal in directing the film. "It's all about trying to use storytelling to help this world of ours," he says, "to get in touch with reality, to get in touch with truth, and you know what? To start actually believing in human beings again, which I think is what you get out of Waad's story. So often, we're told that human beings are dark and that we can't do it and we're all doomed - we need to start believing in ourselves again and believing that we can make things better."

For Sama may help to make that happen.
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The King (I) (2019)
Convincing performances
8 December 2019
Loosely based on Shakespeare's "Henry IV: Parts 1 & 2," and "Henry V," David Michôd's ("Animal Kingdom") epic medieval drama The King lacks the Bard's poetry and soaring eloquence, yet its intensity, intimacy, and brooding power will keep you captivated throughout its 133-minute run time. Co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton ("Boy Erased"), the film is marked by the convincing performance of Timothée Chalamet ("Beautiful Boy") as Prince Hal, later King Henry V, whose growth from a rebellious and "uncourtly" teenager into a king who commands respect and even fear is astonishing. Though the film departs from the Shakespeare play and the historical record, it is easily the equal of the "Henry V" films of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh in its ability to probe the depths of the royal mind.

The King opens in court. Hal's rage against his father King Henry IV's (Ben Mendelsohn, "Robin Hood") obsession with internal wars in Scotland and Wales has caused him to leave the royal court and associate with John Falstaff (Edgerton) and his friends in the Eastcheap tavern. Unlike the cartoonish buffoon of Shakespeare's play, however, Falstaff is the king's trusted adviser and honest friend as well as a man of reason and deep military experience, serving to later remind the king of the ideals he espoused as Prince Hal. Though Hal's defeat of Henry Percy (Hotspur) (Tom Glynn-Carney, "Tolkien") in a sword fight saves his father's throne, his worthiness to become king is questioned by the dying King Henry IV who anoints Hal's younger brother Thomas of Lancaster (Dean-Charles Chapman, "The Commuter") as his successor.

In the opening scene of the Shakespeare play "Henry V," the Archbishop of Canterbury says "The breath no sooner left his father's body, But that his wildness, mortified in him, Seem'd to die too." When his father dies and Thomas is killed in Wales, Hal becomes King Henry V. As if the title brings with it a mythical power, Henry is transformed into a philosopher-king, more than ready to prove his right to rule. Determined to avoid patriotic wars, the new king ironically finds himself immediately embroiled in one. After an alleged assassination attempt and an insult by the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson, "High Life"), Henry is ready to go to war with France.

In the stirring epic battle at Agincourt in October 1415, immortalized by Shakespeare, the English soldiers are heavily outnumbered by the French led by the cocky Dauphin who taunts the monarch in a dubious French accent by saying, "I enjoy to speak English. It is simple and ugly." King Henry, however, relies on Falstaff's masterful military mind to win the battle against overwhelming odds, turning the conflict in his favor by use of his long-bowmen. Empowered by the cinematography of Adam Arkapaw ("The Light Between Oceans"), the costumes by Jane Petrie ("Suffragette"), and the relentless score by Nicholas Britell ("If Beale Street Could Talk"), the horrors of war are conveyed with graphic authenticity.

Considered by some modern critics as a reckless warmonger, in Michôd's vision Henry V is the personification of England's triumph over internal dissension and foreign threats. The film, however, does not glorify war or turn it into poetry to inspire the troops. Here there is no battle of Harfleur with the stirring exhortation, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead," nor do we see the young king wearing a disguise to survey the troops opinions about whether or not the king's goals are justified.

What we do see is Henry not only winning the battle but gaining the hand of French King Charles VI's daughter Princess Catherine of Valois (Lily-Rose Depp, "Planetarium"). The outspoken princess boldly tells the English king that "All monarchy is illegitimate" and causes Henry to question his rationale for starting the war. In spite of England's success on the battlefield, however, Henry is an ambiguous figure whose manner of wielding power has raised questions as to whether he was a ruthless oppressor or a great liberator.

Though it was within the rules of war in the fifteenth century, not a second thought seems to have been given to the order to put prisoners' heads on spikes, or to murder hundreds of French prisoners ostensibly because a number of English page boys were killed. Whatever our ultimate view of the character of Henry V is, it need not deter us from appreciating The King, a remarkable achievement and a big winner for Netflix.
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A penetrating look at the spiraling effect of divorce American style
8 December 2019
Noah Baumbach's ("The Meyerowitz Stories") Marriage Story is a penetrating look at the spiraling effect of divorce American style on those involved, one that radiates compassion for its beleaguered characters Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, "Avengers: Endgame") and Charlie (Adam Driver, "BlacKkKlansman") as they struggle to maintain their dignity through a dehumanizing process. If love means never having to say you're sorry, you are probably not living on planet Earth, though I'm sure other places may have their compensations. For Nicole and Charlie, however, just saying "I'm sorry" will not even reach the tip of the iceberg.

Nicole is a native of Los Angeles who left a budding movie career on the West Coast to move to New York with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson, "After the Wedding") to star in the productions of her husband Charlie, an acclaimed theater director. In his role as Charlie, Driver is consistently brilliant in his portrayal of a man on the brink of despair, desperately trying to hold his life together in the face of fast changing circumstances, while Johansson has that uncommon quality that makes you care deeply about her. We first meet the two through film montages in which they discuss each other's virtues and idiosyncrasies, love letters asserting the qualities that they find endearing.

Nicole loves that Charlie is organized and dresses without embarrassing her. Charlie loves the way Nicole cuts his hair and makes tea and leaves it around the house. Charlie talks about his wife's devotion to playing with their son and how patient she is. To Nicole (who refuses to read hers out loud), Charlie never gets upset about the little things and is really a talented director. Unfortunately, we soon find out that the tributes were only written at the request of a marriage mediator as part of the couple's plans for divorce. Nicole refuses the request to read it aloud, however, and leaves the room in a fit of temper. This becomes more understandable when we learn that she has decided to take Henry with her to L.A. to shoot a TV pilot and pursue her movie ambitions.

Complicating the situation is the fact that Charlie has just received a MacArthur Fellowship and has agreed to live in New York. Further muddying the water is Charlie's affair with a woman at his theater company. Although Charlie believes Nicole plans to move back to New York after the shoot, she has other ideas and the thought of having to travel back and forth on a 3,000 mile trip to see his son does not sit well with Charlie. It seems to be resolved, however, when during his visit to California, he ends up being served divorce papers by Nicole's sister Cassie (Merritt Wever, "Greenberg") in one of the funniest scenes in a film in which humor is sparse but always welcome.

What starts out as an amicable separation between two people who treat each other with respect turns into a circus, however, when high-priced, aggressive, and uncaring lawyers, Laura Dern ("Star Wars: The Last Jedi"), Ray Liotta ("The Son of No One") and Alan Alda ("Bridge of Spies") come into the picture and the weather forecast becomes cloudy with a likelihood of rain. Fighting a custody battle for Henry, Dern is exceptional as Nicole's lawyer Nora Fanshaw, an outwardly warm and caring person, but underneath a saber-toothed cat who delivers a crusading speech about the different expectations for a woman. Charlie's second lawyer after the amiable, but too laid back, Bert Spitz (Alda) is Jay (Liotta in his best role since 2012's "The Place Beyond the Pines").

Jay is up front about the financial cost ($950 an hour) as well as the emotional cost in turning resolvable differences into attack weapons to corner and belittle his adversary. With some personal experience in the matter, Baumbach does his best not to show preference for either aggrieved party, but depicts the divorce process to be one that is filled with gladiator-like combat that only serves to draw the contesting parties further apart. While it is obvious that the charming, self-absorbed Charlie should have shown more awareness of Nicole's needs for a career of her own, it is equally the case that his wife's ability to communicate her needs was inadequate.

If "love is a function of communication," Nicole and Charlie forgot it somewhere along the way. The film's emotional high point is the animated, accusatory conversation between husband and wife, perhaps better described as a shouting match. Though well-written, the verbal sparring becomes overwrought, though it mercifully ignores excessive use of the "F" and "S" words, so lazily prevalent in today's culture as a substitute for thoughtful dialogue and wit. While Marriage Story covers a lot of ground and is open to many interpretations, it all but stays away from any deep examination of the larger issues in a relationship such as commitment, responsibility, and communication, the cornerstones of any successful marriage.

Asked what the film is about, Baumbach says, "It's many things; it's about how love is not always enough." As author Werner Erhard put it, however, "The truth is that that's all there is. And if you take the barriers out of the way, if you take the pretenses out of the way, if you take those things that you didn't take responsibility for in your life out of the way, what you have left is love," and adds, "You don't have to be looking for love when it is where you come from."
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It's what we do with our feelings that matter in this life
8 December 2019
Loosely based on Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire article on children's television personality Fred Rogers, Marielle Heller's ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?") bittersweet A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a potent antidote to the widespread cynicism that pervades our culture of scientifically-sanctioned meaninglessness. Known as Mr. Rogers, he was a TV icon for more than half a century who sang, played with puppets and personified the ideals of generosity, kindness, and compassion to millions of children throughout the world. The film, while not a traditional biopic, looks at Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks, "Sully") through the eyes of investigative reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, "The Post"), a pull-no-punches journalist, a man whose life unfortunately is consumed with bitterness.

According to the director, "There was something about working on this movie that made me see it as a gift. Fred felt the suffering of other people and the world really deeply, and it led him to do the work that he did." Though the film is basically a true to life portrayal of Mr. Rogers, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster introduce a conflict between Vogel and his alcoholic dad (Chris Cooper, "Live by Night") to emphasize the point that failing to communicate and suppressing anger is self-defeating. Though Tom Hanks is basically relegated to a supporting role, he is still the movie's brightest light and the film loses some of its luster when he is not on the screen.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens in a setting familiar to TV viewers of his show. Looking directly at the camera in his neatly constructed TV house, Mr. Rogers sings his theme song, puts on his trademark red sweater and sneakers and tells us in a soft, unhurried, almost soporific tone, about a friend of his, Lloyd Vogel, who is going through a difficult period in his life. We first encounter Vogel's dysfunctional relationship with his father at the wedding of Lloyd's sister (Tammy Blanchard, "Rabbit Hole") when, after some awkward attempts at conversation, they come to blows. It is only later that we find out that Vogel holds his father responsible for abandoning the family when his mother was dying.

Assigned by his editor (Christine Lahti, "Touched With Fire") to write a flattering 400 word article on Mr. Rogers, what is known in the trade as a "puff piece," Vogel, who has a reputation for taking people apart and forgetting to put them back together, is at first deeply skeptical of the reality of Rogers' reputation but agrees to the assignment. Angry and resentful, his barely suppressed feelings towards his father create tension in his marriage to his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, "This Is Us" TV series) and his infant son. When he tells Andrea that he is going to write about Mr. Rogers, knowing his reputation for cynicism, she warns him with tongue-in-cheek not to "ruin her childhood."

When Vogel first meets Fred in a Pittsburgh studio, he expects a quick conversation and a respite from the tensions at home, but is taken aback when Rogers asks him about the wound on his face. Reluctant at first to talk about himself, through Rogers' persistence, he allows Lloyd to begin to express his feelings of abandonment, telling him that it is okay to be angry and that he knows it is very hard to forgive someone we love. One of the most moving scenes in the film takes place in a restaurant where, during a conversation, Fred asks Vogel to pause for a minute and remember the people in his life who loved him.

The minute of complete silence captures the essence of the man and reminded me of the power of Emma Gonzales who, at the 2018 March for Our Lives demonstration, after naming the seventeen victims of the Parkland high school shooting, stood silently for over four minutes, before ending her speech saying, "Fight for your lives before it's someone else's job." Despite all efforts to avoid it, however, the ubiquitous Mister Rogers comes across as somewhat larger than life, a man whose only negative character trait seems to be banging on the lower register of the piano to express his feelings, but it is Hanks projection of sincerity and caring that wins us over.

While the emotional release the director may have intended is somewhat thwarted by the unlikeability of Vogel's character, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is still a timely and resonant film that is touching and heartfelt without being manipulative (except for a contrived scene on a subway train where passengers burst out singing Rogers' theme song). To put an exclamation point on the film's relevance, Heller says, "The world is in need of kindness right now. I think we all feel that . . . at this moment in my life, at this moment politically, I wanted to make a movie about a person who truly embodies deep thinking, compassion and inclusivity. And Fred Rogers was that person. He dedicated his life to small genuine acts of compassion, and this movie shows how those small acts can change the lives of people around us." It does indeed.
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Young Ahmed (2019)
A thought-provoking and involving experience
31 October 2019
Over the last twenty years, the Dardenne brothers' ("The Unknown Girl") social realist dramas about the forgotten and the marginalized have been honored at the Cannes Film Festival with two Palme d'Ors, two Best Performance awards, one Best Screenplay award, and one Grand Prix. Their magic is still in evidence in their latest film, Young Ahmed, which won them the award for Best Director this year at Cannes. While it is a small film on a very big subject - that of Islamic fundamentalism - the film manages to deliver a thought-provoking and involving experience in spite of its 84-minute length and the broad scope of its subject.

Set in a small town in Belgium, a country that has endured recent terrorist attacks, the film belongs to first-time actor Idir Ben Addi who delivers a remarkable performance as Ahmed, a studious-looking, bespectacled 13-year-old boy whose hangdog appearance and inarticulateness masks his devotion to a fundamentalist religious philosophy that takes no prisoners. With his youth and malleability, his growing adherence to what he considers to be a true Muslim is fostered by his relationship with a local imam, Youssouf (Othmane Moumen, "Bad Buzz") who rails at what he considers to be the growing secular attack on Islam.

Without a father in the home to guide him, Ahmed personifies those whose obsession with ideology blinds them to their own humanity and that of others, taking on the imam's "us versus them" attitude even when it comes to his family. He calls his sister a "slut" because of the casual way she dresses and berates his mother (Claire Bodson, "Our Children") for drinking wine and not wearing a hijab. Apparently, Ahmed's transformation is recent since his mother laments the fact that just last year all he thought about were video games, but we do not know what triggered Ahmed's transformation and the film does not pursue it.

We do know, however, that he is burdened by the memory of his cousin who apparently took his own life as a suicide bomber, a fact that the imam will not let him forget. The teenager's main source of conflict is with his teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou, "The Kid with a Bike"). He refuses to shake her hand because he thinks women are impure and because she is dating a person of the Jewish faith. He is also upset about her plans to use music to teach Arabic and the Quran, plans that he considers sacrilegious. Labeled by the imam as an apostate, the impressionable teenager tries to prove his faith by physically assaulting her, an action for which he is placed in juvenile custody. Even this is too much for the imam who tells Ahmed that he said to oppose her beliefs, not try to kill her.

At the juvenile facility, Ahmed is treated with respect by his caseworker, psychologist, and teachers, but the viewer is left probing for clues as to whether Ahmed regrets his actions and is willing to change or whether he is quietly planning another assault. As part of his rehabilitation, he is sent to a farm where he is befriended by Louise (Victoria Bluck), the young daughter at the farm, but even her kiss does not awaken in him a feeling for people who have a different outlook on life. While Young Ahmed centers on the fundamentalist tenets of one religion, the film is not an attack on Islam but an assertion that any idea which considers itself to be the only true belief is antithetical to long-established ideals of tolerance and religious freedom.

Ultimately, no words or actions of others seem to reach Ahmed. As director Jean-Pierre Dardenne put it, "Fanatics don't listen to the outside world; they build a wall between themselves and the world. Their only goal is for others to become like them, no matter the cost." Though the direction in which Ahmed is headed is unclear, it is in the moment when his body deserts him that we get a hint he knows that his only escape from the bondage of ideology is to discover the true nature of his own being and that his only loss will be that which has stood in the way of his deeper understanding of the world.
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Synonyms (2019)
A unique experience which raises important questions about the nature of our identity
31 October 2019
According to award-winning Israeli director Nadav Lapid ("The Kindergarten Teacher"), "art has the right to be chaotic and wild, to go to extreme and dangerous places." If you are looking for chaotic and wild, you need look no further than his Synonyms (Milim Nirdafot), a mystifying and often maddening film that will either leave you awestruck or looking for the nearest exit. Winner of the Golden Bear and the FIPRESCI prize at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival and Lapid's first film shot outside of Israel, Synonyms is loosely based on the director's personal experience of having left Israel for Paris after completing his mandatory military service. As he explains enigmatically, "I left Israel not because of any specific event, but due to its very existence as the embodiment and shaper of 'Israeliness,' at the collective Israeli soul, the DNA of being Israeli."

Co-written by Lapid's father Haim Lapid, the film introduces first-time actor Tom Mercier as Yoav, an Israeli ex-patriot who wants to shed his identity as a macho Israeli soldier and become immersed in French culture, one that he sees as celebrating the arts. In bondage to his heritage, Yoav carries with him the burdens of being an Israeli with its history and present day political conflicts. Paradoxically, the film does not mention the fact of the resurgence of antisemitism in France and the departure of many Jews to Israel. Ultimately, however, Yoav is no more enamored with Paris than he is with Tel Aviv, and the interchangeable synonyms he constantly repeats reflect the similarity of his experience in both cultures.

As captured by the hand-held camera of cinematographer Shai Goldman ("Doubtful"), the film opens with the view of a young man's feet walking briskly through the streets of Paris. As he enters an old building near the River Seine and opens the door to his room, there is nothing inside but empty space - no furniture of any kind. Leaving his back pack in the middle of the floor, he does what any normal person would do in a cold and empty house. He strips naked, takes a bath and begins to masturbate until he is disturbed by sounds coming from the next room. Jumping out of the bath naked, he discovers that he has been robbed of all his possessions and frenetically runs through the building knocking on doors for help but to no avail, a suggestion perhaps that Paris will not be as welcoming as he thought.

With nothing left to do to protect himself from the cold, he gets back into the tub in a state of hypothermia and awaits redemption or death whichever comes first. Yoav is jostled back to life the next morning, however, by two young neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire, "My Golden Days"), the son of a wealthy entrepreneur and a would-be writer and his partner Caroline (Louise Chevillotte, "Lover for a Day"), an accomplished oboist, poster children for the French bourgeoisie. Though Yoav is a total stranger, Emile gives him the clothes and financial support he needs to keep going.

Refusing even to speak Hebrew, Yoav is repelled by Israel calling it "evil, despicable, disgusting, odorous," among other choice adjectives he learned from his pocket-sized French dictionary. He does not even smile when Emile tells him that, "No country can be all of those things at once." Possibly suffering from PTSD, Yoav is disillusioned about what he believes to be his country's obsession with security and takes his anger out on his own body, freezing it, starving it, and prostituting it.

According to Lapid, Yoav is "banging his head against a wall called Israel. But it's also because he is banging his head against himself." His diet consists of the same dish every day, a plate of spaghetti with crushed tomatoes, the cheapest meal possible. He advertises for work as a model, but has to endure abuse at the hands of the "artist," the only one who answers his ad. He is fired from his job as a security agent for the Israeli consulate when he takes pity on a lineup of immigrant applicants who are waiting in the pouring rain. Shouting that there is "no border," Yoav allows them to enter the embassy without being processed.

Along the way, Yoav meets some fellow Israelis, but they only serve to reinforce his preconceptions. One is tasked by the embassy to create incidents in order to confront gangs of neo-Nazis, while another aggressively hums the music to the "Hatikvah" in the face of Metro travelers interested only in getting home after a day's work. Though Emile is apparently sexually attracted to Yoav, he does not act on his impulses but, instead, helps him in his desire to become a French citizen by arranging a marriage to Caroline.

In the citizenship class, Yoav has to sing "La Marseillaise" as well as the Israeli national anthem in his own language, but he goes through the motions of reciting the words without feeling or commitment. Synonyms is a polarizing film which basically mirrors Lapid's view of the Israeli army as a reflection of the nation's damaged soul. While it lacks a coherent narrative and will test your endurance, Synonyms is a unique experience which raises important questions about the nature of our identity, our ability to come to terms with who we are, and our willingness to celebrate it.
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Parasite (2019)
Lacks any realistic human dimension
15 October 2019
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho ("Okja") says that he always tries to overturn viewer expectations and hopes that his latest film succeeds in this way. Palme d'Or winner at the 2019 Cannes Film festival, Bong's Parasite (Gisaengchung) does indeed thwart expectations, but the question is - to what end? Defying any strict genre classification, the film is a conglomeration of comedy, drama, satire, crime, horror, and anything else you can throw into the mix. Bong sees the film as a statement about the "ranks and classes" inherent in capitalism that are invisible to the eye, and says that the film "depicts the inevitable cracks that appear when two classes brush up against each other in today's increasingly polarized society." Unfortunately, the characterizations are filled with so many stereotypes that the lack of any realistic human dimension leaves Bong's statement without much impact.

The film looks at class differences between two families - one well-to-do, and the other n'eer do well. For the Kim family, life is a struggle. They live in a cramped bug-infested basement apartment without many amenities except for a toilet built on kind of a shelf. The father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, "Snowpiercer") has failed in business and has accumulated many debts. His son and daughter Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik, "Train to Busan") and Ki-jung (Park So-dam, "Cinderella and Four Knights" TV series) have repeatedly failed college entrance exams. The mother Chung-sook (Hyae-jin Jang, "Adulthood") along with the two children fold boxes for a delivery company, but cannot even get that right. Not to worry, they leave their windows open when the fumigators come around to get some free extermination and steal free Wi-Fi from the next door coffee shop.

On the other hand, the nouveau riche Park family has all the advantages. Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun, "Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage") is the CEO of a high-tech company and the family lives in a spacious, modernistic home protected by sturdy concrete walls. He has an attractive somewhat fragile wife Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong, "The Target"), a teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so, "The Tiger"), and a hyper-active young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). Being wealthy and somewhat elitist in their attitude, for Bong, they are ideally suited to be torn apart by ruthless grifters. With the aid of a friend, Ki-woo is hired to be a private tutor for Da-hye. Of course, he has to forge university documents to convince the trusting Mrs. Park of his competence. With that conquest out of the way, the cunning Ki-woo concocts a scheme to secure jobs in the Park household for his entire family.

Convinced that their young son is a budding Picasso, Mrs. Park hires Ki-jung as an art teacher, then falls for invented stories impugning the character of their driver and housekeeper to provide some more employment opportunities for the Kims, this time for the deadbeat dad Ki-taek and his wife Chung-sook. Bong said that "Sometimes with the characters in my films, I look at them cynically, but most of the time I have a lot of compassion for the characters, even with the villains." This compassion, however, does not seem to extend to the loyal, hardworking household workers, their work scammed out of existence. Without going into detail, the whole escapade backfires in a twist that is over-the-top unsettling even though utterly implausible.

Worthy of a Mack Sennett comedy, a sweet family drama turns into a tumultuous melange of hidden chambers, revenge, bloody violence, a torrential rainstorm, people hiding under beds, and any other mayhem that may come to mind. To be clear, Parasite can be very funny and some of the satire is sharp-edged, yet it is hardly, as one critic described it, "a masterful dissection of social inequality." When asked what he wanted viewers to get out of the film, Bong said, "I just hope that it gives audiences a lot to think about. It is in parts funny, frightening, and sad, and if it makes viewers feel like sharing a drink and talking over all the ideas they had while watching it, I'll wish for nothing more." Enjoy the drink. In a little while, you may have trouble remembering what the film was about.
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An intimate look at two damaged souls ready to begin the reconstruction of their life
15 October 2019
While many holocaust survivors openly express rage and uncontrolled bitterness towards their persecutors, other survivors display only an emotional deadness and a pervasive feeling of being alone and scared. In the movie "Fateless," Gyuri, a young man sent to Buchenwald, moves from a childlike innocence to world-weariness in the span of one year. When he comes home, he feels more alone than he did at the camp and even expresses a sort of homesickness for the camaraderie he felt. As a disfigured Holocaust survivor in Christian Petzold's "Phoenix," Nina Hoss' shattered look, repressed emotions, and shaky voice feel so natural that her gradual awakening to life epitomizes a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Hungary's entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2019 Academy Awards, Barnabás Tóth's ("Camembert Rose") Those Who Remained (Akik maradtak) asks us to rethink our idea of what liberation meant to those just released from the camps. Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Zsuzsa F. Varkonyi and set in Budapest between 1948 and 1953, the suffering of the Holocaust years are deeply etched on the face of Doctor Aládar (Aldo) Körner (Károly Hajduk, "One Day"), a slender, gaunt man of about forty who is going through the motions of his Ob-Gyn practice at a Budapest hospital, but the look in his eyes cannot hide the trauma of his wife's death and that of his two young boys.

Coming from the Israelite Community Orphanage, Klára (Abigél Szõke, "X - The eXploited"), a mature-looking 16-year-old girl, sees Dr. Körner, for a gynecological exam to find out why her puberty has come so late. At first, angry, fearful, and wound into a tight knot, when she reaches out and suddenly embraces the doctor, it is clear that she is seeking more than an exam but a respite from her desperate loneliness. Outspoken in her disdain for her classmates at school and her great-aunt Olgi (Mari Nagy, "Budapest Noir") with whom she lives, Klára only begins to reveal her repressed humanity when Aldo responds to her like a fellow human being in pain, not a wounded animal.

Bringing the film to life with her tremendously affecting performance, Szõke refuses to return to Olgi even though she loves her and wants her to be happy. Instead, she moves in with Aldo who acts as a foster father, sharing custody with her aunt. He makes the rules, however, and is strict about physical contact, especially when she crawls into bed with him at night. Gradually, both open up though to each other. They talk about God, her parents, the sister she feels guilty about not being able to save from death, and, in a tender scene, he shares with her his photo album from before the war.

Though Aldo strictly adheres to the rules of propriety, their developing relationship raises some eyebrows, and the interest of Soviet operatives. Amidst talk of a Soviet crackdown on personal freedoms, Aldo and Klára do their best to be discreet, but it does not prevent others from gossiping. In one instance, after being seen in a park laying her head on Aldo's lap, Klára is defiant when interrogated by a Communist official. Similarly, Pista (Andor Lukáts, "The Whiskey Bandit"), Aldo's colleague at work, says that people have disappeared during the night and tells him that he has joined the Communist Party and has been asked to inform on him.

Those Who Remained is an intimate look at two damaged souls who have been bruised and shaken by life but are now ready to begin the reconstruction of their life, a process which will, in Percy Bysshe Shelley's phrase "lift the veil from the hidden beauty of the world." Knowing that any expression of the love they feel for each other will push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable, both realize that their protestations of innocence will not be enough to keep them safe, and that they must now reach out to others, bringing solace and joy in a world in dire need of both.
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Ode to the city of Hong Kong
6 October 2019
Hong Kong director Yonfan's ("Venice 70: Future Reloaded") mesmerizing animated film No.7 Cherry Lane ("Jìyuántái qihào") is steeped in nostalgia yet seeks a balance between past, present, and future. His first film in ten years, No.7 Cherry Lane is Yonfan's ode to the city of Hong Kong, to cinema in the sixties, and to the swirl of forces that provoked the Mao-inspired Hong Kong protests of 1967. Rendered in 3-D before being hand-drawn in 2-D, the film features an unorthodox love triangle supercharged with eroticism, a dazzling dream sequence, a taste of Chinese hip-hop, youth protest marches against British colonialism, and an elegant blend of Eastern and Western culture in which the characters are equally comfortable discussing Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" and Cao Xuegin's "Dream of the Red Chamber," one of the great Chinese classical novels.

Winner of the award for Best Screenplay at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, to Yonfan the film is "a story of love in desperation with all the contradictory ingredients: In and out, high and low, vice and virtue, war and peace, beauty and the beast, east and west, unorthodox and classical, spiritual and physical... all of these are merged into thousands of hand drawn images that nourish the whole film." "This is a story," he continues, "about yesterday, today and tomorrow. Above all, it is a film of liberation." Bolstered by the voices of such known stars as Sylvia Chang ("Long Day's Journey into Night"), Zhao Wei ("Lost in Hong Kong"), and Ann Hui ("Echoes of the Rainbow"), the film's impossibly attractive characters include youthful university students, an aging former opera diva, and an ex-revolutionary woman in her forties, each longing to tame and possess the other.

Set in the "Little Shanghai" district of North Point in Hong Kong and based on Yonfan's short stories, the film is divided into three enigmatically-titled chapters: "Dream Charade," "Play Shadow," and "Winter Cometh." Rather than relying on a conventional narrative to draw us in, the film asks us to use our imagination and sense of wonder to appreciate the images displayed on the screen. Opening with a two-dimensional rendering of Hong Kong in the sixties, we see the winding city streets close to the harbor, images of red cotton trees, as well as the towering presence of the Hong Kong Hilton in ostentatious contrast to the city's slums. The mood is only broken with the passage of a huge jet that casts a long shadow suggesting that darkness looms just over the horizon.

The focus of the film is Ziming (voiced by Alex Lam, "Lan Kwai Fong 3"), a handsome English student at Hong Kong University who we see playing tennis with his friend Steven (voiced by Stephen Fung, "Amazing"), then again at the showers where another young student, Bookworm, peers through an opening to view the naked bodies. Ziming has been hired to tutor 18-year-old Meiling (Wei) in English but, on reaching No.7 Cherry Lane, he rings the bell of the wrong apartment and is greeted by an aging former opera diva, Mrs. May (voiced by Kelly Yao, "Naked Killer"), who has more cats than furniture. Openly flirting with Ziming, she does her best to persuade him to stay but he escapes, landing at the apartment of Mrs. Yu (Chang).

Yu is a single mother and former revolutionary who left Taiwan during the so-called "White Terror" period and is now an exporter of luxury goods to Taiwan. As they wait for Meiling to come home, they bond over the novels of Proust and Xuequin in which she recalls a chapter about a Taoist nun, Miaoyu who becomes enamored of the man who abducts her, a situation now referred to as the "Stockholm syndrome." The polite discussion, however, is interrupted by an enchanting dream sequence of consummate skill. Mrs. Yu dreams she is Miaoyu and is abducted against her will by a brutal kidnapper. Brought to a gloomy forest where she is surrounded by snakes, Miaoyu rips off her attacker's mask only to find Ziming. In turn, he tears off her skin and discovers Mrs. Yu.

Her relationship with the student grows when they see films featuring French actress Simone Signoret such as "Room at the Top" with Lawrence Harvey, "Casque d'Or," and "Ship of Fools," films that depict a relationship between an older woman and a young man, a scenario that allows Mrs. Yu to visualize herself in the Mrs. Robinson-type role, an effect reinforced by the theater marquee advertising the film "The Graduate." To complicate matters even more, Meiling develops a crush on her tutor as they study "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" together.

Unable to resist Meiling's charms, Ziming ultimately must confront his feelings about mother and daughter as well as the desires of Bookworm, and a turned-on black cat. It is no small challenge. Though No.7 Cherry Lane oscillates between contrasting images of past and present, its inspiration does not rest on its message but on its physical beauty and thrilling set-pieces that take us wherever we want to go and even to places we do not.
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Gritty and realistic
25 September 2019
"The real voyage of discovery lies in not seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes" - Marcel Proust

The innocence of children has been one of the main themes of Iranian cinema in recent years. Films such as Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven," Abbas Kiarostami's "Where is the Friend's Home?" and Jafar Panahi's "The White Balloon" not only depict the children's innocence, but also their hardships and spiritual strengths. Reza Mirkarimi's ("Daughter") Castle of Dreams (Ghasr-e Shirin), aka "The Sweet Palace," continues in that tradition with the story of two children of considerable charm, Sara (Niousha Alipour) and Ali (Yuna Tadayyon), whose continuing devotion to their disillusioned father, Jalal Moradi (Hamed Behdad, "Sly"), begins to break down the barriers between them and to develop a new understanding of their relationship.

Written by Mohammad Davoudi and Mohsen Gharaie, like Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry," Castle of Dreams is a road movie that features a depressed and isolated man seeking a way out, but Jalal is very much unlike the introspective and poetic Mr. Badii. Neither a paragon of virtue nor a poster boy for the joys of fatherhood, Jalal is a desperate man bent on avoiding any emotional or financial support for his children. Released from prison after serving time for involuntary manslaughter, the 42-year-old Jalal left his wife and children and moved to another city, but has now returned to his home town two years later to find his wife critically ill. Jalal wishes to profit from his wife's illness by selling her car and moving to Azerbaijan and to leave his children in the care of his sister-in-law, Nasrin (Azadeh Nobahari).

Nasrin's determined husband, however, wants no part of that and lobbies Jalal to take the children with him. He resists but, after what seems to be an interminable length of time pondering the alternatives, grudgingly agrees to take them. Unceremoniously depositing them in the back seat of the old car which does not sound as if it will make it to the next corner, the road trip begins almost 40-minutes into the film. Though Ali is older and more serious than his unbearably cute sister Sara, the impressionable boy believes the story his mother told him about his father living in a magic castle and wants to go there with him, still attached to his dad despite everything that has taken place.

Sara, not comprehending the chaos going on around her, is more concerned with the well-being of her pet turtle Water Color and pressures Jalal to turn the car around to rescue it and bring it with them. After learning that his wife has died, Jalal picks up his girlfriend Najmeh (Zhila Shahi, "Orange Days") whom he introduces to the children as his business partner, but soon begins to berate her for looking like a "floozy." In return, Najmeh calls Jalal a liar and a cheat which, given the character of the man depicted thus far, does not seem unreasonable. A crying Najmeh tells Jalal that she wants to have children with him, but he demurs which prompts her to abruptly get out of the car and find a way home with Jalal's sly assistance.

The journey eventually includes Jalal bribing a policeman who wants to impound his car for reckless driving and Jalal being violently assaulted by his ex-wife's two brothers, for which no reason is provided. The focus of the film, however, is not on the incidents that take place in the present or those in the past but on the evolution of Jalal's character. While the negative picture that is presented of fatherhood may be a hard sell in a nation that prides itself on the strength of the family, Behdad's brilliant performance draws us to him in spite of his lack of connection with others.

Gritty and realistic in the mode of minimalist French films of the past, Castle of Dreams contains no dramatic peaks and valleys, only a constant undercurrent of tension throughout. While Jalal's transformation is subtle and there are no blatant emotional appeals, the children's resilience more than compensates for the film's lack of dramatic urgency. Through Ali and Sara, we get a deeper insight into Jalal's character - his realization of his own loneliness and that of his children and a growing awareness that allows him to consider the notion of living simply and peacefully, turning the hardships of the past into a different vision of what a castle of dreams looks like.
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A powerful film that conveys an important and disturbing message
31 August 2019
While his reporting sometimes comes across as performance art, journalist Mads Brügger ("The Saint Bernard Syndicate") has gone beyond satire in his searing documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Winner of the best directing award at Sundance, it is a powerful film that conveys an important and disturbing message about the extent of colonialism and racism in Africa. Described by Brügger as "a project of titanic proportions, full of doubts, questions and moments of desperation," the film is an inquiry into the death of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, killed in a plane crash in 1961 in the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) on route to the Congo.

Willing to take on powerful interests in Europe who stood to gain economically from colonialism, the Secretary-General, known in Sweden as "the lord of peace," was attempting to negotiate a cease-fire between UN forces and the breakaway state of Katanga, widely considered a front for Belgian mining interests. The cause of the crash was attributed to pilot error but is considered by many to have been an assassination. The first part of the film deals with Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl as they examine the circumstances surrounding the crash.

A cross between Michael Moore and Werner Herzog, Brügger tells us at the outset with tongue-in-cheek that Cold Case Hammarskjöld could either be "the world's biggest murder mystery or the world's most idiotic conspiracy theory" (though it may actually be a little of both). Separated into sections announced by yellow stickies plastered on the wall, Brügger dictates his story to two different Congolese secretaries who record it on a vintage typewriter. The two investigators initially discover from photographs that Hammarskjöld's bloodied corpse had a playing card: The ace of spades, wedged into his collar, which someone tells them is the calling card of the CIA, but that is the last we hear about it.

Ludicrously, Brügger and Björkdahl attempt to dig up the wreckage of the plane with supplies that include two shovels, a metal detector, pith helmets (a symbol of 19th century Western imperialism), and two cigars, ostensibly to celebrate after completing the job, though Björkdahl claims that he does not smoke. Brügger undertakes the project "dressed all in white like some fair bride," mimicking the appearance of a mysterious man from South Africa later deeply implicated in events. The diggers have to cut the enterprise short, however, because Brügger says that he feels nauseous but it soon dawns on us that we are being played.

The play turns deadly, however, when a man by the name of Keith Maxwell surfaces as the one who ordered Hammarskjöld's plane to be shot down by a Belgian mercenary. When a video from South Africa's post- Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission is discovered, we hear about "Operation Celeste," a nine-page memo detailing plans for executing Hammarskjöld that may or may not be legitimate. On the memo's letterhead, however, is the name of the South African Institute of Maritime Research (SAIMR). Apparently, Maxwell (said by his wife to be insane) used the organization as a cover to carry out his clandestine mission.

During a period of six years, Brügger and Björkdahl interview former members of SAIMR to little benefit, but are eventually rewarded when they locate a surprisingly talkative witness, Alexander Jones, who claims that SAIMR was a mercenary group supported by the CIA and Britain's MI6. The story becomes even more chilling when Jones tells the investigators (without any evidence other than his word) that the goal of SAIMR was to eradicate black people in Africa by injecting them with the HIV virus. Though, in a New York Times article by Matt Apuzzo from January 27, 2019, we are told by scientists that this was not possible, the fact that some thought it was desirable is in itself deplorable.

In 2015, the UN reopened the Hammarskjöld investigation and a United Nations panel concluded that there was "persuasive evidence that Hammarskjöld's aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat." Given what we know about Western involvement in regime change such as the overthrow of Socialist President Miguel Allendé of Chile, Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, and Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Cold Case Hammarskjöld raises serious doubts about the official story. In discussing the film, Brügger said, "I want the audience to feel: I've never seen anything like this before!" My feelings exactly.
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Captures the bonds of friendship that transcend changes brought by social and economic dislocation
2 August 2019
The San Francisco I knew as a young man was a place with a sense of community and culture that welcomed the adventurous, the imaginative, the creative, and the marginalized. Though, like every other major U.S. city, it was not always a place of harmony, and some neighborhoods had its dangers for outsiders, yet it was a city with a truly diverse population and a rich bohemian culture which has now all but disappeared. Joe Talbot's first feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, laments the heart of a city that has been broken by gentrification but celebrates the beauty that remains. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, and aided by a pensive score by Emile Mossei, the film is an affecting work that is based on Talbot's lifelong friendship with Jimmie Fails who plays a fictional version of himself, a young black man estranged from a place that he once called home.

Winner of the Directing Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the film opens as two men, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors, "Out of Blue") wait impatiently for a bus to take them to the city as a droning preacher (Willie Hen) stands on a soapbox shouting "Remember your truth in the city of façades." It is a message that reverberates throughout the film. Mont and Jimmy are headed to an old Victorian home on Golden Gate Avenue which Jimmie claims his grandfather built in 1946. The house, in what used to be a working class neighborhood, was lost by his father James Sr. (Rob Morgan, "Mudbound") in the 90s and Jimmie is obsessed with getting it back.

With pride, Fails claims that his grandfather was the first black man in San Francisco. Though this is little more than an urban legend, it provides him with a rationale for what he thinks is his historical claim to the house. Much to the chagrin of the older white woman (Maximilienne Ewalt, "Sense8" TV series) who owns the house, Jimmie often comes to touch up the paint on the windows and take care of the lawn but has to duck the fruit the owner throws at him while demanding that he leave the premises. The taciturn Jimmie works part-time as a nursing home attendant and Mont works at a fish market though he is also an artist, writer, and playwright.

Sadly, Jimmie's family is scattered and he has no home. He sleeps on the floor of Mont's house and, in an evening of warmth and friendship, they are shown watching the 1949 San Francisco film noir "D.O.A." on TV together as Montgomery narrates for his blind grandfather (Danny Glover, "The Old Man & the Gun"). Across the street from Mont's house, a group of young macho studs taunt the two friends presumably for their lack of "toughness," but it later becomes clear that much of it is posturing. In two striking scenes, Jimmie travels across the bridge to have some reflective conversations with his Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold, "Wild Hogs"), and in a funny but heartbreaking encounter, runs into his mother on the bus but their reunion is as uninvolved as it is fleeting.

To underscore the sense of displacement, Bobby (Mike Epps, "Resident Evil: Extinction"), a friend of James Sr., lives in Jimmie's dad's old car and insists on giving the two friends a ride into town which they reluctantly accept. In a scene that typifies the old spirit of San Francisco, Fails sits on a bench and is joined by a completely nude, older man (David Usner, "Roxie"), a scenario that scarcely raises an eyebrow with the exception of some rowdies passing on a tour bus. Things turn when the current owner of the old Victorian dies and it looks as if a legal dispute will tie up ownership rights for some time.

Acting quickly, after a real estate broker tells them the house would cost four million dollars to buy, they transport the family's old furniture, mostly still in good condition, into the mansion and move in as squatters. Though Jimmie still follows his dream, he knows that trying to recreate the house as he remembers it is a delusion, a fact he is forcefully reminded of by Mont in a play performed before a small audience in a corner of the old house. The Last Black Man in San Francisco captures the bonds of love and friendship that exist between people, bonds that transcend the changes brought by social and economic dislocation.

To put it in perspective, Reverend Danny Nemu once said, "Some mourn as their edifices crumble; but for the open-eyed and uninvested, all that is lost is that which lies between them and deeper understanding." Talking about his relationship with Mont, Fails agrees, "All I want is for friendships like ours to be able to exist," he says, "and that doesn't exist in the new San Francisco. That's really what it's about, getting back to that point where artists and outsiders can live there. Where weirdos who didn't feel accepted could come because that's what it used to be about. That's the best San Francisco in my eyes." It is the idea of San Francisco The Last Black Man in San Francisco lovingly conveys.
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A Sensitive and haunting Film
21 July 2019
Recapturing old memories can be challenging, especially when the line between what really happened and what may have happened is so fragile. Like Joanna Hogg's recent film memoir, "The Souvenir," Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor Castillo ("Thursday Till Sunday"), in her third feature Too Late to Die Young (Tarde para morir joven), is uncertain where memory ends and imagination begins. Winner of the award for Best Director at the Locarno Film Festival (the first woman director to win that prize), the moody, elusive coming-of-age drama follows a group of families living in a secluded, non-traditional community at the foot of the Andes Mountains, close to the city of Santiago.

Produced by Rodrigo Teixeira, one of the producers of "Call Me by Your Name," and set in the summer of 1990, the unspoken context of the film is the recent transition of Chile from its unending nightmare of political violence and social unrest under the dictator Pinochet to a burgeoning democracy, open to new possibilities. As exquisitely photographed by Inti Briones ("The Play"), the film is based on Sotomayor's experience of her own childhood. According to the director, "the film is "a collective portrait of a society coming to terms, often messily, with the new opportunities around them. The location is the main character. I grew up in a community that is similar. When democracy arrived to Chile in 1989, my parents decided to move to a commune that was still being constructed."

Reminiscent of Lucretia Martel's "La Ciénaga," the film unfolds in a seemingly uneventful series of episodes, but is steeped in atmosphere and much is going on beneath the surface. Though the film's lack of a stated context often makes us feel as if we are eavesdropping on an intimate gathering like an uninvited guest at a party, the screen pulsates with life, music and joy. Sharing life in the commune, children run and play in their natural surroundings, swim in a makeshift pool, while the adults engage in the day-to-day activities of cooking, listening to music, and planning a party to celebrate the New Year.

The biggest source of contention is whether or not to install a fuel generator and where to obtain a local water source. For the children, life, as Sotomayor expresses it, is "without limits, without borders...listening to people talk, trying to understand things that were definitely not intended for them." The children in the film are all non-professional actors recruited from local communes, but the focus is on sixteen-year-olds Sofía (Demian Hernández) and Lucas (Antar Machado) and the growing awareness of their sexuality (sadly Machado lost his father two days before the shooting began but insisted on continuing). The striking-looking Sofia must contend both with Lucas' attraction to her and with Ignacio (Mathias Oviedo, "Verdados Ocultas," TV series), an older man visiting the commune with whom she has her first sexual experience and her first heartbreak.

The camera follows Sofia as she smokes a cigarette in the bathtub, bathes in a spring beneath a cascading waterfall, reflects silently on her confusing feelings, and converses with her impenetrable father about her desire to move back to the city to live with her mother. The longing look on her face suggests that, like the author Henri Barbusse, she sees "too deep and too much." Ten-year-old Clara (Magdalena Tótoro), another important character, is an unusually expressive child who reveals her deepest feelings non-verbally. She is distraught when her dog Frida runs away, but when she discovers that Frida has been living with a poor family in the city, her joy turns to dismay when the dog no longer responds to the name "Frida" but only to "Cindy," the name her new family bestowed on her.

Too Late to Die Young is a sensitive and haunting film in which the characters are so real and indelibly drawn that, as with many great films, the end brought to me an abiding sense of loss. The tension of the film builds when a break-in occurs and a water-pipe is deliberately blocked and culminates in a fast-spreading forest fire. As Sotomayor put it, "It is the explosion of what has been contained in these early scenes. It also represents the end of an illusion." Unlike the holier-than-thou alienation of the film, "Captain Fantastic," Too Late to Die Young implies that there is no escape from the struggles and challenges of life whether you live in a crowded city or in the middle of a forest. As Bob Dylan said it, "It's life and life only."
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