Until the Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles)


The sad face of a man facing a transition in life.

(2017) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Mohamed Djouhri, Hania Amar, Hassan Kachach, Mehdi Ramdami, Sonia Mekkiou, Chawki Amari, Lamri Kaouane, Aure Atika, Zineddine Hamdouche, Saadia Gacem, Hamid Ben Si Amor, Sensabyi Beghdadi, Imene Amani, Nawel Zeddam, Abdelaziz Zeghbib, Samir El Hakim, Aziz Boukerouni, Nadia Kaci. Directed by Karim Moussaoui

 

A writing professor in college once said that life isn’t like a story; it has no beginning or end; it’s just one long middle that we’re all dropped into and thus we try to muddle our way through as best we can. Maybe it’s for that reason that we like our stories to have beginnings and endings.

This Algerian film is an anthology with a bit of Robert Altman to it; each story is the life of a character that we get to walk in the shoes of for a short time. Mourad (Djouhri) is a developer in Algiers who is in a morass. His ex-wife Nacim (Hamdouche) has summoned him, ostensibly to talk to his indolent son who is about to withdraw from medical school to essentially hang out with his friends, His current wife Rasha (Atika) is dissatisfied with life in Algeria and wishes to move back to Paris; Mourad is disinclined to do so, so Rasha is pushing for a divorce. At the same time, the deal to build a hospital that he and his partner are working on is beginning to look more problematic by the hour. But on his way home from his ex’s house, Mourad’s car breaks down and he ends up witnessing a brutal beating. Terrified, he remains hidden and when the chance to get away comes, he gets is butt home and doesn’t think to call the police. His ineffectiveness haunts him.

His driver Djalil (Ramdami) asks for time off to drive Aicha (Amar) to her wedding in a small village in the desert. On the way there, her father gets food poisoning and must be taken to the hospital; Djalil ends up spending time with Aicha, who it turns out is no stranger to Djalil. They have been lovers for some time, but this arranged marriage to an older man is advantageous.

On the way to the wedding ceremony, Aicha’s father stops to help a man stranded at the side of the road. This turns out to be neurosurgeon Dahman (Kachach) who is facing a pending life change of his own. Awaiting a promotion, he circles around waiting for something to happen rather than demanding that he get the promotion he deserves. Word gets to him that a woman living in a hovel in a poor neighborhood nearby has accused him of something horrible. He is advised to confront the woman, which he does. As it turns out, while he didn’t directly participate in the gang rape that the woman accuses him of, he did nothing to prevent it. A son with emotional and physical issues resulted from the rape and what the woman wants is for the son to be given a name. She asks the doctor for his, but he is not in a position to do so. He is getting married himself in a matter of days. However, he begins to feel guilt towards the woman’s plight.

None of these stories have a resolution; we follow one storyline for a while, then a character from the next storyline has a brief interaction with someone from the first and off we go on the next tangent. There is even an unexpected music video about an hour in, with a kind of Arabic ska song complete with dancing and singing. It is a bit of welcome daffiness in a movie that for the most part is pretty serious.

The movie doesn’t reveal it’s plot so much as let it unfold. We do get brief glimpses of various strata of Algerian society, which gives us a more complete introduction to the country than we might get ordinarily. The women here are for the most part standing up for themselves, something we don’t associate with North African culture. The men tend to be weak and indecisive so from a feminist point of view it’s somewhat refreshing.

I actually ended up liking this movie a lot mainly because we get so thoroughly immersed in the lives of these characters but not all of you might; you are left to draw your own conclusions about the stories and the characters, and you may end up wondering what the point of all of this is. Like life itself, there isn’t always one single point; sometimes we just have to struggle to interpret things as best we can and keep on moving so as to dodge the spears and arrows being lobbed in our general direction. At a time when life is at a standstill, it is comforting to see life as it is, or was, and may well be again, unfolding as it may.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating. The relationships are complex and believable. Unfolds rather than reveals.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and slow-developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (mostly offscreen), some profanity and a description of a gang rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the feature film debut of Moussaoui.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Kanopy, Microsoft, Realeyz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coffee and Cigarettes
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mortal Engines

Ray & Liz


Liz is not someone that you want to cross.

(2018) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, James Eeles, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney, Deirdre Kelly, Michelle Bonnard, Jamie-Lee Beacher. Directed by Richard Billingham

 

It is very hard to look at our parents with any sort of objectivity. Often, we see them through rose-colored glasses as superhuman beings who can do no wrong, but more often we see them as absolute screw-ups who can do nothing right. We rarely see them as human beings.

Richard Billingham, an art photographer turned film director, has made his career by turning his lens on his family life. This movie is largely autobiographical, looking at his parents Liz (Smith) and Ray (Salinger), who live in Birmingham’s Black Country in Thatcher’s England. Ray is on the dole, having lost his job. The family gains additional income from taking in a lodger, Will (Gittins) in their dump of a home. Liz, deciding that young Rich needs shoes, troops off with him and Ray in tow to the shops, leaving the younger brother Jason in the care of Lol (Way), Ray’s brother who is developmentally challenged.

Liz – who apparently has had issues with Lol in the past – leaves with a stern warning not to get into the booze but when Will arrives home, he sees a golden opportunity and finds the liquor, bringing up a crate full from the cellar. He manages to get Lol drop dead drunk, then paints Jason’s face with boot polish and sticks a carving knife in his hand, then quickly leaves, returning to see the follow up which is a terrifying beating from Liz.

The neglect – leaving one’s child with a mentally challenged individual – proves to be a pattern as we follow the family as the boys age into their teenage years. The family now lives in “council housing” i.e. government subsidized apartments for us Yanks. Studious Richard has a chance to get out but young Jason (Millard-Lloyd) is getting involved with delinquent behavior. Ray has become a raging alcoholic, and Liz self-medicates, smoking like a chimney and doing jigsaw puzzles. After a terrifying night when Jason ends up spending a frigid night in a neighbor’s shed, the authorities are forced to step in.

The whole movie is framed with scenes of Ray in his later years (Romer), living in the bedroom of his council flat, the room infested with flies as Ray’s mate Sid (Ashton) delivering bottles of some sort of carbonated home brew. Ray continues to be deep in the clutches of alcoholism, but now he is utterly alone. He is separated from Liz, who comes around once in awhile to cadge money from him, but there is no love between them that’s apparent. The family has completely disintegrated.

There’s no way around it; this is a bleak film filled with unlovable characters trying to make do in an intolerable economic situation. Liz and Ray seem genial on the surface, but both are completely self-absorbed, caring only about having enough cigarettes, booze and whatever distractions they are into at the moment. Their kids barely get a second thought.

Billingham gives us endless close-ups of the flies in Ray’s room, of Ray’s aged and booze-ravaged face. He seems to take delight in showing Ray’s awful situation; one wonders if he is getting back at his parents for the neglect he clearly feels. I don’t doubt that Liz and Ray were far from ideal parents, but they don’t get a voice in this thing; it seems clear that they are both suffering from depression but that’s not the kind of thing that was diagnosed commonly 30 years ago, and it doesn’t feel like Billingham would have forgiven them for it in any case

Smith gives an unforgettable performance as Liz; she stands out in the cast. Salinger is kind of lost as the less assertive Ray, although the actor has had some impressive performances in his resume. Billingham, with a photographer’s eye, composes his shots artistically and the movie, as bleak as it is and as squalid as the settings often are, is a pleasure to watch from a purely technical point of view. Still, there is so much lingering on the flies and on the anger that one wonders if Billingham wouldn’t have benefited more from a therapist than from a feature film.

REASONS TO SEE: Ella Smith is an absolute force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many extraneous shots of flies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some violence, plenty of smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Billingham is a photographer making his feature film directorial debut. His photographic essay Ray’s a Laugh is the basis for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kanopy
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Possession of Hannah Grace

Celebration


The grace and elegance of French fashion.

 (2007) Documentary (Kimstim/1091Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint-Laurent, Loulou De La Falaise, Catherine Deneuve, Laetitia Casta. Directed by Olivier Meyrou

 

The great Yves Saint-Laurent was a fashion icon, one of the last of the great haute couture fashion houses and certainly, as he expresses mournfully in an interview sequence during the film, the last with a living couturier (his fashion house would be sold to Gucci the following year).

Despite the title, this documentary is not so much a celebration as it is an elegy, a look at a great lion in the winter of his life. Shockingly, Saint-Laurent appears almost drugged in much of the film, sometimes appearing to be nodding off, other times being remonstrated with by his business partner and life partner Pierre Bergé not to lean over the podium before giving a speech so as not to appear as a doddering old man.

Most of the film revolves around a show the old master is putting together, what would turn out to be his last (although nobody knew it at the time). We see the apparatus of a major fashion hose humming at the top of its game; the seamstresses, chafing at near-impossible deadlines and an endless series of revisions, the models preening and cooing in the presence of the great man, the publicists trying to make order amidst the chaos and Bergé.

He also doesn’t come off particularly well, often boorish and condescending in his behavior, throwing a temper tantrum due to the presence of a photographer, often making snide and passive-aggressive comments about his partner “He is a sleepwalker, one who should not be awakened.” There is one unbelievable sequence late the film where Saint-Laurent has just won a prestigious award, only to have it nearly ripped out of his arms by Bergé, who says “I probably had a hand in it.” And yes, he probably did but it comes off seeming mean.

The film was screened only once, at the 2007 Berlinale, the year before Saint-Laurent passed away from brain cancer, only to have Bergé sue to have the film suppressed. It wasn’t until after Bergé himself passed on two years ago that the rights became available. After a brief New York theatrical release last October, the film is finally making its way to home video.

Is this an essential documentary? If you are a fashion junkie, no doubt. I don’t know if this is the most flattering portrait of Saint-Laurent possible and it certainly says nothing about his contributions to the industry, which among other things included the introduction of the pantsuit, for which Hilary Clinton should be grateful if nobody else. There is very little context of any sort given here; it is cinema verité in its purest form. That is both good and bad; if you don’t have much knowledge of fashion, you will undoubtedly feel lost and even bored while watching.

Meyrou alternates between using color and black and white in his footage; color for the reality of the work, black and white for contemplation. The music score is a problem; it is often jarring and intrusive, meant, I suppose, to symbolize the frail mental state of Saint-Laurent but coming off largely as inappropriate for the film. You’re better off turning the sound off and reading the subtitles.

One of the more delightful sequences is showing a couple of the seamstresses who return to the fashion house after it had been shuttered, remembering where their desks were, where the time clocks were, remembering a fellow seamstress who had a bad temper nearly clocking one of the two of them with a window.

It is on the one hand a fascinating portrait of Bergé but as for a legacy film for Saint-Laurent, it doesn’t work all that well. In a sense it is a look at the way fashion houses worked in times gone by but it may seem quaint to modern fashionistas. Nonetheless, if you have any sort of interest in the subject at all, it is well worth your time to rent this. If you’re like me and don’t have the interest in women’s clothes, you still might find some fulfillment in watching the interpersonal relationship between Bergé and Saint-Laurent.

REASONS TO SEE: Essential for fashionistas.
REASONS TO AVOID: The musical score is unsettling and at times inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was filmed back in 1998 for what would turn out to be St. Laurent’s last show before his house was sold to Gucci. It was kept on the shelf by Berge who felt that it revealed too much about the reclusive fashion icon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3//20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic:  No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gospel According to Andre
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Johnny English Strikes Again

White Sun (Seto Surya)


You know you’re in trouble when your ex-wife brings soldiers to the party.

(2016) Drama (Kimstim) Dayahang Rai, Asha Maya Magrati, Rabindra Singh Baniya, Sumi Malla, Amrit Pariyar, Deepak Chhetri, Deshbakhta Khanal. Directed by Deepak Rauniyar

As we get older, we tend to like things to stay the way they are. Change frightens and confuses us. We find those who advocate change to be untrustworthy.

In Nepal, a civil war that lasted from 1996-2006 divided royalists, who believed in Nepalese traditions and Maoists, more progressive sorts In the tiny village of Nepaltra, the war decimated the village leaving few men other than the village elders and the town doctor Suraj (Baniya), the son of the former mayor and a Royalist himself. When the ex-mayor passes away, Suraj’ brother Chandra (Rai), an insurgent who now lives in Kathmandu, is summoned to help carry his father’s corpse down to the riverside where it will be burned according to longstanding village traditions.

Chandra – who was known as Agni during the fighting – and his brother fought on opposite sides during the Civil War and the enmity between them is boiling just under the surface. Making matters worse is Chandra’s ex-wife Durga (Magrati) whose daughter Pooja (Malla) is not Chandra’s. She’s not willing to divulge the details of her paternity and Suraj is one of the possible candidates. Pooja herself is hoping that Chandra is her dad. Durga needs Chandra to sign paternity papers acknowledging that Pooja is his even though she is not; without that signature, she can’t get the schooling that Durga desperately wants her to get. Complicating matters is street urchin Badri (Pariyar) who rumor has it is Chandra’s son.

While carrying their father’s body down to the river, Chandra and Suraj snipe at each other until the anger boils over and the two come to blows. Suraj walks off in a huff and it is up to Chandra to find suitable pall bearers as the remaining men are too weak and feeble to carry the corpulent corpse’s body down the mountain to the river. Accompanied by Pooja and Badri, Chandra goes to neighboring villages to find someone willing to help him carry his father’s body the rest of the way to his final rest.

Rauniyar is an emerging talent from an unlikely cinematic base but when you consider the kind of background scenery he has to work with and the richness of the Nepalese culture, things fall into place. Rauniyar takes advantage of both of those elements here as he creates a movie that is beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking all at once.

The beauty is courtesy of cinematographer Mark Ellam but given the dramatic scenery of Nepal he certainly has a leg up but the movie isn’t all about pretty pictures. This is a movie about the clash of traditions and progress, as an ancient culture tries to find its way in a world that is changing rapidly. Some of the changes are frankly welcome; Durga is despised in the movie because she is not only a woman but one of a lower caste. She is not even allowed to touch the body of her ex-father-in-law who she has been caring for during his final illness. There are many strictures in the daily life of the village that are senseless and a bit misogynist.

But it’s exactly that thinking that has to come under some consideration. In an era of cell phones and social media who has the right to tell someone that their society has to change? While I agree that things that are discriminatory and keep people from realizing their dreams should change, the rhythms of life that have been there for centuries can be a tricky thing to adjust to modern rhythms.

But that’s not what the Nepalese Civil War was about, of course. It was a determination on how they wanted to be governed and while the Maoists won out, the Royalists continue to seethe and certainly the division between Chandra and Suraj illustrates that. One of the more fascinating studies is the village priest (played by Deepak Chhetri) who worries that the identity of the villagers will be lost as their traditions disappear. It is not an unjustified fear.

The movie is powerful and emotional and while you might think that the grief over the loss of the father would be central to the story, it really isn’t. Suraj exhibits more grief over the loss of his culture than any for his dad, although he sees his father as representing the best of the village culture. Chandra, who is a good man for the most part, does seem to regret having left his home although one also gets the sense he feels it necessary. He has been burned by previous relationships and although he is kind to both the children and his ex-wife, there are some walls up that likely have to do with how the relationship with his ex-wife and brother ended up.

This is a very human movie and while it isn’t always delightful there are some moments of quirky humor, such as the attempts to get the somewhat obese corpse out of a tiny upstairs window since it can’t pass through the front door of the house due to local tradition. There are some moments of great pathos. While I’m not a fan of the ending, it’s really the only thing in the movie that felt wrong to me and quite frankly I was pretty much alone in that thought at the screening I attended.

The performances here are top notch; Rai is one of Nepal’s most popular actors and he shows that popularity is completely justified. Magrati, who acted as the casting director for the film as well, also shows some chops as she takes the part of what could have been a shrewish ex-wife and gave it depth, dignity and sympathy.

This is the kind of movie I truly adore. Not only does it present a culture that I don’t know much about but it is presented in a way that makes me consider the pros and cons of village life in Nepal. It also makes me consider the similar battles between the traditional and the modern in my own culture. While you can make what allegories you will of this film, I think there’s enough here that is universal that will appeal to any moviegoer who has curiosity about other cultures. This is an early favorite for the best movie of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A powerfully emotional film depicting the clash of traditionalism and modernism. The cinematography is gorgeous. We get a glimpse at a culture that is rarely seen in the West. The performances from Rai and Magrati are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: Some audiences may find it slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both of the films Rauniyar has made to date take place over three days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Bridgend


Deceptive beauty.

Deceptive beauty.

(2015) Drama (Kimstim) Hannah Murray, Josh O’Connor, Adrian Rawlins, Patricia Potter, Nia Roberts, Steven Washington, Scott Arthur, Aled Llyr Thomas, Elinor Cawley, Jamie Burch, Mark Charles Williams, Adam Byard, Natasha Denby, Leona Vaughan, Liam Dascombe, Josh Green, Rachel Isaac, Phil Howe, Martin Troakes, Jane Davies, Rob Page, Judith Lewis. Directed by Jeppe Rønde

Florida Film Festival 2016

When a teenager dies, it’s a tragedy. With their whole life ahead of them cut short, it’s devastating to their family and their friends. When a teen takes their own life, it can feel even more tragic. Those left behind can feel like they’ve failed somehow. But what happens when teens kill themselves in droves?

That’s what really happened in Bridgend County in Wales. Starting in 2009 and through 2013, more than 75 teens took their own lives – most by hanging – without leaving a suicide note. To this day, what prompted these mass suicides remains a mystery. There was an excellent documentary in 2013 about the case but this is a fictionalized look at the affair.

Sara (Murray – fans might recognize her from Game of Thrones) and her policeman dad Dave (Washington) who is widowed have moved from Bristol to Bridgend to start a new life. As a policeman, Dave is investigating a rash of teen suicides. At first, Sara doesn’t really feel like she fits in with the working class kids in town but her beauty and compassion catch the eye of Laurel (Cawley) who invites her to the local reservoir to hang out with a group of kids, led by co-alphas Jamie (O’Connor) and Thomas (Arthur).

As Sara gets more involved with the group, her father begins to get terrified. Sara is already at that age where she’s distancing herself from her dad, and drifts closer to the disaffected teens and further from her father. And as her friends begin to die off one by one, her romance with Jamie takes on a more intense tone.

Speaking of tone, that’s one thing this movie has plenty of. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films things through a blue filter, underlighting interior shots to give things a more menacing and darker look. The blue serves to give the movie an overall depressing feel. That’s sight; as for sound, Mondkopf, an artist specializing in electronic trance, gives the score a dreary electro feel, instilling a sense of foreboding throughout.

There are two ways a movie like this can be made palatable; one is to give insight as to why a group of teenagers would all fall into lockstep and kill themselves. To be honest, Rønde doesn’t really address this. There are all sorts of theories as to why the real kids did this and to be fair, I can imagine that the filmmaker didn’t want to tread on the graves of the dead by putting motivations that weren’t necessarily there. You don’t get a sense that there was any peer pressure going on, only that these kids were essentially unhappy.

Secondly, the characters could be interesting people that you care about what happens to them, but again, that proves not to be the case here. These are kids who most adults wouldn’t want to spend even five minutes with. They come off as spoiled, whiny and full of angst and ennui. There is a melancholia sure, but with the rituals that these kids use to honor their dead it begins to come off as creepy posturing. The kids don’t come off as anything other than people who simply fell into line like sheep and gave up far too soon.

Rønde is a little self-indulgent with his direction, doing so many cutsie things that the audience is drawn out of the movie and paying more attention to the moviemaker. I call this “Look, Ma, I’m Directing syndrome” and Rønde has a nasty case of it. And the ending. Oy vey, the ending. I won’t go into details here, but it’s a colossal cop-out.

The events in Bridgend are apparently still taking place to this day, and quite frankly I think there is an important movie that could be made here. Certainly this is in many ways a cautionary tale for parents that their teens are at risk, but the filmmakers don’t say anything much beyond that. I found this to be a frustrating movie that at the end of the day, was enormously unsatisfying when it didn’t have to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful cinematography and along with the electronic score creates a foreboding mood.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much self-indulgence and spoiled behavior. Never really gets into the psyche of the “gang.” Too many scenes in which you’re conscious that the director is “directing.”
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some violence, sexual content, nudity and profanity, all involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in Bridgend County, Wales where the events that inspired the film actually took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Family Fang