Shine Your Eyes (Cidade Pássaro)


Sao Paolo – a white person’s city?

(2020) Drama (NetflixO.C. Ukeje, Chukwudi Iwujie, Indira Nascimento, Paulo André, Ike Barry, Yasmin Thin Qi. Directed by Matias Mariani

 

Some movies are more densely packed than others. This Netflix excursion tackles familial responsibilities, tribal myths, quantum physics (!), alternate realities, reincarnation, missing persons, Nigerian music, mental illness and the immigrant experience. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart.

Amadi (Ukeje), a Nigerian musician who was raised a part of the Igbo people, has journeyed across the Atlantic to Sao Paolo, Brazil’s most populous city, to find his older brother Ikenna (Iwuji). Ikenna, his mother’s favorite, is by all accounts a brilliant man and was pursuing a career in academics, a math professor at a technical university in the Brazilian city.

Except that the university he purports to teach at doesn’t exist, and while Amadi gets tempting glances of his brother from time to time (so he knows he is at least in the city), for all intents and purposes Ikenna has fallen off the map. In a city roughly the size of New York, finding one person who may not necessarily want to be found is not only nearly impossible but almost fiendishly cruel, but Amadi feels that this is how he wins the love and respect of his mother, who clearly prefers Ikenna, who has largely forsaken his family.

As Amadi delves deeper into the mystery, utilizing clues that might have stumped Sherlock Holmes, we discover that while not employed as a math professor per se, Ikenna was working on a physics issue that could revolutionize how we perceive reality – assuming that the Universe isn’t just a hologram, which is what Ikenna has come to believe.

The search for a missing person concept is a very cinematic one; it can be both thriller and character study. Through the search for the missing, we get to know them in ways we might not ever have had we just spoken to them. In this case, it’s doubly true; everything that Ikenna told his family back home is a lie, but everything he tells his friends in Brazil is also a lie. We begin to suspect that Ikenna is not the genius everyone thinks he is, but a con man who is playing both sides of the fence. Then again, he might have discovered a way to bridge two alternate realities (and maybe more); ot, he could be losing his mind.

We also get a sense of the exclusionary feelings that an immigrant feels in a city they don’t know and perhaps don’t understand. At one point (in fact, in the very scene depicted in the picture above), Amadi’s uncle (Igujie) refers to Sao Paolo as “a white person’s city” which may come to a shock to Americans who look as Brazilians as brown. Again, perceptions can differ depending on where you come from.

The visuals here are stimulating, from the cityscape of Sao Paolo with its sea of high rises, to the quantum representations of the mathematics that Ikenna was working on. It can be a hard slog at times – I don’t begin to pretend I understand game theory and quantum mathematics but at least I don’t feel talked down to.

A fellow critic compared this to the work of Darren Aronofsky and in some ways, that’s correct in that Aronofsky has a tendency to burn rubber where angels fear to tread. This is not a movie you can put on as background noise. It demands attention and focus and a willingness to let it transport you places you never thought you’d go. I like that despite all the fairly lofty ideas being bandied about here, I never felt talked down to and I never felt that I was drowning in concepts that were so far over my head that they aren’t even in the same solar system.

=That said, this isn’t going to be a movie everyone is going to want or even need to see. There are those who are absolutely opposed to movies that make you think, and would prefer movies that appeal to the emotional aspect of our humanity. While there are some scenes that are emotional in nature here, this is very much an intellectual film and those looking for light entertainment or mindless fun need to keep on scrolling past this in the Netflix menu. Those who appreciate a good intellectual challenge, however, can rejoice.

REASONS TO SEE: Ukeje has star potential. Glossy cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the mathematics content is a bit esoteric.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes, while not offensive, certainly are geared towards adults; kids will likely not have the patience for this.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has seven credited writers including Mariani; the others contributed expertise in mathematics, quantum theory, Igbo culture, and other aspects of the film; although these experts wrote no dialogue nor story, Mariani felt that they deserved credit and so all were given co-writing screen mentions.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Billie

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind


Happy happy joy joy.

 (2019) Biographical Drama (NetflixChiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Felix Lemburo, Robert Agengo, Fiskan Makawa, Lily Banda, Aissa Maiga, Fredrick Lukhere, Hestingzi Phiri, Rophium Banda, Philbert Falakeza, Samson Kambalu, Raymond Ofula, Noma Dumezweni, Lemogang Tsipa, Joseph Marcell, Martin Githinji, Melvin Alusa, Amos Chimpokoser, Edwin Chonde, Hilda Phiri. Directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor

 

We Americans often romanticize Africa as a place of glorious vistas and wonderful animals. Or, we demonize it as a place of corrupt governments and tribal genocide. Both of those viewpoints are incomplete; Africa is so much more. It is modern cities, but it is also small villages of subsistence farmers that are literally like living in another century.

This true story is based on the life of William Kamkwamba (Simba), a young boy with a knack for mechanical things who lives in a rural village in Malawi in abject poverty. His father Trywell (Ejiofor) faces drought and flooding, brought on when a neighboring farm sells to a tobacco company who promptly cut down all the trees whose roots held back flooding in the village with predictable results. The family was already living on the edge; now with most of their food supply destroyed and with no income from selling what they didn’t consume, things get desperate – William’s intelligent sister (Banda) is forced to withdraw from college and face a life of marriage and child-rearing, a life her mom (Maiga) knew would be a waste of her daughter’s potential. They also can’t afford the tuition at William’s school; however, he arranges with a teacher – blackmails, more like – to get access to the school library.

But William has an idea – a windmill to draw water from the village well to irrigate their farms. William has little to work with and his father, beaten down by all the obstacles he has failed to overcome, has little confidence that William’s idea will work and is unwilling to give up the bicycle chain that is crucial to the success of the windmill. The stakes couldn’t be higher for William and his family; could his knowledge of science and engineering overcome his father’s prejudices?

This is the first feature as a writer and director for Ejiofor and it’s a pretty good one. He captures all the tribulations faced by tribal villages in Africa, from political turmoil to environmental challenges to their own superstitions and traditions. That the real William Kamkwamba was able to overcome these things as a middle school-aged boy is nothing short of miraculous (today he is in his early 30s as this is written and a college graduate who has appeared on The Daily Show as well as given TED talks). Ejiofor takes great care to develop the story, but at times is a bit too workmanlike; a good director knows the shorthand needed to keep their film from bogging down. Ejiofor will acquire this skill through practice, no doubt. There’s a lot good about the movie, and it is worth checking out if for no other reason for an educational standpoint but be aware that the film has some noticeable flaws.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the honesty of African village life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Although the payoff is inspiring, the lead-up is frustratingly over-developed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic concerns regarding poverty and starvation, but otherwise perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ejiofor filmed on location in Malawi; as he did not speak the native Chichewa language, he had to learn to speak it for his character.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: William and the Windmill
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Nose to Tail

The Photographer at Mauthausen (El photógrafo de Mauthausen)


Sometimes a picture is worth a heck of a lot more than a thousand words.

(2018) Biographical Drama (NetflixMario Casas, Richard von Weyden, Alain Hernandez, Adriá Salazar, Eduard Buch, Stefan Weinert, Nikola Stojanovic, Rubén Yuste, Frank Feys, Marc Rodriguez, Albert Mora, Joan Negrié, Luka Peros, Rainer Reiners, Toni Gomila, Macarena Gómez, Emilio Gavira, Soma Zámbron, Erik Gyarmati, Marta Holler. Directed by Mar Targarona

 

Most movies about the Holocaust concentrate on the Jewish victims, which is as it should be. However, they weren’t the only victims. Early in the war, as Nazi Germany overran France, Spanish Republicans who had fled the victorious forces of Franco, were declared “stateless” by the Spanish government, allowing the Nazis to round them up and stick them in concentration camps, which they largely helped build – such as the one called Mauthausen in Austria.

Francesc Boix (Casas) was a member of the Spanish communist party sent to Mauthausen. A Catalan by birth (a region of Spain of which Barcelona is the capital), he managed to get attached to the photography unit under Ricken (von Weyden), one of those German officers obsessed with documenting everything, including the horrors.

At first, Boix uses his position to help switch the identification numbers of dead men with living men, in order to save the living, but as he is called upon to witness summary executions, mass graves, torture, forced prostitution and all manner of depravity, he is sickened. As word begins to reach the prisoners that the tide of the war has turned, Boix realizes that the evidence so meticulously gathered by the Germans would doubtlessly be destroyed – and those who had perpetrated these horrors would therefore get away with their crimes. He was determined to not let that happen.

Most concentration camp movies tend to be set in the more notorious camps in Eastern Europe. Most Americans are unfamiliar with Mauthausen, although the Spanish people know it well. In a lot of ways, this is a pretty standard Holocaust movie with gut-wrenching depictions of inhumanity and some instances of extraordinary heroism. Targarona uses the actual photographs taken by Boix and Ricken to choreograph his scenes, which we come to realize as the actual photographs are shown at the end of the film.

Like most Holocaust films, there are moments that will hit you like a punch to the gut. It isn’t always an easy film to watch, again like most Holocaust films. But particularly now with the rise of authoritarian leaders all over the globe, it is particularly necessary that we remind ourselves how easily we can fall into the same morass that the German people did in 1937. “Never again” doesn’t seem like such a sure thing in 2020.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some pretty powerful moments. Shows a side of the Nazi occupation of Western Europe that hasn’t been seen often.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much like other films depicting life in concentration camps.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, nudity, violence, disturbing images and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Lejias can’t speak German. In reality, the actor who played him (Joan Negrié) speaks fluent German, the only Spanish actor in the cast to do so.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Rental

The Wandering Earth (Liu dang di qiu)


I wann go to cool places with you.

(2018) Science Fiction (CMC/NetflixJing Wu, Chuxiao Qu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Jin Mai Jaho, Mike Kai Sui, Hongchen Li, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Haoyu Yang, Zhigang Jiang, Huan Zhang, Jiayin Lei, Arkadiy Sharogradskiy, Hao Ning, Yi Yang, Hexuan Guo, Zhonzhao Li, Zixian Zhang, Zachary Alexander Rice, Marvin Bouvet, Luoyi Tao. Directed by Frant Gwo

 

It is not a matter of much debate that the greatest cinematic epics come from Hollywood. However, it is also true that Hollywood isn’t the only game in town any longer, and bustling film industries in India, China, Japan and Thailand are showing signs of giving the U.S. of A. a run for its money.

And I mean that in a literal sense. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Hugo-winning author Cixin Liu, posits a near-future when the sun is discovered to be changing into a Red Giant much sooner than anyone expected. In less than a century, the solar system is going to be vaporized by the expanding star that once gave us life. A hastily convened consortium of world governments decide that rather than leaving the planet behind and finding a new one, we would attach ginormous engines to the equator to stop the spin and then blast us away from our current place in the universe and using Jupiter as a slingshot, head us out towards Alpha Centauri and a new life…arriving in about 2,500 years.

The problem with this scenario is that without the sun’s warming rays, which we would lose the further out towards deep space we got, things are going to get mighty cold. What’s left of humanity is going to be sheltered deep underground; the surface has become a frozen wasteland a la The Day After Tomorrow and lantern-jawed heroes crew a multi-national space station that acts as kind of a tugboat for the planet. I’m not really sure on that point; a lot of the plot is a bit murky and difficult to follow. Im not sure if it was a translation issue, or if crucial scenes got left on the cutting room floor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Alpha Centauri – we got caught by Jupiter’s gravitational well and are headed for a not-so-pleasant Jovian encounter. It looks like even after all the careful planning the human race is going to die after all – unless someone saves the day.

The film, if you haven’t already guessed, is a product of the People’s Republic of China and so it is the Chinese who are the heroes in the movie. That’s okay by me – after all, when Hollywood makes global catastrophe films the heroes are generally American, right? However, the characters are either bland and unmemorable, or are archetypes rather than characters; the badass military hero, the brilliant computer nerd, the obnoxious little sister, the bitter and rebellious son – all are given almost no background here. It’s hard to be invested in anyone that comes on the screen.

Also being a Chinese film, the movie espouses Chinese values – that it is required of the individual to sacrifice for the good of the State – which will run counter to a lot of American individualist types. Also, it is true at this moment of time the Chinese aren’t in favor particularly with the conservative side of the aisle, so American audiences have not flocked to stream this puppy on Netflix, which is the only place you can see it currently in the States.

The special effects dominate everything here and some of them are spectacular – and why wouldn’t they be when a consortium of effects houses including WETA of New Zealand are pitching in to help – but it gets to the point that all the visual eye candy begins to overwhelm the senses.

My main gripe here is the logic and the science. Supposedly vetted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I kept going back to the amount of power it would take for the Earth to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and what that kind of force would do to the Earth’s crust. Not to mention that the atmosphere would eventually freeze solid once it passes a certain point in the solar system, and what that might due to underground cities in terms of pressures on the crust. A lot of the plot hinges around things happening because the script said so. I felt that the suspension of disbelief became too much to handle.

But if you’re in the mood for a special effects-laden sci-fi extravaganza that you haven’t seen yet, there is something to recommend it in that regard. After all, this is the second-highest grossing Chinese film of all time (as of publication) and that’s saying something. Also to be fair, the plot is no dumber than any you’ll find in a typical Hollywood sci-fi epic, but the too-large ensemble cast and the humongous amount of sci-fi tropes that appear here makes this the kind of movie that might have been better-suited to SyFy than Netflix.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun with some occasionally breathtaking effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, sci-fi action and kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space: 1999
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Easy Does It

Velvet Buzzsaw


Things that make you go “hmmm”.

(2019) Horror Satire (Netflix) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Alan Mandell, Mig Macario, Nitya Vidyasagar, Sedale Threatt Jr., Keith Bogart, Sofia Toufa, Kassandra Voyagis, Mark Leslie Ford, Amy Tsang, Mark Steger, Andrea Marcovicci, Pisay Pao, Ian Alda, Valentina Gordon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

 

I have said many a time that there is a difference between art and Art and it largely depends on how seriously the artist takes him/herself. Art is pretentious and arrogant whereas art is inspiring and insightful. Director Dan Gilroy, acclaimed for his work on Nightcrawlers, knows the difference.

In this horror-laced satire about the contemporary commercial art world, he reunites with two of the stars of Nightcrawlers. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the self-important art critic whose words can triple the price that a painting will get, or destroy a budding artist’s career entirely. Art dealer Rhodora Haze (Russo) shares a symbiotic relationship with him. Morf, who is bisexual, has a thing for Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Ashton).

Josephina wants more than to be someone’s coffee-fetcher and when an elderly man in her apartment building dies literally in front of her door, she discovers her chance – his apartment is filled with haunting, vaguely unsettling art work. She knows instantly that it’s the Real Deal and enters into a partnership with Rhodora to sell it, even though the man expressly wanted his art destroyed and not sold. Nevertheless, sold it is and as a number of characters in the art world – up and coming agent Jon Dondon (Sturridge), gallery curator Gretchen (Collette) who looks to make her own mark (and fortune), to name a couple – jockey for position to get a piece of the pie. Then, they start to turn up dead in horrible, gruesome ways.

The film relies heavily on smart, snappy dialogue and Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances to date as Morf, whose evolution during the film is presaged by the homonym of his first name. In fact, the entire cast, which incidentally is a pretty nifty one, does a bang-up job with particular kudos to Dyer as one of the few sympathetic characters in the film.

The movie doesn’t go easy on the gore which is likely to delight horror fans, although they might not know what to make of the satire that makes up the first third of the movie. Regardless, this is wildly entertaining and one of the better movies under the Netflix banner.

REASONS TO SEE: Gyllenhaal is delightful. Entertaining in a smarmy way. Lampoons the artificiality and pretentiousness of the commercial art world.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, as well as a surfeit of profanity, some sexuality, brief nudity and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gilroy, who also wrote the film, stated in an interview that the unusual character names were inspired by Charles Dickens
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bucket Full of Blood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sometimes Always Never

Polar


Portrait of a badass.

(2019) Action (Netflix) Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Fei Ren, Ruby O. Fee, Matt Lucas, Robert Maillet, Anthony Grant, Josh Cruddas, Lovina Yavan, Ayisha Issa, Pedro Miguel Arce, Anastasia Marinina, Martin Zolotarev, Richard Dreyfuss, Johnny Knoxville, Inga Cadranel, Jill Frappier, Nia Roam, Julian Richings, Roman Lebeau, Sofia Grossi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Polar that it is based on a graphic novel. Everything about the movie screams “comic book,” from the color palette to the emphasis on feminine boot-ay and boobies, to the well-choreographed mayhem that takes place with a surfeit of blood and gore.

Duncan (Mikkelsen) works as an assassin-for-hire for the Damocles Corporation, where he is known as the Black Kaiser. He is nearing the mandatory retirement age of 50 and looks forward to receiving his pension and retiring to his remote Montana home. Unfortunately for him, the company’s corpulent owner Blut (Lucas) is looking to sell and needs to maximize its value. A clause in the contract says that if employees die without a will, the pension goes back to the company. Blut aims to kill all the veteran assassins who largely have had no relationships over the years and use the money to prop up the liquid cash holdings of the company. A true Republican move, that.

But Duncan isn’t so easy to kill and despite the parade of colorful killers sent his way, continues to survive much to the irritation of Blut. Duncan has also formed a relationship with Camille (Hudgens) who lives nearby (i.e. within 100 miles). If Duncan can live long enough to collect his pension, there are going to be an awful lot of openings at Damocles.

For action junkies, there is a whole lot of that and just the way you like it, too – long on gore and short on sense. There are a lot of backhanded compliments to other lone assassin stories, with John Wick chief among them, although the world of Polar is a lot less developed than the world of John Wick. There is also the subversive humor of the Neveldine brothers as well.

I have definitely got a man-crush on Mads Mikkelsen. The man never seems to make a bad acting decision. He is one of those guys who is never flashy, but always makes every movie he is cast in just that much better. He can do the taciturn loner about as well as anybody including Keanu Reeves – although not as well as Clint Eastwood in his heyday (sorry, Mads).

Critics have basically torn this film a new one, but I don’t know. I think of it as a guilty pleasure. It’s definitely a film for boys, though – not that women won’t or can’t enjoy it, but it certainly panders to that demographic.

REASONS TO SEE: Has the feel of a cinematic comic book. Mikkelsen is awesome, as always.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit self-repetitive near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence and gore, plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While there is an actress named Marsha Mason in the cast, it is not the same one that appeared with Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews, Metacritic: 19/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Feral

IO


Not the bright future we were hoping for.

(2018) Science Fiction (NetflixMargaret Qualley, Anthony Mackie, Danny Huston, Tom Payne (voice), Justin Andrew Jamieson, Teagan Johnson, Emma Fitzgerald (voice). Directed by Jonathan Helpert

 

In times such as these it isn’t hard to imagine the world as we know it coming to an end. In this Netflix sci-fi ecological apocalypse flick, something has turned the Earth’s atmosphere toxic; millions are dying and there doesn’t appear to be a way to reverse the process. The human race is leaving in droves, for a space station circling the Jovian moon of Io.

One of the few people remaining on earth is Sam Walden (Qualley), daughter of scientist Henry Walden (Huston). She lives on a high plateau which still has a breathable atmosphere, although it doesn’t seem likely that it will stay that way for long. She tends to a colony of bees that she hopes – as her dad did before her – will pollinate plants and kickstart the eco-system. She relays the results of her work to Elon (Payne), her boyfriend on the orbiting Io station.

Then out of the sky drops Micah (Mackie), out of a makeshift dirigible. He’s there to see Henry – except Henry’s not available. And that’s just the beginning. Both Micah and Sam are keeping secrets from each other, secrets that can have major ramifications. Meanwhile, time is ticking down before the last shuttle leaves Earth, stranding whoever is left behind there forever.

This is what’s called a “high-concept” science fiction film. It’s not that an ecological apocalypse has never been done on film before – Roland Emmerich made a living at those sorts of films in the last decade – but this one seems to be taking a more sober, science-based approach. At least, so it seems on the surface. The closer you look, the more the science doesn’t really bear scrutiny.

But the production design is nice, which I’ve been saying a lot more often about films lately, but we’ve seen some impressive leaps in that arena of film over the past half-decade. Sadly, though, there is zero chemistry between Qualley and Mackey, and quite frankly, Qualley emotes here like she’s making a YouTube film rather than a fairly major production.

There are some worthwhile moments here, but the movie is its own worst enemy, with stupefying dialogue and bizarre character choices. I found my attention wandering during the last half of the film, never a good sign. Fortunately, as this is only available on Netflix, you can always pause it to take a nap. It’s up to you, however, if you want to continue watching after you wake up.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating concept.
REASONS TO AVOID: A less-than-scintillating execution.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elle Fanning and Diego Luna were originally cast in the lead roles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Interstellar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Girl (2018)


Showers aren’t always the great equalizer.

(2018) Drama (NetflixVictor Polster, Arieh Wolthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Kateljine Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens, Megali Elali, Alice de Borqueville, Alain Honorez, Chris Thys, Angelo Tijssens, Marie-Louise Wilderijckx, Virginia Hendricksen, Daniel Nicodéme, Els Olaerts, Hélène Theunissen, Alexia Depicker, Steve Driesen, Ingrid Heiderscheidt. Directed by Lukas Dhont

 

Girl is a movie that had the best of intentions, but ends up pissing off a lot of people it was meant to honor. This first feature from Flemish director Dhont is about a young ballerina named Lara (Polster) who has just been provisionally accepted into a prestigious ballet school in Antwerp, necessitating a move there for her father (Wolthalter) and little brother (Bodart). But if undergoing the rigorous, demanding and often punishing training necessary to become a ballerina wasn’t enough, Lara is also transitioning from being a young boy into becoming the gender she knows herself to be.

Her father is incredibly supportive and her classmates seem to be (although there is a scene where they demand that she show her genitalia, which humiliates her) and she has the benefit of a really good counselor (Dhaenens) who repeatedly tells her not to put everything in life off until after she gets her surgery. “You also have to live now,” he wisely tells her.

But Lara, like most adolescents, doesn’t have a ton of patience. She wants to be rid of the male body that she was born with, checking for signs of growing breasts that are not yet apparent, and anxiously wondering if the hormones are working, although her doctors assure her that they are – it just takes time, time that Lara isn’t particularly willing to give. As the pressures mount and her need to be the woman that everyone says she already is, she commits an act of graphic self-harm that moved Netflix to take the unusual step of placing a warning title at the beginning of the film.

The movie has come under heavy criticism from the trans and LGBTQ community, first of all for casting a cis-gender male in the role of Lara, although that complaint isn’t as realistic as you might think; finding a trans actress of the right age who can handle the grueling dancing and training sequences is nearly impossible and it proved to be so for Dhont, who eventually found Polster while casting the background dancers.

And a lucky casting that was indeed. Polster has the grace and dancing chops to pull off the role, but also the facial expressions; Lara isn’t much of a talker and like many adolescents, isn’t able to articulate what’s bothering her. Polster does a good job of using non-verbal acting to convey Lara’s anguish.

The second issue that the LGBTQ community has brought up bears more scrutiny and it is the movie’s almost pornographic obsession with Lara’s crotch. Shot after shot after shot is centered there and we see enough of Polster’s genitalia to last a lifetime. Trans advocates rightly complain that the movie reduces Lara down to her genitalia, and like all people, trans people are much more than the equipment they have. Lara’s clear self-loathing for her body also sends a message to young transgenders that might not necessarily be the one that Dhont meant to send. Gender dysphoria is something that deserves to be explored seriously and Dhont attempts to do that, but at the end of the day, is unsuccessful in that regard.

=I do like that the approach that Dhont takes is almost documentary-like. There isn’t here that you might consider melodramatic beyond the usual melodrama generated by teens. There is a lot here that gives outsiders an idea of what trans folks in the process of transition have to go through and it is nice to see that it is presented in a supportive manner; that isn’t always the case in real life.

At the end of the day I give the film high marks for good intentions, but demerits for not executing them as well as they might have been. This could easily have been an extremely important film, even an essential one, instead of merely being very good.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a subject rarely handled seriously in the movies. Takes a documentary-like approach.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long and accentuates the most conspicuous aspects of gender dysphoria.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, sexuality, some nudity, adult issues and a shocking scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspired by the story of Nora Monsecour, a Belgian trans ballerina.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl, Interrupted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Glass

The Last Laugh (2019)


As you get older, life can be a gas.

(2019) Comedy (NetflixChevy Chase, Richard Dreyfus, Andie MacDowell, Kate Micucci, Chris Parnell, George Wallace, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Ron Clark, Kit Willesee, Chris Fleming, Allan Harvey, Jason Batchko, Alan Demovsky, James Galea, Rafael Villegas Jr., Carol Sutton, Belinda D’Pree, Sharon Martin, Jessie Payo, Robin Wesley, Khiry Armstead, Giovannie Cruz. Directed by Greg Pritikin

 

As someone who is going to hit the big six-oh this year, films about being old have more of a resonance with me lately than usual. At the same time, as I am writing this, I’m listening to the latest album by Hamerkop.  Age is, truly, just a number.

Don’t tell Hollywood that, though. Most comedies about elderly sorts have a pretty condescending attitude towards the AARP generation. We’ll get more into that in a minute, though; let me tell you a little bit about the plot of this one though. Al Hart (Chase) was once upon a time a talent manager for some of the most talented stand-up comics in the business, but now he’s retired and mourning his wife. His granddaughter Jeannie (Micucci) is concerned that Al has been doing a lot of falling down lately. She is anxious for him to move into a facility where he can be seen to; Al is against the idea but after a particularly nasty spill agrees reluctantly.

At the retirement village, Al discovers Buddy Green (Dreyfus) is a resident. Buddy was Al’s first client and had the makings of being a major star; Al had him booked on the Ed Sullivan show which would have established Buddy as a major star. Inexplicably, he never showed up and turned his back on comedy, instead choosing to raise a family and become a podiatrist. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot.

But the what-ifs have never really left Buddy and Al, seeing the parade of residents to the morgue figures that Buddy deserves a last shot to see if he had the stuff; he books Buddy on a cross-country tour, starting off in cruddy venues in Podunk towns gradually working up to bigger shows until the big one – the Stephen Colbert Late Show in the Ed Sullivan theater in New York. Along the way, the two bicker like an old couple, pick up a free-spirited artist in Kansas City (MacDowell) that Al becomes sweet on, and discover that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.

If that last sentence sounds a bit maudlin, it’s meant to. The movie plays it about as safe as a movie can be played, with the exception of a magic mushroom sequence in which Al trips, imagining a musical number and a carriage ride with Abe Lincoln at the reins. No, I don’t know why.

Remember I talked about Hollywood’s condescending attitude towards the aging? This is the kind of movie that portrays old folks doing shrooms and having sex as kind of “isn’t that cute.” Let’s do the math; people turning 70 this year were born in 1950; they were in their teens and 20s in the 60s and 70s when just about everyone was doing drugs and having sex. I think Hollywood sees the elderly still as the Leave it to Beaver generation, except that they were doing drugs and having sex back then too. Guess what, America? Your grandparents used to get high and fool around. Get over it.

Worse still, the humor is of the safe, don’t-offend-anyone variety, which makes me want to scream. I’m not the biggest Chevy Chase fan ever, but dammit, the man was an integral part of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and played a major role in one of the most subversive comedies ever made – Caddyshack. Can we not accept that there are some great comedic minds hitting their 70s now and capable of making comedies that can be bigger game changers than some of the modern crop of comics are currently capable of making? Dreyfus – who is as good as he ever was in this movie – as well as Chase and MacDowell all deserve better than this mildly entertaining, eminently forgettable project.

REASONS TO SEE: Dreyfus is a gift.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unnecessarily maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity including plenty of sexual references, as well as some drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first leading role for Chase in a mainstream film since Snow Day in 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 31/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sunshine Boys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Glass

Lionheart (2018)


Genevieve Nnaji keeps a wary eye out for whatever could be standing in her way.

(2018) Comedy (Netflix) Genevieve Nnaji, Nkem Owoh, Pete Edochie Onyeka Onwenu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Ezeonu, Kalu Ikeagwu, Chibuzo “Phyno” Azubuike, Jemma Osunde, Sani MU’AZU, Yakubu Mohammed, Peter Okoye, Chika Okpala, Oramulu Peter, Clemson Agbogidi, Chudi Nwafo, Stan K. Amadi, Obi Jane Nkechi, Uzodinma Umeh, Okwesileze, Steve Eboh. Directed by Genevieve Nnaji

 

Africa is a diverse and beautiful continent. There is veldt and jungle, mountains and deserts, modern urban metropolises and dirt-poor villages. There is no pigeonholing a continent, and the more glimpses we get into the daily life in various African nations, the more we come to realize that we have a lot in common with them.

Nigeria has a film industry known as “Nollywood” that has made some headway under some pretty tough obstacles. Their economic struggles in the Eighties led to nearly every movie theater in the country being closed down. Their movies are largely distributed on tape and disc, and while streaming services are beginning to make headway there, the infrastructure makes Internet availability spotty particularly in the more rural areas of the country.

One of that country’s brightest stars is Genevieve Nnaji. She not only stars in the first Nigerian film to be distributed on Netflix, but she also directs and co-wrote the script. She plays Adaeze, a smart, ambitious woman working in her father’s (Edochie) transportation company. Even though she’s more able than most men, she is often met with derision and hostility; her ideas are often rejected out of hand and from time to time men in the male-dominated industry expect sexual favors from her in exchange for their cooperation. When her father takes ill, rather than pass on the leadership reins to his infinitely qualified daughter, he instead passes it on to his eccentric brother (Owoh) who has some interesting ideas about leadership.

Adaeze’s frustration further grows when she discovers that the company is in a precarious financial position. Her father, perhaps unwisely, took out several loans which the bank has called. They have 30 days to pay it back before they lose everything. She will have to figure out a way to team up with her uncle if they are able to save the company from predators both from without – and within.

Nnaji is an almost regal presence in the same way Angela Bassett is. Beautiful and elegant, she has a screen presence most American actresses would envy. She has a knack for the light comedy of the movie, and while she is no Kate McKinnon, she nonetheless knows what she’s doing in a comedic role. Owoh is definitely the comic presence here, however. Nnaji is essentially his “straight man.” The humor isn’t outrageous or over the top, but more a gentle ribbing of the foibles of life – a very African viewpoint, in other words.

The family dynamics of the Obiagu family are what make the movie really worthwhile. There is a good deal of bickering but there is also a good deal of love – in other words, just like families everywhere. Of course, it’s not exactly headline news that people are people everywhere you go, but it’s nice to see the people of a different culture share their similarities as well as the things that make their culture unique.

REASONS TO SEE: A glimpse at urban African life.
REASONS TO AVOID: A somewhat pedantic plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasionally rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the official submission by Nigeria for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Academy Awards but ended up being disqualified since it was determined that the bulk of the film was in English.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gods Must Be Crazy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Escape Room