The Lebanese movie CAPERNAUM (2018), with its subtitle translation being “Chaos,” blew me away. I can’t remember the last time I watched more riveting, powerful acting than what twelve-year-old (now aged sixteen) Syrian refugee, Zain Al Rafeea, delivers here. Taking place in the slums of Beirut, the story focuses on a streetwise, impoverished boy who tries to protect his eleven-year-old sister from being married off to their family’s landlord. Surrounded by squalor and pain, Zain (also the name of the main character) bravely faces what life throws at him. Filmed in documentary, hand-held camera style, the sense of intimacy and immediacy is constant. I highly recommend this phenomenal film.
The Russian language movie I AM DRAGON (2015) is often a visual poem. It is that beautifully made. Based on a Russian fairytale, the story is quite simple: A nobleman’s daughter is kidnapped by a dragon on her wedding day, thus resuming a horrifying tradition the villagers had thought ended a few generations back. The young bride-to-be must then contend with living on an enchanted isle where she soon finds out there is far more to the hosting dragon than initially meets the eye. Emotional intrigue and opening of hearts ensue.
There are definitely parallels in this story with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Cinematography and CGI weave gracefully together throughout this colorful production along with solid– often purposefully dramatic– acting by the two attractive leads (Maria Poezzhaeva and Matvey Lykov) and supporting cast. But, then, dramatic situations so often elicit dramatic responses. Well-crafted sets (CGI enhanced in places) and lovely costumes round out the exquisiteness of this film.
I’m humbly reminded here and by a few other recently-viewed productions that America is not the only producer of well-made high tech. movies, including those that excel in both style/look and emotional substance. I AM DRAGON is one such cinema masterpiece.
THE SHAMER’S DAUGHTER II: THE SERPENT GIFT (released in early 2019) is a fantastic sequel to the fabulous Danish movie THE SHAMER’S DAUGHTER (2015). These appear to be the first two parts of a trilogy. I was impressed with how a heroine and hero were each presented in both screen plays, especially in the second one, where the male protagonist (Jakob Oftebro as Nicodemus Ravens) matures and comes into his own, thanks largely to the young female lead, Dina (Rebecca Emilie Sattrup). Like her mother, Melussina (Maria Bonnevie), she has the innate power to see into people’s souls, namely over what they feel ashamed about.
The balance and tension of the sacred feminine and the sacred masculine are well-portrayed in these movies, which are set sometime in Medieval period (probably the 15th century) Dunark, a land where dragons and a giant serpent exist. I was often deeply moved, particularly over Dina and how she evolves, developing more psychic powers in the second installment.
These two films are exquisite pieces of cinema, from the beautiful outdoor cinematography– which there is even more of in the second film– to the great acting, sets, and costumes. The evil throne usurper’s aged mother (Dama Lizea, played by Stina Ekblad) is a top notch villainess, embodying sinister artfully and grandly.
Both movies are must-sees for anyone who enjoys a good story of both adventure and human transformation
The seventeen minute Australian movie MRS. McCUTCHEON (released in 2017) is a lovely little visual story. Directed by John Sheedy and filmed in bright colors reminiscent of many 1960s cinema productions, the screenplay shows some slices of life for a ten-year-old boy (Alec Golinger) who feels most natural and comfortable wearing a dress. He insists on being called Mrs. McCutcheon instead of his birth name Tom. We viewers eventually learn that he identifies as a she, expressing to her single mother Jenny (Nadine Garner) a sense that she was born in the wrong kind of body. Jenny enrolls the child in a third school within a single year, where a super perky teacher, Mrs. Clutterbuck (Virginia Gay), does her theatrical best to make Mrs. McCutcheon feel welcome in class.
A part white, part Aboriginal boy named Trevor (Wesley Patten) immediately befriends the trans protagonist, protecting her against intolerant peers, particularly from a group of three boys who proceed to steadily bully Mrs. McCutcheon. Trevor is a scrappy and talented athlete who loves his new classmate for who and how she is. He voices disappointment when his new friend is forced back into wearing boy’s clothes while at school.
The oppressive norm of compulsory conformity to birth-based binary gender expression and identity is upheld by Principal Parncut (Neil Pigot), a staid and constipated looking caricature of a man. He and the teacher Mrs. Clutterbuck are just two of several ways comic relief balance out the serious subject matter of the film. However, even uptight Mr. Parncut is overpowered by the positive, hopeful message at the very end, the final setting a balloon-filled dance in the school gym. The movie often has a dream-like quality to it, particularly this very last scene. Hence, idealism works well here, coupled with the narrative’s premise that diversity in every sense is a basic aspect of reality to be embraced for the good of humanity (however high a striving that may be in such a fear-filled world).
It is Trevor who so wisely, poignantly expresses the main point of the film in few words and actions. (Hint: It has to do with skin.) Wesley Patten’s acting hits the mark for sincerity and effectiveness. He should go places in his career, if he chooses to remain an actor, as the equally talented Grolinger should also succeed.
This short film was exactly what I needed to watch at the end of a work week peppered with ongoing news of intolerance around the country and the world. As long as clever, creative projects like MRS. McCUTCHEON continue to be made and released for the public (I viewed this for free via my basic Cable plan), there is hope that the world will perhaps eventually become a better place for everyone.
On the surface, DEPARTURE (released in 2015) is a summertime coming of age movie. The screenplay also falls into the broad category of film and television productions about repressed English people. It is far more than either of these. I appreciated how emotional and sexual repression in the story are intelligently explored by writer and director Andrew Steggall. In different ways, the three British and one French main characters struggle to be free of emotional pain each has been carrying prior to the start of the story.
DEPARTURE takes place in the South of France, where young teenager and aspiring writer Elliot (sensitively played by Alex Lawther) roams the countryside and village near his family’s summer home, carrying his journal and jotting down words whenever inspiration strikes. These are his final days in this house, which his parents are selling due to their marriage dissolving. Elliot and his mother Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) slowly, reluctantly begin to pack up and selectively dispose of the contents of the quaint, though somewhat cavernous dwelling. Lingering indoor and outdoor camera shots underscore the pensive, wistful mood throughout the movie.
Elliot’s father Philip (Finbar Lynch) spends the first part of the film being away on business. When we viewers do finally meet him, it soon becomes apparent that he is gay, having married a woman and fathered a child in hopes of avoiding his true orientation.
To get some space from his mother’s depression and their mutually sad, imminent closing of a large chapter in family life, Elliot initiates a friendship with the slightly older Clement (Phenix Brossard). The English boy initially spies the lithe teen swimming in the nearby reservoir. A triangle of sexual tension gradually ensues, with both mother and son longing for the attentions of Clement. The movie’s focus is largely on Elliot, who is coming into his sexuality. He does his best to sublimate libido and other powerful feelings by writing, yet he grows bolder in pursuing affection from Clement whenever possible.
Symbolism arises here and there, such as when Beatrice possibly (not at all for certain) runs over a deer while driving in a stormy night at the beginning of the story. Elliot spends the rest of the movie preoccupied with finding and burying this unseen roadkill. I could not help but think that the phantom deer is representative of Elliot’s parents’ dead marriage and the childhood he longs for both continuance of and closure over. Like the possibly dead deer whose existence is never confirmed, Elliot’s family life, now nonexistent as he had previously experienced it, was based on a false abstraction of love between his parents rather than something actual for them. In a sense, Beatrice kills off her own denial and avoidance of the truth about her sham marriage, though it still takes her a while into the narrative to finally face this reality. Hence, this nighttime incident is also a foreshadowing of what soon comes to a head for Elliot’s family. Her closeted, uptight husband Philip lived and perpetrated a lie in a heterosexual union, with the summer home purchased as both a distracting and distancing way of maintaining some common, primary pursuit (real estate purchases) between he and Beatrice. The remotely located house embodies the isolation and subsequent loneliness Elliot and his parents each feel.
A dead bird the protagonist comes across in the woods symbolizes the actual death of his innocent childhood from within the context of his parents’ illusion of love for each other and the risky transition into adulthood, including sexuality, he now faces. (Consequently, there is no need for Elliot to find the killed deer, but, not surprisingly, he doesn’t figure this out right away.) To at least drive the particular points home regarding adulthood and sexuality, Elliot plucks a few feathers from the small carcass and places them in his hair. He soon spots Clement up ahead as the older boy strips down for a swim. In a brief solitary reverie, Elliot plays with the idea of being seen like a bird showing its plumage to display beauty, physical maturity, and confidence, and also, likely, in hopes of getting attention from a possible mate. However, he soon thinks better of wearing this added decor and removes the feathers for when Clement actually sees him. Actor Alex Lawther’s soulful eyes, thoughtful facial expressions, and deliberating movements powerfully relay so much pent-up adolescent passion.
A prescient, recurring dream image of Elliot floating naked underwater feels haunting to watch. The question is whether he will be drowned by his deep emotions and desire or learn to swim in life like all of us adults with a libido and intermittently intense feeling states must do. His gift of the ability to creatively write about feelings and observations hints at the hope we viewers can hold for him as he navigates a maturing, complex psyche.
As a gay man who was once a teenager, I certainly related to Elliot and the very limited options presented to him for sexual exploration with another male. Clement spends a lot of time trying to fix an old motorcycle to then drive on to Paris, where we eventually learn his ailing mother lies dying in hospital. He has basically been exiled to stay with an aunt in the country due to anger management issues, stemming from the helplessness he feels over his mother’s plight and his father’s lack of patience and understanding. He smokes cigarettes and sometimes wears a leather jacket, effectively portraying the trope of the angry loner male youth, though without seeming like a cliche. His mixed response to Elliot is painful yet believable to watch. On one hand, Clement clearly enjoys the admiration and desire from the younger peer, who welcomes his assistance with packing up the house and keeping Elliot company in the woods. On the other, the older boy’s internalized homophobia is expressed in his name-calling and insults, including of Elliot’s being a poet. Yet, the French boy flirts and displays himself just enough to help maintain some sexual tension between them. I found myself thinking how the protagonist could and will eventually do better with finding worthwhile, reciprocating love interests, his intelligence and sensibilities far more sophisticated than Clement’s. However, the intrigue of discovering sexual desire and pursuit of its fulfillment moves the narrative effectively along even with– and because of– the limitations presented for the English lad and, by extension, his suffering parents. The mother and father relay how repression, denial and avoidance are inevitably ineffective against hiding from the truth in matters of the heart and body.
I was surprised to learn that Alex Lawther was around eighteen years of age when he starred in this film. Casting older actors to play younger is common, of course, because wisdom and good acting ability often come with age. But, Lawther looks and acts so uncannily youthful (yet like an old soul) here that I thought he was surely no more than fifteen.
DEPARTURE is layered in meaning, cinematically beautiful, and superbly acted. The pacing is often a bit slow and ponderous, but not overly so. There were just enough emotionally and sexually charged interactions between the actors to sustain my interest throughout, which was also helped along by the movie’s intriguing visual appeal. The Southern French countryside and village setting come across as other main characters. And Lawther’s often subtle but rich range of facial and body expressions are quite riveting. I enjoyed this gem of a screenplay overall in spite of finding myself painfully empathizing with all four central players’ sexual and emotional frustrations, sadness, and anguish, especially Elliot’s and Beatrice’s respectively. But, I think we fellow human viewers are supposed to feel all this right along with them and glean some knowledge and beauty from out of the suffering wherever we can, like Elliot wisely strives to do.
GODS OF EGYPT (2016) was a fun, campy, and often silly movie I’m glad I saw on TV for free. I especially enjoyed the costumes and some of the sets, both of which were often enhanced by CGI. I liked the main fantasy premise of an ancient time in which Egypt’s gods lived and ruled among humans. Most of the deities looked fabulous to some degree or other, while a few were sloppy and not impressive, namely when in their combined human-animal forms. To be clear, there is no particularly deep character development in this visually splashy, flashy production.
The cast should have been entirely made up of Egyptians and people of other African descent. A few token Blacks and brown-skinned folks in the ensemble, such as handsome Chadwick Boseman, didn’t cut it. The flack this movie got for such poor ethnic/racial optics was well-deserved and why I refused to buy a theater ticket for it. Movie studio brass should know and do better by now than to cast largely white people in non-white, non-Euro/American roles.
I was impressed with the 2004 Israeli film WALK ON WATER. What a wonderful, humanizing production concerning Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-German cultural and political tensions– factoring in the issues of homophobia and toxic masculinity as well.
Handsome Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi skillfully plays Eyal, a seemingly callous hit man for Mossad, Israel’s official security service. Having just successfully killed a representative of Hamas while in Istanbul, Turkey, Eyal returns home for briefing on his next assignment. At his residence, he finds his wife has killed herself. Ever the hardened stoic, he continues working without engaging in psychotherapy mandated by his superiors, though his immediate boss Menachem (Gideon Shemer) doesn’t press the issue. However, Eyal is reassigned a “less challenging” mission: to track down the whereabouts of a very elderly Nazi war criminal and kill him “before God does.” To do so, he must first befriend the two adult grandchildren of this man via posing as their tour guide. The granddaughter Pia (Caroline Peters) has moved to a kibbutz after distancing herself from her parents in Berlin. Axel (Knut Berger), her gay younger brother, visits his sister with the hopes of convincing her to return to Germany with him and celebrate their wealthy father’s seventieth birthday.
Shortly after making their acquaintance at the kibbutz, Eyal bugs Pia’s room and proceeds to spy on the siblings’ conversations. The story unfolds from there, whereby Eyal grows increasingly conflicted around having to befriend two German, non-Jewish liberals, with one of them being a gay man who soon spends time bonding with Rafik (Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid), a gay Palestinian. Already isolated in his suppressed grief, the homophobic, Zionist-leaning Eyal is increasingly pushed out of his comfort zone. Steadily, his cool but tense exterior begins to crack. One night, he abruptly leaves a gay dance club Axel and Pia bring him to as part of their sight-seeing and taking in of local night life. Later, in an outdoor market stall, he bullies Rafik’s merchant father to accept a pittance on Axel’s purchase of a new coat. Both of these incidences occur after Eyal has spent much time touring the countryside with the two siblings, especially with the brother, who he takes for a mud bath by the Dead Sea. This ends with the two men showering naked together. Axel’s and Eyal’s intimate moments of long hours driving in the same car and getting a spa treatment in such a peaceful, remote setting facilitates much conversation about their respective lives and perspectives. They listen to CD’s, discussing what kinds of music they each like, touch upon differences (such as circumcision norms) in their cultures of origin, and wax political, including about the Holocaust. Much later, in Berlin, where Eyal is tasked to complete his mission, the assassin reconnects with Axel. Initially surprised, the young German warmly gives him a partial tour of the historic city before inviting Eyal to his parents’ villa. Hence, the seasoned spy successfully manipulates his way into this long-planned destination.
As Eyal begins to emotionally soften around the edges and grow more morally sophisticated, becoming less vengeance-oriented, we viewers eventually witness a hard edge surfacing from the otherwise gentle and open-minded Axel. Their friendship by calculated design becomes genuine, as does Eyal’s connection with Pia, though this alliance is less focused on in the movie. However, actress Caroline Peters does an excellent job conveying her character’s attraction to Ashkenazi’s Eyal, such as how she begins to look at him. It gradually becomes evident that the protagonist is a complex, even caring person underneath his macho exterior, a persona constantly reinforced by frequent news of suicide terrorist attacks on Jewish civilians and ongoing sanctioned oppression of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.
The movie artfully walks a fine line of being a cat and mouse suspense drama while relaying an emotionally and morally compelling story about human relationships and the struggle to become a psychologically healthier, better person in the face of major demographic differences all around and personal life crises, particularly that of loss and grief. Kudos to skillful screenwriter Gal Uchovsky, nimble director Eytan Fox, and the excellent cast, each of whom were either Israeli, German, or Arab. Mostly English was spoken throughout, followed by Hebrew, German, and, briefly (if I remember correctly) some Arabic, respectively. Hearing such different languages spoken, depending on where the setting happened to be and who was speaking to who felt fascinating and a little humbling to me, a monolingual American.
At times, I was quite drawn into the film’s aesthetics, namely when Israel’s countryside appeared, particularly the few scenes along the Dead Sea. What a mystical-looking place. And the variety of diegetic music was interesting and often fun to listen to, from Israeli folk and pop tunes, to Club music, to some old-time (1960s through ’80s) American and European hit songs. I suspect I’ve missed a few other music genres that were represented in the movie. I would love to track down the soundtrack to WALK ON WATER if one was ever released.
This is a refreshingly international screenplay with only overt musical references to the U.S.A. and nothing else blatantly American. (Given the coronavirus pandemic’s ongoing effects, traveling abroad just by watching movies is where it’s at for me for a good while.) I often felt transported to somewhere else in the world and satisfied with the overall narrative, including its resolution. The production’s overall message is ultimately a life-affirming, cautiously hope-filled one. I recommend WALK ON WATER be viewed by anyone who is open to watching something that’s non-American, informally culturally and historically educational, emotionally and morally intriguing, and visually and musically interesting.
The lesbian romance movie CAROL (released in 2015), set mostly in New York City at the end of 1951 into 1952, evokes for me a sense of looking at a swath of dark velvet while running one’s hands over it– pure sensuality. Cate Blanchett’s deep, soft voice add the auditory element to this analogy and pleasantly enveloping viewing experience. The often dimly filtered lighting and careful attention to fashion of the period lend a genuine vintage look and feel to the movie, shot on Super 16 mm film.
Ms. Blanchett as the elegant, wealthy, divorcing Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as the much younger, somewhat mysterious Therese Belivet smolder together on-screen. Cate made me think of a movie star or grande dame fashion maven of bygone days, her well-coiffed image stunning to behold in every frame. It’s no wonder she captivates Therese, herself like an angel “flung out of space,” as Carol describes her. These exceptional women seem to glow with an inner light that brightens upon contact with the other.
The two heroines first meet in a large department store shortly before Christmas, where Therese works as a sales clerk and Carol is gift shopping for her young daughter Rindy. Their mutual love is quickly oppressed by the times in which they find themselves, with Carol’s brash, alcoholic husband going to extreme litigious lengths to get her back or take full custody of their child. There is much pathos during these women’s shared journey of social defiance resulting from being true to who they are, which eventually includes driving together across the West from out of NYC. But, fraught though their circumstances be, Carol and Therese blossom together and separately along the way, ultimately underscoring how love can prevail against stacked odds– and all while looking fabulous, at least most of the time.
Todd Haynes directed and Phyllis Nagy wrote the heart-felt screenplay. The superb acting by Blanchett, Mara, and the rest of the cast certainly add to CAROL’s overall excellence. This is one aesthetically creative romance drama well worth watching. [Poster art copyright by Number 9 Films (CAROL) Limited.]
Well, I’ve finally seen all three of the FIFTY SHADES movies (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, FIFTY SHADES DARKER, and, just a short while ago, FIFTY SHADES FREED). They’re fun, guilty pleasure froth I’m glad to have viewed for free on TV over almost a three year period.
Supposedly, Henry Cavill was slated to play the leading male role of kinky billionaire Christian Grey. Instead, the comparably light weight and insincere (but cute) Jamie Dornan got the part. Had the far more interesting, mysterious, sultry, and seemingly fiercer Mr. Cavill starred in this trashy trilogy, I’m sure all of the sex scenes between Mr. Grey and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) would have been genuinely steamier than they actually are. Ah, well, I don’t blame dear Henry for passing up being in such junk. I’ll just have to patiently wait for him to show up in some other movie where he’s frequently naked and sexual.
I recently watched the DIVERGENT trilogy movies, DIVERGENT (2014), INSURGENT (2015), and ALLEGIANT (2016). Based on the DIVERGENT book trilogy for young adults by Veronica Roth, they’re fun post Apocalypse dystopian action flicks with a good message: authoritarianism is bad and diversity is good, even vital, for humanity. And British actor Theo James as the male lead (named Tobias Eaton, a.k.a. “Four”) is sincere and luscious to behold. He pleasantly adds to the array of neat visuals in these screen dramas.
A central concept in the series is that of factions, which people in a 23rd century, post world war Chicago have to live within. Those who do not test well for any particular faction are rendered “factionless,” societal rejects who exist as the city’s itinerant homeless. Then, there are the “Divergents,” whose temperaments and abilities qualify them for fitting well into more than one faction. They are mentally and emotionally flexible and adaptive, which threatens the social fabric of this future society’s rigidly ordered culture. The five large groupings of people by personality type and aptitude is an interesting way to explore the tensions of conformity and belonging on one hand and individualism, personal liberty, and freedom of self expression on the other. The narrative’s explicit bias here is that the latter three attributes are more important, the other two being most valued by oppressive authoritarian thinkers and leaders.
The movies focus on Beatrice (“Tris”) Prior (Shailene Woodley), a teenaged Divergent, and her romantic involvement with Four (Tobias). Tris initially does her best to fit into her newly chosen faction, Dauntless, which comprises the police and military portion of the population. Their main job is to protect Chicago, ensuring that no outsider comes through its distant surrounding wall. Ms. Woodley, who was about twenty-two to twenty-four years old during actual filming, looks the part and straightforward and compelling in her role. I found the character of Tris to be lacking in depth and complexity. However, she is sufficiently sympathetic and compelling to carry the movie, particularly with the more mature, gritty, and complex character of Four by her side lending his gravitas and sex appeal.
Much of the series is basically a cat-and-mouse suspense drama whereby two young adults navigate the increasingly oppressive faction system with the ultimate intention of dismantling it. The final, comparatively weaker, movie goes even further than this after Tris, Four, and a few of their peers discover beyond Chicago a far more advanced society built upon the ruins of O’Hare International Airport. Without giving too much of the story away, we viewers learn that, from afar, a calculating scientist named David (Jeff Daniels) has been monitoring the population of Chicago, its residents a post war genetic experiment. Tris and Four must outsmart and thwart David and his sinister designs against the only place they’ve ever known as home.
I appreciated the supporting cast, particularly Kate Winslet as villainess Jeanine Matthews, who heads up Erudite, the faction comprising scholars and scientists. With her often dead-pan expressions and sanitized professional look, she ruthlessly maneuvers Erudite to become the governing faction over all of Chicago in place of the Abnegation (selfless and ever-serving others) faction, from which Tris and Four had been born and raised. It was fun to see Ms. Winslet play someone so cold and calculating. I’m sure she appreciated this role after years of often portraying sympathetic leading ladies.
Two other supporting cast members are worth a special mention here. The always lovely and interesting Octavia Spencer plays Johanna Reyes, the faction leader of Amity, who are the ever kind and peace-loving farmers within this mostly urban society. Her scenes are short and limited to the second and third movies, but Ms. Spencer lends her no-nonsense, wise presence to a character that would otherwise be far less memorable in someone else’s hands. Maggie Q as Tori Wu is another particularly gritty female. She is the first to identify Tris as a Divergent and becomes a close ally to the heroine. Tori is beautiful with a tough exterior, developed through painful losses, yet she’s tender just beneath the surface. It was good to see her among so many strong female characters, most of them sympathetic.
Initially, a fourth and final film, ASCENDANT, was planned but scrapped due to a large decrease in box office revenue for ALLEGIANT compared to the first two movies. Producers floated the idea of a television production of this fourth installment. This was rejected by the primary actors, who felt they had not signed up for a lackluster conclusion to such blockbuster projects. Apparently, interest in young adult science fiction movie series had significantly declined by 2016, after a slew of them (such as THE HUNGER GAMES franchise) had been made up to that time. To my relief, ALLEGIANT felt like a tolerable, decent enough conclusion to the story arc even though I saw how it could have gone further. In particular, tensions clearly remained between Chicago with its largely genetically “damaged” people and the more genetically “pure” led society out beyond. I imagine a war or some smaller scale, but equally dramatic, conflict was in the offing to occur within ASCENDANT. But, honestly, I’m fine that this didn’t happen. The villainous David seemed like an annoying, smug bureaucrat rather than an intriguing bad guy I wanted to keep watching. I felt fine with no longer seeing more of him. And since real life is open-ended with a mix of resolutions and ongoing change and challenges, I felt satisfied over where and how the DIVERGENT trilogy ended. We viewers are left to draw our own conclusions if we so feel the need.
Clearly, the DIVERGENT series is largely light fare, where a lot of character development does not occur. The story arc is derivative of other post Apocalypse writings and is simplified for young adult readers and viewers. That said, the screenplays are a little thought provoking in places and generally a lot of fun, particularly the first two films DIVERGENT and INSURGENT.