Thursday, January 28, 2021

DEAR COMRADES

Yuliya Vysotskaya     Vladislav Komarov     Andrey Gusev     Yuliya Burova 

     This is a brilliant example of how blood bonds are stronger than any ideology.  Lyuda (Vysotskaya) is a dyed in the wool Stalinist who advocates against the people in the factories striking in protest of increasingly stringent policies set by the Khrushchev government.  In her role as head of the production sector on the City Committee of Novocherkassk, she resolutely condemns them, saying they should be tried and severely punished.  She has no sympathy for the clamoring crowds outside a grocery that she must shove through to get to an ally who will supply her with what she needs, and a few luxuries to boot.

     When the uprising spreads throughout the country and multiple factories join a huge strike, chaos breaks out.  And of course, as the crowds burst forward in the thousands, all Americans will be reminded of our own so very recent January 6, when Donald Trump’s followers stormed the capitol.  But fortunately for us, our January 6 dwarfed that of the USSR’s June 2, 1962, uprising when Red Army soldiers and KGB Snipers shoot guns at their own people, killing 25 and injuring 80.  In the hasty planning to address the strike, there are a few soldiers reminding government officials about the proscription of the military taking arms against the USSR’s own people, but with top leaders ordering the military to shoot, that’s what they do.  And above all the whole incident needs to be covered up.  

     So what about Lyuda during this time?  She has had a stormy disagreement with her daughter Svetka (Burova), who she fears has joined the protestors.  Their tiff ends up in dinner plates thrown to the floor and Svetka storming out of the house.  But Lyuda has her own problems to deal with, and concentrates on them, some of which test her loyalties and make her question her commitments—for perhaps the first time.  The government is adamant about keeping the rebellion quiet, to the extent it requires everyone questioned to vow they will not speak of anything they saw or heard during that time.

     As all of the elements sift down, Lyuda comes to the realization of how much her daughter means to her.  But where is Svetka?  In a surprising alliance with a KGB officer, Viktor (Gusev), Lyuda searches, following any lead that comes her way.

     Dear Comrades is characteristic of Russian movies that pit ideological systems and historic factions against one another, having all of the sturm und drang of political unrest vying against passionate love.  This feature by Andrey Konchalovskiy pulls us through a drama that will ring true in many ears.  Yuliya Vysotskaya and Andrey Gusev as Viktor the KGB agent supremely evince their characters, and the chemistry between them is right on in its initial guardedness that eventually shows their magnetic appreciation of one another.

 

An intriguing drama occurring during a Soviet uprising in 1962 that hurtles characters against one another, and demonstrates the power of an authoritarian state over its citizens.

 

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Saturday, January 23, 2021

ACASA, MY HOME

Gica Enache     Vali Enache     Rica Enache


     Gica Enache has been living on a small island in a nature preserve outside the city of Bucharest for 18 years.  During that time, he has acquired a wife and nine children, and they continue to live in a homemade shack.  The oldest boy Vali goes out and catches fish, some of which they eat, and some of which he sells to townspeople across a freeway and a river.  The family does other things to get money—selling throwaway bottles, plastic, etc, and they are good at rummaging through garbage to meet their other needs.  They have a stable social system that appears to work for them.    No one seems to be unhappy.

     City officials have visited the Enaches a number of times, trying to get them to send the children to school, but the family takes to hiding the children when they see officials coming, and are able to get by with it until the city decides to declare formally their intention to convert the preserve into a city park.  Although Gica and his wife still try to resist, they are moved to city housing and the children are enrolled in school.  The children accommodate to the circumstances and seem to thrive. But Gica continues to dream about returning to their original place and keeping his children with him, even when his wife Niculina is opposed to it.  

     The film by Radu Clorniciuc (producer, director, co-cinematographer) charts this journey of the Enache family from nature into the city, and shows the difficulties they and city officials encounter in the process of “civilizing” them for a good cause.  The story is well told in that we the viewers are torn between rooting for a very appealing, although old-fashioned family, and city officials who have a good argument for creating an ecological space for residents to visit and enjoy…and believe that children should go to school.     We get to see the oldest son’s perspective on being deprived of an education after he has tasted civilization, and it with other family members’ perspectives make a strong coda to the film.

 

An unusual story about how Romanian gypsies living in nature might be introduced to the civilized world.

 

Grade: B                           By Donna R. Copeland




Thursday, January 21, 2021

THE WHITE TIGER

 Adarsh Gourav     Priyanka Chopra     RaJkummar Rao


     Rahmin Bahrani’s films are recognized for their relevance and social commentary in films such as 99 Homes, Man Push CartChop Shop, and Goodbye Solo.  Here, he takes on the caste system in India, brilliantly illustrating its unfairness and how antiquated it is, along with the corruption found in the highest as well as the lowest rungs of society.  Along the way, however, he recognizes the values of humankind that have made whatever is worthwhile in the world exist.

     Balram (Gouray) chafes at the arrangements in his small Indian town where a significant percentage of the earnings of common folk go toward influential relatives and bosses.  He makes a big point of how the people don’t seem to mind this (like roosters in a coop), and revere those holding authority over him.  At a young age, he decides to escape the system however he can. And eventually he must literally run from the community where his grandmother as reigning potentate is ordering him to prepare himself for an arranged marriage. 

     Cars and driving them have caught Balram’s eye, and being a budding entrepreneur he wheedles himself past the gate of a wealthy man’s home.  With his talent in salesmanship and charm, he manages to be hired as the second driver for the family.  Judiciously, he recognizes that the owner’s son Ashok (Rao)—who has been educated in the U.S.—is his best hope.  Indeed, he is taken on as “second driver” (the main driver, having been employed by the family since Ashok was a child), serving primarily Ashok.

     Notably, Ashok’s wife, Pinky Madam (adeptly played by Chopra) is a cheeky American by whom Ashok is a bit intimidated.  He clearly is coming from the viewpoint that everything from America is better than anything in India.  The two seem to be in the first throes of love and interested more in having a good time in life than in anything substantive. 

The contrast between the two of them and Balram (reverant toward religion and societal values) is striking, the consequences of which will play out through the course of the movie.  

     As a testament to Bahrani’s and novelist Aravind Adiga’s perspicacity in weaving the story about sociopolitical systems, we get an informed commentary on the relationship between slaves and their masters—the na├»ve reverence of the uninformed worker and the outright indifference of those in power. Framed in Balram’s personal experience, the drama will hold the viewer’s rapt attention, both with an interest in learning what will happen to him, and the overview of a society that rewards entrepreneurship over traditional values.  

     If nothing else—even ignoring the social-political commentary—The White Tiger will be an exciting, interesting experience.

 

How India’s persistent caste system manifests itself.

 

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

IDENTIFYING FEATURES

Mercedes Hernandez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Varela


     A beautifully artistic rendition of brutality along the trail of Mexicans traveling to make it across the border into the U.S.  Artistry of the film involves using reality-based truths and magical-realism to comment on a culture adrift, trying to comprehend and understand immigration.  The all-female group of filmmakers (director and co-writer with Astrid Rondero, Fernanda Valadez, cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, and musician Clarice Jensen) managed to win awards at the Sundance Film Festival and others for their superior work in telling a story, filming it with scenes looking at first like modern paintings, then merging into the story’s realism.  

Suspense is key in the telling.  The characters are not identified right away, events are presented laden with mystery, and although the dialog is mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, some of it is spoken in an Indian language.  The latter account is shown in pictures later for the viewer to interpret.

     Certainly the topic of immigration is familiar to all of us at this point in time and we hear all kinds of stories about what might happen to migrants, but the way the story is told here encompasses the real emotional turmoil, along with general cultural statements.  It’s largely different from other stories about immigration, particularly in its focus on a smart and loving provincial mother and her unexpected connection with a young deportee from the United States.

     In a nutshell, two mothers are trying to find out what has happened to their teenage sons who left Guanajuato two months earlier to try to go to Arizona to one’s uncle who had a job for them.       When the mothers don’t hear from them, one (Mercedes Hernandez in a nuanced performance) proceeds to re-trace the sons’ steps, which include a bus ride to the border.  Gratifyingly, along the way, she encounters numerous helpful, sympathetic people from all walks of life (all Mexicans) to guide her.

   The two main characters are played by relatively inexperienced actors (Hernandez and Illescas) skilled in winning our sympathies and so appealing we really care about them by the end.  Their difficult, brief journey is marked by their instant identification with one another and polite helpfulness.  When the film edges into magical-realism toward the end, it falters a bit; but doesn’t make us forget the quality of the work as a whole.

     First-time director of a feature, Fernanda Valadez, shows great promise and aesthetic flair in Identifying Features, which makes me and others anticipate viewing her work in the future.


The artistry of the film involves using reality-based truths and magical-realism to comment on a culture adrift, trying to comprehend and understand immigration.

 

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland



 

BROTHERS BY BLOOD

Matthias Schoenaerts     Joel Kinnaman     Maika Monroe
 

     Peter (Schoenaerts) and Michael (Kinnaman) are certainly brothers by blood (and it could be brothers inblood), because not much else connects them.  They are very different people with different values.  We see them growing up in Philadelphia in families involved in gangs and crime.  Peter is the logical one, trying desperately—all his life—to escape the violence surrounding him.  Michael insists on continuing the wars that have gone on for generations. Peter gets him out of many risky situations, but he seems to be determined to act out the family’s penchant for the macho code.  The “brothers” are actually cousins.

Writer-director Jeremie Guez is considered a prize-winning writer of French noir stories of crime and intrigue.  The dialog he writes is terse and his plots are dark with a heavy emphasis on masculine stereotypes.  Brothers by Blood (originally titled The Sound of Philadelphia) is based on Pete Dexter’s novel Brotherly Love (1991).

     The film is not an easy watch; it begins with a man relating a story about his prostate exam, followed by scenes of a crime showing wrecked cars, dead bodies, and police, all while credits roll.  In addition to these opening scenes that tell us little, overall. a major flaw in terms of storytelling is the darkness of the screen shots making it very hard to see what is transpiring, the absence of connections that will use the scenes you see to tell a logical story, and the introduction of characters who are not identified.  Much of this you have to figure out yourself perhaps many scenes later. An example is the sudden appearance of a small boy taking in the action around him, but it’s only later that you realize he is part of the main character’s reminiscences about his earlier life. 

     Matthias Schoenaerts is one of my favorite actors and the main reason I wanted to see this film.  He and Joel Kinnaman are indeed very good in portraying their characters as written.  But Peter is often portrayed as a Christ-like figure who is long-suffering and ever forgiving, making if difficult for me to appreciate his role, given this kind of movie.  But, at least, one of the ending scenes made me feel better about him.

     This is a movie that will appeal primarily to those fond of macho crime films without much character development or attempts to clarify the make-up of the main characters.   Because I found little of it to be constructive or worthwhile, I cannot recommend it to most.

 

A film noir made primarily for those seeking the thrill of blood and witnessing the crime system in a major city.

 

Grade:  D                                  By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, January 14, 2021

MLK/FBI


     This is a history of Martin Luther King’s courageous fight for civil rights in this country from 1955 to 1968.  From the beginning of his activism, he was a suspect for treason in J. Edgar Hoover’s mind.  The head of the FBI grew up in the south, and maintained an attitude toward Blacks signifying that they are by nature susceptible to “dangerous ideologies” like communism, that they do not have basic American values, and that Black men in particular must be monitored for sexual deviance.  After a protest march in Washington, D.C. and MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Hoover referred to King as “the most dangerous man in America”, a remarkable statement, given that MLK was always an advocate for nonviolent protest.  Perhaps we should take from this the power of a position of nonviolence.

     The documentary directed by George Pollard is based on a number of biographies about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his leadership in advocating for freedom, equality, and justice for his people and other minorities such as Latinos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Appalachian whites.  And it’s about the FBI’s continual surveillance of him using wire-taps, bugs, and FBI agents listening in, in an adjoining room, first in efforts to associate him with Stanley D. Levison (activist, CPA, attorney) and the Communist party, then with marital infidelity as a way of publicly embarrassing him and weakening his leadership, in the hope that his followers would abandon him.

     Pollard and his writers Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli present a coherent, even-handed approach in telling his story and what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr.  David J. Garrow’s biography (The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “Solo” to Memphis) is used as a primary source, along with newly declassified documents and interviews of some of his associates and biographers such as personal counselor Clarence Jones, activist and close confident Andrew Young, journalist Marc Perrusquia, historian Beverly Gage, and Professor Donna Murch.  

     The documentary characterizes King’s relationship with the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, the continued FBI surveillance on King’s life and its use of informers.  Although King was skeptical when he was first told about the government’s surveillance, he began to realize it was possible, and when he read in a publication about the U.S. using napalm in Vietnam, he was convinced that he could no longer support the U.S. in its war effort.  The effect of these statements on the Johnson administration with all its political troubles had far-reaching effects.

     The documentary does a good job of tracing the roots of racism back to slavery and its persistence through time, and when it comes to light that the FBI has gone so far as sending disparaging letters to King, suggesting he kill himself, James Comey, Former FBI director, is quoted as observing that it was the darkest part of the FBI’s history.” 

    MLK/FBI serves as a useful historical account of the years in the 1950’s when the U.S. was just becoming aware of racial issues and the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., and the 1960’s when protests came to a head around King’s opposition to the Vietnam War.  King is a hero who will be recognized for ages to come.

 

A timely documentary that should be required of all young people in school, and informative as well to those beyond.

 

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland




 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

PIECES OF A WOMAN

Vanessa Kirby     Shia LaBeouf     Ellen Burstyn

Benny Safdie     Sarah Snook     Molly Parker

 

     This is a powerful film.  It shows so much sensitivity—toward women and men—I became convinced the writer (a woman) and the director (a man) must have worked hand-in-glove with one another, as well as with the cinematographer.  And sure enough, director Kornel Mundruczo, writer Kata Weber are partners in real life. But with the inclusion of cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, it constitutes the impressive team that brought an artistic, psychologically informed work into being, not excluding the fine actors.  It touches on a number of controversial topics so relevant in our times.

     Pieces of a Woman traces the path from exultation about a first pregnancy in which everything doesn’t go well through the immediate (six months), bombarding effects upon a family.  It details different ways of coping among a number of people and how those differences can have long-term effects.  The film brilliantly chronicles what I have for some time come to realize—that losing a child is probably the worst thing that can happen to someone.  Such a profound experience is sure to foster long-term consequences for those involved.

     Martha (Kirby) and Sean (LaBeouf) appear to love one another intensely, and are overjoyed to be expecting their first child.  Sean is a gruff member of a bridge-building team who has a tender side, making it easy for him to give his wife the support she needs in the pregnancy.  They decide to have a midwife (Parker) for the birth.  How will that go?

     The ensuing events tell the story of how this will all turn out, given the interrelationships we only discover later in the film.  

     Most touching are the scenes showing the breakdown of the relationship between Martha and Sean.  Martha’s adversarial relationship with her mother (Burstyn) is already foretold. Others between Sean and his brother-in-law Chris (Safdie) show the compromised position Chris is in. The relationships woven in between Sean and his mother-in-law, and an attorney (Snook) are plausible additions that enhance the suspense of the story.

     Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf are well cast as the central couple, and make us believe they’re truly undergoing the pain.  Ellen Burstyn as the interloper-mother-in-law plays her role to the hilt—behind-the scenes manipulator with few scruples.  And, finally, Molly Parker as the accused midwife shows all of what she is supposed to in her role.

     This movie was more difficult to stay with than I expected—primarily because of the long birth sequence (30 minutes).  Maybe the filmmakers needed to show this to people who haven’t had a baby, but for one who has been there (albeit under much less stressful circumstances), I found it hard to watch.  This led to my next question of who is this movie for?  Those who have been under similar circumstances? Perhaps, but I figure few people have gone through anything similar.  There is a thought that perhaps the writer and director have had just such an experience, and the film is a way to express what they went through.  

     At any rate, Pieces of a Woman is worth seeing, particularly for those awaiting a birth of a child and are curious—and if they have secured a midwife.  But otherwise, I’m not sure who will be interested in the film.  Part of my problem is with the title, Pieces of a Woman, which implies that there are only pieces of us.  We are all a whole, so I have no idea what the filmmakers intended.

As a chronicle of childbirth attended by a midwife, this film is excellent. I’m just not sure how many in the general public will find it relevant.

 

Chronicle of the effects of the loss of a newborn child on a family.

 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland