“Loveless”

This Russian film was nominated for Best Foreign Picture in 2018. “Loveless” is a heart-wrenching critique on modern mores. I found it deeply disturbing and haunting. Its subject is an unwanted child and his estranged, self-indulgent parents.

Alyosha is a pre-pubescent 12 year-old, who we see walking to school through a winter river woodscape. The barren trees sway, and his red backpack provides the only color. We see him cry silent tears and never see him smile. The blond, crystal-eyed Matvey Novikov is the epitome of emotional pain. Viewers want to hold him and punch his divorcing parents in the face after twenty minutes of seeing him suffer so needlessly.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev was brilliant in his 2014 film “Leviathan”. ( reviewed http://www.filmflamb.wordpress.com on March 15th, 2015), and here there is no individual sacrificing for a central sovereignty. There is not even any giving up a moment of personal pleasure for one’s own child. We see no caring or responsive parenting. The adult parents are selfish, self-serving, and at times wanton.

In one breakfast scene, we see Alyosha’s mother snap,         “ Drink your hot cocoa,” as the song “ It’s the End of the World” plays on the radio. Later, Alyosha’s father asks a co-worker , “ Do you think the world is about to end?” and we feel like  his hardline Orthodox Christian boss may be into something amid the moral rot and secrecy.

The filming is arresting in its naturalness, a teacher closes her desks drawer, a boy drags a kite’s tail ribbon thorough the creek bank, a cafeteria tray rumbles down its chrome grid, and everywhere people are gazing out of windows as if they are trapped.

Alyosha’s mother, Zhenya, ( Maryana Spivak) has an older , wealthy 47 year-old boyfriend. She indulges in spas, physical workouts, selfies with girl friends, and endless, physical up-keep. She admits that she never loved Boris, or really anyone. Well, her mother when she was small. She got pregnant out of stupidity, and was afraid of abortion. She verbalized that she was repulsed by Alyosha’s and did not nurse him. There is no milk of human kindness in her. “Loveless” takes on another layer of meaning.

His father, Boris, (Aleksy Rozin ) has a younger pregnant girlfriend. She is insecure and nags him with questions about his romantic conquests. Somehow, she does not acknowledge his son’s presence. She is young, playful, and lives with her bitter mother. She tells Boris that she dreams of having a tooth pulled out. “What can that mean?” They laugh and decide to buy a watermelon.

Juxtaposed to this, is a missing son. Zhenya came in late from a date and did not think to check Alyosha’s bedroom. He is gone two days from school and when the police are called, Alyosha is treated as a standard runaway. It is a long process. Police stats show that within seven to ten days, runaways usually return with a friend. Missing boy flyers are nailed to telephone poles and walls, volunteers coordinate searches, CCTV footage sites are combed, hospitals called; and, most arresting, the city morgue is visited before gramma’s house is travelled to as a last resort.

The gramma is called “Stalin in a skirt” by her son-in-law. She has watch dogs and barricades. She calls her daughter a whore. Her response to her missing grandson is to her daughter: “ You don’t seem too worried. Plan to stick me with your spawn?” Zhenya on the trip back tells Boris, again, that she never loved him, but just could not bear to live with her mother anymore. Boris halts the car, and kicks his wife out on the road. Meanwhile, Masha, Boris’ girlfriend, goes baby clothes hunting with her mother. She is feeling neglected.

The Moscow morgue scene is tense and suspenseful, and then a pushing match ensues. Even a crisis can not unite these two people, who have already started new lives making the same mistakes. Grim reality gets grimmer.

An abandoned building produces Alyosha’s coat. This is dangerous territory. A criminal case is opened up. We expect the worse. There is lack of progress. Viewers are pelleted with Alyosha’s name being called out into the wind.

Time passes and we see Masha and Boris with their toddler. Boris throws his young son into a playpen. They are living in Masha’s Mother’s house. Zhenya and her lover, Anton, are watching tv. She leaves him to exercise on her outdoor treadmill. We see a close-up of a poster: “Lost in October 2012- Not seen since.”

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “ Loveless” could not be bleaker. And we are left not knowing, the worse punishment of all. The final shot shows us the kite’s ribbon hanging in the trees. This is an emotionally numbing experience made by a master.

“Beirut”

Rosamund Pike and Jon Hamm are always wonderful to watch, and here in Tony Gilroy’s zigsaw plotted screenplay they are superb. Gilroy’s Bourne Trilogy is action driven and so is his latest work “ Beirut”. We find our protagonists in Lebanon in 1982. Civil war has the city divided into “sections like a pizza”. Mason Stiles (Hamm), a former U.S. diplomat, is negotiating labor relation deals for a Boston insurance company. A strike is on the table, but this is small potatoes for the exasperated Stiles. He is an alcoholic with a back story.

Flashbacks to 1972 Lebanon show Hamm in sideburns and giving a cocktail party for foreign diplomats. He wants to create a fair playing ground for a regional economy. We meet his wife and see their “adopted child” Karim, a 13 year-old camp refugee, serve canapés on a silver tray. Hamm is fluent in Arabic and charming. Hamm’s Stiles is an associate director U.S. Foreign Affairs, and a Middle East specialist.

As the house reception revs up, Stiles tells a U.S. Congressman that there are Christians in one corner of the villa, and Muslims in another, and Jack Daniels in between. His smile and his metaphors delight his guests.  “Think of Beirut like a boarding house without a landlord…tennants arguing…” This was Beirut before the Civil War.

Twenty-five dinner guests begin to be seated as Mason’s friend Cal pulls him in front of a family photo of Henry Kissinger, “We need to talk right now”. “ They want Karim for questioning”. Hamm is effortless as the father protecting his son. His wife, Nadia is seen hugging the boy in the kitchen as we learn from Cal that Karim’s brother is a terroist with ties to the Munich slayings. Cal produces a photo that shows Karim and his older brother, Raschid together. Mason continues to protest in disbelief as Cal tells him his bank account has already been frozen, and that the CIA wants Karim brought to the front of the house, now. In the next breath of protest, Mason Stiles witnesses a band of terroists enter his home and take his wife as hostage. Amid machine gunfire and screaming guests, a spray of bullets has wife Nadia dying in Mason’s arms.

Fast forward ten years later to 1982. Images of rain, windshield wipers, half eaten jelly donuts, and cigarette butts set the scene. Mason is drinking from a flask and dozing in a conference center parking lot in an old Pinto. A security cop tells him to sleep inside. We see Hamm shave, adjust his necktie, drink again from his flask, and splash more into his coffee before he ties his shoes. He is working for an Boston insurance company and negotiating with a tough union, a far cry from the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Later, as Mason sits at a bar, a former acquaintance brokers a deal. He offers $6,500 for Stiles to return to Beirut as an American University guest lecturer. We know the CIA is involved, and Gilroy’s screenplay with its intricate plot takes off: violent, intricate, and at times profound. Yet, lust, booze, and greed are in control, as much as ideological terrorism.

This is not totally a gender privileged male-action film, for Rosamund Pike, as CIA operative Sandy Crowder , knows the ins and outs of company safe codes, satellite imaging, and office and faction politics. She is more than her title: U.S. Deputy Attaché. Funny and perceptive, she undersells her position with the ironic line: “ I’m just a skirt in a car taking an irritated tourist back to his hotel.” I ,also, love all the hidden communicaies. Sandy picks up on Cal’s mantra of , “  Pray, Love Only” as an acronym for the PLO. Mason understands what fast talking Cal is saying when he states that “ He feels safer on a Sandy beach..safer in a crowd.”  Sandy Crowder is to be trusted. She can lie well, and lets the corrupt head of operations think that Stiles is damaged goods.

Tension turns into wild action when Cal is taken hostage by radicalized  23 year-old Karim. Karim wants his brother released from captivity and exchanged for Cal. ~ a straight up transfer. The problem arises in that no one is certain who has Raschid: the Israelis, the Christian Militia, or the PLO, or a maverick group. And then, hypothetically, he may be lost in the system. Cal has also been a “ thorn in the CIA’s side for years.” Intrigue and conflicting agendas circulate with tornado wind force. They have six hours to make the trade.

The plot line and writing are terrific. The mirror scenes with Hamm are great for the audience seeing that Mason is not secure in who he will ultimately be. Booze tempts at every corner. Hamm’s eyes and the sheen of his skin put a face on the demons.

One of the most nuanced and touching lines comes from Karim as he tells his long ago adopted father that he was “not a terrorist then, but in the morning.”

Glances at children and wedding couples trying to have a normal life in a fire-bombed and bulletproof ridden setting are baffling to us. Children hang on the guns of armored tanks like they are  swing sets. One-armed dolls are held. More emotional nuances come from Alice, Cal’s wife. Her anger and feelings of abandonment are destroying her. “ I packed up Nadia’s clothes. If Cal dies, you pack up for me. I think that is fair.” Mason chastises her depression. “ You have the girls ( her children) to think about.” Alice fires back with “ You say that like you know them.”

The skills of Stiles as negotiator are never side-tracked. The  poker playing PLO, the consort spy, the pay off to the young transfer soldier~ Nothing is clearly cut. “What would it take?” is the constant query. Brokering deals is always in play. At the film’s close, the frame shows news caster Peter Jennings; and we sigh at how much we don’t know about the world we live in. The American flag flows at the side of the last frame, and we sigh again.

“Chappaquiddick”

“Chappaquiddick” is a good film that humanizes a tragedy and somehow balances privilege and commonality. It is not cavalier with the facts, nor is it overly judgmental. The opening picture of the Kennedy family sets the stage for our understanding of  familiar expectations and personal identity psychology. The tragic drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne is not as illuminated as it is seen as a reminder of the moral underpinnings of the soul.

Actor Jason Clarke plays Senator Edward Kennedy and Kate Mara portrays Mary Jo, the idealistic staffer of his brother Bobby. The “boiler room  girls” are invited to the traditional Martha’s Vineyard  end-of-campaign-cabin party. Drinking plays a big part and a wrong swerve ends with Kennedy and Kopechne submerged  upside-down in Poucha  Pond. Kopechne does not survive. Anyone of voting age in the seventies remembers the scandal. For those younger, the history is as dramatic and tragic as Arthur Miller’s “ Death of a Salesman”. Truths are scrambled and emotions of guilt and identity roil.

While screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan point to privilege in the film as an essential thrust, the conflict becomes more of one of  conscience and identity, the common man’s ride, too.

Clarke does an admirable job in showing Kennedy’s self-deluding calm as he tries to shift reality. Clarke’s hairline and eyes resemble Ted Kennedy’s, but I wish make-up artists would have used prosthetics to widen his jaw, like they did for Gary Oldham in the award-winning “The Darkest Hour”.  Jason Clarke’s Bostonian accent is good and not overdone.

The major dramatic conflict centers on cousin, Joe Gargan ( Ed Helms), who pushes the Senator toward his conscience ;and, the elderly patriarch Joseph Kennedy ( Bruce Dern), who counsels with the gruff and amoral croak,  “alibi”.

It is this Kennedy that loses the most stature in                    “ Chappaquiddick”. Even aged and stroke-damaged, this patriarch’s  callous and high-powered “ the end justifies the means” philosophy does not support the family’s interest, but his own. He looks bad, and we wonder, “ Where is his wife, Rose?”

Ted’s father’s admonition of Ted in being able to choose his own life path was chilling: “ Lead a serious life or a non-serious one. You can choose, but I won’t have much time for you if you choose the latter.” We can understand why Edward Kennedy wished to report that he swam back to the mainland rather than rowed back with his two friends.

The scenes where the Senator seems aghast that having a valid driver’s license is important points to privileged naiveté. The scene where Ted attempts to fault his cohorts     for not reporting the accident are gasp worthy, yet privilege has its down side, too. The pressure of “living in the long shadows” of his brothers is palpable in the Roger Mudd interview scene.

The father-son tension is extreme. The need for his father’s approval intense. Ted’s own small son’s rhetorical question, “ Uncle Jack can do anything, can’t he Dad!” was heart piercing.

Director John Curran builds the film’s tension by letting Clarke indulge in the slow pull and release of a man conflicted. Service to self, family, and God are strong currents that can rip.

I had forgotten that the Apollo landing and Neil Armstrong’s moon walk shared the 1969 headlines with the infamous Edgartown one. Seeing Ted’s buddies, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, stripe to their skivvies, jump into the dark water and try to open the submerged car’s doors is reminiscent of a teenage nightmare. When cousin Joe says, “ Call your mom. Don’t let her find out about another tragedy in the news,” we wonder how old these men are.

Too late to be rescued, Mary Jo is seen mouthing the “ Our Father “ in three inches of trapped air in the Kennedy black 1967 Olds. This flashback is effective and haunting.

The high-powered lawyer team confiring and developing a public relations story is both infuriating and prescient. The logic, loyalty, and humor are cynically wrapped in a three-minute session at Hyannis. Wife Joan attends Mary Jo’s funeral with Ted, while Ted dons an unneeded neck brace. The theatrics aside, the fact is made  that if Mr. and Mrs. Kopechne do not blame Ted, then neither should America.

The final boyhood bedroom scene with father and son is for the stage, and I think a tad over the top. I feel the same about the face slap episode. A father taunting a son with “ you will never be great” is never effective or pretty. Ted’s response that his brothers were great because of who they were, not because of who you are seems like simplistic overkill.

Joe Gargan died at 87 a few months ago, estranged from the Kennedys.  Though the film shows some hints of jealousy when it comes to his cousin Ted, it is Joe Gargan’s moral strength that shines in this film. Helms is great as the guide, who is ultimately disappointed by Ted’s slow acceptance of responsibility. Gargan’s outrage is shown in the lines, “ we all have flaws. Moses had flaws, a temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.” Like Willy Loman’s friend and neighbor Charley , he does his best to pay needful attention. Edward  Kennedy was a lion in the Senate, but he is made more human by being seen as an Arthur Miller mesh of Willy, Biff, and Happy: deluded, flawed, and longing to escape.

“Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson’s animated adventure trek is full of dry wit and laugh-out -loud deadpan humor. It is an up-dated version of a 12 year-old boy searching for his lost dog. The boy, Atari, happens to be Japanese and his savior-in-kind an American foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker ( Greta Gerwig’s voice).

We begin with “ Ten centuries ago before…” and the disclaimer that all barks have been rendered in English. We are introduced to “underdog dogs” who have been banished to a trash island. A complicated back story is told in several flashbacks. A 67th term incumbent has transformed the Japanese archipelago into a dog free state. The question of “ What ever happened to man’s best friend?” is asked again and again as the tidal wave of dog hysteria over snout fever deports all canines to the Isle of Dogs. “Fear has been mongrelized”. Here, in “Isle of Dogs”, we see rain and rats and maggot strewn refuse.

Bryan Cranston’s voice and wry tone  are perfect as the nomadic alpha dog, Chief. We hear rumors circulating amongst Duke, Boss, Rex and Chief: “ One of our own hanged himself on his own leash”. On the up side , we meet Nutmeg, a preening show dog who does lap dog tricks and keeps the male dogs sniffing. Most of the dog fights are over food, however ; and one of my favorite scenes is when the crew waxes over their favorite long lost treats be it green-tea ice cream or Kobe beef with lots of salt and pepper.

Our storyline meshes with kidney transplants, robotic replacement pets, aboriginal dogs, military issued teeth, and messenger owls. Add conspiracy theories, pro-dog student protests, and “red button” fears, and we wonder how Anderson can be so “au current” in his tale of tails.

The haikus rendered at apt parts are lovely. They stay to the traditional form and therefore include images of nature’s seasonal beauty, even as we see the trash mounding skyward. The five syllabic count lines “Frost on windowpane” and “Falling spring blossoms” made me smile.

The stop-action animation I am drawn to, but there are plenty of action dust clouds for others. Silhouettes and shadows are appreciated. The drum beat sound track keeps one’s heart pulsing and the stellar list of voice overs range from the aforementioned Cranston and Gerwig to Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

I could see this treat again, but with Japanese sub-titles and even more campy refuse like igloos of saki bottles and hacker cubbies. Atari does find his pet and a new litter gives hope for the future. Wes Anderson answers the question “ Who are we, and who do we want to be?” with a animal loving  a drum roll.

“A Wrinkle In Time”

Madeleine L’ Engle 1962 s sci-fi teen novel is put to the big screen with only some success.  Ava Du Vernay directs Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon in the tale that champions love of self, love of family, and love of humanity. These three celestial beings are a tad didactic and full of pep talks and positive and supportive voicings. “ Love is always there even if you can’t feel it” is pretty hope-filled. Given that the age of most viewers will be from second to sixth grade is a wrap, but subtlety would have won out, I think.

Our protagonist, Meg Murray, is played stunningly by Storm Reid. She will become a role model for many young girls, and it is cool to have the “mean girls” learn that they are the crazies.

Reading, science, and intelligence are trumpeted, which are good things. The philosophy of “ staying focused on the light when dark approaches” holds forth, too. Evil is acknowledged: centering oneself is a must. Fear turns to rage which, in turn, turns to violence. Imaginative warriors are needed. Models of great earth warriors are Einstein, Mandela, and Ghandi.

Charles Wallace (Meg’s younger , genius brother) and she must make a plan to rescue their father. They are given three gifts to aid them: a magnifying glass to see what is enfolded, the gift of your faults, and a command to stay together.

Aninated scenes are colorful and the cabbage ride being my favorite. The pre-teen love interest of Calvin will keep middle schoolers giggling. And “abandoned children” everywhere will toughen up. Enjoy the quotations and the credits given; and parents who want to “ shake hands with the universe”, remember to hold your children’s hands, too. Message heavy this film is.

“A Fantastic Woman”

The Best Foreign Film winner of 2017 has three beautiful scenes and terrific acting. “ A Fantastic Woman” also has some missteps. For much of the film our protagonist is shouldering grief against the wind of prejudice. One of the best frames shows this by having Marina ( beautifully portrayed by Daniela Vega) drop her head and bend into the wind in order to keep up-right. It is a beautiful metaphor visually wrought. I dubbed it “the wind walk”. While the film draws sympathy and addresses the concept and definition of  normality, it also overdoes transgender disco stroblight scenes. And the sound track of “ You make me feel like a natural woman” seems ironically funny more than romantic.

”Una Mujer Fantastica” is directed by Sebastian Leilo. It is a Chilean film that has haunting visuals and teems with the glow of life. We begin with images of the South America wonder of the world, the Iguazu Falls. Legend has it that a beautiful woman fled with her lover here and the gods punished the lovers with an eternal fall. The fall here is down a series of apartment steps that leave bruises and contusions on Marina’s lover, Orlando. Enough physical evidence that a doctor calls the police since he suspects foul play. The subsequent police station examination of Marina by the sexual offense unit is hard to watch. Grief is denied and criminal intent is seen as truth.

Cultural touchstones are as apparent as the prejudice. Orlando ex-wife Sonia tells Marina, “When I look at you I don’t know what I am seeing~a chimera.” She forbids her from attending Orlando’s funeral service. She wants to protect her seven -year-old daughter and herself from embarrassing questions. Orlando’s son shares in Sonia’s perversion cries. He threatens with, “If you steal anything, I’ll know.” Everywhere the love Marina and Orlando shared is made tawdry and debased. When Marina is assaulted by Orlando’s son and his  buddies, we are shocked by the violence. As a counter weight we are given St. Francis’s “make me an instrument of your peace, a channel for your love” while Marina’s voice teacher, his sister as his brother-in-law offer Marina a respite.

Walking is what Marina does throughout the film. The walk through the spa from male to female section is haunting and symbolically touching. The one item of masculinity-that clunky gold  watch bothered me, as did the show of rage when Marina drove for a car’s windshield and then stomped on its roof. I wanted her dignity to remain long-suffering and noble. Like one character said, “being with you is complicated-like quantum physics”, yet this film does its best to keep it simply about love.

“Nostalgia”

Not everyone will go to the cinema to see a film that garnered a thirty-six percent critics’ approval rating. Rotten Tomatoes may have hurt this Mark Pellington film, but  this reviewer was glad I ventured ahead.

No one should expect an action movie with the title “Nostalgia”. Nostalgia lingers, takes its time, trumpets molasses-like meandering. Ten to one the four people who walked out had never experienced loss, or if they had, chose not to experience it again as a leisure activity. Having just come from a friend’s daughter’s funeral a few weeks ago, I was enmeshed in the vignettes of loss.

I admit to sentimentality. I keep things that have meaning to me. I even have trouble letting go of things that once had meaning to me. Admitting this, I enjoyed watching veteran actors become normal individuals wrestling with artifacts from their pasts just like normal people. Catherine Keener was at her best. No longer the old hippy, but a grieving mother, who wished that her daughter shared her interest in the detritus of her grandparents’ stuff. Keener’s shower crumble is dirge-like and real.

Other veteran actors are at their best here, too. A lonely Bruce Dern queries the insurance adjuster ( John Ortiz) with, “Might you be coming back?” Ortiz’s day moves from one tragedy to another. His  stops link one loss with another. Ellen Burstyn has a marvelous monologue after her house and that of a neighbor burns to the ground. Charred, walled debris surrounds her. Her items taken from a burning building are rhinestone jewelry from an aunt and her husband’s storied and signed baseball. Her retro traincase with its cracked mirror is evocative of so much as she drags it around to her numerous lodgings, that its symbolism becomes an archetype for both safety net and albatross. Burstyn’s lonely hotel meal is gray. “Can what we hold in our hands be the same as what we hold on our hearts?” Her treasure leads us to Jon Hamm and another remarkable sequence of  purveyor of artifacts to cherisher of them.

Hamm is mesmerizing as Will. He unwraps the Ted Williams’ ball like a priest. Each handkerchief fold is delicately lifted. He plants the seed that she ( Burstyn) is coming to unburden herself. He shares his own pain, really listens, and he holds her hand. Later, he admits to giving her a fair price~ “for me”. He restates reality to Burstyn, who opines that he won’t remember her. “Saying good-bye is hard. Ned is gone, and now so is his ball.” We love this guy. Soon he will have his own family ephemera to catalogue and keen over. Hamm is at his best in his silences. Lying on the floor listening to vinyl jazz, he is so watchable in hitting the right chords.

Keener’s daughter and Hamm’s niece, Tallie, is played equally as real and  true. Annalise Basso sounds like most of our children when she rejects any talismans of her parents’ or grandparents’ past. “ I don’t need anything.” When pressed, she explains,” It is hard for me to understand what all this means to you. This is your space, not mine.” Ironically, all of Tallie’s possessions and likes are digital. Soon to be nothing but lost. She is “wiped clean.”

There may be too many grief chords and platitudes repeated: too many “ lives lived” intoned, and when bare tree branches are framed over and over again, we get it. “Nostalgia” salvages some truth that is important~ not dumpster stuff all.