“Beast”

My world view is that damaged individuals can be saved, even from themselves. The  film debut of writer/director Michael Pearce has other ideas. His  film “Beast” is based loosely on the crime novel, “ The Beast of New Jersey”. A constant foreboding awaits you, as does a surprising and arresting ending.

Roadside memorials, church choirs, volunteer search parties scouring fields,  and bar strobe lights set the scene. A series of young girls have been killed, but Moll, our protagonist still lives at home at 27. She is dealing with a  formidable mother, a cognitively impaired father, and a self-history to overcome.

Dream sequences prepare us for revelations of teen assault on a classmate with Moll holding the scissors. In one of her mother’s many directives, we learn of a school expulsion and juvenile detention time spent. And then there is the sexual abuse hinted at at the hands of her detective brother,  played  so possessively  by Trystan  Gravelle.

Moll longs for love and liberation. We see that she deals with emotional pain through self-mutilation. Here, glass shards pressed into her palms. Her lashing out as a thirteen-year old is attributed to bullying. A decade and a half later, we see her act out over her sister upstaging her birthday party by announcing that she and her husband are expecting twins. Moll seeks affirmation and she finds it in an off-the-grid man, named Pascal.

Pascal is a charming, wild , rabbit-poaching, iconoclast. There is a rogue-aura yet creepy attraction about him. He is menacing in his cliff speeding, poor impulse control, and general love of danger.

He seems to understand the romantic elements of surf spume and kisses on high promontories that dash to the sea. They walk through dark meadows, and he tells her what a good person she is. His family members are surfers and potato farmers, but none are around. He did jail time for an assault on a fourteen-year-old girl. Premonitions of dead owls and bunnies are strewn on many screen frames. So are female hands reaching out of muddy, shallow graves. Horror tropes are used creatively in windblown curtains and heavy drum music.

Moll, for her part, works as a guide on what Pascal calls      “ granny wagons”, vacation-goers touring the island. She tells Pascal that her mother tried to “ beat the bad out of me.” Moll sings in the church choir that her mother directs. “ I need more from you, Moll”, is her one refrain.

Geraldine James is a mother that does not mince words. She has an uncanny way of humiliating Moll in lieu of forgiving her. “ You can’t change the rules because someone has shown an interest.” She ends this put down with, “ May be I’ve been too soft on you.” She is all about “mom control” .

Moll invites Pascal to a country club dinner, where he is chastised for his clothing, black jeans. Moll toasts her disapproving family with “ to my family for everything you have done for me. I forgive you.” She and Pascal are told to get out, and Moll packs up and moves in with him.

Resolution never seems to come. Moll revisits her scissor-scarred victim, and lies for Pascal to her detective brother. She mercilessly beats a rabbit that does not die immediately from her hunting shot. We see Moll’ s beastly side. When Pascal tells her that she is a good person, Moll flashes back with an angry, “ You don’t know me!” Pascal intervenes when a bully gangs up on an immigrant, and we are lead to believe that we don’t know either of these violent lovers. The foreboding is kept in play by axes being raised and wrestling-like love-making played out.

The final sequence is with its blood-pounding score is choreographed to be a real shocker. We remember the taunts of her brother: “ You think because you take care of your father and you sing in the choir that you can fool others that you are someone else!?”

Two damaged protagonists keep the drama ramped.  Moll’s angery screams are some of the more horrific seen on-screen, as are Pascal’s accusatory words, “ You can’t tear my life apart because you don’t like the weather.”

Yellow police tape, a night breeze, and a mouth stuffed with burial soil, and a stray neck hair metaphor will not be for every film goer, but I was mesmerized.

 

 

“RBG”

What does a perfectly paced bio-homage look like? See “RBG” and enjoy. Using a partial interview format, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen give us a review of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s landmark court cases and a love story so sweet that Martin Ginsberg becomes an icon, too.

One can never tire of hearing an 84 year-old woman forcefully say, “ I ask no favor for my sex~only that our brethren take their feet off our necks.” From here we get all the details of background and schooling. Ruth’s father was from Odessa~ a Russian Jew who worked as a haberdasher. Ginsberg’s stylistic flair and her penchant for wearing lace and beaded jabots and collars may have their roots here.

A Brooklynite, Joan Ruth Bader’s mother suggested to Joan’s  kindergarten teacher that her daughter be called “Ruth” since there were so many “ Joans” in her class. Her mother Celia died from cervical cancer while Ruth was in high school. Nina Totenberg, friend and award-winning NPR Legal Affairs correspondent, relays how Ruth could not attend her own graduation because of her mother’s untimely death. Ruth’s only sister, Marilyn, died  at six  from meningitis when Kiki ( nicknamed by her because of her active kicking ) was just 14 mos. old.

We learn from Ruth that her mother was strict and that she  instilled two rules in her: be a lady and learn to fend for yourself. Ginsberg’s humor shines in her retelling of her father sending her to Cornell University. “There were four men to every woman~ an ideal place to send a daughter. I never did a repeat date, until Marty.” She was 17 and he was 18.

The Martin love story is a romantic one. Seeing him on camera, self-deprecating and masterly funny, one gets an idea of why Ruth says that he was the “ most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.” Opposites in temperament, she shy and he the life of the party, they were married and had two children, Jane and James. Both are interviewed on-screen, as is a granddaughter. Directors Cohen and West do a brilliant job of meshing the personal with the professional.

Ruth tells us that “Marty cared that I had a brain.” Ruth graduated from Columbia Law School and they studied at Harvard together while raising toddlers and dealing with Marty’s testicular cancer. She taught at Rutgers and Columbia, and in 1970 was the Director of the Women’s Rights Project. In 1980, Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It was on Carter’s endorsement that Bill Clinton designated Ginsberg as the second female justice of the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Conner being the first.

We see snippets of her inauguration. We are reminded that she loved opera, and gave the eulogy for her friend Justice Antonin Scalia.

While experiencing many indignities as a woman herself,  she strategized and put her legal mind to work in order to   make equitable law. We forget that in 1970, a woman could be fired if she were pregnant, and that a woman soldier did not get a military housing allowance. Male homemakers could not collect social security benefits. Her arguments were all-encompassing. Ginsberg was not going to be happy with a little code change here and there. Gender-based discrimination does exist,  and it hurts everyone.

The Notorious RBG made sure that enduring change happened one dissent and one opinion at a time. She created a legal landscape in the 70’s and the 80’s where equal protection under law meant that “ one did not throw away one’s umbrella in a rainstorm because you did not get wet”. This documentary holds Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in esteem for working so ardently for liberty~ a liberty where the “least is heard with the greatest.” This film is a paen to how change can happen to the benefit of all when a mind like Ginsberg’s  decides to serve us all.

 

 

 

 

 

“Godard Mon Amour”

How will an 87 year-old icon of French New Wave Cinema feel about his mid-life crisis shared as a farce with the world ? Hopefully, he will laugh and cry and feel one with man. For Jean-Luc Godard is put out there in all his dastardly fumbles, as only an ex-wife can do. Based on the late Anne Wiazemsky’s  memoirs of filming “La Chinoise” ( 1967), “ Un An Apres” ( 2015) on which “ Godard Mon Amour” is based, chronicles her life with Godard at this time. We see him in all his narcissism and exasperating egotism.

The politics of shutting down the Cannes Film Festival in solidarity with student protestors, the break with other film giants like Francoise Truffaut and  Bernardo Bertolucci, the forming of the Dziga Vertov Group are all covered.

Pretentiousness and joyless jerkdom are here, but so is youth and the gradual disintegration of a marriage which may have understood love, but never understood the will that must balance it.

Director Michael Hazanavicius, Oscar-winning director of “The Artist”, originally titled his newest film                   “Redoubtable”. Jean-Luc Godard is the formidable international iconoclast whom now Hazanavicius “destroys”, all the while copying and giving homage to Godard’s great innovative style. What fun! At least for a director competing with an international, cinematic legend.

Comic/Tragic, “ Godard Mon Amour” is divided by snarky subtitles: though light and flippant in tone. The narrator is Wiazemsky. These are her biographical memories of her older husband, 38 to her 19, lose his confidence and ignore his wifely muse. He is jealous and literally myopic. One running gag is his constant loss or breakage of his glasses.

Godard is often scathing in his remarks to his admirers. At one point he admonishes a fan by calling him “ an annoying zombie”. Though Godard is a committed Marxist, he is shown as unhappy having to share a car with five friends. Creature comforts seem to supersede his ideology. The car ride back from  Cannes to Paris combines a screaming match with pouting silences. The music is perfect. Sometimes the sound track is stuck like they are. Complex sound-scapes are a hallmark of Jean-Luc, too.

One scene of anarchy during the  student riots some fifty-years-ago, plays like gladiators on display. Jazz and waltz tempos disrespect the rock-throwing and flames of conscientious objectors. Likewise, the film tries to make Godard something of a cliche as an artist of a certain temperament. Yet, his work still leaves us breathless.

Louis Garrel and Stacy Martin star. Both  tumble along beautifully. There are funny sex scenes and plenty of French comfort with full-frontal nudity. The fragility of relationships is a sub-theme, just like in most of Godard films. Goddard’s  innovations like the shot-reverse-shot, the transfer of segments of film back to negatives, and a fragmented, spontaneity in form are all given homage by  director Hazanavicius.

At one point, in this no-straight forward narrative, the Italian great, Bertolucci, derides his friend Goddard: “ You insult your own masterpieces!” And Anne’s voiceover states, “Our horizon began to shrink.”  “ I loved him as long as I could.”

Wiazemsky died in 2017 of breast cancer. She was the grand-daughter of the Noble Prize in Literature ( 1952) recipient, Francoise Mauriac.

“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 captures 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 shivah 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 dampen 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-notch 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.