Quick takes on I Care a Lot and other films

Eternal Beauty has been on my watch list since it first premiered at a film festival in 2019, but I’ve just recently had a chance to see it. It stars the incomparable Sally Hawkins (how does she not have more awards in her closet?!) as Jane, a woman struggling with schizophrenia. Her particular hallucinations come in the form of whispers from inside the walls, voices from the radio telling her to do things, and she hears her apartment phone ring constantly, with a man on the other end telling her he loves her and always will. We learn as the film goes along that she is not the only one in her family suffering from mental illness, but she’s definitely been the person who has taken the fall. Several key events are happening at this particular point in Jane’s life: her domineering mother is dying, her older sister’s husband is having an affair, and her younger sister’s life is falling apart. With all this going on, Jane meets someone. Mike (David Thewlis) is also schizophrenic, and it is obvious to everyone that they aren’t very good for each other, obvious to everyone except Jane and Mike. The film is sort of a dark comedy drama, but I was uncomfortable laughing at some of the humor, because much of it poked fun at Jane’s illness, through her behaviors. Other times, her sickness was most definitely not funny, and took on an almost scary theme. As the film progresses, we learn more about Jane and how her life has taken her to this point. It’s a very good picture, and I was reminded a lot of Hawkins’ previous film Maudie. Like that one, this movie is very good but not necessarily great, but her performance is definitely worth the price of admission. I firmly believe she is one of those transcendent kind of actors that makes everything she’s in better. 3 stars for the film, 5 for her performance, balances out to ★★★★

Judas and the Black Messiah is a gripping movie, based on the lives of Bill O’Neal and Fred Hampton in the late 1960s. Bill (Lakeith Stanfield) is a two-bit hood who’s latest scam is pretending to be a cop in order to steal cars. He is caught red-handed, but rather than send him to jail, he is recruited by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. Their ultimate goal is to get close to Panthers leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who is seen by J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) as a real problem. Fred is a captivating speaker who articulates the anger black people are feeling over the recent murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Bill ingratiates himself quickly, and it isn’t long before he is running security for Fred. Bill seems moved by the things Fred says, but stays the course with the FBI for his promised riches and rewards when the job is done. Unfortunately Hoover isn’t looking for an arrest; he wants to put a final end to Fred’s calls for revolution. It is a captivating movie, and while I certainly don’t condone Fred’s calls for violence against the police, the film does a great job of explaining the anger behind his words. Stanfield is fantastic as a conflicted Bill, but Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton steals the show. Anytime he is in the scene, the camera is his to command, and his presence is felt through the screen. Tremendous performances, showing a damning moment of authoritative violence in our country. ★★★★

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is (yet another) story about someone stuck inside the same day, Groundhog Day style. This time it is wrapped in a teen drama and, like Palm Springs last year, features two people reliving the same day over and over instead of one. When the movie starts, Mark has already lived the same day a 1000 times or more, and knows everything that will happen down cold. He does good things for the passersby on the streets, but his latest goal is to get a kiss from a cute girl he saves from getting beaned by a beach ball at the pool, but no matter what he tries, it never works. One day, before Mark can step in front of the rogue ball, a new girl steps in front and deflects it, before walking to her car and driving away. Knowing she isn’t part of the loop, Mark hunts her down, and lo and behind, finds that Margaret has been living the same day over and over too. They decide that maybe they’ll be able to get out if they map out all of the magical moments that happen around town, things like an eagle catching a fish clean out of a lake, a janitor who sits at a piano when he thinks no one is around and plays beautifully, and kids who find joy in lighting up their new tree house. Mark has long ago accepted that he may never get past this day, and almost enjoys it, but Margaret seems to struggle, for a reason that becomes known in the latter part of the movie. It’s a cute film, maybe a little too cute for my taste. It’s not as good as either of the previously mentioned movies with this premise, and while there are some laughs, it isn’t as funny or as endearing as those. However, worthy of a single viewing. ★★★

I Care a Lot is ridiculous, implausible, but damn it’s a good time, with an all-star cast showing off their talents. Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is a predator of the elderly. She’s in league with an unsavory doctor who tips her off to old people who are showing dementia, and then Marla gets the courts to grant her guardianship. With these powers, she puts the old folks in a home, auctions off their house and goods, and pays herself out of all the money coming in. Things are going well until she gets the wrong lady under her care. Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) has nothing wrong with her, but Marla is still able to fool the courts and gets Jennifer under her care. Jennifer was supposed to be a “cherry,” with no living family on record to fight Marla, and thus when Jennifer eventually died, all her finances would go to her guardian. Unfortunately, Jennifer has a hidden past, and a son that very much wants to ruin Marla’s day. The unnamed son (Peter Dinklage) has a ton of money, a few thugs, and a very good, dirty lawyer who all try to intimidate Marla, but she’s having none of it. She knows there’s more to Jennifer than there seems, and wants much more money than she’s being offered to walk away. I enjoyed this movie much more than I was expecting. There aren’t any good guys here, it is just bad guys vs bad guys, and no one to root for, but they are all deliciously bad. That, I think, is the crux of the bad reviews online, no “good guy” to get behind. The finale stretches believability quite a bit, but the film is a blast. It is blacker-than-black comedy teamed up with wild thrills. ★★★★½

I’ve been hearing amazing things about Nomadland for quite awhile, and I won’t say I was disappointed, but, for my tastes, it wasn’t the end-all-be-all film I was expecting. Frances McDormand plays Fern, an older woman who’s recently lost everything. She and her husband worked for the same company in rural Nevada for years, but the company closed up (pretty much eliminating the town that depended on it), and then Fern’s husband died. Fern’s lost her house and is now living out of a van, taking on a nomad lifestyle. She moves place to place and takes work where she can get it, such as seasonal packaging at an Amazon distribution center, cleaning at an RV park, or the occasional restaurant job. The film is about Fern’s grieving process for her husband and former life, but it also plays out as a quasi-documentary, with Fern meeting and talking with others in similar situations. There are a few young Bohemians, but for the most part, it is an elderly crowd who, like Fern, have lost houses or in some cases, willingly chose the nomad life to see the country before they die. It did not surprise me to learn that many of the people in the picture were fictionalized versions of themselves, real-life nomads out on the road. We learn about the risk, perils, and rewards for this kind of living. This is probably why it did not grab me; I’m generally not a big documentary person. This film is heavy on facts and light on story, and while McDormand is excellent (as always), it’s just not my cup of tea. ★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: WandaVision, Fargo (season 4)
  • Book currently reading: Dune by Frank Herbert

1500 movies blogged

Early last month, I crossed 1500 movies blogged here. I’ve been wanting to write a quick note about it, but kept forgetting.

My wife teases me (playfully I hope?) that I watch too much tv. Between all these movies, many tv/streaming shows that I don’t even blog about, and every Cardinals/Blues game (born and raised St Louis!) I do have a screen in front of me a lot. Part of it is a big case of FOMO; I just can’t not watch something that I may end up liking. This seems to have gotten worse the last couple years. According to my Letterboxed, in the last 4 years, my movie totals have gone from 182, to 214, to 387, to 401 last year. Granted, some of those were re-watches that I didn’t blog about, but that’s still a lot of movies to watch.

Right now, I’m on pace for 450 films in 2021. I don’t think I’ll get that many, but I’m fairly sure I’ll hit 400 again. As the number of films climbs, finding something in particular I’ve written about has become a challenge. So here’s a couple ways to search for something I’ve seen since I started my blog in 2014 : 

  • The search bar (on the right if you are on a computer, at the bottom on mobile)
  • My Letterboxd (no reviews there, just my activity and ratings)
  • My updated google spreadsheet (sortable)

If anyone else has better ideas on how to search for particular movies/history, let me know! And thanks for reading.

Quick takes on 5 Duvivier films

Julien Duvivier was a French director whose career started in the silent film era, but who found his greatest success later with “talkies.” He had a long career, making movies not just in France, but also in the USA and all around Europe (including a version of Anna Karenina starring Vivien Leigh, out of the UK in 1948) until his death in 1967. Today I’ll be looking at 5 of his early sound films of the 1930’s.

David Golder, from 1931, was Duvivier’s first sound film, and also his first picture with actor Harry Baur (they would collaborate many more times). It’s a grim story, light on plot but heavy on emotion. Golder is a shrewd businessman who is tight with his money at work, but free with it at home, perhaps a little too free. His wife is having a not-so-secret affair but continues to spend Golder’s money at will, and Golder cannot say no to his daughter Joyce either. In fact, when he has heart problems and ends up in the hospital, Joyce goes and buys a new car first, before heading to the hospital to see him. While there recuperating, his estranged wife tells him that Joyce is not his daughter, but is instead the daughter of her paramour. Still, when Joyce’s money runs out and she comes back begging for more, Golder cannot resist and instead goes to make another deal to seal her financial future, despite warnings from his doctors to stay away from stressful work. Don’t expect life to end happy for Golder; people have used him up all of his life. It’s a depressing film, but it is well shot and very well acted by Baur. ★★½

Poil de carotte (Carrottop, AKA The Red Head) is a remake of Duvivier’s earlier silent film of the same name. It is about a boy who is severely mistreated by his mother at home. Though blond, his mother has always sworn there’s red in it, so everyone calls him Carrottop. Mrs Lepic adores the two older children, but abuses Carrottop for every small transgression, berating him verbally and slapping him when the father, Mr Lepic, is not around. This has gone on for years, but a new person in the house may finally put a stop to it. A new maid is hired, Annette, and with her fresh eyes, she immediately sees the politics of the house. She warns Mr Lepic of the abuses, and while he is hesitant to admit this has been going on under his nose all this time, he does start to pay more attention. But this comes the day of his election to mayor of the town, and he isn’t as observant as he maybe wants to be. When even Carrottop’s godfather, the only adult to treat him kindly, is pulled away to another conversation, Carrottop feels there is nothing left for him in this world. Here, I thought David Golder was dark. This is about a dire a film as there is, about the unhappiness of a child, with fantastic acting by Robert Lynen in the lead and Harry Baur as his father. ★★★★

La tête d’un homme (literally A Man’s Head, but a proper translation would be A Man’s Neck) goes in a different direction, away from the family setting, and is a crime film. The mood is set from the very beginning, when Willy, a poor but good natured man, makes a joke in a bar, offering $100k to anyone who’d kill his rich (and single) aunt, so he’d get an inheritance. An unknown passerby drops a note that he’d take Willy up on his offer. The viewer doesn’t know if it is Willy or his fiancee who follows through, but the next scene has a drifter sneaking into the aunt’s house. However, he’s not there to kill, he’s been told by yet another unknown man that a pile of money would be on the bed. There’s no money there, just the dead aunt. The drifter, Heurtin, flees at the sight of the body, leaving fingerprints and footprints all over the place, just as his hirer wanted. With Heurtin’s evidence all over the place, the police seize on him right away, but a certain inspector, Maigret (Harry Baur again), thinks there’s more to the story. He purposefully lets Heurtin escape, hoping he’ll lead him to whoever really planned the murder. The first hour or so is great, lots of mystery, some Hitchcock-like thrills (but without the humor, sadly), but the final 30 minutes really dragged. By then the viewer knew the mystery, and it was just a waiting game to see how it played out. ★★★

Pépé le moko was a big hit for the director, and features a bonafide star in Jean Gabin in the lead roll. Pépé is an accomplished thief, with multiple holdups and even a couple bank robberies under his belt. He’s been on the run from the police for awhile and has fled Paris for the Casbah region of Algiers, where he is a local hero. Pépé shows terrible wrath against his enemies, but great compassion for his friends, and the locals hide him in the Casbah, with its labyrinthian streets and rooftops. Unfortunately because of this, he can’t leave this little area, or he’d be caught. The cops hatch a plan to lure Pépé out by capturing his friend Pierrot, but that turns south, leaving Pépé safe (though Pierrot doesn’t make it). You think he might be in the clear forever, until a vacationer from Paris with big beautiful eyes catches Pépé’s fancy. That’s about all I want to say about the plot, because the film’s twists and turns are too great to spoil. This film features a large cast of diverse characters, including crooks, dames, both straight and dirty cops, and people from all nationalities in the frenetic Casbah. It has a very Casablanca-like feel, and it would not surprise me if Michael Curtis saw this movie and had some inspiration for the look and feel of the city in that film. Outstanding picture from beginning to end. ★★★★★

Un carnet de bal (Dance Program, also called Life Dances On) is another lovely drama with some truly beautiful moments. Christine is a young widow at 36, but she doesn’t mourn her recently passed husband, as they led a cold life together. Going through papers at the house, she comes across her dance card from her debut ball 20 years ago, and is moved to find the men she danced with that night, to see how their lives turned out. What she finds however, is no ones’ lives went as they’d dreamed, and often for the worse. When she goes to the first, Christine finds that he has been dead all these years, and his poor surviving mother long went insane from the grief. The mother thinks that Christine is Christine’s mother, and that the daughter and her son will soon be together. Unable to find the second name on the list, Christine moves on to number 3. He achieved his goal of becoming a lawyer, but was disbarred just 2 years later, and now has changed his name, and is running a seedy nightclub, with a gang of thugs and hooligans under him. The fourth man (here’s Harry Baur again!) also changed his name, but to do good. A promising musician 20 years ago, he was heartbroken when Christine chose another man, and left his career path. Now a priest, he teaches underprivileged boys how to sing in the church choir. The fifth has become a guide in the French Alps. He makes playful advances towards Christine and says he’d give up his job to be with her, but when a distress signal goes out for some travelers caught in an avalanche, he immediately leaves her to go help. The sixth man has become mayor of a small town, and it is the day of his wedding; he is marrying his maid. The mayor and his bride-to-be fight like cats and dogs, so we get some humor injected into the movie, that is, until his estranged son shows up at the wedding. A couple more former suitors follow, and the film does end on a strange note, but for the most part, it is a nostalgic trip down memory lane. If not for the out-of-left-field ending, I’d give this one another 5 stars. Harry Baur would make a handful of more films, but this was his last with Duvivier. He was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo during World War II, and shortly afterwards died of mysterious circumstances in Paris in 1943. ★★★★

  • TV series currently watching: WandaVision, Fargo (season 4)
  • Book currently reading: Dune by Frank Herbert

Quick takes on Little Big Women and other foreign films

I just recently watched a few films from celebrated Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. In a weird twist of fate, my first film up today comes from director Andrei Konchalovsky, who was the screenwriter for Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev. Dear Comrades! tells a fictional biography around the real-world events of the Novocherkassk massacre. In early June, 1962, Lyuda Syomina is a single mother taking care of her father and her daughter Yuliya. As a member of the Communist party and on the city council, Lyuda is afforded luxuries that most do not have; she is able to get food when others are facing lowered rations and increased prices. When prices on meat and dairy go up, while at the same time wages at the factory (the big employer for this city) go down, there is a strike by the workers, which includes Yuliva. The powers that be cannot let news of a strike get out, so they clamp down on the city with a big military presence, which gets ugly fast. The KGB officers shoot on the unarmed civilians, leading to a frantic day where Lyuda cannot find her daughter. Lyuda must reconcile her love of party vs her love of family, and the film lets it play out as she grapples with that choice. Shown in stark black and white with a great old classic feel, it is a harsh look at an event that many of us in the west (myself included) were probably never aware. Good movie. ★★★½

Little Big Women comes from Taiwan, and focuses on the Lin family. Shoying is the 70 year old matriarch, who is a true rags to riches story and runs a successful restaurant. She has 3 adult daughters: eldest Yu is a successful doctor, married and with Shoying’s only grandchild, Clementine; Ching is a dance teacher and independent woman, divorced; and youngest Jiajia has been groomed to take over the family business. There are already cracks in the family, lots of secrets that each doesn’t want to share with each other, when the kids’ father, Shoying’s estranged husband, dies. He hasn’t been around for 20 years, but Shoying insists on having his funeral in their town, rather than in Taipei where he’s been living all these years with his mistress, Meilin. Jjiajia has met Meilin, it was she who was at the man’s side when he died in the hospital, but she is hesitant to approach Shoying about allowing Meilin at the funeral. As the youngest, Jiajia is the only one who doesn’t remember a time when their dad lived with them, and she’s never really heard why he left or why the rest of the family hates him so much. Through short flashbacks, we see some of the events that got the family to where it is today. The film is about the secrets families keep, and the shame that can come from bottling up past transgressions and refusing to let past hurts go. Like a lot of east Asia films, it is a deep and introspective film, and beautifully done. Any family with skeletons in the closet can relate to what the characters are going through, and it is easy to see how a single decision can have generational consequences. A perfect film in my opinion. ★★★★★

Staying in Asia but moving over to Korea, we get Space Sweepers, and yes, the movie is as ridiculous as the title, but don’t let that keep you from watching it. This is a high flying space adventure taking place in the year 2092. The Earth has become a polluted wasteland, and the wealthy are living in a space colony awaiting resettlement on Mars, which is going to be terraformed to become a “new” Earth. The poor however are struggling to make ends make, and the film focuses on one such group, who are scrapping by, by scrapping. Space sweepers are workers who comb the orbit of Earth for old junk, like dead satellites, floating rocket boosters, etc., and turn it in for scrap. The sweeper ship Victory has a crew of 4 misfits: a pilot who is looking for the body of his dead daughter floating in space, a captain willing to do anything to make a buck, a tatted up engineer/tech with a sordid past, and a sentient robot with dreams of getting human skin to become an android. Their latest find is a junk ship, but it has a stowaway, a young girl who is wanted by the authorities. The news says she’s an android which has been rigged with a bomb in her insides, put there by a terrorist organization known as the Black Fox. However, our crew sees that she is not a robot, and is just a girl, and as the movie develops, of course we find out the good guys are necessarily so, and neither are the bad guys. This movie features amazingly good effects right up there with the best space films of today; it is edge-of-your-seat action through nearly the entire ride. Outlandish? Yes. Unsteady acting? Yes. Cheesy dialogue at times? Yes. Implausible (even for sci-fi)? Yes. Hell of a lot of fun? YES. Not going to wow the critics, but man, this is a fun movie. ★★★★

Next we head to the arctic north, with Red Dot coming out of Sweden. A tried-and-true triller about a couple being hunted by some evil people in snowy forests. David and Nadja are a young couple going through a rough patch, and decide to try to go on a weekend camping trip to reconnect. On the way to the remote area, they run into some rough looking country boys fresh off a hunting trip of their own, and David hits their parked truck in a gas station, before pulling away without talking to them about it. They see them again that night while staying at a hotel on the outskirts, and the next day, they have graffiti on their car and it has been keyed. David and Nadja drive off, madder than hell, and see the boys’ truck again at a rest stop. Nadja jumps out, keys their truck in return, and jumps back in her car to escape. That night, the “red dot” comes for them, in the form on a laser scope on a hunting rifle. This film has every cliche you’d expect from this genre: a dead dog, a pregnant girl (Nadja), a frozen lake to traverse, etc. It is a passable 90 minutes, but that’s about it. No new territory here, and while the ending tries to play “gotcha,” it has fallen flat long before then. It has its moments, but nothing that is lasting. ★★½

Layla Majnun hails from Indonesia, and is a new version of a classic 7th century Arabic tale about star crossed lovers. Layla is an independent free thinking woman, a college graduate, author, and teacher, but she is getting a bit old to be single in her religion and culture. She agrees to marry Ibnu, a man from a wealthy background who has a political future. Shortly after, Layla travels to Azerbaijan to teach for 2 weeks, a life-long goal of hers, and there she meats Samir. Samir has been infatuated with Layla for a couple years, having read her book; it was he who arranged to get her to his home country of Azerbaijan. He woos her for the first half of the film and she is definitely falling for him, but she refuses to go against her pledge to marry Ibnu. All this cheesy movie is is an Indonesian Lifetime movie. Sappy story, inconceivable plot twists, dastardly villains, and pretty actors who couldn’t act their way out of a box. Mildly heartwarming, but by the end of the 2 hours, I had more eye rolls than tugs at the heart strings. A very silly film, no A’s for effort around here. ★½

Quick takes on Monsoon and other films

Hearts and Bones is a subtly great film, meaning it isn’t going to beat you over the head, but it did leave me thinking at the end. There are two main characters. Dan (Hugo Weaving) is a celebrated photojournalist known for his wartime photography. He is getting ready for a big showing of his work at the local gallery when he is approached by Sebastian (Andrew Luri), a Sudanese immigrant. Sebastian begs Dan to not display some of his most famous work, photos that were taken during a massacre in a Sudan village 15 years prior. Dan assumes Sebastian knew people that were killed and doesn’t want those memories resurfaced, but there is more going on here. Also in the background, Dan is suffering from severe PTSD from a career of life harrowing events, as well as fear (explained later) over his partner’s pregnancy. As Dan and Sebastian become friends, more of their stories come out. It is a complex film about life, compassion, and moving on from traumatic events. I don’t think it is everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed the emotional rollercoaster. And who doesn’t love Hugo Weaving? ★★★½

Let Him Go has another aging legendary actor, this time Kevin Costner, and teamed up with a great leading lady in Diane Lane. They play retired lawman George and his wife Margaret, living in the remote, quiet Montana countryside. The films gets started quick: in the opening minutes, we see their adult son die from a fall off a horse, his surviving spouse (their daughter-in-law) Lorna remarry a man named Donny, and then run off to North Dakota with him and her son (their grandson), Jimmy. The problem is, right before they left without a word, Margaret saw Donny hit Jimmy and Lorna in the parking lot in town. Fearing that he will do worse with no one around to keep him in check, George and Margaret pile in the car and take the road trip to track them down. They get more than they expected, when they find that Donny comes from a family of ne’er-do-wells who aren’t going to let Lorna and Jimmy leave them. In a heated confrontation, they chop off George’s fingers with a hatchet. If they think that will stop this former lawman, they have another thing coming. This is a solid drama/thriller. The constant sinister feelings from all of Donny’s family is a bit over the top, and Costner lays on the stoic lawman a little too thick, but for the most part, I was entertained. Nothing too unexpected, things go about the way you’d think, and there is quite a bit of filler in here to get to its 2 hour runtime, but it is solid. ★★½

Monsoon is about a man, Kit, who returns to the country of his birth, Vietnam, after the death of his mother. He’s there to find a suitable place to scatter her ashes, and his brother will be arriving in a few days with the ashes of their father as well, who had previously passed away some time prior. Kit knows nothing about Vietnam; his parents fled with him following the war, when he was only 6, and he was then raised in England. He doesn’t even speak the language, and has just fleeting memories from his early childhood. He meets up with a family who was close friends with his parents (including his old childhood friend, who he barely remembers), and also begins a sexual relationship with a black man who’s father fought for the Americans in the war. Much less a physical journey to find a resting place for his parents, the film is more a spiritual journey of Kit reconnecting with his roots in a country, and with a people, he only remembers in his soul. It’s a lovely film, light on plot but heavy on emotion. To say it progresses slowly is an understatement, as the movie is leisurely in all aspects from dialogue to movement to even the camerawork, which is in juxtaposition to the frenetic pace of the traffic on the Vietnam streets. Kit is played by Henry Golding, of Crazy Rich Asians fame, in an underrated role where all he needs to do is look forlorn and uncomfortable, and he does it well. The movie is directed by Hong Khaou, a name I did not recognize, but when I looked him up, it made sense. His only other film, Lilting, has a much similar feel, and I loved it as well. This movie’s not for everyone and its pace will turn many off, but it is rewarding for those that enjoy this type of film. ★★★★

I seem to be alternating between quiet, contemplative films and actions flicks, so let’s keep that trend alive, and since Let Him Go wasn’t a true action movie, I’m going to balance the scales with a good old disaster movie. Greenland is about a big comet hurtling towards Earth on a collision course. It stars Gerard Butler as John and Morena Baccarin as his wife Allison. They are in a bump in their relationship, but all that is forgotten when the comet comes into play. In the beginning, the news is reporting that it is just small pieces which will break up in our atmosphere, and then later, larger pieces which will strike the ocean harmlessly. When John gets a presidential alert on his phone that his family has been selected for emergency sheltering, he knows something else is going on though. They race from their suburban neighborhood with their kid just as a large chunk hits and levels Tampa, FL, and they feel the shockwave hundreds of miles away. When they finally get to the military base, they are turned away at the last minute when the military discovers that their child has diabetes, and they are not allowing anyone on the transports who is sick or who has a preexisting condition. This leads to a new round of outlandish adventures for our family, as they are separated and then try to find each, and ultimately a safe place. Like all disaster films, all credibility goes out the window as the movie goes along (and not only because of the impending extinction of the human race). The first half of the film was a lot of fun, but as the outlandish events kept piling up, I started to get bored. Never a good thing during an action film. ★★

Ammonite is a fictionalized telling of a part of Mary Anning’s life. Mary was a paleontologist who unearthed marine fossils along the coast of England in the early to mid 19th century. Portrayed by Kate Winslet, she is shown as a lonely and bitter woman, angry at society for having her work go unnoticed or, worse, stolen by men because of her sex. She is known of course in circles in her field, but she doesn’t get the recognition or money that a man would. One day, she meets an admirer of her work named Roderick, who spends the day with her and introduces his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), to Mary. Charolette is depressed, or as they called it back then, “ill,” and Roderick offers to pay Mary to watch over her for a month or so while he travels. Mary needs the money, and so agrees, though she really doesn’t want anyone intruding on her solitude. Very quickly though, Mary begins to have feelings for Charlotte, who reciprocates. The unavoidable comparison is, of course, the recent breakout hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but unfortunately there’s no fire in this film. The romance comes too fast and is gone just as quickly, and while Winslet and Ronan are undoubtedly heralded leading ladies, they can’t save the dull, run-of-the-mill plot. ★½

Quick takes on 5 Assayas films

My only experience with French director Olivier Assayas is a couple of his newer, English language films: Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper (both of which I loved). Today I’m going back to watch some of his French films, starting with 1994’s Cold Water. It follows two teenagers in love in 1972 Paris, Gilles and Christine. Both have been getting in trouble a lot lately, and Christine in particular is about 2 steps away from having am emotional breakdown, thanks to an abusive father. One day they are stealing records from a store when they are caught; Gilles is able to get away, but Christine is caught, and her dad decides enough is enough and sends her to a mental hospital. She escapes, and heads to a teenage party at an abandoned rural house. Gilles goes there too, only learning about Christine when he gets there. She’s having a meltdown, and has already chopped off her hair and stabbed a girl with the scissors. Gilles is able to calm her down, and when she broaches the subject of leaving all of their life behind and going out to live a bohemian lifestyle, he reluctantly agrees. The finale is completely unexpected but it works so well. This is a movie that grew on me as it went along. I honestly couldn’t stand either of the characters in the beginning, but I came around to them by the halfway point, and was rooting for them to find some kind of happiness by the end. I think the movie is open to a lot of interpretation. What I took from it is a couple of teenagers who are on that cusp of adulthood. There are moments when they are still kids, others where they have a very profound understanding of life and the struggle for meaning in it. This is a film I’ll definitely watch again one day. ★★★½

Assayas’s next feature film was Irma Vep, in 1996. This is a fascinating film, about an aging French film director named René who is filming a new version of an old silent film titled Les Vampires (Irma Vep is obviously an anagram of vampire). René is a heralded director whose best days are unfortunately behind him, and he’s getting to the point where the reputation of his past great films is no longer carrying him. He hires a Hong Kong actress, Maggie Cheung (playing a version of herself), as the lead, based solely on having seen her in a couple films and liking the way she looks. The problem is, she doesn’t speak a lick of French, so is entirely reliant on the people in production who speak English. The film within a film is very artsy and even early in production, doesn’t look like it will be anything good, but René doggedly continues. Outside the film, the viewer sees “behind the curtain” at all of the drama that goes on, including infighting, rumors, press interviews, producer-called changes, etc. There’s a lot of satire about the current state of French film in the mid 90s, which many think isn’t accessible to average movie goers who want more action and less esoteric “high art.” For instance, some laugh at Maggie Cheung’s work with Jackie Chan in Hong Kong, yet those movies obviously made money. I loved this movie; there’s so much going on, so many characters and interactions to keep track of, amidst the hectic “hurry up and wait” life inside film production. Cheung is wonderful, as is a lot of the supporting cast. ★★★★

Jumping ahead a few years to 2008, Summer Hours is great as well, but in a much different way. Whereas Irma Vep was energetic and fun in a rambunctious way, Summer Hours is just a quiet, beautiful, picturesque kind of film. It opens with three adult siblings visiting their mother, Hélène, at her French villa, on her 75th birthday. The entire family is wealthy; each of the kids is successful in his or her own right, but the money started with Hélène’s uncle, who was a famous painter. The oldest of the children, Frédéric, is the only who still lives in Paris. Middle child Adrienne has a career in America, and youngest son Jérémie has just taken a job in China, and neither get back to visit mom very often anymore. Frédéric is definitely the most sentimental; Hélène takes him around the house pointing out all the expensive furniture and art her family must sell when she dies, and he doesn’t want to hear any of it, planning on keeping the house and all its wealth in the family for future generations. When Hélène does die within the year though, his plans are overruled by his sister and brother, with Jérémie in particular wanting money to buy a house in China and a summer home in Bali. The movie left me feeling very nostalgic (I too have aging parents) but also, I think, the director is trying to tell us that we can only truly live if we cast off the inanimate objects that hold us down. There’s a great scene in the end where the house has been sold, and Frédéric’s kids invite a bunch of friends over for a weekend party. His daughter reminisces about her grandmother and the moments they shared in and around the house, and then smiles while she joins her boyfriend. It’s a very touching film. ★★★★½

From the very beginning, I had a hard time connecting with Something in the Air, mostly because I just wanted to punch the lead character in the mouth. In the early 1970s, Gilles is a high school anarchist, protesting various injustices in all the worst ways: spray painting graffiti, attacking school authority figures, rioting against the police, etc. He bounces back and forth between 2 girls, losing the first because he can’t commit, and the second because he isn’t radical enough for her tastes. As the movie plays out, Gilles becomes less interested in revolutionary ideas, and more into his art, as he shows talent at drawing and painting. Unfortunately we never really get to know Gilles as a person; like a lot of high schoolers, he just regurgitates ideas and thoughts he heard or read. The film as a whole is very short on what is actually going on in the heads of our characters. Actually, I just don’t care what is in their heads. The film meanders along with no real point other than telling us how Gilles got from Point A to Point B. The movie is supposedly autobiographical, so that makes sense I guess, but it doesn’t make for very interesting viewing. The first real dud from this director. ★½

Carlos was released before the previous film, but it is also 5 1/2 hours long, so I saved it for the weekend 🙂 Originally released as a three part miniseries, it tells the tale of real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal. The first episode begins in 1973 and tells of Carlos’s (born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) rise to influence in various far-left terrorist cells, including the Japanese Red Army, small German Revolutionary cells, and the PLO. Rarely involved in direct conflict, he supplies guns and weapons to these groups and does much of the planning, including a raid on the French Embassy in The Netherlands, and attacks at airports. Eventually, one of his coconspirators is picked up by the authorities in France, who names Ramírez Sánchez under his alias, Carlos Martinez, and even tells them where his current girlfriend lives. They go to the apartment to search for the girl, who isn’t there, but Carlos is. Carlos ends up shooting his way out, and goes into hiding in Yemen for a couple months. When he comes back in late 1975, it is with a vengeance. Part one ends with his latest collaboration with the PFLO, as they are getting ready to attack a conference where the ministers from various member countries of OPEC are meeting. Their intent is to kidnap them and force them to read statements condemning their country’s actions against the State of Palestine.

The second episode picks up right there, with Carlos and his crew on the bus, armed, ready to storm the conference. Until this point, the film has never stayed on one event or moment too long; it has given us little tidbits here and there of Carlos’s comings and goings, but now, finally, we get a good section of film devoted to one event, probably because it is the one that made Carlos an (infamous) celebrity. His group takes the emissaries hostage, and negotiate a plane to take them to Algeria. Things do not go as planned, as once in the air again, no other country will accept them. They are forced to return again to Algeria, but Carlos is able to worm his way out, with a fat check (clandestinely) from the president of Libya, and all parties live to see another day. The rest of the episode is mostly dialogue, as Carlos falls in and out of favor in various groups. It seems to be a slow period in his life.

The final part jumps ahead a couple years, and finds Carlos in Budapest in 1979. He’s at a point in his life where he has the backing of powerful friends in Communist and Socialist governments around the world, and Hungary is sheltering him as long as he doesn’t plan any attacks while in its borders. More of a mercenary and planner now, he’s taking in lots of cash in return for guns, all “in the cause” against imperialist countries, anyone who would subjugate people. When two of his coconspirators are arrested, he puts pressure on the French government to have them released, in the only way he knows: he kills a couple French emissaries by assassination, bombing a train carrying one, and planting a car bomb outside a newspaper on the morning their trial starts. It doesn’t get his friends off, but it does make Hungary’s government come down on him, as they are under pressure from other countries to expel him. This is just the first domino to fall. As the years go by, Carlos continues to lose friends; the fall of the Berlin Wall loses his backers in East Germany, and then Syria and Libya refuse to go against the big powers in the west and also will not admit him. The film winds down as Carlos’s influences continue to dwindle; he is stuck in the only country that will take him, Sudan, until he is finally arrested and imprisoned.

The film is decent, but it suffers the fate that many biographical films do. It is too documentary-like, too much of “Carlos meets with this person” and “Carlos goes here and does this.” The second episode with the single long mission is the best, but many parts of the rest of the film can be a bit dull, which is never a good thing. Even the filmmakers are aware of this, because in slow stretches, they would try to inject energy by having Carlos have sex with a random girl or kill someone, but these come out of left field and don’t bring much to the table. The actors are hit and miss, and while Édgar Ramírez as Carlos is decent, he isn’t allowed to show much range: there’s calm and there’s mad, and that’s about it. When compared to some recent terrorist biopics, like the first couple seasons of Netflix’s Narcos series, Carlos falls flat. I think it could have been better as a shorter, more concise picture, focusing more on the big moments rather than everything. ★★½

Quick takes on Princess of the Row and other films

Man, I was in to Synchronic for nearly the full ride, until the last 20 or so minutes, and then it just fell apart. It stars Anthony Mackie as Steve, a paramedic who finds out early in the film that he has what is probably a terminal tumor on his brain. While he’s coping with that news, his ambulance pal Dennis (Jamie Dornan) is dealing with family issues at home, fighting with his wife and trying to reign in his rebellious 18-year-old daughter Brianna. On the job, the friends are also seeing evidence of the new designer drug tearing through New Orleans. Synchronic gives an extreme high, but more than that, people are ending up dead, in spectacular and confusing ways (stabbed with a sword, burned to death out in the open, etc). Unfortunately Brianna takes some, and disappears. While the police search for her, and wanting to do some good before he dies, Steve buys up all the synchronic he can to dispose of it before it hurts more people. Before he can do so, he is tracked down by the person who created it, and told what it really does. It doesn’t get you high, it sends you back in time. Unbelieving at first, Steve takes some, and sure enough, finds himself in the swamps of Louisiana before it was Louisiana, and chased by a conquistador before he “transports” back to present day. Steve then experiments with the drug over a few days, seeing how it works exactly, with the goal of finding Brianna and bringing her back to Dennis. Wild stuff, and through all of this, it is a great flick. Though obviously far fetched, the story makes sense in a sci-fi kind of way, and the first third has some great terror/quasi-horror elements as Steve and Dennis find victims of the drug. But the film seems to throw away the science and go all out in the finale, and it just stops making sense on multiple levels. I was on the 3 1/2 border until the end, and it is bad enough to drop it down all the way to ★★

Princess of the Row was an unexpected surprise, and blew me away. It is about a 12-year-old girl, Alicia, who is trying to bring her dad “back to life” so to say. Bo received a serious head injury fighting in Iraq, and most days, he just mumbles to himself without being aware of his surroundings. Bouncing from foster home to foster home, Alicia, who was called Princess by Bo when she was a little girl before he was hurt, runs away at every opportunity to visit her dad. Bo is homeless, living in a tent with other homeless in downtown LA. Even when the agency finds Alicia a good home, she runs away again, and this time, she gets herself and Bo into some bad situations, and as a viewer, you just hope it isn’t so bad that she can make it out safe. It is a powerful film, and honestly hard to watch at times, as Alicia refuses to give up on Bo, even when we as adults know that he isn’t coming back to “normal,” no matter how hard Alicia wishes for it. The film shines a strong light at the dilemma of the homeless in our country, many of whom are veterans, as well as the lack of resources and help for them, especially when they are suffering from PTSD and/or mental issues. My heart ached for Bo and Alicia both. Fantastic performances from Edi Gathegi and youngster Tayler Buck. ★★★★★

The Dig is based on the true story of the uncovering of a significant burial site in 1939 in England. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has always been interested in antiquity, and hires archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate some burial mounds on her land. Edith is a wealthy widower with failing health, and Basil, while talented, doesn’t have any formal education in archaeology, and as such always finds himself in the crosshairs of the British museums. What Basil finds is astonishing: a long ship, pulled from the sea and dragged over land. Obviously someone of importance was buried there for such a vast undertaking, and Basil claims that it is much older than Vikings; his hunch is that it is Anglo-Saxon. The finding of the ship brings other archaeologists to continue the dig, who try to take over, but Edith insists that Basil continue to be on the team. There is some urgency to finish, as Britain is heading towards war with Germany, at which time all public works like this are likely to cease in order to coordinate efforts to the war. The film is beautifully filmed on the landscapes of England and the period sets are perfect. Fiennes and Mulligan (and later Lily James, who comes with the new diggers) give top notch performances, but the movie tries to do too much and becomes lost in the second half. The excavation is definitely the “star” of the show, but a plot element involving an affair between Lily’s character and Edith’s cousin threatens to drown it out. I agree the film needed something else besides just a dig, but I’m not sure this was the right call. In any case, it’s a decent enough excursion. ★★★

Justin Timberlake plays the eponymous Palmer in the newest film on Apple+. Eddie Palmer has just been released from prison, early for good behavior, and apparently he was a model inmate. He goes to live with his grandmother Vivian, who raised him (his mom left when he was a kid, his dad died when he was in high school). They live in a very “country,” rural area, where everyone knows everyone’s business. Eddie is welcomed home by his old buddies, the same people he got in trouble with in high school. Shortly after returning home and landing a job, Vivian dies suddenly in her sleep, leaving Eddie alone. He is also left to take care of Sam, a boy who lives in a trailer with his drug addict mom on Vivian’s land. Vivian had watched over Sam whenever his mother couldn’t, which is often, and now that responsibility falls to Eddie. He doesn’t know what to make of Sam; whereas Eddie played football, got in trouble, and did all the usual “boy” things, little Sam likes to play with dolls, play dress up, and watch shows about princesses. As Eddie makes some personal growth, he starts to really care for Sam, which is tested when Sam’s mother returns. It’s a very formulaic film, a similar story has been done plenty of times, but that doesn’t mean this one isn’t good too. Timberlake is definitely an underrated actor, his style isn’t overly subtle but he shows excellent range. I liked it very much. ★★★½

The Little Things is a crime drama starring a bonafide legend (Denzel Washington), a relative newcomer who already has a closetful of awards (Rami Malek), and an actor known for his dedication to his roles (Jared Leto). Despite all this talent, the film is just OK. Deke (Washington) is an older deputy out of Kern County (west of LA) when he is sent to get a piece of evidence from Los Angeles, where he used to be a detective in homicide. When he arrives, we see that he is legend in the precinct; the officers there like him in an almost reverent sort of way, but there are a couple who don’t share those feelings, and he obviously left under some hurried and unknown circumstances, which is revealed in the end. His replacement in LA is a hot hotrod detective named Jimmy (Malik), who’s very smart but also a bit rash. Rather than head right back to Kern County, Deke decides to take some vacation time and help Jimmy in his latest case: a series of homicides of young women, by serial killer. It’s more than just a passing fancy, as Deke sees similarities to some unsolved cases he worked while in LA 5 years ago. It all sounds great and for awhile it is, but the two cops finger their suspect (Leto) around the halfway point of the film, and then spend an awful long time waiting for him to slip up, which (and this isn’t a spoiler) he never does. The ending comes off as a poor man’s Seven, and no offense to director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Founder), but this film lacks the genius of David Fincher. ★★½

Quick takes on The White Tiger and other films

I don’t mind a slow movie (I loved Jeanne Dielman and An Elephant Sitting Still after all), but I don’t like slow movies with no surprises or introspection, and there is nothing like that in A White, White Day. It’s about an older man who’s recently lost his wife, who died in a car crash. The first solid hour is nothing more than the comings and goings around the man and his circle of friends, family, and coworkers. After awhile, he’s going through a box of his wife’s things, and sees evidence that leads him to believe she was cheating on him. He recognizes the guy in a photo, and drives himself nuts with what-ifs and jealousies, to a “climactic” conclusion in the end. The only problem is you see everything coming before it happens; there’s no lead up, just a plodding, meandering slow descent. The movie tries to redeem with a weird moment in the very end, but by then it’s too little, too late. ★

The White Tiger was a totally unexpected, amazing viewing experience for me. It follows the life of a boy, and then man, growing up in the lower caste in India. Balram is very bright, but is unable to continue his schooling at an early age, because he must go work at his family’s tea house to pay off debt. Even as a youngster, he is acutely aware of the class differences in his country, supposedly the biggest democracy in the world, and compares himself and those in his situation to chickens stuck in a coop. He has no opportunity for upwards movement, and will always be looked down upon by the upper class (the higher caste). He sees a chance to at least liver an easier life, as the personal driver for the village landlord’s son, who has returned to India after being educated in the USA. Ashok has had his eyes opened to equal rights, mostly at the urging of his American-raised wife Pinky, but the natural tendency to treat Balram as a lesser being is still very much ingrained in Ashok’s way of talking and dealings. The film plays out as a sort of struggle for independence for Balram. First he must change the way he himself thinks, that Ashok is a person and not just “master,” and then Balram has to decide how to make himself an equal. This movie rocked my socks. Though it takes place 10-20 years ago, it isn’t so long ago to think things have changed much. As such, it is an eye opening experience, and a powerful, moving film about the struggle for equality, not just legally or for human rights, but equality of the mind. ★★★★★

Yellow Rose is about a teenager named Rose who is an undocumented immigrant, living in Texas with her mother Gail. They came to America with Gail’s husband/Rose’s father when he got a job, but he died many years ago and the mother and daughter stayed on for the opportunities provided, when legally they should have returned to the Philippines. Gail lectures Rose about studying and doing well in school so she can get a good job, but Rose is only interested in singing country music. Early in the film, Gail is arrested by ICE and sent to a holding camp, in preparation to be deported. Rose tries to live with her aunt, who married an American and is legal, but the aunt’s husband doesn’t want Rose in the house. Rose then tries to stay with a barkeep who runs a country bar and stage, but the place is raided by ICE and several workers are arrested, though Rose is able to escape. While Rose’s situation continues to be perilous, she gets encouragement from an old country crooner, but she lives in fear of being arrested before DACA can be renewed. Eva Noblezada is fantastic as Rose (she has a Tony nomination under her belt already, despite her young age) but she is about the only highlight. The film can’t decide what it wants to be; is it a coming of age, a call for immigration reform, or a film about fighting for your dreams? It jumps around these themes way too much and doesn’t excel at any of them. Whatever your politics are, the filmmakers obviously want you to think about how messed up our immigration system is right now (and it is) but doesn’t offer any solutions. And the dialogue is downright bad, especially between Rose and her guy friend; it is hokey and forced and just atrocious. This is the kind of film that critics will applaud for its subject matter, but honestly not very compelling of a movie. ★★

The Climb is a charming, funny, and unique film about the bond of two adult male friends, Mike and Kyle. Broken up in a half dozen or so segments, which are each spread out from each other, anywhere from a few months to several years. It starts with an unlikely scenario: the pair are cycling up a hill in France, with the athletic Mike cruising along and the out-of-shape Kyle struggling. Mike chooses this moment to admit he has slept with Kyle’s fiancee, Eva. This leads to Kyle and Eva breaking up, and the end of Kyle’s and Mike’s friendship. A year or so later, Kyle shows up and Eva’s funeral, which has made Mike a widower. They get into a fight there next to the newly dug grave. Another year or so down the line, Kyle has gotten fit and is engaged to a new girl, Marissa, an engagement not approved by Kyle’s parents. Mike is now fat and alone, and, feeling sorry him, he is invited to Kyle’s family Christmas by the parents, who know Mike well since he and Kyle were best friends growing up. The film continues on from there, visiting different key moments around Kyle’s life where Mike was involved, in their on-again-off-again friendship. It features lots of off-kilter humor, which is sometimes cringeworthily awkward for the audience. But it is definitely funny, while also endearing in all the right spots. The cast is headed by relative newcomers Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Martin, who also produced and wrote it together, with Covino directing. The direction shows excellent skill and nuance from the first-timer, and done in a way to let the actors shine. There aren’t any closeups, and actors are never asked to do too much. Much of the camerawork is purposefully backed up away from the on-screen action, to the point that several conversations actually take place off camera, and I found myself leaning forward trying to catch snatches of it, just as I would when trying to overhear a conversation at a party. Very well done, and it matches with the flow of the story. An unexpectedly fun film. ★★★½

Jungleland is a boxing action/drama film starring Charlie Hunnam (a favorite of mine, I was a huge SoA fan) and Jack O’Connell as brothers Stan and Walter, nicknamed Lion. Lion had a promising boxing career but lost his boxing license when his older brother and manager Stan tried to bribe a referee. That’s pretty much all the backstory you need to know to see the trajectory of this family. The duo are completely broke, and Stan keeps self sabotaging any chance they get to move forward. Lion has been reduced to fighting illegal bare knuckle matches in basements, and when he loses his latest match, Stan finds himself hugely indebted to a local thug. Rather than break his knees, the mobster tasks Stan with transporting a young woman west to San Francisco, with the promise of a $100k boxing match at the end to give Lion another chance. Skye is the girl, and her secret past, and her worth out west, is a mystery to the brothers as they begin their trip. Maybe because of my blinders, but Hunnam is great as always, and O’Connell proves again that he just needs good roles to excel. I’m not sure it is a great “film,” but it is definitely entertaining and has all the right uplifting moments you’d expect, a la Rocky, Creed, etc. As a self professed sports film junky, it fired on all cylinders for me. ★★★★

Quick takes on 5 foreign films

You can be a movie lover and not be a “film buff” (I still consider myself the former, and working on the latter), but everyone in those categories know Martin Scorsese as a renowned director. His “side gig” for many years now has been devoted to saving old films. In 1990, he founded The Film Foundation, and brought together a who’s who list of celebrated directors to back him in his goal: saving and preserving classic cinema for future generations. Due to the fragility of film and improper storage, a huge amount of old film, especially movies made before 1950, were just disintegrating. Scorsese brought a lot of attention to this problem, and while it started with just classic American cinema, it grew to encompass international pictures too.

This was a start, but still, it tended to focus more on the “heavy hitters” on the international scene, meaning films out of the France, Japan, etc. Lesser-known films from unknown directors in smaller countries, many not seen outside of their own areas, were still neglected. So in 2007, Scorsese founded another organization, World Cinema Foundation (later changed to World Cinema Project). Its goal is to find these hidden gems and preserve them before they are lost forever, and in doing so, share them with a world audience. Today I’ll be looking at 5 films from the WCP, pulled from the wonderful Criterion set.

Touki Bouki (“The Journey of the Hyena in the language of Wolof) comes from the country of Senegal and director Djibril Diop Mambéty, released in 1973. It is light on story but heavy on imagery. Mory and Anta are in a relationship, and each is tired of their life in Dakar. They dream of starting a new life in Paris, but have no way to get there. They try to rob the local arena during a busy celebration, but make off with the wrong chest. Finally, Mory is able to steal from a wealthy but inattentive man, but do the couple go through with it, or find the idea of leaving home too hard to bear? That’s the entirety of the story, but so much of the film is about juxtaposition: urban vs rural, rich vs poor, native traditions vs colonialism, and seemingly much more. In the beginning, I was having one of those “What the hell am I watching?” moments; the first scene involves a bull being lead to a slaughterhouse, and it is savagely butchered on camera (a goat is later slain much the same way). What does this have to do with our characters? You’ll have to watch and see. I can’t say that it is a movie I’d watch again, but I appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into it. ★★

Redes is a 1936 film out of Mexico. It’s a short film, right at an hour, about the struggles of the working man in a fishing village. Miro is a young father who works all day but can’t make enough money to afford medicine when his kid gets sick. The child ultimately dies, which lights a fire under Miro to start fighting for better wages. All of the men in the village are fishers, but the only person getting rich is the one man who controls the purchasing; he then ships the fish off to Mexico City and triples his profits. Miro tries to get his fellows to join his cause, but it’s hard to get people to forgo all money, even pennies, when they have families to support. Funded by a progressive government, the film was initially going to be a documentary to promote better wages and conditions for the workers in Mexico, but was later switched to a work of fiction. Still, all but one of the actors were locals, and the movie still feels much like a narrative documentary. It’s a bit uneven, and the acting is obviously rough with non-professionals, but it is still a rousing story of coming together for the betterment of all. ★★½

Taking place among the poor villages along the Titas River in Bangladesh, A River Called Titas is from director Ritwik Ghatak, a contemporary of the more famous Bengali director Satyajit Ray. It is a beautifully told (and exceedingly beautifully shot, truly gorgeous) film. It begins with a girl named Basanti, who, though young, is already looking forward to marriage, as is their custom. She is pursued by two brothers, Subla and Kishore, though she likes Kishore more. Kishore is fishing near a village up the river when it is raided by another group; he helps a woman, Rajar, who fainted in fear, and as a show of gratitude, the village elder decrees she is to be his wife. They marry that night, and he goes to take her back to his village the next day. Unfortunately their boat is attacked by the raiders again, and Rajar is kidnapped. She escapes, but nearly drowns before washing up on shore near a different village. After the hurried marriage and whirlwind events, she doesn’t know her own husband’s name, only the name of his village. Pregnant with his child, she cannot return home for fear of shame, so she raises the child in her new village for 10 years, before finally setting out to find Kishore. Rajar goes to his village and in a twist of fate, meets Basanti. As it turns out, in Rajar’s absence, Kishore returned home a broken man, insane with grief over losing his new wife, and has become the village idiot. Basanti instead married Subla, who died the next day, and she’s been a widow these past 10 years. Rajar doesn’t know any of this, and is not recognized by Kishore when he sees her. All this happens in the first third or so of the film, and there is much more to the tale, as Basanti raises Rajar and Kishore’s child. More than a saga about a family, the film also becomes a story of the fading traditions and customs in the village. I enjoyed the first half (Basanti’s tale) much more than the second (court dealings and eroding values, and ultimately the disappearing of the river itself and Basanti’s way of life), so I’ll average out my rating. ★★★½

Dry Summer comes from director Metin Erksan, out of Turkey, and released in 1964. It’s more of a straightforward melodrama compared to the above pictures, about two brothers who jointly own a farm in rural Turkey. A natural spring on the property irrigates their land, and runoff also helps the farmers down the hill. Osman is the eldest brother and mostly calls the shots; he wants to build a dam to grow their farm, but little brother Hasan knows this will devastate the other villagers who need the water too. At the same time, Hasan has fallen in love with the young and beautiful Bahar. They marry, and Hasan brings her back to live with him and Osman, and immediately the elder brother casts his eye on his brother’s wife. Meanwhile, the dam is causing strife with villagers, leading them to do a night raid on the brothers’ house and blow up the dam. Osman and Hasan give chase, and Osman shoots and kills one of the invaders. However, he convinces Hasan to take the fall, arguing that the younger, more likable Hasan will get a more lenient sentence. When Hasan goes off to prison, Osman is left along with Bahar at the farm, and he can now make his move, until Hasan gets out that is. Really good flick, though  a mostly amateur cast (outside of the actors for Osman and Bahar) leads to some rough acting here and there. The story is gripping and sinister in all the right spots. My only gripe is there are some moments that are a bit repetitive, and others that feel rushed. I’m convinced a good 20 minutes was edited out near the end to shorten the film, because things pick up a little too quickly at one point. But overall, a very enjoyable film. ★★★½

By all measures I should have liked Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid. Released in 1960 by a director who is now seen as a big inspiration for all the great Korean filmmakers of today, it is a bit too pulpy and over the top for my tastes. It is about a music teacher at a factory/school (where the poor send their children for education, when they can’t afford a “normal” secondary school) who is struggling to make ends meet with a wife and two young children at home, with another on the way. A good looking guy, he also is a favorite among his female students, one of whom begins taking piano lessons with him. Enduring a hard pregnancy, his wife convinces the teacher to hire a maid, and the piano student suggests a fellow classmate. Unfortunately the new maid gives off an immediate sinister vibe. She too is smitten by the teacher, and seduces him into an affair, and subsequently uses her guile and a threat of exposure to the school, where the teacher would lose his job. The final half is just a lot of back and forth between the teacher, his wife, and the maid, and it got old quick. The last act is good, but by then I had mostly checked out. Chalking this one up to just not my cup of tea. ★½

Quick takes on 5 films

Pieces of a Woman is one of those movies where all the right parts just don’t come together quite right. It’s about a married couple preparing to have a home birth for their first child. It has been a normal pregnancy, and all is going according to plan until the big night, when their planned midwife is already busy at another birth. Another midwife, Eva, is sent over to deliver Sean and Martha’s baby. Things are going well until, suddenly, they aren’t. During a check of the baby’s heart rate, Eva notices it is very slow. They hurriedly deliver the baby, and for the first couple moments, all seems fine. The baby gives a little cry and everyone takes a sigh of relief; then the baby quiets, takes a couple raspy breaths, and starts turning blue. The film jumps ahead a bit, and Martha and Sean are each dealing with the loss in their own way – Sean through anger and wanting to blame someone, and Martha through isolation and wanting to move on. Eva is being publicly vilified and is getting ready to be tried in the baby’s death. As Sean and Martha grow further and further apart, we see more into their psyche and how each is coping with the loss. Sounds like it should be great right? For some reason it never connected with me. The characters seem hollow and one-dimensional, and I wasn’t a fan of the direction, purposefully keeping the camera away from the action at times in an “artsy” way that does nothing for the characters’ developments. The talented cast (Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Ellen Burstyn) give it their all, but it doesn’t build to the heights that it should. ★★

Clare Dunne might not have the name recognition of Vanessa Kirby, but she gives a powerhouse performance in Herself. She plays Sandra, a woman who, in the beginning of the film, is violently attacked by her husband Gary. Obviously this has been going on for awhile, as Sandra had prepared her oldest daughter (only 7 or 8 years old) with a code word, with which she was to run to the local store to call the police. They don’t get there fast enough, and Sandra is beat up pretty badly, leaving her with permanent nerve damage in her wrist. In the next scene, Sandra and Gary are divorced and have a custody agreement, where he has limited weekends with his two girls. Sandra is scraping by, living in public housing and working two jobs: cleaning a bar and cleaning/caretaking for a doctor, Peggy, who is rehabbing a hip injury. Peggy and Sandra are close and Peggy helps her any way she can, including offering her a way out of her situation. When Sandra hears about a man who shows how a house can be built on just $35k, she borrows money from the state and Peggy offers her a plot of land to build it on. Relying on volunteers to get the house to come together, things are looking up until Gary decides to sue for full custody of the girls. Much better depth than the previous film, and Dunne’s performance is top-notch. Sandra is a woman who is struggling with PTSD, who has lived without hope for so long that she doesn’t know what happiness is when it finds her, and Dunne oozes that fear and trepidation in every scene. The story is nothing new, but the film does nice things with the material. ★★★

The Truth centers on the strained relationship between mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). A French film (though there’s quite a bit of English, with Lumir’s American husband Hank along for the ride, played by Ethan Hawke), it focuses on the healing in the family, if that healing can ever be complete. Fabienne is an acclaimed French actress, and she’s always put her career and her craft first. She was never a good mother to Lumir, nor a good partner to any of the men in her life over the decades, always cheating on them or throwing them out. She’s been cast in a new science-fiction film; the film-within-a-film is about a mother who has a life-threatening illness, so she goes to live “in space” where time is slow, giving her more time to see her daughter Amy grow up. Fabienne plays a 73-year-old Amy, while her mother is played by rising star Manon, who the critics love and who has been called “the new Sarah,” Sarah being an actress whose rocket career was cut short many years ago to an early death. As the film goes along, we learn Sarah had a connection to Fabienne and Lumir, and we also see the parallels between the sci-fi film Fabienne is acting in with her own personal life, with Manon’s character only stopping in infrequently as Amy’s life jumps ahead years at a time with little contact with her mom. Whether Fabienne can see those connections, or if her ego will even allow herself to see them, you’ll have to watch and see. It’s a very nice picture; I don’t think it is stellar, but the performances in it most definitely are. Heavy hitters Deneuve and Binoche are worth the price of admission, and seeing their “dance” around each other, poking and prodding, saying things without really saying them, etc. Will this picture appeal to the general public? Probably not. But if you want to see pure acting as good as you’ll find, definitely worth a viewing. ★★★½

One Night in Miami is renowned actress Regina King’s directorial debut, a fictionalized telling of a night on February 25, 1964, which saw 4 famous men meet in a hotel room and the discussions they had (the night really happened, but what was discussed is anyone’s guess). Cassius Clay has just beaten Sonny Liston to become the new heavyweight champion in boxing, and is about to announce to the world his conversion to Islam; Malcolm X is his advisor and mentor; Jim Brown is the best football player alive and starting to get into the movie business as well; and Sam Cooke is one of the best selling recording artists of the day. They spend the evening discussing many things: politics, wealth, fame, and most importantly, the plight of African-Americans in the 1960s. Obviously there are wildly different perspectives among the four friends. Malcolm derides Sam for catering his songs to a white consumer, and thinks he should use his platform and wealth (he’s by far the richest of the 4) to draw more attention to racial injustices, but Sam sees his work as good, creating a level playing field more subversively. Jim knows his popularity ends at the edge of the football field, and he isn’t welcome in the home of some of his biggest “fans.” Cassius publicly displays the ego and bravado that would make him famous as Muhammad Ali, but the movie also depicts his self doubt behind the scenes. It is a tremendous film, showcasing that while we’ve come a long way since 1964, there’s still so much that hasn’t changed enough. The acting is superb from all 4 leads (Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom Jr), and King’s direction is stable and controlled. The film glosses over some unpopular elements, for example downplaying Malcolm X’s calls for violence at the time, but his less controversial arguments are no less meaningful. Fantastic stuff. ★★★★½

I’m a bit conflicted with Calm With Horses (titled The Shadow of Violence inside the USA). It’s about a man named Douglas who works as an enforcer for a petty drug lord, Hector Devers. Called “the arm” because he was a boxer in his younger days, Douglas has no problem mercilessly beating up people who don’t pay on time, but he draws the line at killing; he lost control in a boxing match years ago and killed his adversary, leading to his quitting of the sport and a promise to himself to never kill again. That promise is put to the test when an old man in the drug gang, Fannigan, gets drunk one night and rapes Hector’s niece. Hector sends Douglas over to rough Fannigan up pretty badly, but the girl’s father, Paudi, wants more than just a beating. Paudi convinces his brother Hector to have Douglas finish the job, but Douglas lets Fannigan go. In the background, Douglas is struggling with being an absent father to a 5 year old, Jack, who suffers from severe autism, to the point that he is nonverbal. As Douglas opens up to emotions he’s bottled up for years, he realizes he can no longer live the life he’s been running. There’s some subtle but strong acting from Cosmo Jarvis as Douglas, and his “handler” Dympna is the always great Barry Keoghan (of Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer fame), but there’s some serious lulls in the story, which is strange for a fairly violent crime drama. Those quiet moments are supposed to be for reflection in the characters, but it feels forced and is not allowed to grow naturally. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really great moments in here to delve into, but you can definitely tell it is from a young director (it is the debut feature from Nick Rowland) who is still honing his craft. ★★★