howard.schumann

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Verdens verste menneske
(2021)

A flower that blooms
To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly" - Henri Bergson

Some people experience maturity at an early age when they are thrust by circumstances into a position of responsibility before they are ready. Some do not experience it until their twenties, thirties, or even forties. Others never do. In a society where maturity is defined by what you do for a living, who you are with, and whether or not you are emotionally and/or financially independent, lacking these attributes can lead to serious doubts of self worth. Brilliantly performed by Renate Reinsve ("Welcome to Norway"), winner of the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, Joachim Trier's ("Oslo, August 31st") masterful The Worst Person in the World tells the story of four years in the life of Julie, a young woman feeling adrift without concrete goals or relationships who, like Frances Ha in Noah Baumbach's comedy of the same name, must confront the idea that she is floundering and lacking direction in life.

Written by Eskil Vogt ("The Innocents") and nominated for Academy awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Film, the film is divided into 12 chapters with a prologue and epilogue thrown in. The Worst Person in the World does not contain any very, very bad people. The title, according to the director, derives from the idea that many young people in Norway conclude that if they fail at one thing or another, they are then "the worst person in the world." Trier says, "It's a Norwegian term." It's also self-deprecating. "Oh. I failed. I'm the worst person in the world." It's that feeling of misery and personal failure - in love, for example." "When was life supposed to start?" asks the narrator on Julie's behalf.

Drifting between a desire to become a medical doctor, a psychologist, a photographer, and a writer, on turning 30, Julie is certain about one thing. She does not want children until she is ready, especially to her way of thinking, not when she has so much unfilled potential. She is holding out for an undefined, perhaps illusory time when suddenly everything will come together. The issue crystallizes when she meets and falls in love with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, "Bergman Island"), a graphic novelist whose cartoon creature "Bobcat" is modeled after a big Nordic cat. He is a man ten years her senior who feels that time for him is fleeting and he wants to raise a family but feels blocked by Julie's refusal.

After crashing a party, Julie meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum, "Amundsen"), a young, modern thinking, and relatively unambitious counter man at a coffee shop. He is a man of simple pleasures, very much unlike Aksel who does not make too many demands on her. Both married, in a chapter, ironically labeled "Cheating," they decide not to cheat on each other's partners, but it takes a more subtle, tongue-in-cheek turn. Julie asks him, "I don't want to be unfaithful; we both have partners, but are we allowed to do something, on the edge, that's considered not unfaithful?" We can figure out the answer.

After being together for a few years, Julie tells Aksel in a powerful sequence that she wants to separate, expressing her desire to move beyond needing acceptance to find a degree of self-realization. In one of the best scenes, the world freezes in space and time as Julie runs through the city looking to find Eivind after she leaves Aksel pouring her a cup of coffee. Filled with animated sequences, a psychedelic mushroom trip, and a peeing contest, the film does not fit our pictures about what a romantic comedy should look like. Trier said, "For a long time I have wanted to make a film about love. One that goes a bit deeper than normal onscreen love stories, where everything is so simple, the stories so clear-cut, the feelings so admirably unambiguous."

"The film," he continues, "doesn't dwell on hackneyed debates over the perils of living online, but it does ache for simple, tangible pleasures: The heat of touch and spontaneous human connection, and the luxury of stillness." Backed by a wide-ranging eclectic soundtrack that runs the gamut from Cobra Man, the Ahmad Jamal Trio, and Caribou to Billie Holiday, Harry Nilsson, and Art Garfunkel, The Worst Person in the World may be the worst film title in the world, but it is a work of warmth and freshness that thwarts our expectations at every turn, recreating the best of the genre, yet is also a film that has space for the pain of loss and regret. In its engaging way, the film tells us that who we really are is not about what we do or what we have but about our spiritual nature, the richness of character, and the ability to give and receive love.

As Art Garfunkel sings Jobim's "Waters of March" during the final credits, Julie discovers that who you are is: "A flower that blooms, A fox in the brush, A knot in the wood, The song of a thrush, The mystery of life, The steps in the hall, The sound of the wind, And the waterfall, It's the moon floating free, It's the curve of the slope, It's an ant, it's a be, It's a reason for hope, and the riverbank sings, Of the waters of march, It's the promise of spring, It's the joy in your heart."

The Rescue
(2021)

Deeply Moving Experience
Successfully following up on an Oscar-winning documentary is not an easy task, but directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin ("Free Solo") more than accomplish that with The Rescue, the tension-filled story of the rescue of 12 young soccer players, ages 10-16, and their coach trapped in the Tham Luang Nag Non cave in Northern Thailand in 2018. Though it was a retreat the boys have often used in the past, after heavy premature monsoon rains, they found themselves surrounded by water two miles from the cave entrance, facing long odds for survival. To capture the drama, the filmmakers relied on 87 hours of footage filmed by a Thai admiral's wife, interviews with the rescue team, computer graphics, and the use of reenactments when it became too dangerous to film inside the cave.

Trained cave divers were recruited as well as Thai Navy Seals, U. S. Special Forces, Australian medical experts, a Thai nurse named "Amp" Bangngoen who helped as a translator, and thousands of volunteers to undertake the rescue in the cave's claustrophobic, winding underground passageways. The challenge became even more real when divers discovered four pump workers trapped not far from the cave entrance and had to undertake a dangerous rescue that became a trial run for the later attempt to free the boys. With the cave rapidly filling with water, the conditions became so daunting that one volunteer - a former Thai Navy Seal, died from a lack of oxygen.

When members of the Seals concluded that they did not have the diving skill required for the rescue attempt, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, two highly experienced British divers were called to Thailand. The inspiration of people of many backgrounds and training coming together from all over the world - including the U. S. and China - to engage in a joint undertaking captured the world's attention. Paraphrasing the late poet George Eliot, "What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life, to strengthen each other, to be at one with each other in silent, unspeakable memories?"

The documentary not only depicts the bravery and determination of the divers, but offers a look into their personalities and goals, each with a compelling story. In one interview, one of the divers says that his dangerous hobby is "two parts ego, one part curiosity and one part a need to prove yourself." The divers talk about how they had been "outsiders" all of their lives, always regarded as misfits and "nerds." Fittingly, it was Stanton and Volanthen who first discovered the lost boys and their coach on a ledge two miles into the cave, where they had taken refuge after heavy rain submerged the route they had followed.

Finding the boys was only the beginning of the ordeal, however. How to get them out seemed an impossible task given the monsoon threat and the rapidly filling cave. Though thousands of gallons of water were drained from the cave, it was only after a daring proposal to bring the boys out (rejected as "insane" by Australian Doctor Richard Harris) was finally approved that a way forward could be seen. The result is a deeply moving experience that should be seen on the big screen to experience its full impact. Even a cliché-ridden closing song, dreamed up by well-meaning Oscar-baiters, cannot ruin the experience that is The Rescue.

C'mon C'mon
(2021)

Charming and also Abrasive
If your children suggest that you operate within "your zone of resiliency," you might want to look into what soap opera they've been watching, or whether they have gotten their hands on a convoluted movie script, the sort readily available in Mike Mills C'mon C'mon, a film inspired by Mills' relationship with his own son that bounces between the tender and the insufferable. The film's cutesy title is derived from the mouth of precocious nine-year-old Jesse (Woody Norman) who tells his uncle Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist, "You just have to come on, come on, come on, come on, come on," presumably a movie reiteration of the saying "you just have to keep on keeping on" or some other poignant advice that suggests life's obstacles can be overcome with just a little grit.

The scruffy looking, bearded Johnny travels to Los Angeles to take care of Jesse when the boy's mother Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) is called away to care for her ex-husband Paul (Scott McNairy), being treated for mental health issues. Jesse is chosen to accompany Johnny on his travels around the country interviewing high school students about their view of the future and the film focuses on the opportunity for Johnny to appreciate and reach out to others, a trait in which he appears to be out of practice. As a single man unfamiliar with the minefield of parenthood, it is a relationship that will require more than a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Shot in black and white to give it that documentary feel, the photography often creates a drab and spiritless atmosphere that seems at odds with the volatile events taking place in the film. Talking into a microphone in his hotel room in the opening scene in Detroit, Johnny rehearses the questions he will ask the students - how they feel about the cities where they live, their relationship with their families, and what makes them happy. He and Jesse will soon find out, however, that the young people they interview live in different worlds than them. They come from different backgrounds and offer a wide variety of messages, but their hopes for the future are limited by their circumstances and their daily struggle for life's necessities.

While the student's responses are forthright and sincere, unfortunately, Mills uses them as props for the main characters and the interviews do not probe as much as they might have. As Johnny approaches his brand new parenting responsibilities with good intentions (but also a bit of naïveté), past incidents with sister Viv come to the surface in their many phone calls and text messages. Viv offers some good advice to her brother about how to deal with the quirky Jesse when he becomes demanding. In one "game," Johnny is put in a position where he has to support Jesse's nightly game of pretending to be an orphan. This ritual demands that the adult he is with play the role of a foster parent answering questions about his dead relatives, a game that exceeds our normal understanding of odd behavior.

Jesse can be quite charming at times and abrasive and annoying at other times but his acting out with shows of temper and getting lost twice seems like overkill to stir our dormant emotions. The boy, who seems to be much older than his age, is very direct in his questions to Johnny, asking him "Why aren't you married?" and often acts as if he is mentoring his uncle rather than the other way around. Though the film feels contrived, Phoenix delivers his usual solid performance and Norman is a young actor with a bright future.

Sister Viv is a welcome long distance companion who helps Johnny navigate his relationship with Jesse and, in Gaby Hoffman's outstanding performance, is an easy character to identify with and care about. While the main characters show growth in the film, their interactions seem less like a bonding exercise than a therapeutic counseling session, an effect that robs C'mon C'mon of much of its authenticity.

Khorshid
(2020)

Will touch your heart
Quoting the statistic that 152 million children in the world are forced to work to support their families, Iranian director Majid Majidi's Sun Children focuses on the street kids of Tehran - children of absent, addicted, or unemployed refugee parents, forced to sell trinkets on trains or buses, work in jobs that require manual labor or compelled to steal, transport drugs, and protect criminals from the police. No stranger to films about young people, Sun Children ("Khorshid") continues in the tradition of Majidi's films such as "Children of Heaven," and "Color of Paradise," the first two Iranian films nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Unlike today's monster heavy children's film fare, his works have a purity and innocence that allows young people to see images on the screen that have relevance to their life.

Winner of the award for best film, screenplay, and production design at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran, Sun Children is performed by non-professional actors whose real lives on Tehran's streets mirror those of the characters. While the quality of the acting does not always rise above the level of adequate, the performances do not distract from the authenticity of the screenplay or from our understanding of the festering social problems. Scored by Ramin Kousha's, the film is seen through the eyes of children led by Ali (Roohollah Zamani), a determined boy of about 12 who sleeps in the back of a tire factory, Mamad (Mahdi Mousavi), Reza (Mani Ghafouri), and Abolfazl (Abolfazl Shirzad) an Afghan refugee who, like other Afghans in Iran, is only authorized to be hired for specific jobs within his area of residence, mostly manual labor.

The film opens when Ali leads his young friends in an escape from an underground parking lot after being caught stealing hubcaps and tires from parked cars. After another chase that features jumping over rooftops, Ali is caught and brought to Heshem (Ali Nasirian, "A Hairy Tale"), the local crime boss cast in the image of Fagin, Dickens' stereotyped bogeyman in "Oliver Twist." Though expecting punishment, he is asked instead to hunt for buried treasure in the basement of the Sun School, a poor, charitable educational institution run by volunteers to help vulnerable street kids reach high school or join a local sports team.

Because of the state of the school's finances, the boys have to plead for their enrollment but find a friend in the sympathetic Vice-Principal, Mr. Rafie (Javad Ezati, "Drown"), a low-keyed fighter for underdogs who asks the administrator to make an exception on the boys' behalf. Impressed by Ali's determination for an education, Rafie is unaware of the boys' scheme to find treasure at the behest of the crime kingpin. He shows his compassion when he takes Ali and Abolfazi to bail out Abolfazi's sister Zahra (Shamila Shurzad) after her arrest for selling trinkets in the subway. On leaving, an irate Rafie breaks the jailer's nose, an action that will later lead to his arrest. Meanwhile, the school has problems of its own.

The Principal, Mr. Amani (Ali Ghabeshi), is concerned about paying the rent and rails against the increase in the prices of the food suppliers. Motivated by his desire to bring home his mother (Tannaz Tabatagaei, "Russian") from confinement in a psychiatric institution, Ali is convinced by Heshem that there is treasure hidden in water tunnels under the cemetery next door to the school and is determined to find it. Sneaking down to the basement between classes or conjuring up a stomach ache in the middle of a class, Ali brings a pick axe to tunnel through the rocks, undaunted and refusing to give up even when his friends desert him.

Claustrophobic images of Ali's distress are juxtaposed with happy children playing outside in the courtyard, calling attention to the plight of those in life who are trapped and those who can run free. As Ali moves closer to his goal, the film reaches an emotional peak with the image of the tearful Ali, struggling in the dark, damp, and dangerous conditions, desperately attempting to reach the ever elusive treasure. Sun Children has its heart in the right place and the determination of the young protagonists will touch your own heart, yet unfortunately, the film skims the surface without probing into the characters' feelings and thoughts with any depth. Unlike "Capernaum," a powerful film about street children in Lebanon, Majidi does not deal with the underlying issues in a way that delivers a lasting impact.

What is always clear, however, is this director's conviction that too many children in the world suffer from neglect and exploitation, and, in a country where censorship is an ever-present danger, has the courage to use childhood as a means of conveying the flaws that exist in his society, a familiar theme in world cinema but one that bears repeating.

Words on Bathroom Walls
(2020)

Exhibits restraint and uses humor to lighten the mood
In German director Thor Freudenthal's deeply-moving Words on Bathroom Walls, high-school student Adam Petrazelli played by Charlie Plummer, lives in a world without silence. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, the voices in his head never stop, interfering with his ability to function and endangering his need to graduate from high school and fulfill his dream of going to culinary school. Written by Nick Naveda from a young adult novel of the same name by Julia Walton, the film is framed by Adam's own narration. Speaking to an unseen and unheard psychiatrist, Adam takes us into his confidence as he talks about his life and its daily challenges. Portrayed as real life characters, the mostly benign voices are Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), a young free-thinking girl, Joaquin , a romantically-obsessed teenager, and an unnamed brutish-looking bodyguard who carries a bat and smokes a cigar.

Freudenthal uses special effects when required such as showing the contents of a room swirling around as if caught in a tornado and Adam's vision of an office being consumed by fire. Though a few scenes indulge in familiar clichés of the genre, for the most part the film exhibits restraint, showing compassion for Adam's struggles and using humor to lighten the mood. Adam loves to cook and dreams about owning his own restaurant. At first, he dismisses his love for cooking, telling us it's a distraction but ultimately acknowledges that when he is cooking, "Everything disappears and I get to be exactly who I want to be."

Unfortunately, a meltdown at a high school chemistry lab that causes injury to another student leads to his expulsion and the decision to enroll him in a strict Catholic school. His acceptance, however, comes with the condition that he maintains an A- average and continues to take his medications which he claims makes him feel worse. When Adam is being interviewed by the nun who heads up his new school, we hear him passively give the answers he thinks she wants to hear but his doubts about whether he can meet the imposed conditions are written on his face.

Meeting Maya (Taylor Russell), a young student at the new school slated to be the school valedictorian, however, brings a renewed sense of optimism for Adam and his mom and stepdad. Seeking additional support, Adam finds a shoulder to lean on in Father Patrick (Andy Garcia). Though he tells the priest that he does not believe in God, Father Patrick's calming manner and gentle humor allows Adam to feel safe enough to talk about his struggles without fear of reprisal. The relationship between Maya and Adam, both with their own vulnerabilities and secrets to protect, elevates Words on Bathroom Walls to a new level of authenticity, but the truth of their circumstances cannot be hidden forever and is sadly revealed during the school prom.

Both Plummer and Russell deliver magnetic performances, and their chemistry gives their characters depth and believability. The characters of Parker and Goggins, however, are not well drawn and barely come alive as real human beings but it does not detract from the film's impact. As Adam attempts to come to terms with schizophrenia, Freudenthal wants to show that he deserves as much sympathy and caring as anyone else struggling with a debilitating illness. In a key moment, Adam says that teens with cancer are shown more compassion and patience. But for those with schizophrenia, "people can't wait to make you someone else's problem, no one wants to grant our wishes."

Do love, support, and self-acceptance cure schizophrenia? No, and the film never suggests that it does, but only that it can help. Freudenthal says he hopes his film can be a "generator of empathy." The next time, he says that "we encounter someone with the illness, we encounter them as a human first . . . Seeing everyone as equal and seeing people as sort of suffering from an illness other than being the illness." Words on Bathroom Walls is a film for those who know what it feels like to exist in a world at odds with your deepest longings for connection and belonging. It is a film that can make you feel that you have found a kindred spirit.

Beautiful Something Left Behind
(2020)

Provides catharsis for the children and the viewer
For thousands of families in every part of the world, 2020 was a year of grief. During that year, many people lost those closest to them: Mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings, as well as friends and relatives, victims of a raging pandemic. Filmed prior to the pandemic, however, the efforts of a non-profit New Jersey group, "Good Grief" founded in 2004 to offer support for children and surviving parents who have lost someone close are documented in the remarkable film Beautiful Something Left Behind, winner of the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. In spite of the difficult subject matter, the film is filled with elements of joy as well as sadness and the resilience of children.

According to Danish director Katrine Philp ("Home, Sweet Home"), "What we experience in the documentary is this openness. The children in the film are not afraid to talk about their feelings and their grief. They are amazing and brave, and I think we, as adults, can learn a lot from them." How we process grief is different for each person, but for children whose understanding is limited, death of a loved one can be especially heartbreaking. Even more than others, they are anxious, scared, and confused and needing constant reassurance that they are still loved, though no one can fill the void in their lives. What they slowly and painfully comprehend, however, is that they will never see their loved one again.

Adults try to talk to children about their pain, providing comforting assurances, but ultimately, there is little that can be done except to provide listening and extra hugs. Photographed by her husband, cinematographer Adam Morris Philp ("What We Become"), and edited by Signe Rebekka Kaufmann ("False Confessions"), Philp does not philosophize or attempt to provide answers to unanswerable questions. She simply records the stories of children who have lost a parent or sibling. These include Peter, Mikayla and the siblings Nolan & Nora and Nicky & Kimmy, showing their different approaches in handling grief. There is no narration, dramatic music, or explanation about what we are seeing, only the voices of children mostly under ten years old interacting with relatives and volunteers.

Staff and volunteers at "Good Grief" engage children in group sessions where they discover that their feelings are valid, though each child expresses their loss differently. Some are unusually expressive while others find it hard to even talk, though the suffering is etched on all their faces. The program also provides activities for grieving children, some acting out their parent's deaths by recreating their story in a sand tray using miniature figures and pieces, others expressing their anger and pain in a "volcano room," taking care of their teddy bear in a pretend hospital bed, and, as a community, sending balloons and lanterns to the sky to reach their loved ones in what they refer to as heaven.

Filming children can be a challenge as they can go from one emotion to another in a short period of time and tears are always just under the surface. According to Philp, "Grief is not a linear process. It's much more like fragments. And sometimes you're happy and everything is good, and the next moment you're sad. So I wanted to also to work with the structure of the film, and be inspired by the voice of the children." Talking about the death of her father during filming, Philp says, "Feeling my own grief while filming the families . . . made complete sense. I fully understood what the families were going through and the challenges they faced." During the shoots Philp moved from Copenhagen to Morristown, NJ, with her husband, and their two children.

"We wanted to be closer to the families we were filming," she says "and be able to tell their stories in their own pace, when they were ready." The past year was traumatic for many, and Philp hopes that Beautiful Something Left Behind encourages viewers to talk directly about their emotions and reach out to people who are struggling. "I think that we need to be there for each other, care for each other, and show all the compassion that we can," Philp says. "Because when you're in grief, it is so isolating. It can be such an isolating feeling if you're not sharing it with anybody. I really hope that this film will make us all braver when we encounter people who have lost, and not be afraid of talking about our emotions and sharing our experiences." Combining deep sadness, smiles, laughter, and yes, moments of joy, Beautiful Something Left Behind provides catharsis for the children and the viewer, opening our hearts just a little wider.

Druk
(2020)

The answer to all of life's riddles lies at the bottom of a bottle.
Taking risks and taking responsibility can be two sides of the same coin but never seem to mesh in Thomas Vinterberg's ("Far from the Madding Crowd") comedy-drama Another Round, Denmark's submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2021 Oscars. Written by Tobias Lindholm ("The Hunt") and Vinterberg, the premise of the film lies in a dubious theory ascribed to Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud who asserts that the blood-alcohol content of all human beings is always too low, a 0.05% blood-alcohol content deficit. People would be far more engaged and energetic, he argues, if they maintained a level of 0.10%. In other words, the answer to all of life's riddles lies at the bottom of a bottle.

Vinterberg is willing to give the theory a test drive, "We've seen so many movies about how alcohol kills people," he says, "but there's a reason a lot of people drink. It can make you fly." One is tempted to recall the old adage that if God wanted people to fly, he would have given them wings. Willing and eager to test this theory, however, are four middle-aged teachers in a public high school whose zest for life has faded like the afternoon sun: History teacher, Martin (a craggy-faced Mads Mikkelsen, "Arctic"); PE teacher and soccer coach, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen, "The Wave"); music teacher, Peter (Lars Ranthe, "Hunting Season"); and psychology teacher, Nikolaj (Magnus Millang, "Heavy Load"), all with seemingly nothing to give their lives true meaning in spite of having advantages that three-quarters of the world's population would beg for.

The film begins with a fun drinking game and ends with more drinking fun, but there's a world of pain in between. Vinterberg coaxes excellent performances from his four leading men and we root for them. At the beginning of the experiment which includes drinking while at work during the day, results appear to be 95% effective, though they will soon require a booster shot. Martin, whose history lessons have ranged from dull to comatose, achieves liftoff after a few drinks and engages his students in a fun game of choosing which one of three unnamed people make better role models, the heavy drinkers: Churchill and Hemingway, or the vegetarian, non-drinker Adolf Hitler.

For the students in this incongruously small class, Hitler seems to be the obvious choice, one that allows Martin to make the point that the world does not always meet our expectations. Peter inspires his choir to sing from the heart. Tommy instills confidence (and some hitherto unseen soccer skills) in a diminutive youngster known not so endearingly as "Specs," while Nikolaj handles an anxiety-ridden student with tact and understanding, and his dead-on-arrival marriage to Amalie (Helene Reingaard Neumann, "The Command") also becomes revived. Each man responds to the experiment in different ways but the warm friendship and camaraderie of the four men remains constant.

Eventually, they decide that if a little alcohol can work such wonders, why not try a little more? Layers of sadness soon bubble up and the men are forced to reevaluate how much satisfaction they have been experiencing in their relationships and in their jobs. As the amount of drinking increases, however, so does the downward spiral and the loss of a job by one teacher after he was caught staggering and mumbling in school. At home, Martin virtually ignores his two sons while his wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie, "Becoming Astrid") works at night. He asks Anika if she thinks he's a bore, a characterization the viewer has long since concluded in the positive. Her reply that "you are not the same person that I once knew" is hardly surprising and the passive and affectless Martin cannot raise enough emotion to tell her that he is leaving, except for a few sudden outbursts of anger on his way out the door. There are more traumas to follow, but overall Vinterberg makes drinking quite an acceptable way to bond and enjoy yourself without the word alcoholism ever coming up.

While Another Round examines the tug of war between celebrating life and acting irresponsibly, the film's message is ambiguous. Vinterberg says that he and Lindholm "deliberately avoided having a message." The film he asserts is, "a survey and exploration not only of alcohol usage but of the uncontrollable. It is just a catalyst for talking about being inspired in life." I guess drinking can be a wonderful thing unless it destroys your life and that of those around you. "You find a lot of AA people in the cinemas who feel they've been betrayed," Vinterberg says, "They've seen how bad it can go, and it's an interesting open end, I guess." Do tell.

1982
(2019)

A boy's commitment to love and protect.
On June 6, 1982, exactly 38 years after D-Day, roughly 60,000 Israeli troops and more than 800 tanks, heavily supported by aircraft, attack helicopters, artillery, and missile boats invaded Southern Lebanon, a country already involved in a decades-long civil war. Israel's publicly-stated objective was to push PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) forces back 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the north and establish an expanded security zone that would put northern Israel out of range of the continuing onslaught of PLO rockets.

In his first feature film, 1982, winner of the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) award at the Toronto Film Festival, Lebanese director Oualid Mouaness looks at the Israeli-Lebanese War through the eyes of pre-adolescent children in Cedar High School, a private elementary school near Beirut. Based on his own experience as a ten-year old student on the last day of school in Lebanon in 1982, Mouaness' film explores the children's attempt to make sense of an incomprehensible situation, one that they can sense is fraught with danger for themselves and their families.

The camera, under the direction of cinematographer Brian Rigby Hubbard ("Ambition"), opens the film with shots of the beautiful and peaceful surrounding countryside but the landscape is soon punctured by the sound of telephone lines being blown up, tanks driving on the nearby streets, warships dotting the sea, and dueling fighter jets, like an out-of-sync video game, closing any space between the silences. On the last school day of the year, 11-year-old Wissam's (Mohamad Dalli) focus is not on what is going on outside the school, however, but on summoning enough courage to tell a girl in his class, Joana (Gia Madi), that he loves her.

Part of his reluctance is that his parents have told him that he should wait until he is older before expressing his love to someone. Watching Joana after final exams, however, he follows her trying to get up enough courage to tell her what he rehearses in front of the bathroom mirror "Joana, I love you. Joana, I love you." Though his best friend Majid (Ghassan Maalouf) tells him that we are not in America and this is not a movie, he insists on leaving her a note in her locker with a picture he drew of a superhero named Tigron who resembles a Japanese Super Robot from the anime television series "UFO Robot Grendizer."

As the children look out the window to find the source of the increasing noise, Mouaness juxtaposes an adult relationship that is more complex but also filled with fear and avoidance. As plans are underway for the student's graduation, Yasmine (Nadine Labaki, "Capernaum"), homeroom teacher and exam administrator, is in a relationship with fellow teacher Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman, "Good Morning"). Straining to avoid discussing their political differences over the war in order to create a safe environment for the children, Yasmine struggles to have her students focus on their exams, telling them "it is nothing. It is far away," and that what happens outside does not concern them.

As the children wait for their parents to pick them up and the tension increases, Wissam resorts to fantasies about how the robot Tigron can save them from harm. "What's going on?" Joana asks, looking away. "I don't know," Wissam replies. While his full understanding of events taking place is spotty, he reaches out to protect Joana in a way that signals the beginning of his maturity. Making sure that she gets on the bus seated next to him, he seems to recognize perhaps for the first time that the truth of one's relationship to another human being is not only the physical attraction but the commitment to love and protect.

In this lovely film which was eight years in the making, Mouannes explores, "the idea that children have a world that's complete for them. They sort of understand what's going on in the adult world but they have peace with how complete their own world is in and of itself." He shows, in the phrase of Israeli author Aharon Applefeld ("To the Edge of Sorrow") that in "the darkest places of human behavior generosity and love can survive; that humanity and love can overcome cruelty and brutality." "I see the world," he says, "in a very positive light and try to hold the darkness." That is his gift to us in 1982.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
(2020)

Allows us to pay tribute to an American icon
The second of his 12 plays dramatizing the Black experience in America during the twentieth century, August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a haunting and powerful experience that focuses on Gertrude "Ma Rainey" (Viola Davis, "Widows"), known as "The Mother of the Blues," one of the first popular Black blues singers to gain acceptance from a white audience. Brought to the screen by George C. Wolfe ("You're Not You") and produced by Denzel Washington, the title refers to Ma's song, the "Black Bottom," a popular dance created by African-American musicians in the 1920s.

Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from the 1982 play, the entire film takes place in a Chicago recording studio on a hot summer day in 1927. For a rehearsal space, the producers found an old Lithuanian community center in the city's South Side section that had fallen into disuse with "an air-conditioning system that, when you turned it on, it sounded like the end of the world." The film chronicles the rehearsal of Rainey and her four-piece jazz band, a mix of seasoned veterans such as Cutler (Colman Domingo, "If Beale Street Could Talk") on trombone, Toledo (Glynn Turman, "John Dies at the End") on piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts, "Cicada") on bass, as well as the young horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman, "Black Panther") who dreams of having his own band.

As Ma Rainey's Black Bottom begins, Ma's agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos, "Birdman") and three members of the band await the singer's arrival in front of the dilapidated-looking studio on a hot summer day. Wolfe said that the film was moved from winter to summer because, as he explains, "I wanted the audience to see the heat. I wanted them to see, to understand the impact, and also to understand how for people from the South coming to Chicago, what an alien place it was." Before her arrival, studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne, "Gangster Squad") warns Irvin that he will not put up with any of Ma's "shenanigans," calling the singer a prima donna who expects the world to do her bidding.

We only meet Rainey after another vehicle runs into her shiny new car and she turns to Irvin to rescue her from a policeman who threatens to arrest her for assaulting a cab driver. Davis' look is slightly bizarre, resembling a performer straight out of vaudeville with her horse hair wig, gold dress, gold teeth and a gold-chained necklace, though the costume is true to Rainey's character. Ma shows up with her lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige, "White Boy Rick") and Wolfe makes no attempts to hide Rainey's preference for women. Though the band knows Dussie is off-limits, her flirtatious nature is too much for Levee to resist.

Ma, demanding from the time she arrives, commands Irvin to bring her three bottles of cold Coca-Cola, showing no deference to her manager who is compelled to bear much of her abusive language, knowing that she is his primary vehicle for selling records. "All they care about is my voice," Ma says about the white man's reaction to the blues, "They hear it come out, but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that that's life's way of talking." Ma insists that her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown, "42") introduce her song even though she knows he stutters, insisting that the boy continue until he gets it right (even after more than seven takes).

She also refuses to adapt to Levee's more modernized version of her Black Bottom song and, of course, she gets her way. All is forgiven, however, when the camera focuses on her shaking hips and her mesmerizing voice that can send a room into ecstasy. Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman in his last role, provides a heartbreaking performance as an ambitious but frustrated cornet player, outwardly charming but inwardly seething with rage. Ambitious to have his own band performing his own songs, Levee calls the band's present musical agenda passé, "nothing but old jug-band music."

Levee also delivers two of the most haunting and powerful speeches about the trauma of his life as a child. One when his chest was cut by a gang of white men attempting to rape his mother, and another when he belittles Cutler for his faith, asking where God was when he was undergoing his traumatic childhood. Referring to his speech, Wolfe says that, "It was "totally raw, fully committed, fully there. It was, it was a miraculous speech, it was a miraculous day. Afterwards," he continued, "Chadwick just started to sob, and Colman hugged him, and then Chadwick's girlfriend basically picked him up."

The knowledge that Boseman was dying at the time lends an extraordinary degree of poignancy to the scene. Also heartbreaking is when Levee, enraged at having been exploited and lied to by Sturdyvant, destroys his career in an inexplicable act of rage. Though Ma Rainey's importance is somewhat overshadowed by Levee's dramatic arc, she remains an indelible force and the film allows us to pay tribute to an American icon that many of us had forgotten or never heard of.

To play Ma, Davis says that she channeled "the part of my culture, and even a part of me and my family members, that doesn't feel worthy and thinks it has no value. I channeled the depth of the soul of every African-American who never could follow their dreams, who were always told that they were less than." Today, when the assertion that "Black Lives Matter" is a rallying cry, Ma Rainey reminds us that the struggle for the dignity and worth of Black people has been going on for a very long time.

On the Rocks
(2020)

Each person has the opportunity to look deeper
Film critic Roger Ebert once said, "All good art is about something deeper than it admits." On the surface, Sofia Coppola's ("The Beguiled") On the Rocks is a light comedy about a playboy father and anxiety-ridden daughter snooping on a husband suspected of cheating. The title could refer to Scotch (or Bourbon) on the rocks, a ship foundering off a seacoast, or the downward trajectory of a relationship. In this case, it may be all three. With Bill Murray ("Rock the Kasbah") as the sleuthing dad, Rashida Jones ("Tag") as the suspecting wife, and Marlon Wayans ("The Heat") as the would-be philanderer, on first glance, the film seems to be headed towards sitcom territory, another Woody Allen-Lite tale of over-indulged and well-connected New Yorkers (with a person of color thrown in to avoid stereotyping).

A witty and affecting script by Coppola and busloads of chemistry between the two main protagonists, however, reveals depths that transcend such superficial judgments. Describing the film, Coppola says, "It's the clash between the two generations . . . how they look at relationships, and also how your relationship with your parents affects your relationships in your life." Speaking of her famous father, Francis Ford, Coppola says, "It's not my dad's personality. It's not my dad. But of course, you draw on things from life to try to make it feel real and connected." Laura (Jones) has, in her own mind anyway, some reason to believe that her husband Dean (Wayans) is looking elsewhere to fulfill his physical and emotional needs.

A writer who has been unable to put anything meaningful on paper while she juggles her two young children's day in school, preschool, and ballet classes, Laura feels lonely and estranged from her oft-traveling husband. Her suspicions are enhanced by Dean's attention to his "working" relationship with co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick, "Love and Monsters") and bells go off when she finds a bottle of expensive body lotion in his suitcase. Laura is so preoccupied that she has tuned out others looking for support, particularly her friend Vanessa (Jenny Slate, "The Sunlit Night"), a single mom who is seeking advice about finding a boy friend in the New York scene. As they line up every day to drop off and pick up their children from Kindergarten, her attempts to engage Laura in conversation are met only with blank stares.

It seems a bit out of character when Laura calls upon her wealthy art-dealer dad Felix (Murray) to give her advice as to how to handle the Dean situation. This especially raises eyebrows since the very same father is an obsessive womanizer who left her and her mother for another woman when she was a child. Knowing Murray as we do, however, we fall prey to his sly wit and the film rises and falls on the basis of his considerable strengths. Coppola says, "He has so much heart and he's so funny and in a way that is so unique to him," yet it is Rashida Jones who, insecure and vulnerable, provides the human touch, mirroring the truth of their relationship and her engagement in a confrontation with Felix, though low-key is nonetheless powerful.

Felix assumes, since he wants a relationship with almost every woman he meets, that every man is the same and Dean must be guilty, without concrete evidence of course, only suspicions. Felix becomes an updated version of "Columbo" as he stakes out Dean's comings and goings in New York, aided by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd ("La Traviata"). He eats caviar along the way as a quick lunch, hides in alleyways, takes in the scenic delights of the city in his convertible sports car that has seen better days and, in spite of Laura's reluctance, the two end up in Manzanillo, Mexico in a scene that could have fit into any screwball comedy of the 1930s or 40s. Inclusion of pop songs of the era such as "I Fall in Love Too Easily," "I Get Along Without You Very Well," and "Mexicali Rose" adds to the connection. Equally hilarious is Felix's confrontation with two police officers who pull him over for speeding, but who end up succumbing to his master class in charm and giving his car a push.

Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola's last collaboration, "Lost in Translation," was about a connection in a foreign country that hinted at romance, but while Bill Murray's trademark dry humor was present and his character was jaded enough, neither character experienced anything deeper about themselves or the world around them. In On the Rocks, however, each person has the opportunity and the inner strength to look deeper and develop a new sense of understanding and trust. Here, Laura re-evaluates her priorities in life and her relationship with her father, taking responsibility for what works and what does not. As she looks inward, she heeds the words of poet Charles Bukowski to "Drink from the well of your self and begin again" or, as Chilean author Pablo Neruda put it, "To have lived through one solitude to arrive at another, to feel oneself many things and recover wholeness."

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
(2020)

A Sincere and Believable Drama
A film about two teenage girls navigating the streets of New York by themselves with little money or a place to stay is normally the breeding ground for melodrama. In the hands of director Eliza Hittman ("Beach Rats") and remarkably natural performances by first time actors, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, however, the film Never Rarely Sometimes Always becomes a sincere and believable drama that never strains credulity. Though it explores the subject of abortion, a hot button political topic that can be counted on to stir up debate, Hittman tackles the issue from the point of view of a confused 17-year-old girl, and we understand the deep impact that the issue has on people's lives.

Autumn Callahan (Flanigan) is burdened by the pain and loneliness of an unwanted pregnancy and has no support from her dysfunctional family. It is a daunting challenge, and one that many teenage girls face as they attempt to define their sense of self in a society that can be unforgiving. The film opens at a high-school talent show without giving the viewer any direction as to time and place. As Autumn on stage shakily sings the song, "He's Got the Power" by The Exciters that contains the words, "He makes me do things I don't want to do. He makes me say things I don't want to say," the pretend smile on her face turns to dismay when a boy in the audience sitting near her parents (Sharon Van Etten, "The OA" TV series) and Ryan Eggold, ("BlacKkKlansman") yells a derogatory word to the delight of his friends.

She stops momentarily, then resumes, determined to express the feelings the song contains. There is no back story and we never find out the events that led up to this moment. Later, in the solitude of her room, after piercing her nose, she looks at herself in front of a full-length mirror, and we discover that she is pregnant. Hittman explains, "I was thinking about not having one antagonist but about the ways in which the world is in smaller and larger ways hostile to women." The toxic masculinity that teenage girls deal with on a regular basis is depicted in scenes in which a young man makes provocative gestures to Autumn at a restaurant, when the grocery store manager kisses her hand and that of her cousin 20-year-old Skylar (Ryder) when they give in their registers' take, when Autumn and Skylar manage to avoid an aggressive drunk on a subway train, and when a college student (Théodore Pellerin, "Boy Erased") tries to hit on them on a bus trip, though he ends up being someone they count on for support.

When she visits a women's clinic in rural Pennsylvania, Autumn is told that she is ten weeks pregnant (later found to be 18 weeks) and is asked to watch a video with a strong anti-abortion message. Her head filled with the counselor's words like "beautiful" and "magic" to describe giving birth, Autumn makes a different choice but learns that, in the state of Pennsylvania, parental consent is required for an underage girl to have an abortion. Pilfering money from the cash register in the supermarket in which they work, Autumn sets out for New York on the bus with Skylar to visit an abortion clinic, determined to resolve her unwanted pregnancy. Frightened and unable to articulate her feelings, Autumn barely talks at all for long stretches of time, but the tenderness and caring in her relationship with her cousin is obvious.

One of the most incisive images in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is of the two girls holding each other's hand tightly in a way that makes words irrelevant. Once in New York, the girls are shuttled between abortion clinics and learn that the procedure will require an overnight stay in the city and an appointment the next morning. New York is like another world for Autumn and Skylar, but they have no time or desire for sightseeing. With no money for a hotel, the girls spend hours in the waiting room of the seedy Port Authority Bus Terminal. The tension which had been building is released in a powerful scene at the abortion clinic the following day when the meaning behind the film's title becomes clear.

Here in one continuous shot filmed by gifted cinematographer Hélène Louvart ("Happy as Lazzaro"), Autumn is asked to respond to intimate questions about her sexual activity by answering "never, rarely, sometimes, or always." Some questions such as "Your partner has you make love when you don't want to?" bring tears to her eyes when she is forced to relive traumatic moments. Hittman, talking about the scene says, "I spent a lot of time in clinics talking to social workers, and it is true to the experience of going in and being counseled before an abortion, clinicians, and social workers wanting to know the nature of the pregnancy."

While Hittman's position on the issue of abortion rights is clear, the film is not a social or political inquiry, but one about relationship, alienation, and the heartbreaking odyssey of growing up having to confront difficult choices. While not overtly stated, Autumn's odyssey dramatizes the need to protect women's reproductive rights. Since Never Rarely Sometimes Always was made, the situation for young, pregnant women has grown even more precarious. Using the pandemic as a rationale, many states have closed clinics as a "non-essential service" claiming the need for more hospital beds. With a reconstituted Supreme Court, willing and eager to consider overturning Roe v. Wade, Hittman's film becomes all the more devastating and, in her quiet way, Autumn's bravery brings the struggle of all women into sharp focus.

The Trial of the Chicago 7
(2020)

Often feels verbose and inorganic
The Democratic National Convention met in Chicago in August 1968 to choose their presidential candidate in a tumultuous year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Prague Spring, and growing protests in cities around the world against the escalation of the Vietnam War. Although some culture warriors came to Chicago to perform "political theater," it was the anti-war sentiment that brought thousands of young people to Chicago where "the whole world was watching." Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin ("Molly's Game"), The Trial of the Chicago 7 dramatizes the subsequent trial of eight defendants (Bobby Seale's case was later separated) charged by acting Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman, "You Were Never Really Here") with crossing state lines to incite a riot, the so-called Rap Brown Law.

Denied a permit to camp in Grant Park, the protests turned ugly after the brutal beating of anti-war activist Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp, "The Hustle") at the hands of the Chicago Police Department, a beating that landed him in the hospital with a concussion. When activist Tom Hayden and other demonstrators stood up for Davis, Mayor Richard Daley's massive assembly of police as well as the Illinois National Guard began indiscriminately beating up protestors. By the end of the week there were 668 arrests, 400 requiring first aid, and 110 were taken to a hospital. It was a scene that Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff memorably described on the floor of the convention as "Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."

Though some of the police presence was a reaction to the provocative threats of the Youth International Party (Yippies) led by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, "Alice Through the Looking Glass") and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, "The Big Short"), it was clear that Mayor Daley, one of the last of the big-city bosses, was determined to challenge any threats to his personal domain. The film jumps right into the trial without providing much background except for some pictures of the Vietnam draft, speeches by Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and, in a more lighthearted vein, protest organizers discussing what boisterous fun they are planning in Chicago.

While some of the incidents in the trial are rearranged for dramatic value and some are invented, Sorkin basically follows the court transcripts though there is enough deviation from actual events to make his script, as he described it, "more like a painting than a photograph." In addition to Hoffman and Rubin, the strong ensemble cast includes peace activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald"), Rennie Davis (Sharp), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch, "The Founder"), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty , "The Meyerowitz Stories"), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins, "The Assistant").

Frank Langella ("Captain Fantastic") portrays Judge Julius Hoffman, 33-year old lead prosecutor Richard Schultz is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Snowden"), and Mark Rylance ("Ready Player One") is defense counsel William Kunstler. In a standout performance, Michael Keaton, ("Spiderman: Homecoming") as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, delivers a testimony for the defense which unfortunately was stricken from the record. Baron-Cohen's Hoffman is perhaps the most authentic of the characters, but the others are little more than caricatures with Seale, Hampton, and Rubin coming off the worst.

In the trial, Sorkin tries to balance the outlandish behavior of Hoffman and Rubin (once dressed in judges robes), the drama of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, "Us") being bound and gagged in the courtroom protesting the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr., "Luce"), and the overbearing incompetence of the Judge who acts with malice towards the defendants, dismissing objections from the defense before they were made and arbitrarily excluding evidence, witnesses, and even jurors.

Tom Hayden (who later became a California State Assemblyman) is shown as the responsible one in contrast with the Yippies. In a verbal skirmish, when Hoffman asks Hayden what his problem with him is, he replies, "My problem is for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they're gonna think of you. They're gonna think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon. They're not going to think of equality or justice. They're not going to think of education or poverty or progress. They're gonna think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, foulmouthed, lawless losers, and so we'll lose elections."

While all the elements are present in The Trial of the Chicago 7 for an impactful experience: Dramatic events, snappy dialogue, comic relief, and some raw and powerful moments, the film often feels verbose and inorganic, perilously close to a TV movie of the week. While the debate between Hoffman and Hayden is illuminating and relevant, what the film misses is a feel for the culture of the sixties or an overriding understanding of what is at stake. We witness a group of young people shouting, running, and being beaten, but the film does not capture the reason that brought them to Chicago in the first place. We hear no arguments for or against a war that had dragged on for four years and had stained the soul and character of the nation.

Sorkin further ignores the sense of desperation the demonstrators felt, knowing that the Democrats were about to nominate a candidate who, like Johnson, had rejected North Vietnam's overtures to come to the peace table in exchange for a bombing halt. The only time we get a sense of what it was all about is when Tom Hayden begins to read aloud in court the names of the thousands of soldiers who had died, many still in their teens. It is in the moment when we learn that those who died in the war had names that The Trial of the Chicago 7 finally comes alive and tells us what the peace movement stood for.

Undine
(2020)

Skirts the edges between romance and fantasy
Loosely based on the 19th century novella of Friedrich de la Motte Fouque about an aquatic spirit who must marry a knight to gain a soul, but has to kill him if he is unfaithful, German director Christian Petzold's ("Transit") Undine weaves a tale that skirts the edges between romance and fantasy. Reuniting the stars of "Transit," Paula Beer ("Never Look Away"), winner of the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival and Franz Rogowski ("A Hidden Life"), the film seems like a risky departure from the director's recent work about people caught in the traumatic events of contemporary European history, yet it propels his ideas about timelessness and the notion that the past is always present, even though the form may change.

Set in present-day Berlin, a city that was ironically founded on water, Undine, opens a door to the past with its repetition of the lovely Bach's adagio from his Concerto in D Minor. Beer is Undine, a free-lance historian and museum guide who lectures international groups on Berlin's Urban Development project located on Berlin's Museum Island, connecting the city's ties to its past. In particular, she talks about the city's Humboldt Forum project, a partial reconstruction of the demolished 18th century Berlin Palace, explaining that the castle was demolished during the Socialist era and is now being reconstructed.

Without prior knowledge of the fairy tale, which Petzold may assume we all know, Undine's nature is unclear. She looks and acts human, although there is strangeness about her silences and long, penetrating looks. According to the director, "she is a little bit like a ghost, like a phantom." Petzold does not reveal Undine's true nature but clues to her real self emerge when her aloofness and seemingly robotic manner begin to define her presence. In the opening scene, Undine sits outside a Berlin café with her boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz, "A Regular Woman"). Johannes threatens to leave her for another woman but is reminded that if he leaves her, she will kill him. Only a half hour later, she runs into Christoph (Rogowski), an industrial diver who has a warm, outgoing personality and Johannes is temporarily forgotten.

After an aquarium tank explodes, they lie together on the floor in a pool of water, dead fish, and broken glass, staring into each other's eyes. As he picks pieces of glass from her blouse in a scene that is romantic, surreal, and comic, his caring gives her a sense of what it feels like to be loved. Of course, the irony here is that he works underwater, while she, a water spirit, lives and works on land. Though their romance is real, Petzold declared, "They were like two dancers who get very close, but like in tango, they still keep a certain distance, which shows the respect they have for each other."

The chemistry between them is strong, however, and their relationship can be enjoyed with or without knowledge of the story's mythological roots. Working underwater, after confronting a giant catfish ostensibly without fear, Christoph sees Undine's name displayed on an ancient arch deep beneath the surface and takes her diving on their first date to see her name. She momentarily disappears before floating to the surface, her diving apparatus stripped allowing Christof to further bond by resuscitating her. According to legend, if Undine returns to her roots, she must remain there. She is, however, a rule breaker who is not beholden to either legend or men.

Undine is challenging to unravel but in its essence, it is a tribute to the strength and independence of women or, as a recent popular song might put it, to "the power of love." As Petzold describes it, "Struggling against domination, Undine exists only through men. Then along comes a man, a proletarian, an industrial diver, who interferes with the curse. He is not suspicious; he's innocent and for the first time seems to see her primarily without any sexual desire and without wanting to dominate her. This is new for her, and a path to a new world seems possible."

Fatima
(2020)

Evokes a renewed sense of mystery
"And a little child shall lead them" - Isaiah 1:16

On May 13, 1917, three children, 10-year-old Lúcia (Stephanie Gil, "Terminator: Dark Fate") and her younger cousins Francisco (Jorge Lamelas) and Jacinta (Alejandra Howard, "Cleo" TV series) were tending their family's flock of sheep at the Cova da Iria, the family pastureland in the Portuguese village of Aljustrel on the outskirts of Fátima, when they had a striking vision of a Lady (Joana Ribiero, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote") dressed in white near a small oak tree. Claiming that she came from heaven, she asks the children to return to the same place on the thirteenth day of each month for the next five months, promising that a miracle would be performed that will convince the people of the village of her appearance and receive her message of peace. She also gives the children personal messages that could only be revealed later.

Written by Barbara Nicolosi, Valerio D'Annunzio and Marco Pontecorvo and taken from Lúcia's memoirs, Fatima, directed by Pontecorvo ("Partly Cloudy with Sunny Spells"), son of director Gillo Pontecorvo ("The Battle of Algiers"), peeks beyond the boundaries of the known in his retelling of the fact-based 1917 sighting of the Lady identified as the Virgin Mary, first brought to the screen in 1952 in "The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima." The present story is told from the point of view of the three young children, especially that of Lúcia who bears the main task of convincing the community of the authenticity of her visions.

The film is book-ended by a fictional conversation held at the Carmelite convent in Coimbra, Portugal in 1989 between a now elderly Sister Lúcia (Sônia Braga, "Bacurau") and Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel, "The Irishman"), a skeptical Professor of Religion. Though the flashbacks attempt to put the visions in a modern day context, the experience of the children unfolds in real time and they deliver performances that are real and beautifully realized, especially that of Gil whose beatific smile is enough to convince us of her divine revelation. According to Pontecorvo, "Lúcia, for me, is . . . someone that can see beyond and can get in touch with another level in a way that not all of us have the possibility of doing."

Unlike many Hollywood films in which spiritual events are artificially enhanced by CGI effects and heavenly sounding music to create a "spiritual feeling," Pontecorvo's depiction of the Lady is of a real woman who walks barefoot on the mud, not a fuzzy image floating in the air. Filmed entirely in Portugal by cinematographer Vincenzo Carpineta ("Let's Talk"), Fatima creates a striking sense of place and time. It is the time of World War I and a weary world prays for peace. The villagers gather daily in the town square to listen as mayor Artur Santos (Goran Visnjic, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") reads the names of local soldiers who have been declared dead or missing. Lúcia's family hopefully await news from the front about Lúcia's brother Manuel (Elmano Sancho, "The Black Book"). People struggling with the loss of a loved one receive little comfort, however, from a hardline anti-clerical government.

As Lúcia struggles to overcome the disbelief of her mother, Maria Rosa (Lúcia Moniz, "Hero on the Front") and her father Antonio (Marco D'Almeida, "Night Train to Lisbon"), she must also deal with the outright hostility of the mayor, the local pastor Father Ferreira (Joaquim de Almeida, "The Hitman's Bodyguard"), and the bishop (João D'Ávila, "The Easy Way"). During one of Mary's visits at Fátima, the children experience a vision of Hell with all its accompanying charms such as an ocean of fire, devils, and shrieking souls, but the Lady tells them that her visit was a way of saving the tormented souls in Hell. Despite the children's belief in what they had seen, they are pressured by her parents, the church, and the secular officials to recant and admit their story was just a made-up game.

On October 13th, however, a perceived miracle took place before an estimated 50,000 people who testified that the midday sun suddenly appeared like a silver disk, then began "to rotate, dance, and whirl like a pinwheel." Wobbling across the sky, it plunged towards the earth as people screamed and looked for a place to hide and then sighed in relief and amazement as the sun re-ascended towards its rightful position in the sky. Today, the basilica of Our Lady of Fatima stands near the Cova da Iria as the Lady requested and draws thousands of visitors each year. In 2017 Pope Francis canonized Francisco and Jacinta, both of whom died in the flu epidemic of 1918, while Lúcia's canonization is still pending.

Fatima is a lovely film that, unlike previous versions of the story, explores the inner life of the characters and portrays the Marian visits without being preachy. What the visions represent is beyond the scope of this review, yet, as Anne Baring says in her book, "The Dream of the Cosmos," "the passionate longing of the human heart has always been to press beyond the boundaries of the known, to break through the limitations of our understanding, to extend the horizon of awareness."

Marian apparitions as well as other visions of the "Divine Feminine," according to a Newsweek magazine article in 1997 article, have numbered at least four hundred in the twentieth century alone and have been reported from antiquity down into modern times at times appearing as Isis, Kali, Durga, and Ishtar as well as the Virgin Mary. Fatima challenges our normal consensus view of reality and strives to evoke in us a renewed sense of mystery regardless of our religious or secular beliefs. Allowing us to see the world through a broader lens, it points us towards a new connection with the cosmos.

First Cow
(2019)

A haunting tribute to intimacy and friendship
Kelly Reichardt's ("Certain Women") First Cow is a song to nature, a tribute to intimacy and friendship, and a solid rebuke to Hollywood's image of the gung-ho masculinity of the Old West. As the director laments, "The heroism of masculinity, white masculinity, it never dies. It just doesn't die, that image in filmmaking always gets a roar of applause." In First Cow, however, Reichardt quietly explores a male friendship that is built upon kindness and mutual acceptance and offers a vision of an American dream not yet corrupted by self-interest or exploitation.

Based on the 2004 novel "The Half-Life" by Jonathan Raymond ("Night Moves") and adapted by Raymond and Reichardt, First Cow is set on the Oregon frontier sometime in the early 1800s. Shot in a boxy 4:3 ratio similar to the Westerns of the 1950s, the cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt ("Meek's Cutoff") and a haunting score by William Tyler reveals the pristine beauty of the Oregon wilderness as well as the primitive conditions in which most trappers and explorers lived. At the beginning of the film, a quote from poet William Blake, "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship" sets the tone as the opening shot introduces us to a barge slowly making its way down the Columbia River, which is where the story takes place.

In a brief prologue set in the present, a young woman (Alia Shawkat, "Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town"), out walking with her dog, discovers a human skull partially buried in the dirt. Upon digging, she uncovers the skeletons of two men holding hands. Without further explanation, the scene then shifts to the beginning of the nineteenth century as Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro, "Overlord"), a cook for a team of trappers at the Royal West Pacific Trading Post discovers King-Lu (Orion Lee, "Only You"), a Chinese immigrant hiding naked in the woods. After providing the fugitive with clothes and shelter, we learn that Cookie is from Maryland where his mother died when he was born, and his father died shortly after and he's been on the road ever since.

King-Lu is from northern China and claims that he is running away from the Russians who are seeking to revenge the killing of one of their own. After some time has passed, the two men find each other again inside a bar at the trading post and develop a close, if unlikely friendship. When they witness the arrival of a cow with huge, soft eyes (the breakout star of the film) that belongs to wealthy landowner Chief Factor (Toby Jones, "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"), King-Lu devises a scheme to secretly milk the cow late at night and use her milk to bake honey-covered biscuits which they market to the occupants of the settlement, starved for anything that reminds them of home. Chief Factor noticeably remarks when biting into one of the biscuits, "I taste London."

The enterprise is successful and perhaps is reflective of the idea that a successful commercial venture in our society requires a certain degree of larceny. This notion is reinforced by King-Lu who proclaims that, "We have to take what we can when the taking is good." His plan is to accumulate enough money to go to San Francisco and set up a business while Cookie dreams of opening a hotel for travelers and a bakery. When Cookie is persuaded by Chief Factor to bake a "Blueberry Clafoutis," a special British desert to impress a visiting Captain (Scott Shepherd, "X-Men: Dark Phoenix"), Factor discovers that the dish requires milk and, in perfect Sherlock Holmes fashion, puts two and two together, sending Cookie and King-Lu on the run for safety.

Like most of Reichardt's films, First Cow requires patience and a willingness to explore character development at the expense of a fast-paced narrative. While the film is not religious, the presence of spirit is felt in its journey among the rivers, the woods, and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and in a narrative attentive to mankind's need for friendship. In Reichardt's 2006 film, "Old Joy," one of the characters shares an old Chinese proverb that "sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy." While our society is often permeated by the sense that our joy is wearing out and that we are in danger of losing our connection to other human beings, Reichardt's sensitive and haunting film renews our understanding of the deep and abiding companionship we can still share with each other - in moments of beauty and tragedy,in an age that feels closer to the end than the beginning.

J'ai perdu mon corps
(2019)

Pursuing a leap of faith
Winner of the Critics' Week Grand Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, I Lost My Body is an animated film about the attempt to recover a part of one's self which was once vibrant and alive, but is now hidden. Directed by Jérémy Clapin in his first feature film and nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2020 Oscars, I Lost My Body is the story of a disembodied hand severed in a tragic accident which takes on a life and personality of its own as it seeks reunion with the body it lost. Though the hand has no outward means of self-expression, we hear the sounds it is hearing and seem to know what it is feeling and thinking.

Produced by Marc Du Pontavice ("Oggy and the Cockroaches" TV series) and adapted from the book Happy Hand by Guillaume Laurant ("Amelie"), according to Clapin, the film is "really showing how to find yourself and . . . how you have to survive, how you have to deal with fate and destiny." Like a soul seeking to reunite with its source, the severed hand undertakes a desperate journey through Paris. As the score of Dan Levy sets an almost mystical tone, we are witness to the hand as it confronts sewer rats, flies through the air holding the handle of an umbrella, dodges subway trains and highway traffic, and escapes from a garbage truck and even the mouth of a hungry dog.

Amidst all of the grit, there is also a tender scene when the hand picks up a pacifier from the floor of a Paris bedroom near a baby's cot and gently puts it back in the baby's mouth, two helpless things seeking comfort from the other. The hand remembers the boy named Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris, "Sous X") and the joy and sadness of his life and we revisit the past in black and white contrasted with the present in muted colors. Now a teenager, Naoufel once had a rich life full of promise - a family who loved him but died in an accident, and the dream of becoming a pianist or an astronaut, or both.

Set sometime in the 1990s, in the opening scene that portends a later discussion of destiny, Naoufel's dad tells the boy how to catch flies. "Aim for the side," he says, "Don't go for where it is, but for where it will be," but the lesson is hard to learn. In other flashbacks, we see a sullen Naoufel after the death of his parents struggling to live with adoptive parents who care little about him, sleeping on a single mattress on the floor of an unfurnished room, and working as a pizza delivery boy, always scolded by a grumpy boss for late delivery.

On a rainy night, while delivering a pizza, he crashes his bike, scattering remnants of pizzas over the sidewalk, and the dinner he is about to deliver ends up, as Naoufel puts it, looking "like one pizza on top of another that has been chewed." When he talks over the intercom in an apartment building to the young woman on the 35th floor waiting for her pizza, however, something in him awakens, something that had long been dormant. After vigorously complaining about the pizza being late, Gabrielle (voiced by Victoire Du Bois, "Call Me by Your Name") tenderly asks Naoufel if he was hurt when he crashed his bike. Surprised at her concern for his well-being, he longs to find her again.

Discovering that she works at a library, he checks out some books just to see her, then applies for a job as an apprentice working for Gabrielle's uncle Gigi (voiced by Patrick d'Assumçao, "Marianne" TV series), a carpenter close to retirement. Unaware of his ulterior motive the boy is hired and provided room and board. Convinced that he has won over Gabrielle, the two stand on a balcony overlooking Paris and talk about letting go. Naoufel tells her that he believes everything is written in advance and that we think we can change things but it is just an illusion. The only way we can change things, he says, is to do something unpredictable, something completely irrational, transcendent, outside the boundaries of reason, the "Leap of Faith" attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

Gabrielle then asks him what you do after you've taken the leap and "dribbled past fate?" and he says, "You run blindly and keep your fingers crossed." Sadly, when she realizes that he fooled her uncle just to get close to her, she turns away and leaves him alone on the roof. Running blindly and keeping his fingers crossed, Naoufel tries to fool destiny. Pursuing that leap of faith, he seeks the realization that we can create our life anew each moment, and that we may lose our body, but can never lose who we really are.

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
(2019)

The male presence still dominates
There are no men in Céline Sciamma's ("Girlhood") Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) but the male presence still dominates. Set in an isolated home on the Brittany coast in the eighteenth century, it is the story of an "impossible" relationship between two women in an era that rejected their form of sexual expression. Told with an understated passion, the lovers, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, "The Unknown Girl"), the daughter of a countess, and artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant, "Paper Flags"), are bound by the rules determined by the patriarchal society in which they live, and the full expression of their love is burdened by the knowledge that it is doomed to end.

Though the film is without stories of taboo, struggle, and self-abnegation and the language often feels contemporary, Sciamma says, "This movie is not about wondering if such a relationship would be possible - it's not, and they know it. But I wanted to show how luminous and how satisfying it could be. We all know what society thinks - I don't need to repeat it." Powerfully supported by cinematographer Claire Mathon ("Atlantics"), Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins in present time and unfolds in flashback. When a student of art instructor Marianne discovers the painting of an elegant young woman with fire consuming the bottom of her dress, the film takes us back to the circumstances that generated the mysterious painting.

Dripping wet from having to rescue her pallet that fell overboard on her voyage to Brittany, Marianne waits in the reception room of a large chateau, placing her wet canvas near the fireplace to dry, smoking a pipe, and helping herself to bread and cheese from the kitchen. She has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse, but her subject's angry refusal to sit for a portrait reflects her defiance of her mother, La Comtesse, (Valeria Golino, "Daughter of Mine") and her wishes for her to wed a Milanese nobleman (whom she has never met) if he approves of her portrait. She is told by the young servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami, "Happy Birthday"), that Héloïse's younger sister had been promised to the same suitor, but has just fallen from a cliff and died, an event Sophie considers a suicide.

Pretending to be her walking companion, Marianne joins Héloïse on her daily walks, closely observing her every feature, then painting her at night from memory in a hidden corner of a room illuminated only by candlelight. During their first walk together, we only see the back of Héloïse's head until she suddenly begins to run towards the cliff, swiftly pursued by Marianne who is uncertain if she is going to jump or just admire the scenery. Upon reaching the edge, however, Héloïse turns towards the camera, her hood blown off by the wind, revealing her blond hair and the sublime expressiveness of her face, alive with idealism but burdened by the sadness and lack of freedom that defines her life. "I've dreamt of that for years," she tells Marianne. "Dying?" Marianne asks. "Running," she responds.

The attraction between them is obvious from Marianne's furtive glances, but it is uncertain how - and even if - it will make itself known. According to Sciamma, "The journey of the gaze, the fact that it's stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then . . . we don't even know who's looking at who makes it really physical and organic." Marianne, however, must comply with the artistic rules, conventions, and ideas of the day even if they render her portrait inert, which Héloïse is not reluctant to point out. Their relationship only begins to grow when the subject begins to return the artist's glances and surprisingly agrees to pose for her.

Discarding her first painting, Marianne begins again, and it is clear that her new painting will be transformed by their growing bond. Obligingly, her mother goes away for five days, leaving the two alone with Sophie. In a telling sub-plot that reinforces Sciamma's theme of a women's right to choose, Sophie is found to be three months pregnant and Marianne and Héloïse deal with the choice she has made with loving care and concern for her well being. Music also plays a large role in the film. One day, the three encounter a large group of village women who are participating in a feminist community ritual, singing the Latin lyrics, "fugere non possum," which means "I cannot escape," a metaphor perhaps for the plight of women in that era.

Though the fate of her relationship is sealed, like Elio's tears by the fireplace in Gaudagnino's "Call Me by Your Name," Héloïse's reaction to hearing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" for the first time at a concert is a poignant moment of beauty and power. If Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a heartbreaking film, the pain is rewarded by the knowledge that happiness lies not in months or years but in indelible moments that will always remain with you. The film may or may not allow you to come to terms with these moments, but the tears it evokes can be healing.

Medena zemja
(2019)

For and against man made climate change
The familiar saying attributed to Charles Dudley Warner that "Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it" is turned upside down by Japanese director Makoto Shinkai ("Your Name") in his latest animated film, Weathering With You (Tenki no Ko). The film is a follow-up to Shinkai's "Your Name," one of the highest grossing anime films of all time and is focused on young love engaged in a determined battle against the power of nature. Set in Tokyo during a record-breaking rainstorm that has lasted for months and has caused widespread flooding, it is the story of a young girl known, according to Japanese legend, as"weather maiden," one who has the power to affect the weather through the force of her prayers.

Supported by cinematographer Ryosuke Tsuda ("Beautiful Bones: Sakarako's Investigation," TV series), each individual rain droplet is gorgeously displayed on every surface, and the sound of the rain on walls and glass reverberates throughout the theater. Shinkai's exquisite attention to detail highlights well-known Tokyo landmarks, people walking on streets knee deep in water, and luminous bands of sunlight bathed in ambient colors. While the film is a fantasy that soars to realms beyond the reach of our earthbound senses, Shinkai also underscores the film's relevance to the relevant issue of climate change.

"I want people to feel," he asserts, "as if this is something taking place in our world right now. It's not a piece of fiction that has nothing to do with you and I - it's happening here and now." The film, however, also has its dark moments which are accentuated by ominous black clouds. These include stolen guns, prison escapes, police chases, pimps, and prostitution, not exactly family friendly. The film begins as teenager Amano Hina (voiced by Nana Mori, "The Anthem of the Heart"), visiting her dying mother in the hospital, becomes obsessed with a streak of light that illuminates a Shinto shrine on the top of a nearby dilapidated building.

Praying for sunshine to end the rain, Hina runs to the shrine but is suddenly whisked to a dimension in the sky that is beyond our sense perception, beautifully illuminated by Shinkai. Coming back to earth, we meet Morishima Hodaka (voiced by Daigo Kotaro, "Battle: Roar to Victory"), a 16-year-old runaway as he tries to survive on the streets of Tokyo after barely escaping being drowned during a ferry ride into Tokyo. Lacking street smarts, Hodaka is lonely and frightened until he finds a job working for Keisuke Suga (voice of Shun Oguri, "Diner"), the man who saved him on the ship.

Suga gives him room and board in exchange for doing research into sensational stories for his magazine. As the fates would have it (or the requirements of the script), Hodaka's first assignment is to interview people who claim to be able to stop the rain. He is drawn to Hina's apartment where she lives with her little brother Nagisi (voice of Kiryu Sakura, "Love's Stoppage Time") and together they develop a scheme to monetize Hina's talent. Setting up a website, they appeal to potential customers who need sunny weather for weddings, birthday parties, and other specific events in their lives.

Sadly, however, Hina finds out that the legendary "weather maiden" loses power each time she affects the weather and must eventually sacrifice herself for the common good. Hodaka, who has fallen deeply in love with Hina, however, has other thoughts and the film raises the issue of the conflict between the needs of the individual versus that of society, hinting that teenage love may be worth the sacrifice of the planet. While Weathering With You suggests the important idea that humans can control the climate, the film ultimately lacks a coherent message.

An elderly woman tells Hodaka that, thousands of years ago, Tokyo was just a bay filled with water and that what we are seeing today is just nature moving through its fluctuating periods that far outstretch the lives of humans. Shinkai says. "Humans can't control the weather." "At the same time," he muses, "that's not quite right either, as humans have definitely changed the weather. I don't come to a clear conclusion on this but the issue definitely lies at the heart of the film." In other words, Shinkai basically wants you to be entertained, and if you want to take away a message from the experience, there are plenty to choose from.

American Factory
(2019)

Makes a sincere effort to strike a balanced approach
N the last few decades, films about workers and the labor movement in American cinema have been few and far between. Documentaries such as American Factory, however, can begin to shed light on the problems facing workers in the 21st century world of global capitalism. Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert ("Making Morning Star"), American Factory is one of five nominated films for Best Documentary at the 2020 Oscars and the first Netflix film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama. The film follows the fortunes of Fuyao, a Chinese corporation that took over a closed G.M. plant in Moraine, Ohio in 2014, a closure that left thousands of workers unemployed.

One of the largest manufactures of glass products in the world (Fuyao's products are used in car windshields and windows in major car companies such as Honda, Volkswagen, and Ford), there was a great deal of optimism when Fuyao arrived. Fuyao Chairman, self-made billionaire Cho Tak Wong promised that there would be 5,000 new hires over the next few years, welcome news to many who had been out of work for years. At the opening ceremony, Wong announced that he planned to bring in Chinese managers to train both newly hired American workers and Chinese employees to help in their mutual adjustment to their new jobs, an announcement that heralded the promise that workers of different cultural backgrounds could form a common bond.

When Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown reminded the assembled crowd that America has always relied on unions to further the goals of the working class, however, the first hint of conflict surfaced. Adamantly opposed to unions, one American Fuyao employee said he was going to prohibit Brown from ever again coming to the plant and threatened to kill him if he does. Wong said that "If we have a union, it will impact our efficiency, thus hurting our company. It will create a loss for us. If a union comes in, I'm shutting down." Despite the initial optimism, even setting aside the idea of unions, issues between the two cultures soon become apparent. Under the new ownership, there were 11 industrial accidents during the first year and safety had become less important than meeting ambitious production quotas.

Though no obvious examples of racism are displayed, little understanding of cultural differences is shown and management decides that Americans are fundamentally lazy. "They dislike abstraction and theory in their daily lives," one manager warned, complaining about how difficult it is to train "slow" American workers with their "fat fingers." One Chinese employee says that she gets to see her children only once a year and complaints begin to be heard by Americans about working conditions. One worker says that her house was foreclosed on. "Ever since then, I have struggled to try to get back to middle class," she notes, adding that she is currently living in her sister's basement.

Another worker complains that, with G.M. she made $29 dollars an hour. At Fuyao, however, she is only paid $12.84. "Back then," she says, "if my kids wanted a pair of new gym shoes, I could just get them, I can't just do that now." To attempt to smooth over the conflict between cultures, transplanted Fuyao employees listen to stories of Americans' honesty and are told that in this country, "you can even joke about the President and no one will do anything to you." Also, a group of supervisors are selected to visit the Chinese plant in Fuqing, but it only serves to underscore the differences. Chinese employees are shown engaging in morale-building exercises including songs and dances and we see them line-up daily as if they are preparing for boot camp.

Some visitors remark that the space between lines of production is too narrow to be safe and are taken aback when they watch Chinese workers slowly remove broken glass using only their hands. They note that in China employees work 12-hour shifts, with one day off a month and live together in close quarters, often six people to one apartment. Chairman Cao remarks, "The point of living is to work. Don't you think so?" perhaps the most current answer to the riddle of life's meaning. Needless to say, getting home in time to eat dinner as a family is not a high priority. There is no discussion in the film, however, about whether American workers should try to emulate the Chinese standards or if the Chinese should become less rigid in their workplace approach.

When the campaign to organize a union gets underway, a worker walks through the factory carrying a sign telling people to vote "yes" on the union, but he is unceremoniously escorted out of the plant. As the organizers begin to build support, the company hires a labor-relations consultant whose only job is to convince the workers not to join the union. Unfortunately, in the struggle for who controls the lives of the workers, perceived job security and submission to authority wins out and the proposal to form a union is resoundingly defeated.

Though there are no heroes, there are also no villains in the film and American Factory makes a sincere effort to strike a balance between employee's desire for better working conditions and management's goal of maximizing profits. What is apparent is that the current system is not focused on the needs of workers and Fuyao confirms our worst preconceptions by spying on its employees, letting go those who are known to be union sympathizers, and scheduling regular meetings designed to instill trust in management. Unfortunately, the growing specter of automation in industry may make all the cultural differences in the world irrelevant.

Little Women
(2019)

Little Women could have been better without the gimmickry
Writer/director Greta Gerwig ("Lady Bird") puts a contemporary spin on Louisa May Alcott's nineteenth century classic novel in Little Women, now in its eight film version. Alcott's semi-autobiographical story about four sisters growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during and after the Civil War stands out for its warmth and celebration of family, its exquisite period costumes, and for its strong message of female empowerment, rare for its day. Unfortunately, while previous versions adhere to the sequence of events described in the novel, Gerwig takes liberties with the chronology, mixing scenes of past and present, tinkering that only serves to create confusion and undercutting what is essentially a coming-of-age drama which relies on our understanding of character growth and development.

The film begins with the March sisters as grown women. The free-thinking, independent-minded Jo March is the central character, an aspiring writer who may be a mirror for Alcott. Unlike the 1994 version which, according to one critic, "invites your attention, slowly and elegantly," the latest iteration seems to be happening in warp speed, creating an atmosphere of high spirits and calculated energy. In the opening scene, Jo, in a heartfelt but somewhat subdued performance by Saoirse Ronan ("Mary Queen of Scots"), is living in a boarding house in New York doing odd jobs to support her family.

When Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts, "Ford v. Ferrari"), editor of the magazine, the "Weekly Volcano," agrees to publish her first story, Jo tells him that she is promoting the book for a friend and wants it to be published anonymously. The editor says to tell her friend that if she wants to be a successful writer, her stories must end with the female character being married or dead, not a promising choice for some people. Jo has become fond of boarding house acquaintance Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel, "Planetarium"), a language professor from France, but her inability to handle his criticism of her work causes him to disappear for most of the film. We meet Jo's sister Amy (Florence Pugh, "Midsommar"), in Paris to study painting, accompanied by her sharp tongued Aunt March (a delightful Meryl Streep, "Florence Foster Jenkins").

Aunt March tells her that the most important thing she can do is marry a wealthy man. Being that women at the time could not vote or hold well-paying jobs, could not own anything if they were married, even their children, this was a practical idea leading Amy to conclude that marriage was an "economic proposition." Even so, Amy has her heart set on dilettante Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, the March's good looking and super-wealthy next-door neighbor played by a wild-haired Timothée Chalamet ("The King") in an earnest yet unconvincing performance. There are two other sisters in the story, Beth (Eliza Scanlan, "Babyteeth") and Meg (Emma Watson, "Regression") but they are peripheral characters that are not well-developed.

Meg has fallen in love with John Brooke (James Norton, "Flatliners"), Laurie's former tutor whom she will eventually marry, while Beth, a talented pianist, is engaged in a fierce battle with scarlet fever. While Jo is the most independent of the characters, other paths are respected as well. "Just because my dreams are different from yours doesn't mean they're less important," Meg tells her. While in Paris, Amy runs into Laurie and is not shy about her feelings for him but she has a consuming passion to first prove herself as an artist. "I want to be the best or nothing," she says at one point.

Though Jo turns down's Laurie's pleading marriage proposal and rejects the life of being a wife and mother (Alcott never married), she later shows her vulnerability when she admits to her mother Marmee (Laura Dern, "Marriage Story") that she is lonely. The film then flashes back seven years to Christmas in New England when the girls were teenagers, the only visible clue being that their hair is shorter. With their father (Bob Odenkirk, "The Post") involved in the war, Marmee teaches the young women about the rewards of kindness for those less fortunate when she brings a Christmas breakfast to a family in need.

In one of the most exuberant scenes in the film, the teenage Jo engages in a wild dance with Laurie, whom she has just met at a party. When the girls are rehearsing a play, they invite Laurie to join their club and be accepted as part of the family, something he relishes. In one of the narrative's most iconic moments, Amy, angry at her sister for not taking her to the theater with her and jealous of her friendship with Laurie, consigns Jo's manuscripts to the flames when she is not at home.

When Jo returns she is devastated and furious but, when Amy falls into a crack in the ice and is rescued by Jo and Laurie, she is forgiving and Amy is sorry for her childish behavior. The scene emphasizes the warmth and camaraderie of the sisters, showing how a family can rise above petty grievances and provide mutual support. It is a reminder of how good Little Women could have been without the gimmickry.

Atlantique
(2019)

A haunting and poetic experience
To French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the ocean is a "holy temple," a shimmering presence that reflects the economic and social aspirations of people seeking a better life. Repeated shots of ocean waves and brilliant orange sunsets create an eerie mood in her first feature Atlantics, Palme d'Or nominee and winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes. Shot by Claire Mathon and set in Dakar, Senegal, Atlantics focuses on the plight of immigrants who travel from Senegal to Spain, a dangerous and arduous journey that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates has claimed the lives of approximately 19,000 migrants since 2013. The film, however, is not a political screed but a multi-level drama that includes elements of romance, class struggle, a police investigation, as well as horror-fantasy, all combining to create a haunting and poetic experience.

The film begins as a group of young men working on a new construction site in Dakar angrily confront the manager about not being paid for their work. They tell him "Families depend on us!," but the manager cannot help - the boss is away and there is no money to pay the workers. Central to the film is the relationship between Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), one of the young construction workers, and his 17-year-old girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). The two meet near a beach and passionately kiss, promising to talk later in the evening but, by the time Ada arrives at the local bar, she finds that it is filled with women who have been abandoned by their boyfriends who have set sail for Spain.

Souleiman has left with the other men, traveling in a small boat without saying goodbye. Ada, as well, also has hidden the fact that she is already engaged to the wealthy, vacuous Omar (Babacar Sylla), a man she does not love. The arc of Souleiman's relationship with the young Ada evokes Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," a love that is haunted by beauty but thwarted by destiny. After the men leave, however, unexplained events begin to occur in Dakar - the marriage bed in Omar's house catches fire the night of his wedding to Ada and Issa (Amadou Mbow), the police detective charged with investigating the fire, is suddenly plagued by a mysterious illness. We also learn that the police force is beholden to the businessman Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene), who withheld pay from his workers.

It is at this point that the film takes a turn into the occult as the men, presumably drowned at sea, come back to Senegal to possess the bodies of the women they left behind. Appearing as women, they order Ndiaye to pay millions of dollars in money he owes them and to dig graves for those who died. While the introduction of the occult seems out of sync with what has transpired to this point, Diop says that the supernatural is an integral part of the reality and traditions of everyday life in Senegal. According to the director, "Ada comes closer to herself, freer when she starts to notice the men in her town have disappeared and turned into spirits. It's almost comforting to her that there is another world that creeps out at night. It is a meditation on night."

While Atlantics calls attention to immigration in West Africa, it is clear that similar dramas are unfolding all over the world. Though there have been many films about the immigrant experience, few have been told from the point of view of the women left behind. For Diop, the story is a means of re-establishing her own African identity. "I found out later," she says, "that writing this character of Ada was a way to live the African adolescence I didn't have a chance to live. I lived my adolescence in Paris, in a very white environment - which was fine, but I think that all the episodes, all the periods I didn't spend in Senegal as a mixed girl, I needed to find it back. I have a very strong link with the character. I invent and create, and it's really a way for me to live a parallel life." It is also a way for us to share an intimate connection with the people of Senegal and with all immigrants who never made it to the other shore.

The Two Popes
(2019)

Surprisingly entertaining and quite moving
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles' ("The Constant Gardener") The Two Popes is not only a master class in acting, but a film that sends a strong message that people who disagree and do not even like each other can learn to listen. Written by Anthony McCarten ("Bohemian Rhapsody") and beautifully shot in Argentina and Italy by cinematographer César Charlone ("American Made"), the film is an account of the relationship between the ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins, "Noah") and the liberal Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote"), the future Pope Francis. Despite their flaws, Meirelles humanizes the two men, showing that, whatever their past mistakes may have been, they can meet on common ground.

Although their conversations are fictional (we do not know if in fact they ever met), according to Meirelles, "the lines were taken from interviews or books." Whether true or not and I have no reason to doubt it, the dialogue has such a feeling of authenticity that we do not question that it is coming from a deep place inside the two men. The film opens on a humorous note when Bergoglio attempts to order a plane ticket on his smart phone, but his unfamiliarity with the device leads the airline representative to think that it is a prank call and hangs up on him. We then flashback to 2005 and the death of Pope John Paul II, a beloved figure in the church for 26 years, followed by the accession of John Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, a man dedicated to upholding traditional Catholic theories and practices.

Since Bergoglio had submitted several requests to resign from his duties as cardinal, he is now summoned to the Vatican where the new pope explains that his resignation would be interpreted as a rejection of his own leadership and he refuses to consider it, deflecting and distracting at every opportunity. As the two men share opinions about the state of the Catholic Church (using several languages that include Latin, Italian and Spanish), Benedict struggles to understand the Argentinean's point of view and, at one point, exclaims, "I disagree with everything you've said!" though the conversation continues without rancor. It is a discussion that is revealing and even inspiring.

The centerpiece of The Two Popes is the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict in 2013, the first pope to voluntarily vacate his office since Pope Gregory XII relinquished his title as a result of factionalism in the church in 1415, known to history as "The Great Western Schism." The 85-year-old Benedict's resignation is attributed to old age and failing health, yet may have also been related to the accusations of priests' inappropriate relationships with altar boys and the VatiLeaks scandal, in which the Pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, had leaked confidential documents exposing Vatican power struggles. While the issue of abuse by priests is brought up by Benedict, it is not dwelt on and the pontiff's remarks on the issue are muted, perhaps a questionable decision.

To highlight their differences in a lighthearted way, we find out that Bergoglio likes ABBA, a Swedish pop group, especially their song "Dancing Queen," while Benedict prefers classical piano and the Austrian TV program "Kommissar Rex," which I guess means that he likes dogs and cops. Differences aside, with the retiring pope's support, Bergoglio is elected as Pope Francis in 2013 and his address to the gathered throng in St. Peter's Square demonstrates his warmth, humility, and commitment to social justice. As they eat pizza together, however, both men are open about real or perceived past transgressions. Pope Francis is still looked upon with disdain by some in Argentina because of his role in not doing enough to oppose the military junta during the country's "Dirty War" in the 1970s.

At this point, the film flashes back to Argentina in the 70s when the young Bergoglio (Juan Minujin, "Zama") refuses to take a stand when his fellow priests are arrested and tortured by the military dictatorship. Similarly, Benedict is haunted by his decision to join the Nazi Party in the 1930s, a fact he is constantly reminded of. While The Two Popes has been touted as an in-depth conversation between two esteemed men of the church, a promotion that does not sound very promising, given the quality of the performances and the overall production, the film is surprisingly entertaining and quite moving. Though its focus is on the church, it has a universal appeal. According to the director, "Tolerance is a commodity that we're missing." It is a message that is very relevant for our time.

A Hidden Life
(2019)

Reminds us of the power of moral and spiritual commitment
In its depiction of the life of an Austrian farmer who refused to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler or to fight in an unjust war, Terrence Malick's ("Song to Song") nearly three-hour film, A Hidden Life, reminds us of the power of moral and spiritual commitment. Based on the exchange of letters between Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, "The Young Karl Marx"), and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner, "The Ground Beneath My Feet"), it is a sublime portrait of a man compelled to call upon his last reservoir of strength to maintain his commitment, knowing that his act of conscience will do nothing to stop the war and will put his family and his own life at risk.

The film opens in 1939 in the village of St. Radegund in Austria where Franz lives a simple life with his wife and their three daughters. Devout Catholics, they live in a close-knit community, gathering in the local pub on Saturday nights and in church on Sunday mornings. In the rich poetic style Malick is known for, we see fields of grain, pristine flowing streams, awe-inspiring mountain vistas, and children running and playing, as gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Jörg Widmer ("The Invisibles") and enhanced by the music of James Newton Howard ("Red Sparrow"). To remind us of the context, we view grainy newsreel footage of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, an event that foreshadowed the start of World War II less than two years later.

It is clear to Jägerstätter that every able-bodied Austrian man will be forced to sign an oath pledging their allegiance to the Führer but Franz, whose father fought and died in World War I, asks Fani, "Oh my wife, what has become of our country?" In 1940, Jägerstätter is conscripted into the Wehrmacht, but is twice sent home on the grounds of his "reserved civilian occupation" as a farmer. He refuses to obey a third order, however, recalling a dream in which he saw a train carrying hundreds of Hitler Youth to their death as a warning of the evil of Nazism. In his writing Jägerstätter says that, for him, "to fight and kill people so that the godless Nazi regime could conquer and enslave ever more of the world's peoples would mean becoming personally guilty."

Since a referendum was held on April 10, 1938 in which an astonishing 99.73 percent of Austrians voted in favor of joining the Third Reich, it is not surprising that Franz receives little support from his neighbors or from the local priest (Tobias Moretti, "Cold Hell"). A religious man, Franz turns to the Diocesan Bishop of Linz, Joseph Calasanz Fliesser (Michael Nyqvist, "Frank & Lola") for support but is told by the Bishop that it is not his task to decide whether the war was righteous or unrighteous. In a powerful scene, a man (Johan Leysen, "Claire Darling") who paints murals of a happy Christ on a church ceiling laments the fear that has kept him from painting Jesus' suffering on the cross.

In prison, Malick captures Jägerstätter's humanity when he helps a prisoner get up from the ground after a beating and when he sneaks an extra slice of bread to a hungry prisoner. When one of Franz' final judges played by the late Bruno Ganz ("Amnesia") suggests that the prisoner's principles will change nothing and that if he signs the oath he will go free, Franz smiles and says that he is already free. Though his mother, friends, and relatives try to change his mind, only Fani stands by him saying, "If I hadn't stood by him, he wouldn't have had anyone at all." It is only later when he is in a Berlin prison, condemned to die as a traitor, that she begs him to sign a loyalty oath.

Malick's point of view, however, is clear and unmistakable as stated in the quote from author George Eliot shown in the film:

"For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

54 years later, on May 7, 1997, Jägerstätter verdict was annulled by the District Court of Berlin and his martyrdom was officially confirmed by the Vatican ten years later. His beatification took place in St. Mary's Cathedral in Linz in October, 2007 and he is now referred to as Blessed Franz Jägerstätter. How many people in power today who face the same accounting will be remembered for their acts of conscience?

Dylda
(2019)

An intense examination of damaged people
During World War II, the German blockade of Leningrad cut off the city from the outside world for three years, an act that took the lives of over one million people. While the world has largely focused on the causes and details of the siege, little attention has been paid to how survivors coped with their trauma, suffering which the Russian leadership did their best to hide. Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and the award for Best Director in the "Un Certain Regard" category at Cannes, 27-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov's ("Closeness") Beanpole (Dylda) focuses on the relationship between two young women who have returned to Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) from the front in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Brilliantly performed by Viktoria Miroshnichenko as Iya Sergueeva, a nurse nicknamed "beanpole" because of her height and slender frame, and Vasilisa Perelygina as Iya's mercurial friend Masha, it is an intense examination of damaged people desperately trying to find some peace and connection during a time when the world no longer values it. Russia's official submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Academy Awards, the film was inspired by Nobel Prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich's "The Unwomanly Face of War," a devastating chronicle of women's experience during the war. Beanpole opens in a hospital for wounded soldiers after the war, many whose bodies are so desperately shattered that they long for death. Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev, "Angels of Revolution"), one of the most badly injured, is paralyzed below his neck and pleads to the nurses for death, but it is not possible under the law.

Iya has a supportive relationship with her superior Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov) and works with him to secretly euthanize patients who will not recover from their wounds. Suffering from post-concussion syndrome, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Iya is subject to sudden seizures, spasms in which she cannot talk or move and is unable ask for help. Her condition tragically manifests itself in an extended sequence that is most difficult to watch. The atmosphere of decay is underscored in a scene in which the patients at the hospital play a game with Masha's young son Pashka (Timofey Glazkov). When they ask him to bark like a dog, he only stares at them without expression. "How would he know what a dog is like," one man says. "They've all been eaten."

The focus of the film is on the relationship between Iya and Masha, one that is based both on mutual need and sexual attraction but also contains an element of exploitation. As photographed by cinematographer Kseniya Sereda, the film is shot in faded pastel colors of red, green, and ochre rather than in black and white which the material might suggest. As Balagov explains, "The green that we use is also about being alive, but the ochre symbolizes the wound. And red is also the color of rust and blood." When Masha returns from the front where she remained to seek revenge for the death of Pashka's father, she is intent on having another child which she believes will heal all of her internal wounds from the war.

Sadly, the number of abortions she had during her time at the front prevents her from having any more children and she demands that Iya bear her a child with a surrogate. Masha's exploitation of her friend strikes a jarring note and the look on Iya's face when she is forced to do something against her will threatens to destroy her relationship with the only person she can turn to. Using men to fill a void in her life, Masha develops a relationship with Sasha (Igor Shirokov), the son of upper-class Communist bureaucrats. Assured that he loves her, they plan to marry until a visit to his parents in their mansion outside of the city prompts Masha to confess a disturbing truth about her life. In one of the film's most striking moments, Sasha's mother Lyubov Petrovna (Ksenia Kutepova) clashes with Masha, telling her what she sees as the truth about Sasha's intentions.

Beanpole is an intense, impeccably acted examination of repressed emotions and spiritual emptiness in a world in which normalcy is an outdated concept. In an astonishing scene, Masha asks a neighbor, a seamstress, (Olga Dragunova, "Closeness") if she can twirl in a green dress the seamstress is fitting. As Masha spins faster and faster, however, the delight she experiences turns into an outpouring of grief. While Beanpole is bleak, it is made with such consummate skill that it is not depressing. With its humanism and compassion and its willingness to tackle issues such as feminism, bisexuality, and abortion, Balagov challenge to Russia's conservative social outlook and patriarchal society gives the film a surprising political edge. It also makes clear that Balagov is one of the best young directors in film today.

For Sama
(2019)

Testifies to the dedication and courage of those who remained in Syria
"The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress" - Frederick Douglass

The war began peacefully. In 2012, university students and others launched peaceful protests against the regime of Bashar-al-Assad whose government had been in power since 1971 and had failed to institute promised reforms. When government soldiers fired on demonstrators and killed children who painted posters against the regime, the protests escalated into an armed rebellion. Since 2012, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed, more than one million injured, and over 12 million displaced from their homes. After seven years of what is in part a civil war, a religious war between Shiite and Sunni groups, a fight against Islamic militants, and a power struggle between major powers, there is no end in sight.

Directed by 26-year-old journalist Waad al-Kateab and British filmmaker Edward Watts, the documentary For Sama is a gift made by Waad to her young daughter Sama, born during the revolution. Winner of Best Documentary at Cannes, the film chronicles the genocidal siege that took place in the city of Aleppo between 2012 and 2016 carried out by the Assad government with the support of the Russians. Shot by one who not only witnessed it but also experienced it, it is a harrowing film that is hard to watch, but one that testifies to the dedication, resiliency, and courage of those who remained and attempted to carry on with their lives.

al-Kateab said, "I felt a great burden of responsibility to the city, its people and to our friends to tell their stories properly so they will never be forgotten and no one can ever distort the truth of what we lived through." The film is not presented in chronological order but weaves backwards and forwards in time. According to co-director Ed Watts, "The flashback allowed us to move between the light and the dark, which is much closer to the truth. That's what Waad was saying: Even in the dark times, there was all this humor, love, and affection. That flashback structure allowed us to reflect that more truthfully as a piece of cinema."

The initial protest, coming soon after the "Arab Spring," was filled with enthusiasm and promise, but it was a hope that was soon dashed by the government's determination to eliminate any pockets of resistance in the country by any means necessary including the use of chlorine gas. When more than 40 bodies of those opposing the government show up in the river, the struggle takes on a sense of urgency. Waad and her husband Hamza, a doctor, support the resistance to the constant shelling by government troops and bombing by the Russians, maintaining the only hospital left in Aleppo after eight of nine were bombed. In a memorable scene that only hints at the toll the war took on children, a young boy displays cut-out portraits of friends who have left the city, later adding those who stayed and lost their lives.

The film does not hide or try to spare us from the destruction and chaos or from the often losing struggle to stay alive. We hear the bombs exploding with a ferocity that will tear your soul. We see people running and hiding, and witness the aftermath of weeping or silence. Hamza and his friends establish a hospital to provide medical services after some of their friends are killed or wounded in the bombing. In an amazing scene, a doctor tries everything to bring an apparently stillborn baby into life - shaking, slapping, massaging the infant until a heart-stopping breakthrough occurs and the tears are not those of grief but of joy. Even after their hospital is hit by bombs, Waad and Hamza refuse to give up hope and vow to remain to assist those still in Aleppo and to continue the struggle for freedom.

In the midst of war, Waad and Hamza rejoice in the birth of little Sama, but there will be a time when Waad will regret bringing Sama into the world. For Sama digs deep to show us the human element behind news reports of terrorists, suicide bombers, and chemical warfare. The documentary is not only a journal of war but also one of love. Watts sums up his goal in directing the film. "It's all about trying to use storytelling to help this world of ours," he says, "to get in touch with reality, to get in touch with truth, and you know what? To start actually believing in human beings again, which I think is what you get out of Waad's story. So often, we're told that human beings are dark and that we can't do it and we're all doomed - we need to start believing in ourselves again and believing that we can make things better."

For Sama may help to make that happen.

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