“Disobedience”

In his first English language film, Chilean director and writer Sebastian Lelio has widened the world’s view on religion and sexuality and the tension between. From beautiful biblical poetic verses on togetherness to graphic co-mingling of bodily fluids, Leio’s work can open viewers’ hearts and minds to the pain of choice, the strictures of ritual, and the beauty of both.

Much of the story is painful. Like Lelio’s award-winning   “ A Fantastic Woman” ( reviewed Mar. 22, 2018) our protagonist must deal with rejection and derision because of her sexual orientation. Religion plays central to the role  of free will, here. In a beautiful and reverent twist, religion becomes a means of acceptance rather than a means of stricture. This is quite a coup, as is the open ending.

Our setting is an orthodox Jewish community in current London. The estranged daughter of a beloved rabbi returns for his funeral.

The action is slow and character driven. We walk through key fragments of the storyline piecemeal.  There is no false memory here. We learn that the rabbi had happened upon his young daughter and her friend in a lesbian tryst. The community clamps down, and the daughter soon leaves the country. The rabbi encourages the guilt-ridden and depressed partner to marry his rabbinical student.

From this framework, ( based on a novel by Naomi Alderman) the actors take over, and they are incredible. Rachel McAdams plays Esti Kuperman with all the earnest soulful longing of a woman tied to a passionless union with a man she respects and who offers her forgiveness.

Rachel Weisz is the outcast daughter, Ronit Krushka. One of my favorite scenes is where in the airport she  readies herself for her return to her Jewish enclave by taking the neck of her dark sweater in her teeth. She tears enough threads for it to be a garment duly rent. According to custom,  the rending is to vent pent up anger. This dramatic expression of anguish symbolically exposes the grieving heart. Weisz’s face brilliantly captured her loss.

Alessandro Nivola is Dovid, the husband of Esti and the synagogue’s heir apparent. He is one of the most loving and sympathetic figures I have seen on screen. Imagine Gregory Peck in “ To Kill A Mockingbird”.

All three characters are complex. Ronit is always gratifying her senses: taking a bite of brownie, smoking a cigarette, stealing a kiss. Sensual pleasures are part of her life. She is surprised by Esti and David’s marriage, hurt that her father’s obituary states that “ sadly, he left no children”. Esti, now a teacher in an orthodox school, is the one who informed Ronit of her father’s death. The rest of the shiva guests are hostile. A Mrs. Goldfarb is actually mean. “ It must be very painful for you not to have received the rabbi’s forgiveness.” The will makes no mention of Ronit, and the community is to have the house. As a famous New York photographer, she is sad that she never took her father’s portrait. Her cold reception does not damper the fact that she wishes all to know she loved her father.

Dovid must “ keep his house in order”. Congregants make a formal complaint when they see Ronit and Esti together. Rumors fly, and Dovid tries to flush out the emotional truth of Esti and Ronit’s relationship. His anguish on all fronts is raw : “ What are you doing to us?” , “ What is wrong with you?” The three eat a meal together; they pray. The tension is controlled and calm. Then things change. Esti finds herself pregnant and suicidal.

Seven days of Shiva, a passionate sexual scene, and a speech of a lifetime are layered and tender. Freedom to choose is paramount both in this film and in life. Dovid’s , “ I do not have sufficient understanding…” will bring tears to your eyes. “Shalom” has never been spoken more deeply. This complex screenplay by Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz is top knotch as are the three main actors.

One humorous line must be mentioned for an example of much needed  comic relief. After an afternoon of love making ,  Ronit tells Esti that she wants to take her picture. “ For the Jewish Messenger” she adds.

“ May you live a long life” is repeated as a blessing over the course of the funeral. It is to remind us that life is short and that we only have one chance to make it matter.

“Hichki” (2018)

Indian cinema often grabs your heart. This Indian film will inspire. Actress Rani Mukerji is endearing as she plays a teacher who puts a pencil in her mouth and bites down. She has Tourette’s syndrome and is using tricks to offset  her uncontrollable utterances. “Hichki” translates in Hindi to “ hiccup”.  Our  persistent  protagonist sees her malady as just an air gulp to be swallowed as she pursues her goal to teach children. A goal, by the way, she pursues for twenty-five years, a thoughtful and  idealistic addition.

Her goal did not start easily. Her father wants her working, and she has been interviewing for a teaching job for five years with no offers of employment. When a school does hire her, she has a class of fourteen, who smoke, pet rats, play cards and drink alcohol. They bet on how long she will last. They tease and mock her during roll call with her own tics. She goes with their stammering rap, and a bond is made. She rechannels their energy and stands up to their pranks. She differentiates “teaching them” from  “ breaking them”. She uses her scooter for home visits, and sees the inequity in her class’ lives. Though she is hired by the prestigious St. Notker’s school, her charges are all from the slums and used to hit the quota of underprivileged demanded by the state. One mother describes her son in terms of jackfruit, hard on the outside, soft on the inside.

Our teacher, Naina, creates creative units on gambling, fire-crackers, and air plane flight. She tells her class to stop blaming their situations. They are all experts at something. “Your fears will be your strengths.”  she intones. As one colleague tells her, “ You stammer from your heart.”

There are realistic episodes of cheating, expulsion, and truancy. A cloying sound track must be endured, but the joy of successful teaching is what will drop your tears.

Director Siddharth Malhotra and co- writer Anckur Chaudhry have a film that should be shown at teacher in-services to renew those professional sparks. Preceptures and awards aside,  this classroom of students will warm your heart. Pole star guiding never was this touching. We are all in this together was never more sweetly displayed.

“ The Death Of Stalin ”

“ The Death of Stalin” is a timely farce that centers on men in power and men in fear and in loathing. Moscow 1953, a  piano concert, and the enemy list, begin a film I tried to like, but found hard to equate the Three Stooges ( maybe five here) and kill lists.

Bugged offices, under-the-table rubles, round-ups of enemies, and boyish pranks set the pace. Stalin’s line,        “ Time for a cowboy movie!” is one of the most apt.  Bodies roll down stairs, and  no one can remember who is alive or dead.

Early in the film, Director Armando Iannucci has Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) felled by a stroke and lying in his own piss. What to do? All competent doctors have been booted to Siberia or the Gulag. How can Stalin battle for his life while lying in a puddle of indignity?”

Stalin’s cohorts all jockey for position in the Central Committee. Jeffrey Tabor plays Malenkov, next in line of succession. He is not a “take charge kind of guy”, and this is a “dog eat dog ” kind of culture. Cries of  “irreplaceable” and “a calamity” ring ironically as Krushchev, beautifully enacted by Steve Buscemi, and Beria ( Simon Russell Beale) , who heads the security service move in. “ I have documents on all of you.” , Beria spouts as the factions collide.

Stalin’s drunken daughter and  equally besotted son, Vasily ( Rupert Friend) offer more humor at others’ expense. “ I may have to shoot myself like mother.”   Friend delivers adolescent put-downs like, “ You are not a person, you are a testicle.” “ You are mostly made of hair.”

Stalin dies; the city is cordoned off; orders roll, and condolescenes stream: “ He is the lamb, no the milk of socialism”.  Yet, Stalin’s dacha is looted, his staff carried away and shot before the period of mourning. “People get killed when their stories don’t fit.” one character says.

Nothing works ; elevators are out-of-order; Roll Royces tangle in a stand-off in the driveway. Toilets are flushed to hide speech, but they don’t flush. Trains are cancelled. As Stalin lies in state, Krushchev is still picking out curtains to drape the coffin. Should they be ruched or not?

The sound track is the best part of this film, which is  based on comic books. “The Death of Stalin” has been banned in Putin’s Russia, who would rather not see Josef Stalin as a tyrant,  who authorized the killing of hundreds of thousands of his own people. Mocking and lampooning a political culture that rules by fear is just too close to home where despots preside for me to laugh at.

 

 

“1945”

Will Higgins’  Indianapolis Star article citing an archival gift  to our National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. touched me deeply. The gift was given four years ago, and it is forever immortalized, “Lest we forget”.

The artifact is a ten sentence note written in July 11, 1944 in Czechoslovakian. Vilma Grunwald smuggled her note via a sympathetic German guard to her husband, Kurt Grunwald, a Holocaust camp doctor and a survivor.

The giver is her son, Misa, now 85 and called Frank. His mother’s words: “…. in isolation we are waiting for darkness…into eternity.” calmly sends facts and love before she dies in an Auschwitz gas chamber.

The film “1945” sends us more general information in the Holocaust’s immediate aftermath. Unlike Vilma’s dramatic  yet composed note, there is a keen tension in Director Ferenc Torok’s art piece. The 45 year-old Hungarian film maker has rendered his film in black and white and to great effect. Hungarian villagers show every gradation of gray in their reactions to the return of two Holocaust refugees: fearful, suspicious, remorseful, guilty, contrite, cunning, every possible emotional  nuance is covered.

This is one film where a second viewing is warranted to fully appreciate the effects that an inhumane event has on humanity. The sound effects alone are arresting. The lone-train-whistle reminds us of  the western, “High Noon”. The incessant buzzing of flies bodes evil and its aftermath. The clock’s tick, the horse’s clomp, the cock’s crow, the yammering in the pub, and the bottle and mirror shards crashing to the floor, equate to  an earthquake ready to rent all asunder.

Visually, “1945” begins with dark plumes of train exhaust and hands working. There is to be a wedding in the afternoon. The groom’s father cuts himself shaving with a straight-edged razor. He has not been straight in his dealings with the drugstore he has given to his son to run. We learn that he and the town, in general, have benefitted materially from the Jewish Orthodox being rounded up and taken to the concentration camps. A farmer rolls a cigarette, a stationmaster looks down the track and at his watch, a son wakes his mother up on his wedding day; and, the normalcy turns strange.

The mother, Anna, is using a handkerchief soaked in laudanum to get through the day. Much is filmed through curtains of gauze. There are secrets. Her husband is rough   with her. He yanks back the bedclothes and yells: “ I said get dressed,”  Anna does not like the bride, her future daughter-in-law, and we graphically see why. Our bride has another lover, and she loves the prospect of owning the drug store over all.

We are in Hungary with Russian soldiers patrolling opportunistically. One soldier tries to take the cap of the younger Jewish refugee. No one wishes chaos from the Russians. Our father of the groom plies them with bottles of champagne, just in case. But, the wedding won’t go on for other reasons.

Like a favorite German  film of mine, “Labyrinth of Lies”,    ( reviewed Nov. 14, 2015) , Torok’s film deals with returning. Here, in “1945”, instead of Nazis being reincorporated into  civilian society, we have a father and a son coming home to bury the relics of their dead family.

The two figures in black walking toward the village start rumors flying. We hear, “ God bless. May I see your papers.” Even the village priest fears losing what has been accrued. “What do they want, revenge?”  some fear. They will bring trouble” is bandied about. The two figures are wisely stoic. They seem to belong to another realm.

Woman, too, panic at maybe losing what they have acquired. One scene has a housewife hiding rugs and small conveniences of domestic life under a tarp covered car. Greed is rampant, but a few have signed false accusations. And one, who has tried the confessional and has been dismissed, hangs himself when alcohol will not assuage his conscience.

The village turmoil has Anna calling her husband a worm and her son leaving alone for the city, Budapest. The almost-bride sets the store afire. The two figures bury their own artifacts in the local cemetery and walk down the road  they entered. A storm approaches, but it is the smoke from the building conflagration that darkens the sky and reminds us of the crematorium ashes of others. “1945” is a dark, painful, and haunting film, worthy of its accolades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Quiet Place”

Horror films conform to certain genre specific tropes. Dread and foreboding suspense being two. John Krasinski and real wife, Emily Blunt star in his film, “ A Quiet Place”. Based on an original screenplay by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, Krasinski wrote, stared in, and directed. He plays Lee Abbott, a survivalist, who is quietly attempting to keep his family safe from creatures of an alien sort. They are monstrous creatures who attack sound. His 6 year-old  son is gruesomely slain, and his other two children are trying to be brave for their mother, Evelyn, who is pregnant.

Millicent Simmonds, who is herself deaf, plays the also deaf, rebellious teen, Regan. Regan blames herself for her youngest brother’s death. Her ten-year-old brother, Marcus , is actor Noah Jape. Both child actors are just the right mix of scared and brave.

The setting is in a future dystopia, but the farm with its silos and fresh vegetables, and water falls looks like upstate New York. An empty town with leaf strewn streets provide the opening frame inside a ransacked  grocery store.

Lee has spent lots of time using a white sandy substance to soften the sound of barefoot strides on intricate pathways to and from the river and fields. Lights flash red when the creatures are in proximity of the house. Rigged subterranean basements ready Evelyn for childbirth with its cries and screams. For even when a lantern is knocked over, panic sets in and they listen in fear.

The tension is always palpable. One of the best scenes occurs when Marcus falls into the grain silo. Millicent and alien follow. Blunt’s bathtub birth is also chilling. Blunt is easy to watch. Soft, boiled wool mobiles are readied for the new baby. We feel like we are viewing “Little House on the Prarie” , but there  is no calling for dinner. Silence is a way of life with monopoly playing  and holding hands in mute, family-thanksgiving, prayer.

Evelyn is strong and resourceful. She breathes through her lonely contractions like a pro. She is purposeful and does not fret. She, also, does not deserve the film’s ending.

The family’s progress is numbered  in days; for example, we see “Day 473” flash on the screen. A calendar is kept for the perceived date of birth with blood pressure and fetal heart rates written down daily.

Lee works with the ear pieces, both for ear-bud music and for Regan’s hearing aid. Marcus is taught survival skills like trapping fish. Marcus wonders why Regan is not allowed to come. The family is normal in their emotional dynamics, but the build up is slow. They are not the only humans. There are many silos, and one seemingly abandoned farm produces an elderly man, who has just lost his wife to the gut-eating, blind creatures who roam the earth.

I want to really like this movie because the principals are great. It is the creatures that seem absurd. They are derivative and mechanical: the creature from the Black Laguna meshed with the Alien and the Fly. Creatures that go for noises is a cool idea, but as visual evil, these guys seem too, well,  unbelievable. The jump scares seem silly when you see the creatures, and likewise the close-ups. I prefer more psychological horror, rather than  overtly situational. I ,also, hate the ending and still stew about how the children got out of the grain silo. The amplified, high-pitched-sound frequency from Regan’s hearing aid is a creative twist. See it if you have time to spare, or enjoy seeing your PG-13ers scared.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Loveless”

“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. This Russian film was nominated for Best Foreign Picture in 2018, and it is easy to see why.

Our protagonist, 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 throughout the film, we never see him smile. The blond, crystal-eyed Matvey Novikov is the epitome of emotional pain. After twenty minutes of seeing him suffer so needlessly, viewers  want to hold him and belly punch his divorcing parents.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev was brilliant in his 2014 film “Leviathan”. ( reviewed http://www.filmflamb.wordpress.com on March 15th, 2015), but here there is no individual sacrificing for a central sovereignty. There is not even any giving up of 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 her husband, 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 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 the missing son. Zhenya comes in late from a date and does 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 pelted 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.