Journey to a Mother’s Room (Viaje al cuarto de una madre)


Mother/daughter relationships can be complicated.

(2018) Drama (Loco/Alfa) Lola Dueñas, Anna Castillo, Noemi Hopper, Ana Mena, Susana Abaitua, Marisol Membrillo, Pedro Casablanc, Silvia Casanova, Lucia Muñoz Durán, Adelfa Calvo, Maika Barroso, Beatriz Cotobal. Directed by Celia Rico Clavellino

Letting go is one of the hardest things a parent has to do – but they have to do it in order for their children to become independent, self-sufficient adults. Some find it much harder to do than others.

Estrella (Dueñas) lives in a small Spanish town in a small Spanish apartment with her daughter Leonor (Castillo) who works at the same dry-cleaning plant that she herself once worked in. The two watch telenovelas on the tube, sharing snacks and often falling asleep together on the couch. As for the dad, whether he’s deceased, divorced or deserted, it all amounts to him being absent and unremarked upon; his non-presence makes him no better than a ghost.

But like many young people, Leonor longs for more and after a friend returns from London and speaks glowingly about her experiences there, Leonor determines that she is going to have those experiences for herself. However, telling her mother that is another thing entirely; she’s sure that this will lead to an unpleasant confrontation. Estrella turns out to handle it a lot better than her daughter expects her to although she’s not wild about the idea; still, she realizes that her daughter needs to spread her wings and she can’t do that inside the nest.

Estrella is lonely without Leonor and lives for her daughter’s infrequent calls on What’s App. Still, when the boss of the dry cleaning plant (Casablanc) approaches Estrella with a request to make some dresses, Estrella finds a new lease on life and a purpose that until then had completely revolved around raising her daughter. As for Leonor, London turns out to be a lot different than she had anticipated.

This slice of life film is unusual in that it takes the point of view of the mother; rather than follow the younger woman to the big city, it stays in the small town with the mom and examines what happens with her when the walls close in and there is nothing but the silence to fill it. Fortunately for us, two brilliant Spanish actresses – frequent Almodóvar collaborator Dueñas and promising new face Castillo both deliver compelling and understated performances that smack of authenticity.

Most women are going to recognize the civil friction between the two, either from the mother’s or the daughter’s point of view. Each are clinging to something; the mom to memories of the past, the daughter to a vision of an unattainable future. Both have their delusions in their own way; both are resolute in sticking to them. The one thing that is certain though is that the two love each other and need each other.

My problem with the movie though rests with the pacing which is very slow, as well as the often-meandering story that sometimes chases its own tail. There seems to be a lot of script that could have been judiciously trimmed to make the story a bit more succinct. The ending also comes a bit more abruptly than I would have liked.

Then again, life generally doesn’t move in those cadences; life moves to a beat all its own and it is rare that we are in sync with it. There is a lot to recommend this film (and I do) but I can’t do that unreservedly without telling readers that there is a good chance that they will find the movie difficult. Still, I think an awful lot of mothers and daughters would benefit from giving this one a whirl.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very realistic portrayal of a relationship between mother and daughter.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unfortunately, the film is prone to meandering and then ends abruptly
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is Clavellino’s feature film debut, she has directed a short film which won the Gaudi Award for Best Short Film, the equivalent of an Oscar given for films in the Catalan language of Western Spain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mothers and Daughters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Gloria Bell

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Los Reyes


Chasing after tennis balls can be exhausting.

(2018) Documentary (Self-Released) Football, Chola, Sebastián “Negro Seba” Añiguel, Paulina “Pauly” Herrera, Sebastián “Chico” Alcalde, Tomás “Wence” Alul, Victor “Lulo” Bañados, Ignacio “Nachito” Bañados, Charlye Joses Rey Zapata, Elizabeth “Eli” Cabeza. Directed by Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut

Santiago (the capital of Chile) like most other urban metropolises is both busy and often chaotic, sometimes leaving residents with heads spinning and hearts pounding. Lives move at hyper-speeds through the busy streets that are choked with automobiles and foot traffic. Towering office buildings, towering apartment complexes and bright neon shopping districts jostle one another for the attention of the eye.

Parque de los Reyes is an oasis in the urban ballet. Located on the Mapocho River, it contains within its green borders Santiago’s oldest skatepark. At any given time, the skatepark has its share of skaters, mostly adolescent males. Their conversation is pretty typical for skaters; issues with parents, getting stoned, wondering why expectations are set for them when all they want to do is skate and of course, girls. Their same conversations could be overheard at any skatepark in the world.

However, the uncrowned kings of Los Reyes are Football and Chola, a pair of stray dogs who live in the park. With often disinterested eyes they observe the goings-on, sometimes sleeping and sometimes sunning themselves. Rarely do they interact with the skaters although the skaters will from time to time throw a ball around, a game the dogs thoroughly enjoy – just like dogs everywhere.

In many ways the two dogs are like the skaters themselves, living a life of simplicity, interested mainly in food, drink, sex (when they can get it) and taking it easy. Football and Chola don’t need a lot to survive and the city has thoughtfully provided them with dog houses to offer shelter during the rainstorms that are a regular occurrence during the winter months.

We almost never see human faces in the film other than as reflections in water or shadowed inside hoodies, although we hear the skaters chatting in the background. While we hear the skaters talking about the things important to them, we are almost looking at the dogs, concentrating on their indolence, enjoying the insect and bird life that also lives in the park. This is as close to being a dog as you are likely to ever get.

It’s hard not to be enchanted by these two dogs, even if you aren’t particularly a dog lover. The bond between them is absolutely genuine and they each have definite personalities; Chola is an extrovert whose favorite game is to take a tennis ball (or other ball) and coax it to the lip of a one of the skating areas, and then gradually nose it down the ramp whereupon she chases after it. Football loves to bark, so much so that he gets hoarse by the end of the movie. He has a bit of an oral fixation; he’s always got something in his mouth from a plastic beverage bottle to a tennis ball to a rock. Both of them are as sweet as pie.

I did have a bone to pick though; near the end of the film one of the dogs (neither of whom are named until the end credits) shows signs of being terribly sick. We get close-ups of insects infesting the dog’s ears, larvae emerging from the skin – it’s not a pretty picture. Dog lovers – including this one – are going to be wondering if the camera crew took the dog to the vet or gave it any sort of comfort beyond filming the misery of its final days. It is a difficult sequence to watch, made even more poignant by the plaintive howl that the surviving dog makes after their buddy is gone.

The relationship between the dogs isn’t a made-up one nor are the canines anthropomorphized at all. We see them being dogs, doing what dogs do. This isn’t a DisneyNature documentary meant to dumb things down for audiences of kids. The life of these dogs isn’t always pretty but all in all it isn’t a bad life either. For a dog nut like myself, this is absolute candy.

REASONS TO SEE: This is about as close as you’re ever going to come to seeing life through a dog’s point of view. The interplay between the dogs is poignant.
REASONS TO AVOID: Dog lovers may find the last third troubling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was originally intended to focus on three of the skateboarders but the filmmakers found the dogs to be a much more fascinating subject.
CRITICAL MASS:
As of 3/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kedi
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Birds of Passage

Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

The Nightingale


When seeking revenge, first dig two graves.

(2018) Drama (IFC) Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby, Nathaniel Dean, Matthew Sunderland, Luke Carroll, Sam Smith, Ben McIvor, Magnolia Maymuru, Dallas Mugarra, Zachary Gorman, Terrence Perdjert, Keith Melpi Jabinee, Claire Jones. Directed by Jennifer Kent

 

Back in 1825, Tasmania was known as Van Dieman’s Land. This is where Irish convicts were sent to live out sentences for crimes serious and petty. Clare (Franciosi) was convicted of the latter, stealing to survive on the mean streets of Dublin. Sentenced to seven years for theft, she serves out her sentence in prison where she meets and marries fellow Irishman Aidan (Sheasby). The two have a baby together.

Clare is taken from prison early by Lt. Hawkins (Claflin) for which she is initially grateful but it turns out to be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Hawkins turns out to be an absolute monster who forces Clare to sing for his drunken men who are little better than the criminals in their charge, then rewards her performance by raping her. She asks again and again for the papers that prove she’s served her sentence and allow her free movement in the country with which she and her husband would live on their own, away from the British settlement. When she gets insistent, the bad-humored Hawkins, stinging from the rebuke of a superior officer who tells him flat-out that the promotion he’s angling for will never be his, commits a foul and heinous act against Clare and her family before leaving to Launceston to get there ahead of his superior and perhaps cajole his way to that promotion himself.

Clare, bereft and enraged at the injustice given her, goes on the hunt for Hawkins and his cohorts Ruse (Herriman) and Jago (Greenwood). A friend begs her to take a native tracker with her and while she resists at first, she reluctantly allows Billy (Ganambarr) to accompany her. Together the two make their way through the heavily wooded terrain distrustful of each other, both with their reasons to hate the man they chase. Eventually the two develop a grudging respect, and then an uneasy trust followed by a dependence on one another. Can all this lead to the vengeance they both seek?

Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to the sensational 2014 horror film The Babadook is a very different film. This is a much bloodier and grim film, one that will likely stay with you for longer than you might imagine. Franciosi plays the often unlikable Clare whose own prejudices are as virulent as those directed against her. She is fixated on her mission to exact revenge on Hawkins and his men and will not rest nor give quarter until that mission is accomplished. Ganambarr is the soul of the film, the only character with any sort of lightheartedness. He was coached by an aboriginal cultural expert on the language, music, ritual dances and cultural mores of the time. While he too desires vengeance for reasons very similar to Clare, he is horrified at the lengths that she will go although in some ways one can’t blame her.

The movie suffers from overindulgence on the part of its director; many of the scenes drag on far too long and some of the points are drummed in with a sledgehammer rather than a ballpeen. Nonetheless this is compelling where it needs to be and it certainly should be one to keep an eye out for when it debuts on a limited theatrical run later this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Ganambarr and Franciosi deliver compelling performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film could have used much more judicious editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, rape and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outlaw Josie Wales
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
 Shadow

Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale

Sorry Angel (Plaire, aimer et courir vite)


The French sure do love their ménage a trois.

(2018) Drama (Strand) Vincent Lacoste, Pierre Deladonchamp, Denis Podalydės, Clėment Mėtayer, Adėle Wismes, Thomas Gonzalez, Quentin Thėbault, Tristan Farge, Sophie Letourneur, Marlėne Saldana, Luca Malinowski, Rio Vega, Loïc Mobihan, Mathilda Doucourė, Eric Vigner, Tibo Drouet, Jean-Frėdėric Lemoues, Teddy Rogaert, Thibaud Boursier, Adėle Csech. Directed by Christophe Honorė

Paris in 1993 was as ever beautiful, seductive and cosmopolitan. For the gay community, it was also the era of AIDS, a time when great numbers of that community fell victim to the disease. Jacques (Deladonchamp) is a successful playwright and a single father. He has been suffering from writer’s block in his career but also sort of in his life as well. His love life is in neutral, particularly since he’s contracted the disease himself. He continues to carry on essentially as before but he knows his time is short. While on a trip to Brittany for an arts festival, he meets Arthur (Lacoste) who is a 22-year-old film student who has become increasingly sexually indifferent to his girlfriend Nadine (Wismes). He is on the cusp of discovering his bisexuality and he falls deeply in love with Jacques when they have a chance encounter in a movie theater.

Jacques returns to Paris and his friend and neighbor Mathieu (Podalydės) who has become something of a confidante and who may harbor romantic feelings of his own for Jacques. For his own part, Jacques is reluctant to start something he knows he can’t finish but at the same time he is extremely drawn to Arthur and his youthful exuberance. Jacques wonders if he wants to spend what time he has left alone or with someone he loves.

Honorė is a distinctively French director whose films often have a bittersweet quality to them, although not to the degree here. This is a movie that seems to me to have come from a deep place inside the director. Unfortunately, films of that nature sometimes lead to overly long movies and this one is definitely guilty of that.

There are some moments of sheer joy (a dance in the apartment between Arthur, Mathieu and Jacques is a highlight) and moments of dizzying pathos. Lacoste does a really good job as Arthur and while Deladonchamp is a fine actor, his Jacques is prone at times to being a little more inwardly directed to be truly approachable. All in all, this is a good movie that I wish I could have connected with more deeply but the length and Jacques’ occasional remoteness prevented me from doing so.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s Love in the Time of Cholera for the AIDS generation.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is way, way, WAY too long. At times the film gets pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and plenty of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Arthur makes a big deal about being from Brittany while his two roommates are Parisians, Lacoste is actually from Paris while the actors playing the roommates are not.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love in the Time of Cholera
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Pigs

Ash is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)


A loaded gun will get everybody’s attention.

(2018) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Xiaogang Feng, Casper Liang, Zheng Xu, Yibal Zhang. Directed by Zhangke Jia

Qiao (Zhao) is the girlfriend of gangster Bin (Liao) and as such commands a position of high status in Datong, the provincial city in which she lives. When her boyfriend is attacked by a gang of vicious, bold youths she fires a gun into the air to stop the violence. She ends up being the one arrested for possession of an illegal firearm but despite the police interrogation, she doesn’t give up her boyfriend (it’s his gun). She’s sentenced to five years in prison. When she is released, Bin is nowhere to be found – in fact none of those who were part of the Jiang hu, the fraternal order of the underground who follow a rigid code of loyalty are to be found either. She hears that Bin has left the criminal life and has a new girlfriend; she sets out to find him, trying her best to survive in the meantime. Eventually she does find him and he is a different person as is she; therefore, they part and she heads back to Datong where it all started.

This latest film from virtuoso director Zhangke Jia takes Chinese gangster movies and turns them into a sprawling epic, but not in the sense of a Godfather film. This is more of an emotional epic that follows Qiao through her journey through triumph, betrayal, vindication and disappointment. As China goes through enormous changes in the 17 years in which this film takes place, so do the characters try to adjust – not always successfully. That’s kind of a hallmark of Jia’s films as is Zhao, his real-life wife who stars in many of his films. She is extraordinary here.

Some American viewers may not have the patience for a film like this; the pacing is very deliberate throughout and although there are some well-choreographed fight scenes and moments of vivid wonder, for the most part Jia is content to simply let things unfold at their own pace. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful movie that while not Jia’s best is certainly not a disappointment in the least.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an epic feel to the entire film. Zhao delivers a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow-moving particularly throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jia pays tribute to John Woo by utilizing the theme song from The Killers throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Sorry Angel