Top Ten Films Seen in the Year 2016

(Films not released or shown in Chicago until 2016)


Perhaps the most amazing rediscovery of the year has been the tiny arthouse screenings from Facets, of all places, where programmer Charles Coleman, with little to no money, has been screening terrific films, kind of regaining their old form.


Among the films they’ve screened this year:



Embrace of the Serpent

River of Grass (Kelly Reichardt’s first film)

Requiem for an American Dream (among the better documentaries seen all year)

Louder Than Bombs

Til  Madness Do Us Part

Right Place, Wrong Time

Kaili’s Blues

The Seasons in Quincy:  Four Portraits of John Berger (another terrific documentary)


Four of those are in the Top Ten of films seen this year, two more in the top twenty, one was from years ago, another was on last year’s top fifteen, while another was on last year’s Top Ten list!  So these are select films. 


That’s never happened before from films seen at Facets, ever, even in their glory days. 


It’s something of a shock to the system, but also a comment on the other theaters in Chicago which are strangely bypassing some of the best films of the year and are instead protecting their financial bottom lines by programming more commercial products.   


Evidence the Chicago Film Festival this year, with fewer films from Cannes, relegated to the high-priced Specials list (which at $20 bucks a ticket are out of most people’s price range), watering down the quality of available films, without a single film breaking into this Top Ten list (other than Moonlight that played once as a Special) or receiving a score higher than a B+, while last year half the Top Ten came from the Film Festival after initially premiering at Cannes.  No such luck this year. 


Two documentaries made the Top Ten, another just missing the cut, each taking a decidedly different investigative track, where they couldn’t be more different from each other.  


Another amazing aspect of the passing year, just before Christmas, the Cranes site ( totaled a million visitors to the site since its inception, a rather unintended accomplishment, as there are very few that publicize the link.  A big thanks to those who do, as you will forever be imbedded in my most grateful thoughts of appreciation. 


Happy New Year everyone!






Top Ten Films


1.)  Moonlight

2.)  Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can)

3.)  Louder Than Bombs

4.)  O.J.: Made in America

5.)  Manchester by the Sea

6.)  'Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng Ai)

7.)  Sunset Song         

8.)  Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da)

9.)  The Lobster

10.)  La La Land


Honorable Mention


1.)  Jackie Robinson

2.)  Little Men

3.)  Midnight Special 

4.)  American Honey

5.)  Graduation (Bacalaureat)






1.)  MOONLIGHT     Moonlight                   A                    

USA  (110 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Barry Jenkins                    Official site


There is always something left to love.  And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.  Have you cried for that boy today?  I don’t mean for yourself and for the family cause we lost the money.  I mean for him; what he’s been through and what it done to him.  Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most; when they done good and made things easy for everybody?  Well then, you ain’t through learning — because that ain’t the time at all.  It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so.  When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right child, measure him right.  Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.

—Mama to Beneatha, Act III, Lorraine Hansberry A Raisin in the Sun, 1959


A film that gets into the depths of things most of us simply don’t understand, that lives up to the critical hype by being a smaller, more poetic film that expresses a lyrical grace, featuring some amazing performances.  It’s hard enough being black in America, a completely incomprehensible experience for most whites, but being black and gay is an altogether different island of extreme cultural isolation.  When you think of gay black artists, perhaps writers James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry come to mind, a short list with the latter two remaining ambiguously closeted throughout their entire lives.  Being black and gay was an incendiary subject in the 60’s during the formation of the Black Panther Party in America, where Panther Eldridge Cleaver belittled and derided the homosexuality of Baldwin in homophobic terms in his seminal book Soul On Ice (1968), while earlier Baldwin and black author Richard Wright had their own personal disputes and disagreements, where largely what they were discussing was the subject of black masculinity.  A similar cultural divide erupted with the success of Ntozake Shange’s mid 70’s theater piece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, as the play was publicly scorned and repudiated by black men in community forums, disgusted by the presence of lesbian characters.  In Chicago, noted journalist, independent radio commentator, and black activist Lu Palmer was the voice of the black community in the 70’s and 80’s, with his incendiary radio commentary known as “Lu’s Notebook,” helping to galvanize the political forces of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor in 1983.  But in the early 70’s he also originated “Lu’s Bookshelf,” organizing monthly community forums to discuss books critically relevant to black people, including the controversial Ntozake Shange, but the visibly present outrage expressed by the black community discussing her work was a repudiation of gays and lesbians in their midst.  The stark tone of derision was unmistakable.  Black masculinity has taken on a public persona through athletic success, as seen in Hoop Dreams (1994), where sports has been the gateway out of poor inner city neighborhoods, so for many Americans, watching football or basketball on television often reflects the extent of their knowledge on what constitutes being black in America, as athletes are asked their opinions on a myriad of issues.  These athletes spend their lives with microphones being stuck in their faces wherever they go.  But rarely, rarely, if ever, are any of them outwardly gay.  Let’s see a show of hands for anyone that can name a single black athlete currently playing professional baseball, football, or basketball in America today who is admittedly gay.  A few have announced in college or on their way out of the leagues, but America is simply not yet ready to accept gay black athletes, as it contradicts our perception of what it is to be a black man.  While there is a recurring gay black character named Omar on the television series The Wire (2002 – 2008), but even in independent American cinema, there is a surprising absence of gay black protagonists, which makes this something of a breakthrough film.  James Baldwin, from The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy, an essay directed at author Norman Mailer four years after he wrote The White Negro (Fall 1957) | Dissent Magazine, from Esquire magazine, May 1961:


I think that I know something about the American masculinity which most of the men in my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in a way that I have been.  It is still true, alas, that to be an American Negro male is also to be kind of a walking phallic symbol; which means that one pays, in personality, for the sexual insecurity of others.  


Arguably the best film on what it means to be black in America remains Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), a startlingly candid expression that is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago, though ironically it was directed by a white man.  Eight years after the release of his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), one of the best date movies ever, this is Barry Jenkins’ (who is not gay) adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, with McCraney a black, openly gay playwright, a 2013 MacArthur Grant winner, where the film blends the artistry of these two black men with similar backgrounds who grew up near one another in the Liberty City Projects in Miami, the same locale used for the film.  A black and gay response to humanist epics like Terrence Malick’s 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life and Richard Linklater’s 2014 Top Ten List #1 Boyhood, films that make growing up as white adolescent boys in America a universal experience, this is another intensely personal film shown in three parts, at ages 9, 16, and 26, each titled after the same character’s name, and played by three different actors, where the brilliance of the film is personified by the collective power of the overall performances.  Little (Alex Hibbert), a derogatory nickname other students call him, a bewildered, persistently picked-on kid that others bully and routinely gang up on, grown sullen and silent already, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), his name given at birth, seen slinking around the corners of the high school and housing projects, always seen looking over his shoulder, and Black (Trevante Rhodes), a drug pusher called by a nickname, now obsessively muscular and pumped up, physically defined by his masculine image.  Opening in the 80’s at the height of the crack epidemic, the film opens to the music of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star,” Moonlight | Music of Moonlight | Official Featurette HD | A24 YouTube (2:32), where we’re curiously introduced to someone other than the main character, Juan (Mahershala Ali), a Cuban-born crack dealer who has a major impact on the outcome of the film, a father figure and protector, a guy running a criminal enterprise, yet shows tenderness and understanding in the way he handles a shy young kid he accidentally stumbles upon.  Bringing him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), as the shell-shocked kid refuses to talk, they treat him like a “Little Man,” feed him and let him spend the night before he opens up the next morning and identifies where he lives.  Respectfully returning him home the next day, his harried single-mom (Naomie Harris, the only one in all three sections) jerks him inside for a tongue-lashing, Moonlight | Back Home | Official Clip HD | A24 YouTube (1:12).  Juan’s home becomes a safe refuge for this young child, returning again and again to get away from his male attackers, where Juan patiently teaches him how to swim, yet at the same time what Juan sells on the street is ruining his mother’s life, all but abandoning him to the wolves.  In one of the more heartbreaking scenes of the film, he opens up and asks Juan what a “faggot” is?  It’s a rare film that provides an honest answer, but this gut-wrenching question sets the tone for just how real and complex this film is willing to get.  The film challenges the viewer’s perception of stereotypes and broadens the view of characters that are usually perceived as one-dimensional, like crack-addicted mothers or drug dealers, where we tend to lump them into a negative category, while in this film they express various degrees of love and tenderness, showing what they’re capable of, but instead have simply fallen through the cracks.


Luminously photographed by cinematographer James Laxton, who filmed his earlier film as well, accentuating color saturation in chosen scenes, adding a dreamlike, seductive quality to what is otherwise a difficult film, along with a pensive and melancholic musical score by Nicholas Britell that is illuminating and stunningly intimate, available on Spotify, Moonlight (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Nicholas Britell - Spotify, where “Little’s Theme” and “The Middle of the World” are used most extensively.  When first introduced to Juan on the corner, the camera does a dizzying 360-degree turn around him, where the swirling effect disorients the viewer from what we are about to experience, shaking us out of any sense of complacency, offering a shift in perspective, requiring that we enter the film with a spirit of openness.  As a teenager in high school, Chiron is openly ridiculed by other males in class, particularly Terrel (Patrick Decile), who hounds and intimidates him incessantly, constantly getting in his face and daring him to do something about it, remaining close friends with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a good-natured friend since childhood, though boys at this age tend to openly brag about their sexual exploits, and Kevin is as guilty as anyone else.   His graphic depictions work their way into Chiron’s dreams, where he passively observes Kevin having rough sex with a girl.  At the same time, his mother is a full-fledged crack addict, kicking him out of the house to solicit various men, while growing increasingly hostile about demanding whatever money Chiron receives from Teresa (Juan is now deceased), as this remains his home away from home.  Not having anywhere else to go, he wanders down by the beach one night and runs into Kevin, who has a huge joint to smoke.  After an awkward discussion, they eventually kiss while Kevin passionately fondles Chiron, for whom this is clearly the first time.  In school the next day there is no lingering afterglow, instead Kevin is pressured by Terrel to play a hazing ritual of punching someone of Terrel’s choice.  It turns out to be Chiron, who refuses to stay down, but continues to get back up for more blows. Terrel eventually pushes Kevin away where he and a couple others kick and stomp on Chiron to finish the job before a teacher intervenes, refusing to cooperate with a school social worker afterwards, despite her encouragement to file a police report and put an end to this harassment, as he feels it will accomplish nothing.  It’s interesting to compare this hazing ritual with the more innocent paddling ritual in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), happening at about the same time, but the cultural deviations between black and white, straight and gay, couldn’t be more markedly different.  The next day in class, Chiron walks into class, picks up a chair, and smashes it over Terrel’s head several times, where he’s lead out of the school premises in handcuffs and placed in a police van, glaring straight at a mystified Kevin who watches in disbelief. 


We are a bit surprised to see the transformation of a skinny high school kid to this buffed, athletic physique, but he spent time in juvenile detention in Atlanta where there’s little else to do, and the man is a workout fiend, waking up early in the morning just to get his repeated repetitions in before falling back into bed.  Now living somewhere outside Atlanta, he’s the spitting image of Juan, running drugs on the street, diamond studs in his ears, even driving the same car, where he’s transformed himself into an imposing figure, using the nickname “Black” that was affectionately given to him by Kevin as a teenager.  Out of the blue, he receives a call from Kevin, who he hasn’t seen or heard from since high school days, who learned to become a cook and now runs a diner in Miami, inviting him to come by, apologizing for what happened when they last saw each other (words Chiron takes to heart), offering to cook something for him, as he heard a song on the jukebox that reminded him of Chiron.  His mother’s in a nearby rehab center, where she may finally be getting her life back together.  The vitriol she displayed in earlier segments are scarred in Chiron’s memory, where a repeating motif comes back to haunt him, where she’s standing just outside a doorway in their home, exaggerated by a heightened neon-pink color scheme, shot in slow motion, accentuated by swirling orchestral violins, where she’s screaming something at Chiron, though the words are never heard.  The meaning, however, is unforgettable, as the rage is always present, recurring in his dreams in the form of a nightmare.  He visits her on the grounds of the rehab center, and is about to abruptly leave, but she grabs his arm and suddenly displays an intent vulnerability, taking him completely by surprise, as she’s suddenly a sympathetic and compassionate figure seen in a new light.  As we see him on the road, driving his car, we hear a familiar refrain, Caetano Veloso Cucurrucucu Paloma Hable Con Ella - YouTube (3:44), a hauntingly dramatic yet utterly sublime song used so effectively in Almodóvar’s TALK TO HER (2002), a reminder of doomed love and an overt reference to the world’s most acclaimed gay film director, yet here we see a long stretch of the highway, with images of black children at play wading into the surf.  The road leads Chiron to a diner in Miami where he finds Kevin (André Holland), where suddenly he’s that same tentative figure seen earlier, shy, inarticulate, yet tragically wounded, hiding beneath the layers of muscles where he’s still the same scared kid underneath.  Their moments together move slowly, patiently, unsure of themselves, with plenty of unfilled space between them, a complex portrait of longing and sorrow, where we can see them thinking, imagining, yet their eyes speak volumes.  Asked about the jukebox song, Kevin plays the 60’s Barbara Lewis classic, Barbara Lewis -- Hello Stranger - YouTube (2:40), which seems to have been written just for this moment.  Both actors elevate the material with understated, unspoken messages, with what’s hidden underneath, the years of regret and marginalization, where there’s simply an extraordinary recognition of what these two guys have been through in their lives, where now, perhaps finally, no further obstacles stand in their way.  It’s a powerful yet fragile moment, filled with lyricism and tender grace.  For all the myriad of walls we construct to protect ourselves from the brutal realities, the strength of the film comes from the quiet acceptance of our own buried truths, where the openness of the characters reflect a director who couldn’t be more empathetic.   


Moonlight Conversation at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival with the director and five actors on the lawn moderated by film scholar Annette Insdorf, (50:05).




2.)  KAILI BLUES (Lu bian ye can)     Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can)                        A                    

China  (113 mi)  2015  d:  Bi Gan



The Buddha said the living beings in all these world systems have many different minds which are all known to the Tathagata. Why?

Because the minds the Tathagata speaks of are not minds, but are (expediently) called minds. And why?

Because, Subhuti, neither the past, the present nor the future mind can be found.


—opening quote from the Chinese Diamond Sūtra, a central text of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the oldest dated printed book in the world, dated May 11, 868 


Best film of the year so far, literally an enthralling experience, one of the few outstanding films that doesn’t really feature a developed central character, or impressive acting skills, yet demonstrates a unique ability to capture the viewer’s imagination through the sheer verve and originality of the film style.  Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and Best New Director at the 2015 Taipei Golden Horse Festival, the youngest recipient of that honor at the age of 26, also the Best First Feature and Best Emerging Director at the Locarno Festival, this intensely poetic film could be described as an existential journey into the subconscious that passes through a spiritual netherworld of the past, the present, and the future, seamlessly merged into an impressionistic mosaic that may exist in an altogether mystical realm.  Completely unpretentious and profoundly meditative, though some may find it slow arthouse cinema, as there’s no action to speak of, with much of it existing only in the head, where the entire film could just as easily be imagined, the director uses several members of his own family as feature characters, using exclusively nonprofessional actors except two characters that appear late in the film, Yu Shixue (the older Weiwei) and Guo Yue (Yangyang).  What’s particularly intriguing is the film style resembles gritty social realism, for the most part, yet is also a ghost story, where there is a recognizable storyline throughout, yet the film moves in and out of dream and memory, darkness and light, and various modes of travel while encountering misty mountain roads, passing through extreme fog banks, where it’s easy to get lost along the way.  Passages of obscure poetry are read by a narrator, written by the writer and director himself who is from the town of Kaili, yet these poems are somewhat obtuse and ungraspable, not necessarily offering insight or commentary on the images onscreen, yet remain highly atmospheric, offering suggestions of an almost omniscient state of mind that exists outside our knowledge.  Like Homer’s Odyssey, there are extended travels, mostly by motorbike, often broken into mini-sections, where the handheld camera has its own inclinations, seemingly with a mind of its own, actually becoming the most prominent character, as the perspective follows the camera’s roving and constantly inquisitive eyes, where the film is not so much about the journey as the detours taken along the way.   


Little effort is exerted to distinguish one character from another, where the director is not going for character development, as only the barest outline of a story exists, with details only sporadically released, if at all, often quite randomly through casual conversation, instead establishing the mood is paramount, very similar to the lush tropical eroticism depicted in Wong Kar-wai’s DAYS OF BEING WILD (1990), yet without the sexual overtones.  Set in the Guizhou province, we are introduced to Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong, the director’s uncle, who was associated with the gang triads, managed a gambling house in Myanmar, and gone to prison, but now works in a factory leading an ordinary life), a doctor in a small rural clinic nestled under the mountains in the rain-drenched town of Kaili that he shares with another elderly female physician, Guanglin, (Zhao Daqing, his grandmother’s hospital roommate), who declares at the outset, “It’s just another normal day.”  Stringing together a series of ordinary moments, the opening credits are read aloud by Chen Sheng while simultaneously matching Chinese script is shown on an old black and white television screen showing street scenes from Kaili in the background, acknowledging the poems in the film come from his anthology called Roadside Picnic, the identical title of a Russian science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky used in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).  Much like Chen has flashbacks of his dead wife Zhang Xi, the old physician dreams of a former lover from the Cultural Revolution, but hasn’t kept in contact, encouraging Chen to visit him as she’s heard he is severely ill, providing him with a shirt, an old photograph, and a musical cassette tape to offer him.  Chen’s brother is something of a criminal layabout known as Crazy Face (Xie Lixun, a pigfeed salesman in real life), usually found in gambling dens or pool halls, leaving his young son Weiwei (Luo Feiyang, the director’s stepbrother) alone to fend for himself, where there’s nothing in the refrigerator and the television only has a single channel.  As a result, Chen looks in on him from time to time, taking an interest that is altogether missing from his own father, even offering to adopt him, but Crazy Face warns Chen to butt out of his personal business.  Mysteriously, Weiwei disappears, with Chen thinking his brother may have sold him for money.  Instead, the child was sent to Dangmai to visit one of Crazy Face’s criminal friends, Monk (Yang Zhuohua), who is also a watchmaker and a collector of hundreds of watches, viewed in a remarkable, mindboggling scene with an upside-down train passing just outside their window, KAILI BLUES - Clip #1: “The Upside-Down Train” on Vimeo (1:59).  Since he promised his mother on her deathbed that he would look after Weiwei, he sets out to find him, hopping on a motorbike that we see twisting through the mountain curves with the lush green foliage in the background, also riding old trains, like those seen here, The Iron Ministry (update) (2014), reminiscent of the brilliant railway scenes from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dust in the Wind (Lian lian feng chen) (1986), reflecting a timeless, stream-of-conscious imagery where it’s evident a journey has begun, KAILI BLUES TRAILER (with english subtitles) on Vimeo (1:52). 


As if on cue, the title sequence appears more than 30-minutes after the film begins.  Accompanied by the extraordinary music of Lim Giong, who’s been composing the music for Hou Hsiao-hsien ever since GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE (1996), which happens to be a big influence on this film, especially the punk sensibility of the gangsters, also the films of Jia Zhang-ke since THE WORLD (2004), the two artists brilliantly collaborate on producing a dreamy, intoxicating mood that features lusheng pipes, a traditional music instrument of the Miao culture, an ethnic minority (including the director) in China that happen to inhabit the town of Kaili, producing a sound Chen associates with his dead mother.  While this may well be what Gaspar Noé had in mind by entering the spiritual realm of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in ENTER THE VOID (2009), or Alexander Sokurov’s ORIENTAL ELEGY (1996), this is more of a shared communion between the living and the dead, where thoughts, feelings, and memories intersect in a void of timelessness, where all happen to occur simultaneously in one’s head.  On the train ride to Dangmai, Chen is the only passenger, getting lost in a dreamlike reverie where he is continually haunted by ghosts of the past, where nine years earlier he ran with the triad gangs and was imprisoned for avenging a particularly gruesome murder of triad boss Monk’s son, forced to suffer his own indignities, none greater than being locked up at the time his mother and wife died, unable to regain what time was lost.  Up until this point, characters often speak of dreams, mirror reflections are seen in motorcycle rear view mirrors, storage areas resemble cavernous caves, alcohol is carried in plastic jugs, waterfalls are just off a back porch, trains flow through walls, there are constant rumors of a wild man sighting in the vicinity, repeated references to a character named Pisshead, poolhalls, hanging laundry, foggy roadways, recurring images of a disco ball, while mechanical equipment always seems to break down.  Suddenly the film turns and focuses on two entirely different characters, Yangyang, an attractive girl who works as a seamstress with aspirations to be a Kaili travel guide, followed incessantly by an older Weiwei on his motorbike (constantly breaking down), who obviously has a major crush on her, and seems to be a more grown up version of the child previously seen.  Yet there is Chen not showing any familiar recognition riding on the back of his bike searching for Miao musicians who can play the lusheng.  This is the beginning of a miraculous  41-minute unbroken shot that is the centerpiece of the film, incredibly shot by cinematographer Wang Tianxing, including 360-degree pans, following winding roads, multi-leveled streets and pathways, moving down alleyways, where the past is displayed by graffiti on the walls, climbing stairs, peeking into the open space of tiny shops, listening in on conversations, crossing rivers and walkways, moving back and forth between characters before finally discovering musicians playing a street concert, a virtuoso existential experience completely altering the viewer’s perspective.      


The hand lit up by fate

Erects forty-two windmills for me

The steady flow of nature

The universe stems from balance

The nearby planets stem from echoes

Swamps stem from the sleeplessness of the land

Wrinkles stem from the sea

Ice stems from wine.


The emergency light on the staircase of time

Seeps into the gaps in the stones where I write my poems.

There is bound to be one who will return

To fill an empty bamboo basket with love.


There is bound to be a crumbling of clay

As the valley unfolds like an opening fist. 


Easily the most startling juxtaposition of the entire film comes when Chen hitches a ride into the town of Zhenyuan on the back of a pick-up truck of young Miao musicians who only play pop music.  Passing through a narrow road of pedestrians on roadways and buildings under construction, it’s clear at this point that something startling is happening with the single shot, yet the intense social realism expressed throughout is completely broken by the playing of a children’s song called “Little Jasmine,” a popular Taiwanese song of the late 1970’s, aka Xiao Moli

( 茉莉 ), or Small Jasmine, Une des chansons de Kaili Blues (merci Panda Ly) - Facebook (2:42), reminiscent of the train sequence over water in Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY (2001), especially in its ability to transport viewers into a uniquely different dimension, like a parallel universe or an alternate spiritual plane.  Incredibly, while waiting for Yangyang to mend a shirt that had lost buttons on route, Chen discovers a hairdresser named Zhang Xi who looks exactly like his dead wife.  Unable to wait, he grabs the shirt Guanglin offered for her long-lost friend, chasing after Zhang Xi, getting a haircut, telling her the sad story of his life, while Yangyang teasingly ignores her admirer, takes a boat across the river, practicing her tour guide speech along the way, with Weiwei offscreen helping her with forgotten lines, as he has it memorized, always following her from a distance, crossing a suspension bridge and down several pathways until she finally agrees to walk with him, all heading for the street concert of the young musicians seen earlier, who can be heard, but just barely audible throughout much of this extended journey, growing louder as they move closer.  Yangyang, Weiwei, Zhang Xi, and Chen all find themselves together on the street listening to the band.  Perhaps out of sorrow for what he’s lost, Chen sings a horribly out of key version of “Little Jasmine,” which he learned in prison to sing to Zhang Xi, discovering this one is already married, offering her the musical cassette he’s been carrying.  Driving Chen to a river ferry that will take him to the Zhenyuan Hotel, Weiwei offers a mystical story about wild men and altering time, with Chen only then learning his name is Weiwei, a moment where Chen appears to have aged considerably, concluding the lengthy shot with the remark, “It’s like being in a dream.”  Finally meeting up with Monk the watchmaker, Chen intends to collect Weiwei, but the old gangster has grown fond of him, wishing to keep him for just a few more days, as the child has blended in complete harmony with the rest of the kids in the countryside, exhibiting a playful spirit, where Chen can only stare at him across a distance, realizing that perhaps his nephew is completely happy.  Featuring an extraordinary sound design and exceptional music, where in the second half, perhaps turning the clock backwards or ahead, character names become mirror images of previous characters, not so much a futuristic shift in time as an example of how minds merge memory from the past into the present with little distinguishing difference, where both may appear in the same thought, capable of evoking powerful emotions.  By the time that Chen reaches his partner’s friend, all he has left to offer is the old photograph, discovering too late that he has already died.  Part of the strongest feeling throughout is that of regret, where the film recreates a multitude of inexpressible sorrows, perhaps best expressed near the end by a funeral procession of aging and nearly forgotten Miao musicians paying tribute to the man in the photograph, their honored teacher.    


All twists and turns are concealed in dense flocks of birds

The sky and seas cannot see them

But with dreams they become visible

Moments where all has gone topsy-turvy.


All memories are concealed in similar days

The spiders of my heart try to emulate the way humans decorate their homes

Even nomads with instruments cannot express

How close such gazes are to those of our ancestors

How close they are to the starlit sky.


Another 70’s Taiwanese pop song, “Farewell,” composed by Li Tai-hsiang, an indigenous member of the Amis Taiwanese aboriginal community, is sung over the closing credits, 唐曉詩 & 李泰祥 - 告別 / Farewell (by Hsiao-Shih Tang & Tai-Hsiang Lee) YouTube (5:27), suggesting, among other things, that despite all the artistic accolades, the film is making a very visible and concerted effort to support Chinese ethnic minorities.  Considering the history of social justice in China, or lack thereof, all one can say is Bravo, as this is truly conscious-raising material.     


The film may be seen in its entirety here:  边野餐Kaili Blues HD720p 完整版高清完美音- YouTube  (1:49:57).




3.)  LOUDER THAN BOMBS     Louder Than Bombs        A                    

Norway  France  Denmark  (109 mi)  2015  d:  Joachim Trier


Following on the heels of Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31 (2011), two of the better films made by any new young director working today, this is a baffling choice to premiere in competition at Cannes, where it got lost in the search for films making a bigger splash, where the top prize was ultimately awarded to Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015).  Stop, rewind, and take another look, as this is a smaller, quieter film that may actually stand alongside the best of the Cannes contenders, but not on that glaring stage where headlines, twitter feeds, and social media drive the feeding frenzy surrounding each premiere.  2015 was a particularly noteworthy year at Cannes, despite what the critics may say, as several of the smaller films like 2015 Top Ten List #2 Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren) , 2015 Top Ten List #6 Carol, and 2015 Top Ten List #9 The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) were among the films in competition, while 2015 Top Ten List #7 My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)  and 2015 Top Ten List #8 Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) premiered in the Director’s Fortnight.  None made a ton of money, but that’s five of the best films seen last year, and this one is no different.  Supremely intelligent, as Trier is one of the more confident writers, working with his partner Eskil Vogt who has co-written each of his films, where their gift for probing, incisive dialogue is special, working for the first time in English, featuring brilliant actors who convey a lifetime of emotions onscreen, none more noteworthy than Isabelle Huppert, probably the closest thing we have in the world today as a universally accepted actress nonpareil.  This is a unique role, even for her, yet it’s one of her best performances in years, despite minimal screen time, largely due to the role that was written for her, as it’s a haunting depiction of a ghostly spirit, summoned from the dead through flashbacks, where the multi-layered complexities of her impact is the emotional nucleus that drives the film.  Shot once again by Jakob Ihre, constructed in a thoroughly unconventional manner, this may be Trier’s most accessible film yet, but it is entrenched in a film vocabulary that is specific to this director, moving backwards and forward in time, capturing the same moment from different character’s perspective, where a voiceover narration informs the inner psychology of the characters, seamlessly integrating dreams and memories with reality, continually allowing the past to comment upon the present, always exploring the darkest of emotions, using an impressionistic mosaic to tell his story.       


Recalling the haunting mood of Ang Lee’s THE ICE STORM (1997) and Robert Redford’s devastating Ordinary People (1980), reminiscent of Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012), yet without the eye-popping visual pizzazz, while also mindful of Juliette Binoche’s similar role in Erik Poppe’s relatively mediocre  A Thousand Times Good Night (Tusen Ganger God Natt) (2013), Trier explores familiar territory, yet takes us on an altogether different journey.  Huppert plays Isabelle Reed, an internationally acclaimed photojournalist that thrives in the harshest of human conditions, usually war torn regions where families are ripped apart, but then returns to the comforts of her suburban family in Nyack, New York to her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne), along with their two sons.  Right from the outset we learn that she’s been dead for several years, the result of a car accident happening just a few blocks from home, and now her colleague Richard Weissman (David Strathairn) intends to publish a lengthy tribute piece about her in The New York Times, where he’s choosing to reveal the truth about her accident, namely that it was intentional.  Gene is a bit distraught by this decision, as the younger of his two sons is not aware of what actually happened.  The older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is a college professor, seen at the outset in the maternity ward, as his wife Amy (Megan Ketch) just had a baby, while the younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) is an isolated, emotionally troubled youth still in high school, usually seen wearing earphones, where he’s completely withdrawn from the world around him.  The reverberations surrounding this revelation are the fuel that ignites this film, delving into the aftereffects of family dysfunction.  Exploring the intersection between grief and memory, the film is concerned with the difficulties of capturing the essential nature of both through photography and film, described by the director as “the incomparability of pain.”  While it’s easy to shortchange the totality of the personal impact, Conrad recalls something his mother once mentioned, that the way you frame a picture can totally change its meaning.  Trier proceeds to do exactly that with this picture, where his superb direction charting unexpected territory along with the fluidity of the editing with the shifts in time and perspective, where the meaning continually changes, makes all the difference, where this film never intends to provide any answers, as our perspectives, clouded by our own experiences, are constantly in flux, but the battlefields at home are often more quietly devastating than the guns and explosions abroad, an apt reference to the title, where one need only heed the warnings and pay attention.


In one of the more stunning admissions seen during a flashback voiceover, Isabelle describes the heavy personal toll of heading off into war zones and the terrible weight of being responsible for communicating on behalf of the victims, revealing how she never feels comfortable either in a war zone or at home, as it always feels like the wrong place, aching to be at home while being away at work, then having to refamiliarize herself with her family after each lengthy absence, “They can’t see how much they’ve changed,” having to spend her life as a perpetual outsider, Louder Than Bombs Movie CLIP - Role (2016) - Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert Movie HD YouTube (1:34).  This idea of turning the commonplace into foreign territory feels revelatory and unique, especially portrayed by the magnificence of Huppert’s tragically understated performance, where we can literally “feel” her heartache and loneliness.  This reaches for a completely different level of emotions, tapping into a surprising amount of untold depth, calling into question what ultimately happened with her, searching for some degree of resolution or truth.  “Truth?  What is the truth?” asks Jonah in a particularly pointed exchange with his father when discussing whether or not to tell Conrad what happened, as he seems to be in a particularly fragile place, where he already feels wounded and hurt, like he’s cut off from the outside world.  Conrad moves between the ages of 12 and 16, where his emotional distance is worrisome, spending his time playing violent World of Warcraft video games in his room, seemingly detached from reality.  In a rather pathetic sequence, his father follows him from a distance, trailing him after school in his car, where he’s literally spying on him, calling him on his cellphone when he finds him sitting alone, asking what he’s doing, where Conrad lies just to avoid interaction, finding it near impossible to relate to his father on even the most basic level, where he is instead sullen and openly hostile toward his father.  Out of growing desperation, Gene even tries to become one of the characters in his son’s favorite video game in order to have a personal interaction, going through extensive training for the occasion, with disastrous yet somewhat hilarious results, as he gets obliterated by Conrad within seconds.  In class, Conrad’s radar hones in on a girl named Melanie (Ruby Jerins), where he’s fascinated by her reading aloud from a novel, yet he transforms the words into the story of his mother and her fatal crash, where he imagines slightly altered versions of what happened, with flying glass and a somersaulting car, continually blurring the lines between imagination and reality before snapping back into his depressed, forlorn school character who continues to remain detached and isolated from the rest.  One should point out that Devin Druid is particularly strong in this role of a troubled youth, remaining passive, hesitant, yet abruptly defiant, where he even seems to imagine having supernatural powers, “There are days I’m invisible, I can do whatever I want.  I must be careful not to lose that ability,” where the audience senses dark inclinations where he’s close to teetering over the edge. 


The pensive, melancholic music by Ola Fløttum is superb throughout, like Louder Than Bombs OST Walking with Melanie YouTube (2:41) or Louder Than Bombs OST Levitation YouTube (2:06), offering a contemplative take on the inner spaces of their fractured lives, with Jonah coming home to visit to help sort through the last unedited photographs from their mother’s last trip to the Middle East, which acts as a sort of refuge from his own responsibilities of fatherhood that he regularly avoids, becoming engulfed in the unresolved feelings about his own parents, who weren’t particularly happy when they were living together.  To his credit, Eisenberg brings an edge to his performance as well, and while appearing to be the more level-headed of the two sons, we eventually discover he’s not such a nice guy, guilty of his own moral transgressions, which he’s quick to see in his parents, but then covers up in his own life, seen lying to his wife about an illicit affair on the phone, where his status as the rational one comes into question.  One of the better scenes is Jonah intruding into his brother’s bedroom, as blaring music makes him grow curious, where Conrad is seen flailing away with his arms and body and dancing rapturously to the sounds of Sylvester - Rock the Box YouTube (5:01), a moment of absolutely zero self-consciousness, which quickly stops when he notices his brother.  With the flick of a single keystroke, he closes out one program and opens a Word document containing some of his writings, allowing his brother to view an opening into his most intimate thoughts, which are typically odd and awkward, but also genuine.  He also shows him a YouTube clip of a cheesy comedy from the late 80’s, HELLO AGAIN (1987), that features a scene of their much younger father with actress Shelley Long, seen as something of a hunk doctor in a smock, a career he gave up to become the at home parent.  Having a laugh at their father’s expense, what becomes transparent from all this is how the father and two sons are equally tortured in their grief, yet never utter a word to one another or ever acknowledge even to themselves the extent of the internal bleeding.  Each one feels separate and alone in the world, perhaps even abandoned, but is afraid to reveal the truth of their alienation.  Even the secondary characters are well drawn, having to deal with their own issues, including Melanie, the object of Conrad’s secret desires, though she barely knows he exists, as she belongs to the elevated social circle of the cheerleading squad, Louder Than Bombs - Clip 2 YouTube (1:37), which may as well be unattainable hallowed ground for a moody guy like Conrad, but they have a poignant scene together that veers into the surreal.  With the director continually altering reality with visions and dream sequences, including Conrad lying down next to a girl in a white dress in the dark of the forest, or Isabelle floating above the ground, mirroring a drawing one of her infant children gave her when she was hospitalized at the time from flying shrapnel in a war zone, while Gene continually sees himself as a helpless spectator to his wife’s gory purgatory of self-inflicted accident scenes, where all are unable to pull themselves out of the emotional vacuum that is consuming them.  What matters most, however, despite their loss, is how they look out and care for each other, where, perhaps unsurprisingly, those who are seemingly most fragile or lost can end up being the most empathetic and sensible. 



4.)  O.J.:  MADE IN AMERICA – made for TV     O.J.: Made in America                         A-                   

USA  (450 mi)  2016  d:  Ezra Edelman


An extraordinary, well-researched and in-depth documentary, made as part of the 30 for 30 series for ESPN, the film is part of a continued effort by ESPN to link sports as an integral part of American history.  While ostensibly a biography of former football star O.J. Simpson, known as “The Juice,” one of the first blacks to become acceptable to corporate America, featured in a variety of lucrative advertisements, running through airports for Hertz rental cars, OJ Simpson Hertz Commercial 1978 - YouTube (30 seconds) before shortening his athletic career to make movies, becoming a familiar household name for several decades, even earning a spot as one of the announcers for Monday Night Football, this film also examines the surrounding racial climate in Los Angeles, including a scathing indictment of race relations and the rampant police brutality directed primarily towards blacks.  Whether intentional or not, this extensive seven and a half hour exposé, told in five parts, of the life and times of O.J. Simpson is at heart a deeply probing study of the effects of denial, both personal and societal, where for decades the largely white LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) continued to brutalize blacks with impunity, where there was no accountability within the justice system, routinely allowing bad cops who should have been fired or jailed for their excessive use of force to go free, while the impact of societal indifference to the overwhelming presence of racism resulted in riots and civil unrest from the Watts riots in August of 1965 to the LA riots in April of 1992 following a verdict acquitting four white police officers in the vicious beating of Rodney King.  During this period the seething anger in the black community from the daily routine of military style arrests was barely even noticed by whites who refused to recognize any racial disparity, though these aggressive tactics only targeted minorities.  At the same time, in a strange inverse of racial roles, Simpson’s white wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, a daughter of wealth and privilege, was subject to years of domineering abuse from Simpson, both physical and psychological, where domestic violence took the form of stalking and spying, which led to outrageous jealous accusations that escalated into repeated violent attacks, where the seriousness of the incidents was ignored and covered up and instead allowed to fester and grow more dangerously malignant, culminating in her murder where she and an innocent friend Ron Goldman were brutally stabbed to death on June 12, 1994, where Simpson was the only suspect.  A lengthy 10-month trial followed vividly captured on television, with gavel to gavel coverage on CNN, including daily clips with extensive legal analysis on the other stations, branded as “the trial of the century,” the story above all other stories, where the amount of attention became little more than celebrity worship, becoming the most publicized criminal trial in American history, where the defense actually put the LAPD on trial, a tactic that successfully earned Simpson an acquittal of all charges in October 1995, though no other suspects ever materialized.  White America was astounded and outraged by the verdict, while blacks were elated in the outcome, though it wasn’t Simpson they were happy for, but the fact that the trial outcome discredited the undisputed power of the LAPD, where the evidence suggested police officers may have routinely lied and mishandled evidence in criminal cases all along.  This division along racial lines becomes the central focus of the film, mixing football glory with the Watts riots and the Rodney King beatings, where there’s an attempt to make it all appear seamless, like an impressionistic mosaic where it’s all happening simultaneously, viewed as part of the same moments in history.


The film traces Simpson’s youth to the housing projects of Potrero Hill in San Francisco, the remnants of abandoned army barracks, where his family had migrated west from the backbreaking farm work of Louisiana that offered little hope for a future.  While his mother Eunice worked the graveyard shift as a hospital administrator, his father was largely absent, leaving Simpson alone and unsupervised for long periods of time where he and other kids often committed petty thefts.  When he and some other kids were caught playing craps in the high school rest room, a teacher hauled them into the principal’s office, informing on what he saw before exiting the office, with Simpson following him out the door.  When the principal asked where he was going, he indicated he was just helping return this group of offenders to the office, getting away scot free.  Perhaps more significantly, Simpson stole the beautiful girlfriend Marguerite from his best friend, eventually marrying her.  Together they had three children (one drowned in a tragic pool accident a month before his second birthday), but his tendency, like his own father (who we learn later was gay, a noted drag performer in San Francisco during the 80’s), was to never spend much time at home, but to roam whenever and wherever he wanted.  Simpson made a name for himself as a running back playing football in junior college, becoming the most sought after athlete to enter a Division 1 school, earning an athletic scholarship to play at USC, which designed their entire offense around his running game, as his speed and size stood out, where if he could break through the line, he could score touchdowns with spectacular runs.  USC is a private institution serving the wealthy and privileged, nearly entirely white, yet it’s surrounded by a black ghetto, where life on campus couldn’t more closely resemble an ivory tower existence, where Marguerite described it as “like a resort, it’s beautiful.”  This college experience allowed Simpson access to some of the richest men in southern California, all of them white, allowing him to realize his dream of being someone important and recognizable.  Simpson made headlines playing football, where some of his amazing runs are among the greatest ever seen in college, winning the Heisman Trophy in 1968 as the most outstanding college football player, where he still holds the record for winning the award by the largest margin of victory.  As many as 70 of Simpson’s friends, former teammates, and business acquaintances are featured in the film, providing extensive background information from people of all walks of life who knew or worked with this man, where his outer demeanor couldn’t have been more pleasant, as he was affable, loved plenty of company, and was generous to a fault, while surrounding himself with people of wealth and influence.  In fact, Simpson refused to see himself as black, claiming “I’m not black, I’m O.J,” distancing himself from the black community during the height of the Civil Rights era of the 60’s, separating himself from other notable black athletes of the times who promoted black activism, such as Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell who collectively made claims of black discrimination, jeopardizing their potential earnings by taking a more militant stand against the continued mistreatment of blacks in American society.  Simpson, who was also a track star (he was part of the USC sprint relay team that broke the world record in the 4X110 yard relay in 1967, a time that was never equaled in an event that no longer exists, having been uniformly upgraded to meters in 1976), avoided other black athletes who supported a boycott of the 1968 Olympics, a position endorsed by Martin Luther King, Jr., an event largely boycotted only by black athletes, however, where black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won medals but wore black gloves and raised a fist high into the air in a black power salute during the playing of the national anthem during the medal ceremony (The man who raised a black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games ...).  Both were immediately ushered home by the Olympic committee which later stripped them of their medals a few months later on October 17, 1968. 


Despite one’s knowledge of the O.J. case, this film unearths a plethora of witnesses that drop bombshell after bombshell of new revelations, helping the viewer put not only the incident and the trial in its proper perspective, but the times in which they occurred, ultimately revealing a tale of two cities, where Southern California depicted a Hollywood police culture through Dragnet (1951 – 59), a popular TV series where hardnosed police detectives went strictly by the book, never wavering an ounce from official department policy, where everyone is treated in the same professional manner, regardless of the crime committed, but they always end up solving the crime and getting their man.  But there’s an entirely different version of the police that citizens witnessed in plain sight, spending little time in black communities except to ride in and make arrests, where racial discrimination and police brutality were standard operating procedures.  Surviving an era of notorious police corruption, Chief Parker reigned from 1950 until mid-July of 1966, when he died while receiving a commendation, the longest serving police chief of Los Angeles history, where they named a police headquarters after him.  But in order to keep the troops in line, transforming the department into the modern age, he resorted to quasi military procedures, creating an overtly racist police department with the superintendent actually recruiting officers from Klan rallies, where the involvement with black communities was to swoop in to arrest an offender, place him in a car and drive away, with no interaction whatsoever with the surrounding community.  In this manner, the police and the black community remained separate entities with no contact with each other, each growing more and more distrustful of the other, where the police became thought of as an all-white occupying force, using brutal tactics with nearly every arrest, literally manhandling and beating offenders, developing a reputation for strong-armed tactics, none of which appeared in the police reports or court testimony, where their official position was a mythical illusion, while the reality was starkly ugly and brutal, like living in a war zone, traumatizing an entire community where blacks were routinely beaten when making arrests, a tactic rarely seen in the white neighborhoods.  This led to an open rebellion in the Watts riots of 1965, and the fatal shooting of an unarmed Leonard Deadwyler by police in May of 1966, allegedly for making a sudden move during a traffic stop after running several red lights, as he was anxiously trying to get his pregnant wife (in the car) to the closest hospital, which was nearly 20 miles away, as there were no hospitals at the time in poor black neighborhoods.  His wife hired a young 28-year old Johnny Cochrane as her lawyer to sue the city for negligence, where under arcane rules at the time, a defense attorney was not allowed to ask questions directly to the court, forcing Cochrane to whisper questions into the ear of the deputy district attorney, who would begin each question with, “Mr. Cochrane wants to know,” which is simply amazing to see in archival footage, while also documenting the shooting of Eula Love in front of her own home in 1979 by two white police officers, who were never charged with any misconduct, all of which led to declining confidence in the police.  Racial tensions only exacerbated following the murder of teenager Latasha Harlins in 1991, happening just days after the Rodney King beating, who was shot in the back of the head by a Korean-American store owner who apparently thought the 15-year old black girl was stealing a juice box, but never saw the money in her hand.  While fined $500 and sentenced to community service, the convicted killer, subject to 16 years for voluntary manslaughter, never served any jail time.  The black community was outraged afterwards, where this event was considered one of the catalysts of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, burning the store to the ground, with the mayor’s office estimating that 65 percent of all businesses vandalized were Korean-owned.       


Into this racial divide walks O.J. Simpson, a black man beloved by white people as they view him as not threatening, a football hero with a winning smile and a warm personality, who they view as a “safe” black athlete that shies away from all the protests and political controversy.  The film intercuts footage of Bobby Kennedy on the campaign trail announcing the death of Martin Luther King with clips of Simpson joining comedian Bob Hope on stage as the USC football team is recognized for their successful season, with Hope congratulating USC as one of the few college campuses in the nation without “a riot, a demonstration, or even a sit-in.”  As the nation was riveted by a variety of social issues, from poverty, racism, civil rights, feminism, and the Vietnam war, Simpson showed no interest in any of that, where he was drafted #1 by the Buffalo Bills in the pros, but in his first year he played on a beleaguered team whose coach was fired for ineptitude.  Going through a revolving door of coaches, the team floundered until they brought back a heralded former coach Lou Saban in 1972.  Drafting a formidable offensive line that was deliberately constructed around his running talents, Simpson immediately ran for over a thousand yards in each of the next five seasons, winning the rushing title four times, having a record-breaking year in 1973 when he was the fastest player to reach 1000 yards in just 7 games, becoming the first and only player to break 2000 yards in a 14 game season (the NFL expanded to 16 games a season in 1978).  Simpson was an All-Pro for six seasons and remains the only player to run for over 200 yards in six different games.  His career was cut short by an injury in 1977, traded to San Francisco afterwards where he played for only two more years, and was inducted into the football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1985.  Simultaneous to his football career, he built a 25-year acting career in Hollywood, perhaps most noted for his comic appearances on the film NAKED GUN (1988), playing a police officer constantly finding himself in the midst of mayhem in a wildly exaggerated, hilarious satiric spoof of a bumbling and professionally inept police department, a critical and commercial success that led to two sequels in 1991 and 1994, each one grossing between $50 and $90 million dollars.  Simpson was a household name, sponsoring ads for Hertz, Chevy, Pioneer Chicken, HoneyBaked Ham, and various soft drinks, viewed as an American success story, even joining the booth of Monday Night Football games in the mid 80’s coinciding with his induction into the Hall of Fame.  During this run, Simpson met a young 18-year old Nicole Brown in 1977 while she was working as a waitress at an exclusive, upscale, Beverly Hills nightclub for the rich and famous called “The Daisy.”  Though still married to his first wife, Simpson proclaimed he would marry Nicole almost at first sight, dating heavily at the time, where the story is reported she returned home after their first date with ripped pants, explaining afterwards that he was a bit “forceful.”  Simpson also bought his infamous Rockingham mansion that same year in 1977, located in the exclusive, all-white Brentwood neighborhood, a hilly, canyoned, affluent and secluded community on the Westside of Los Angeles, California, known for its thick foliage and gated security fences, where blacks constitute 1% of the population.  Divorced from his first wife in 1979, Simpson married Nicole in 1985, five years after his retirement from football.  Their marriage would produce two children, Sydney and Justin, though once again, Simpson had a reputation for straying from the family nest.  Hard to imagine what those two kids must think of this film, as it may be the first time they have ever been exposed to such extensive detail about their father’s life.  


Eight different times the LAPD visited the Simpson home on domestic violence calls, yet in a culture of enablement that hero worships athletes and completely lets them off the hook (think Johnny Manziel in today’s age), the police failed to file reports and just walked away, where nothing was ever done about it.  There was never any demand for personal accountability with Simpson, who was never referred for counseling or anger management behavior.  Considering all the friends and associates, including members of the police force, so many knew what was going on, but so few did anything about it, which is the real tragedy behind this event, as looking back in hindsight, it feels so preventable.  Yet domestic violence remains to this day, some twenty years later, largely ignored by society at large, where people want to sweep these incidents under the rug and pretend they never happened, especially when there’s high-profiled athletes involved who are used to a sense of entitlement.  We’ve learned victims aren’t to be believed due to their own internalized fear, as Nicole Simpson was petrified at the time and scared for her life, where even she denied publicly that there was any truth behind the reports of violence, claiming everything was fine, knowing just the opposite was true, as she was being terrorized by her husband, secretly keeping in a safety deposit box the photos of the repeated beatings to her face, which are simply monstrous and grotesque, as well as the handwritten letters of apology from Simpson, which were only discovered after her murder.  Simpson pleaded no contest to spousal abuse in 1989, where he was sentenced to community service, which was basically spent organizing a celebrity golf tournament.  Finally divorced in 1992 after seven years of marriage, there were attempts at reconciliation, where Nicole moved to her own condominium just five minutes away on Bundy Drive in Brentwood, yet Simpson continued to lord over her, as if she was his personal property, becoming especially abusive when she befriended gay men, even resorting to spying on her through the window of her own home, observing her having sex with other men, which was usually followed by blind rage, where a 911 call in 1989 records him going ballistics, breaking down the back door of her home while screaming and attacking her.  Never was he ever arrested nor did he spend a single night in prison.  All of that came afterwards, as it was after midnight on the night of June 12, 1994 when the bodies were discovered by a neighbor out walking his dog, where even more horrific are the gruesome murder photos of the double murder with both victims lying in a pool of their own blood, both stabbed repeatedly and ferociously at the home of Nicole while both kids were sleeping upstairs, completely unaware of what happened, ironically in the same neighborhood where Marilyn Monroe’s ambiguously debated death occurred 32-years earlier in the early evening hours of August 4, 1962.  Goldman worked as a waiter at the restaurant where Nicole and her family had eaten dinner earlier, discovering a pair of glasses left behind by Nicole’s mother.  After his shift was over, Goldman went to Nicole’s house to return them.  Simpson had no alibi for the time of the murders, but took a late night flight to Chicago, where a limo driver picked him up at his residence just before 11 pm, claiming the house was dark when he arrived a half hour earlier, with no answer to repeated buzzing at the intercom.  The limo driver testified at the trial that he saw a “tall black man” enter the front door of the residence coming from the driveway, after which the house lights were turned on and Simpson answered the intercom, claiming he overslept and would be right out.  The luggage was already packed and was observed sitting outside the front door when the driver arrived.  Simpson reportedly took a midnight flight to Chicago on business, where blood along with a matching glove missing from the crime scene were found at his residence, so a warrant was served for his arrest by the morning of the 17th, where Simpson was expected to be charged with the double murder, where as many as 1000 journalists were waiting for him to turn himself in to police headquarters that morning accompanied by legal counsel, but he was a no show.  By 2 pm that afternoon the police considered him a fugitive from justice.  


In the end, finally confronted with arrest, what does this bold and brazenly violent man do when confronted with arrest?  He pathetically runs away and tries to hide, escaping with a large sum of cash and his passport in his white Ford Bronco, the same one found with blood from the crime scene, where a helicopter news team is able to pick out the vehicle and follow it down the freeway on Interstate 405, covering the event on uninterrupted live news television, where the car was being driven by Simpson’s longtime friend Al Cowlings, eventually tailed by a squadron of twenty police cars that keep their distance, all slowed down to about 35 mph, with 9 helicopters joining the chase, where Simpson reportedly had a gun to his head.  It’s a surreal moment when people on the freeway swerve over to his car and wave and cheer, or urge him to pull the trigger, with the whole world watching while it’s all captured on television.  Once O.J. failed to surrender, the event became a media sensation, with an entire nation asking simultaneously, “What’s happened to O.J.?” who even today is considered “the most famous American ever charged with murder.”  Once cellphone contact is made with an obviously irritated Cowlings, who dials 911 to get the police to back off, it turns out O.J. is running home to his mother, eventually returning back to his Rockingham estate, obviously ashamed of what he’s done, unable to live with himself and accept the consequences of his own actions.  With a gun to his head, was he going to commit suicide live on national TV?  Arriving at his home, but refusing to get out of his car, a police hostage negotiator finally talks Simpson into surrendering, but only under cover of darkness.  As he’s being driven away in a police van, engulfed by a mass of people who were there to support him and cheer him on, O.J. responded, “What are all those niggers doing in Brentwood?”  Those comments are painfully ironic.  It’s staggering that a man who refused to identify himself as a black man was suddenly forced to identify with being black in his defense, where the rallying cry was that he was a victim of a sick system, the racially detestable LAPD that obviously had their own motives.  Law professor Alan Dershowitz, part of the famed “Dream Team” of lawyers selected for Simpson’s defense, actually tipped off one of his former students, Jeffrey Toobin (now with CNN) who was working as a legal analyst for The New Yorker magazine, about Mark Fuhrman’s history as a dirty cop, which caused him to comb the basement files in the bowels of the LAPD searching for lawsuits filed against him.  Instead, what he discovered was a suit Fuhrman filed against the LAPD for forcing him to continue working in the Watts neighborhood, which was causing him insurmountable psychological stress and aggravation due to his personal hatred for blacks and Hispanics, using a litany of racial slurs to describe them, where his deep-seeded prejudice and hostility towards minorities was indisputable, leading to Toobin’s report of the significance race plays in this particular case, An Incendiary Defense - The New Yorker  Jeffrey Toobin, July 25, 1994.  Mark Fuhrman was a cop with serious problems, where his lawsuit was filled with repeated incidents of excessive use of force against blacks, claiming that he actually enjoyed breaking the arms and legs of blacks, repeatedly using the n-word to describe them, where he was so psychologically damaged from hatred against blacks that he wished to be relieved from duty.  This guy was a time bomb about to explode, but supposedly improved his outlook with the help of therapy, yet he was the first detective to arrive on the premises of O.J.’s residence on the night of the murder where he claims he discovered bloody footprints leading from Simpson’s white Ford Bronco directly into his bedroom, while also discovering another bloody glove matching a similar glove at the crime scene.  From the police position, this was overwhelming evidence against Simpson, but considering the cop, the defense believed he planted evidence.    


The degree of hysteria surrounding the wall-to-wall news coverage never felt like a murder case, instead it felt like a media circus, where news was no longer circumspect and investigative, with its facts beyond reproach, but newspapers and the media were guilty of overkill, saturating the daily news cycle with this one story, simply feeding the public exactly what it wanted, where the national news started resembling the salacious details of outlandish made-up stories seen in The National Inquirer.  There’s no doubt that the trial seemingly went on forever at the time, consuming nearly an entire year, becoming thoroughly fixated on this one subject only.  Mark Fuhrman was a tainted cop, who stated under oath that he never used the n-word while carrying out his duties as a police officer, yet court documents suggested otherwise, as his own case file mentioned it repeatedly, while also providing 12 hours of taped recordings of Fuhrman providing realistic ideas for a fictional screenplay about cops in LA which was filled with Fuhrman using the n-word, also exaggerated claims of framing people, torturing and killing victims while getting away with it, creating a fantasy world of a city run by out of control, white supremist cops, but his fictionalized world incredibly matched the black stereotype of dirty cops in the LAPD.  Only in Hollywood could someone actually unearth something like that.  Barry Scheck was the attorney who became associated as a DNA expert, yet his job was not only to question the police handling of evidence, questioning the professionalism of their own standards and in turn the validity of the scientific evidence proving Simpson’s blood was at the crime scene, but more importantly, his job was to confuse the jurors and provide a seed of doubt in their eyes, suggesting it was entirely possible that the LAPD planted evidence on the crime scene that was favorable for a conviction.  To this end, he mesmerized a viewing audience with scientific theories that sounded plausible, but what they had to do with this specific case was clouded in confusion.  To a white audience, this would be inexcusable, as science is science, hard to refute, but to a black community that was used to authorities fudging the evidence, this happened all the time, so it was not only plausible, but likely.  The defense attorneys hammered home this possibility, which, when added to a racist cop, suggests evidence could easily have been planted.  The question, though, was whether it was ever established evidence was planted in this case.  Scheck’s arguments were all supposition and maybes, never once directing any proof to that assertion.  Due to the prevalence of blacks on the jury, black defense attorney nonpareil Johnny Cochrane didn’t have to argue in complicated legalese, but simply had to ingratiate himself to the jury and become relatable and trustworthy, as opposed to the prosecution attorney Christopher Darden whose style was closer to burying his head in his notes like a prepared speech while making little eye contact with the jury.  Having to explain the extraordinary scientific certainties of DNA evidence largely went over the head of the jury, where the complexity became lost over time, as what they could more easily understand was what Johnny Cochrane constantly reminded them of, how cops routinely mishandle and tamper with evidence, as that’s closer to their real life experiences of being black growing up in Los Angeles. 


Yolanda Crawford and Carrie Bess, two black women who were members of the jury speak openly throughout the film, offering candid views as the trial proceeds, which is like keeping a scorecard throughout the event, both offering a vantage point that amounts to a window directly into what the jury was thinking.  In one instance, Bess provides her own brutal assessment, “I lose respect for any woman who’d take an ass whooping when she don’t have to.”  While sitting in jail, O.J. generated $3 million dollars towards his own legal defense by signing autographs, which was still legal at the time as he was not convicted of committing any crime.  The merchandise sold like hotcakes, expertly adding the signature to other memorabilia like jerseys, photographs, or footballs.  Simpson’s legal bill was $50,000 per day over ten months, amounting to a $15 million dollar defense, the best that money could buy, and don’t think they didn’t earn it by putting on a show.  A perfect example is the judge allowing the jury to visit Simpson’s home, despite the fact no crime took place there, as the murder occurred at Nicole Simpson’s nearby address.  In preparation for this visit, the defense team observed a winding staircase with pictures on the wall, none of which featured any family members or any other black people, as they were all photos of Simpson with his prominent white friends.  The defense removed those photos and replaced them with family shots and photos of Simpson with black people.  While this is a sham of reality, becoming utter theatrical spectacle, the showmanship of the defense was allowed by the judge, who himself became mesmerized by the public spectacle surrounding the case.  One of the defense attorneys mentioned that if O.J. had been Hispanic, there would have been a Mariachi band greeting the jury in the driveway.  Losing co-attorney Marcia Clark remains quite infamous even to this day, especially following such a devastating loss, receiving a $4 million dollar book deal and her own TV show after the trial, yet to this day, she remains oblivious to what happened, as she continues to believe the LA cops failed to achieve credible evidence in their initial interview with Simpson, which was without an attorney present, instead allowing him to ramble incoherently instead of pinpointing where he was at a specific time and place.  Co-counsel Christopher Darden was guilty of the most basic legal rule— don’t ask a question for which you don’t know the answer—incorrectly allowing O.J. to try on the bloody gloves before he was certain of the result.  Little did he know what went on behind the scenes leading up to the dramatic event, which is they didn’t fit, as Simpson strained and struggled to get them on, largely due to the fact his physician took him off his arthritis medicine for the two or three weeks leading up to that event, so he could barely move his hands.  Judge Ito was wrong to remain so starry-eyed about being the center of Hollywood attention, allowing the defense far too much leeway in straying from the strict legal confines of the case, yet she never blames herself for anything that went wrong.  She continues to bear no responsibility whatsoever for the fact that she and her partner got schooled on national TV by a more prominent legal team, whose professional expertise ran circles around the prosecutor’s case. 


From a Los Angeles jury pool that was initially 40% white, 28% black, 17% Hispanic, and 15% Asian, the final jury composition was 10 women and 2 men, consisting of 8 black women, 1 black man, 1 Hispanic man, and 2 white females, one of whom was also half Native American.  Two of the jurors had college degrees, nine had graduated high school and one had no diploma.  In the initial vote, only two found him guilty, as O.J. became a symbol of black persecution, where it was all about Fuhrman and racial injustice in the city of Los Angeles, where O.J. became the perfect victim, because he had the money for his legal team to portray him that way.  Even worse, after the racist revelations, when Fuhrman was brought back to the stand, he pleaded the 5th to every single question, refusing to answer on the grounds that it could incriminate him, something no police officer had ever done before.  It was simply incredible.  Having O.J. try on the gloves over a smaller latex glove was ridiculous, and he sold it for all it’s worth, as did the legal team, coming up with the defense slogan of the trial which was reiterated in the final summation:  If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.  But the heart of Cochrane’s closing argument had little to do with Simpson, instead demanding that the jury stop the malicious practices of the LAPD, challenging them and their racial integrity by asking them, whose side are you on?  “Stop this cover up.  If you don’t stop it, then who?  Do you think the police department’s going to stop it?  Do you think the DA’s office is going to stop it?  Do you think we’re going to stop it by ourselves?  It has to be stopped by you.”  Then in a moment of legal hyperbole, Cochrane compared Fuhrman to Hitler, claiming it was our moral obligation to stop hatred before it dominates our lives.  The irony, of course, is that he was using racial injustice to defend a man who cared nothing about the black community, where lost in the process was what actually happened to Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.  After 267 days of witnesses and evidence presentation, 1105 pieces of evidence, 45,000 pages of trial transcripts from 133 witnesses, the verdict was reached in 3 and a half hours.  Hard to believe there was any real jury deliberation, where the overall belief was people were simply exhausted and tired of the entire process and wanted to go home, reaching a verdict before the morning was done.  To the moving strains of Dvořák’s “Going Home” Largo from his 9th “New World” Symphony, Antonin Dvorak - New World Symphony ~Largo~ - YouTube (12:07), which happens to be the same music used at Vice President Joe Biden’s son’s funeral last year, the not guilty verdict is announced and Simpson is released from custody, causing utter jubilation in the black community.  As it turns out, more than 70% of blacks believed in Simpson’s innocence, while more than 70% of whites believed he was guilty, so the predominantly black jury acknowledged they felt a moral obligation to reverse the ”injustice” of the Rodney King verdict and finally give a black man his just due, a decision that elated blacks across the country, tired of a history of oppression and police brutality, where the thinking was it was good to see the police take one on the chin for a change.  Whites, on the other hand, were shocked and outraged, none more anguished in the court than Goldman’s mother Sharon, who was simply distraught, as there was no one else’s blood at the crime scene, just O.J. Simpson, Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson, two of whom were murdered.  That left only one remaining suspect, and he was just set free of a double murder.  There are no other suspects in the case.  Ironically, one of the black men on the jury put up an upraised fist when the decision was read in a black power salute, where it turns out he happened to be a former member of the Black Panther Party.  Who knew?  The jubilation of blacks was accompanied by absolute resentment towards whites, an event that was unprecedented, as they literally danced on the graves of two murdered white people.  The message being sent was—now you know how it feels—as blacks have historically been arrested and convicted for crimes they never committed, while arresting white cops have always gotten off scot free.  Now that the shoe was on the other foot, it was a strange kind of justice, as it didn’t address the charges of murder in the courtroom, but instead took on a larger issue, namely a history of lynchings and murder of black people at the hands of whites.  But the bottom line is that after this one euphoric day, life goes on, and blacks have the same hard road ahead of them, where this likely changes little.  In the end, the winner was not the black community, but a rich black man named O.J. Simpson. 


While essentially a prolonged and well documented discussion on race in America, the fallout from the trial remains divisive, even among Simpson’s legal team, where Robert Shapiro went on The Barbara Walters Show to announce he felt relying upon the race defense had betrayed a sense of moral justice, claiming he would never work with Cochrane again and refused to ever speak to F. Lee Bailey.  Whites, especially his neighbors in Brentwood, unleashed a furor of anger and hostility towards O.J. where he was ostracized, as people felt he was a wife beater and a murderer, calling him names whenever they saw him in public.  O.J. was no longer welcome at the prestigious golf country clubs where he was once the only black member.  It was left to the Goldman family to bear the brunt of the outrage and the agonizing pain of their loss, making sure they hounded Simpson for the rest of his life seeking justice, even if it was only in a civil and not a criminal case, where one only had to prove it was more likely than not that he committed the crime, making sure Simpson could not profit on his victory, as two years later he was found guilty in a civil court and ordered to pay $33.5 million dollars in damages for the two murders, more money than he was worth.  As a result, Simpson lost the house in Brentwood, which was subsequently torn down, and he moved to South Beach, Florida, financially supported by his substantial football pension which could not be touched by the courts, living a tawdry life of excess and degradation, hanging out in strip clubs, doing as many sexual threesomes as he could, where he was associating strictly with the lower elements of society, hangers on, people that continued to fawn all over him like the celebrity he was, living the high life, all the while thinking there would be money and girls in it for them.  He got a $700,000 book advance for a story suggesting how he might have done it, entitled If I Did It, Confessions of a Killer, which was a weird and twisted way others felt they could get a confession out of him, but it was all a game, an act, where he felt the world was passing him by and he was losing his business opportunities to cash in on his celebrity status.  A judge squashed the book deal, awarded the rights to the Goldman family, his biggest debtor, who published the book as if it were O.J.’s own confessions of murder.  In a strange way, this twisted, make-believe fantasy mirrored the fictitious screenplay by Mark Fuhrman, where in each case a searing reality rose out of supposed fiction.  While O.J.’s life was in disorder, his agent and others were stealing his sports memorabilia, hiding it, storing it somewhere, and then selling it to the highest bidder.  When O.J. heard about this, he considered it stolen merchandise and in September of 2007 became interested in getting it back, setting up an anonymous buy with a man in Las Vegas who supposedly had $100,000 worth of O.J. memorabilia to sell.  Simpson decides to bring a couple guys with guns to scare the life out of these posers, assuming they would back off, which they did, but for their own protection they captured it all on video, which is all the evidence they ever needed.  Cops were called, and O.J. was once again arrested, where one of his own testified against him, claiming he led the assault, and they threw the book at him in what amounts to overkill, receiving the harshest justice possible, as he was sentenced, exactly 13 years to the day from when he was originally exonerated, to a 33 year sentence, matching the number of millions owed in restitution for the double murder he supposedly did not commit.  He was charged with burglary and armed kidnapping for screaming out for no one to leave the room, but no one was abducted, no one was harmed, yet he was truly victimized by a system that once miraculously set him free.  Now he’s languishing in a Nevada state penitentiary wondering how the hell he got there, becoming just another screwed black victim of “white justice in America.”    



5.)  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA     Manchester by the Sea             A-               

USA  (137 mi)  2016  d:  Kenneth Lonergan


For the most part, the story concerns a morose, self-absorbed loner that spends so much time drinking, brooding, and being down in the proverbial dumps that he just seems like the kind of guy that prefers to wallow in his own misery.  Not your typical protagonist, but a guy on the edge who if he isn’t careful, may end up all alone late in life talking to the walls where he might resemble Al Pacino in David Gordon Green’s miserablist indie film Manglehorn (2014), a guy that’s simply too screwed up for his own good.  Not the blockbuster powerhouse of his previous film, 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #2 Margaret, which is so ridiculously awesome in so many respects, a bold and brutally honest exposé of a post 9/11 New York, or his masterpiece in miniature, You Can Count On Me (2000), a portrait of an orphaned brother and sister, following their lives as the years progress, an understated poetic gem, where Lonergan’s particular skill is finding the inner truth of his characters.  Both feature extraordinarily well-written dialogue and some of the best acting performances on record.  This one examines another uncomfortable reality that plays out in a different fashion if only because of its predictable yet steadfast refusal not to lose sight of what’s eating at the central character, the extent of his personal loss, the source of his unending despair, as his heart has been ripped from his chest and he’s doomed to spend the rest of his life without it, isolated and completely shut down emotionally, where a Greek chorus of whispers heard throughout considers him damaged goods.  If it feels like a ghost story, it is, as the man is a walking ghost.  But it doesn’t start out that way.  It opens with two brothers out on a fishing boat, with older brother Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) at the helm while his kid brother Lee (Casey Affleck) is horsing around with Joe’s young son Patrick (Ben O’Brien), telling him exaggerated shark stories that are meant to scare him out of his wits, but the kid isn’t buying it.  It turns out to be the happiest moment in the film, and it’s all a memory, backed by a melancholy choral score and lovely recurring orchestral touches from Handel’s Messiah, Handel: Messiah / Part 1 - 13. Pifa (Pastoral Symphony) - YouTube (3:04), adding an underlying layer of stark beauty mixed with profound sadness.


The film, often given a literary feel as it’s filled with introspection, introduces us to Lee, seen shoveling snow for an apartment complex, living in Quincy, a neighborhood near Boston living the life of a hermit, performing janitorial duties, where he spends his life getting drunk in bars and getting into brawls, with an opening montage showing him performing the dirty work, fixing toilets, light fixtures, leaky faucets and showers, performing these hands-on duties in the intimacies of other people’s apartments where he hears a constant stream of complaints as they see his presence as an unnecessary intrusion in their all-too busy lives.  It’s while clearing the sidewalks that he receives a phone call from George (C.J. Wilson), a family friend, notifying him that his brother suffered cardiac arrest and is heading for surgery.  By the time he gets there, he’s already dead.  The scene at the hospital is respectful but awkwardly reserved, where George is the grown-up in the room while Lee remains overwhelmed by it all, breaking down momentarily when he views the body, a scene filled with emotion and one of the surprises of the film, as he keeps his feelings so tightly wound and close to the vest.  Lee holds in the past, trying to contain the effects by compressing it while living in the present, where two trajectories are happening simultaneously.  This series of flashbacks allows viewers a broader view of the family history, where Joe was personable and affable, well-liked by others and viewed as the steadying influence, where his absence is immediately noticeable, while Lee is viewed as the black sheep, more temperamental and hard to get along with due to his changeable moods, where we learn that Joe had a history of heart congestion, a source of irritation to his wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), who left him shortly afterwards with a drinking problem and hasn’t been seen since.  All this is going through Lee’s mind as he heads to the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, a small historic and picturesque community on the state’s northeast edge where Joe lived and kept a boat, as he needs to inform Patrick (Lucas Hedges), now a 16-year old kid in high school, seen having a particular physical moment at practice on the hockey rink when Lee arrives, arousing the curiosity of his teammates who identify Lee as an infamous figure from the past, where the point of view remains with the teammates staring silently across the ice, where something out of the ordinary must have drawn him here.


At the opening of the will in the lawyer’s office, Lee is surprised to learn he has been named guardian for Patrick, something that was never previously discussed with his brother, yet as he’s called upon to be there in a moment of crisis, he falls into a profound silence, opening the floodgates to the past, where flashbacks are woven into the storyline as seamlessly as the present, often indistinguishable, yet they have the effect of peeling away the layers of Lee’s tortured soul.  Set to the fatalistic music of Albinoni’s sorrowful “Adagio,” Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ, "Albinoni's Adagio" - YouTube (8:38), a dramatic piece also used in Peter Weir’s GALLIPOLI (1981), we discover he was once happily married to Randi (Michelle Williams), leading a surprisingly normal life until an emotionally devastating event occurs, a random freak accident that he feels responsible for and could never ignore, a catastrophic moment that ruined his marriage and drove him out of his hometown for good.  Now another traumatic event is luring him back.  As they leave the office, Lee is in a state of bewilderment, suggesting they may have to move for Boston, which only inflames Patrick, a popular guy who has a good thing going here, who doesn’t want to be uprooted, when Lonergan appears as a bystander, interjecting his own sardonic message into the mix of family turmoil, criticizing the authoritative behavior of Lee as he shuts up Patrick, yelling out “Great parenting,” which only inflames Lee more, wanting to smack him right there on the street.  With both talking over the other, it’s an example of overlapping dialogue occurring simultaneously, a Lonergan trademark, though it feels loose and improvisatory.  Patrick notices a change in Lee’s demeanor from when he was younger, where he’s turned into an obnoxiously downbeat guy who probably drinks too much, while Patrick is smart and extremely likeable, playing in an amusingly terrible garage band, on the hockey team, and is balancing two girlfriends.  When asked if he’s having sex with them both, he claims with one it is “strictly basement business,” where he’s stuck in the basement avoiding parental interruptions, but “It means I’m working on it.”  Patrick is a terrific kid who’s probably already more mature than Lee, but he’s also a troubled teen mourning the loss of his father, keeping secret the whereabouts of his mother who disappeared years ago, but recently reached out to him over the Internet.  Lonergan has a way of capturing teen chatter, a cryptic way of aggressively using words in short bursts, understanding it’s a time for intense fascination with things, yet you’re stuck in an isolated and socially awkward stage in life, as kids need to be driven everywhere by their parents, a task Lee is not altogether ready to handle.  Patrick’s thriving social activity is a contrast to his brooding solitude. 


Lee is so caught up in a cycle of grief that he’s left feeling as if time is standing still, where nearly every scene takes place in the crisp chill of wintry air, with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes beautifully capturing the harsh winters of a remote seaside town that seem perpetually overcast, with boats regularly seen going out and coming in, where the use of classical music, especially the pieces from Handel’s Messiah, including a brilliant alto and soprano duet in “He Shall Feed His Flock,” Manchester By The Sea (Original Soundtrack Album) - Spotify, an incredibly sad and melancholy lament filled with an expression of hope that God will unburden our sorrow, that recall familiar sounds associated with Christmas.  In this film, when everything else is stripped away, we are left to enter a sort of sacred interior reverie, a hallowed ground of emptiness that is left unfilled, an inner sanctity of unendurable pain for which there is no outlet.  The depth of the story is a man living with unbearable grief, someone unable to be comforted by anything, standing alone at his brother’s funeral service avoiding eye contact, watching others hugging and kissing while he stands separate and apart, where people try to interact with him, but he doesn’t respond to their attempts, ignoring them, as if waiting for them to go away.  He’s not so much depressed, but grieving, unable to forgive himself for what he is ultimately responsible for, carrying all the tragedies that occurred on his back every waking minute of his life, unable to move on from his loss, remaining emotionally crippled.  Perhaps surprising is the degree of humor found in this film, often in awkward moments, where it can be insanely funny the way normally reserved New England men express their love and admiration for one another, usually fueled by alcohol, excessively poor taste, bitter sarcasm, and foul language.  Patrick is really sarcastic, for instance, offering wry jokes leading to an amazing resilience, capable of instantly changing the dire mood, while Lee has an undercutting wit, where humor softens the harsher edges of tragedy.  Without the humor, the film would be an unending dirge, but the film more accurately captures a rhythm of life complete with ordinary missteps, where attention to detail is essential, depicting a New England, working-class family with Irish Catholic roots, who are loyal to a fault, but in the case of Lee, easily provoked to violence.  One of the scenes of the film comes near the end when Lee encounters his ex-wife Randi on the street, the only operatic moment, where she reaches out for him, literally offering her heart, acknowledging her share of the blame in a magnanimous gesture that catches him off-guard, as he’s obviously moved by the emotional sincerity of her efforts, letting himself go just for a moment before stopping himself and shutting down again, regaining his self-control, where he’s not yet ready to commit, or even forgive himself, as he’s still in the midst of figuring out how to survive the years of pent-up emotions, but while there’s not an ounce of healing or redemption to be found anywhere, it’s a huge dramatic undertaking to even recognize that love is still in the air.




6.)  ‘TIL MADNESS DO US PART (Feng Ai)     'Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng Ai)                   A-                    

Hong Kong  France  Japan  (228 mi)  2013  d:  Wang Bing


I wasn’t sick until you locked me in here and made me sick.


Truly one of the saddest, most bleak experiences one could possibly imagine, as often documentary films may be evaluated based on the unfamiliarity with the territory, where here Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing takes us inside a locked Chinese mental institution in rural Zhaotong, located in China’s southwest Yunnan province, offering no commentary whatsoever, where in this film there’s little need for explanations.  Instead, he allows viewers from all over the world exclusive inside access to one of the world’s most troubling aspects, what to do with a country’s undesirables, where a nation may often be judged on how it treats its lowliest citizens.  Is there such a thing as auteurism in documentary film?  If there is, this kind of grim look at the raw edge of humanity is a rare human endeavor, as few would walk this same path.  What elevates this film is the uncompromising nature of the artist who made it, much like American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, as he continually holds himself to the highest standards, refusing to allow even a hint of artifice, creating a challenging and thoroughly demanding experience, which makes the film all the more relevant.  Admittedly the film is not for everyone, but it’s a beacon of light in the commercial wasteland of slight entertainment films that aren’t really worth a damn.  The degree of difficulty encountered is what sets this film apart, as it starts out with major obstacles to overcome.  Except for one brief sequence, the entire film takes place inside the cramped, claustrophobic confines of a locked institution, where few if any of the inmates would be considered certifiably crazy, but instead they remain locked up due to the difficulty they pose to their families or to the state, where it’s simply easier to remove them from conventional society and place them out of harm’s way.  It’s a frightening prospect, where few if any of these individuals feel they actually belong here, as all feel victimized by a terrible injustice to be involuntarily placed inside a locked facility that resembles a prison compound.  What crime did any of them commit to get there?  There are no lawyers or judges seen arguing their cases, or even therapists or counselors found anywhere on the premises.  For that matter, there are frightfully few doctors.  Instead the inmates are medicated daily by a medical team so that they are not a burden to the staff, where they are drugged to intentionally make them more compliant, spending much of their time sleeping, day and night, where there’s absolutely nothing to look forward to or feel good about, as these are the throwaways of Chinese society.


Some 200 men and women are housed in this enclosed facility that resembles a concrete prison block, men and women on separate floors, with open space in the middle, with inmates kept behind giant iron bars staring off into the distance, where the men house the top 3rd floor where there are sometimes 5 and 6 to a room, a chamber pot placed beneath each bed, where they are free to roam aimlessly through all hours of the day and night, circling the narrow grounds over and over again with no real place to go, as they are confined to one floor where they are largely ignored unless they’re found causing a disturbance, at which time they may be temporarily removed from the floor.  While other inmates suggest beatings take place off camera, one man is returned in handcuffs placed behind his back which clearly limits his ability to sleep it off or even go to the bathroom, contending his arms grow numb after awhile, but he is left to stew in his own discomfort well beyond the appeasement point despite his incessant pleas with authorities, signs of a sadistic, old-fashioned practice that remains thoroughly barbaric.  Indifference is the state of mind one constantly confronts, as inmates calling out for doctors are routinely ignored, while those sitting in a common TV room show a similar state of apathy and personal detachment, perhaops the most common affliction on the premises.  Another receives a potent shot that leaves him dazed and zombie-like afterwards, where at one point he remains fixed to the floor, barely able to move, despite constant ribbing from other inmates who tease him on his passivity, claiming he can’t handle the medicine.   What we see are men in soiled clothes, sleeping under heavy comforters in wool caps and heavy jackets, never once seen changing their clothes, where there’s no concept of personal hygiene, no one seen washing their hair or brushing their teeth, where we never once see any evidence of soap.  On the floor there is a common spigot of water for the entire floor to use, where at one point we see a naked man stroll past others to fill his chamber pot with water and splash it over himself, leaving a giant puddle on the floor, which is the closest thing we ever see to a shower. 


Mostly we see men huddled under heavy blankets, which is where they spend most of their time, where heads pop up from time to time to see what the commotion is all about, as the presence of a filmmaker on the floor does generate attention, where some in the TV room just stare straight at the camera, where there isn’t an ounce of emotion expressed on their faces, instead they are simply blank, expressionless faces.  The men hardly seem human much of the time, as the length of time spent with these inmates feels like an eternity, where the duration of their endless purgatory is an indicator of how their lives are spent, literally wasting away in this hellhole, where the facility is seen as a way station for ghosts passing in the night with no outlet or release.  The only director comment is the written identification of the name and length of time various inmates have spent in this facility, which are occasionally seen alongside certain individuals, where some have been there for as long as ten or twenty years.  Perhaps the ones that have it the hardest are the newest inmates, as they can’t believe how they ended up here, utterly stupefied by what lies in store for them, where one man stands alone looking out over the empty space whimpering in tears all night long.  One man is heard to confess that most men end up here due to fighting, where the police or a family member may have them permanently sent away.  One never sees any assessment of their sentences, instead they seem to be forgotten souls who are locked up and forgotten about, languishing alone for years or even decades.  One woman is seen regularly visiting her husband, but he’s so outraged that she would do this to him that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, remaining belligerent throughout each visit, though clearly he’s aware of his thought process.  The man simply can’t forgive her for what she’s done.  She’s immune to the plight of his dehumanization, claiming he’s better off here, bringing him fresh fruit, then making him share with other hangers on, even some that he obviously despises, but what can he do?  In this facility, each inmate uniformly has no possessions.  When a package arrives from home, others hover around these lucky few like vultures, just waiting for their opportunity to take what they can, where the men are forced to guard and consume nearly everything all at once for fear it will be taken away from them.  There is simply no concept of privacy, instead what’s yours is also mine.


What remains off camera are the sexual practices of the men, where one would expect a great deal of forced homosexual sex, especially taking advantage of the weakest and most vulnerable among them.  One can only imagine the extent of this practice, which is likely identical to a prison population, as adult men of all ages are seen on the grounds.  One inmate has a regular conversation with a female inmate on the floor below, where they discuss sex regularly, often initiated by the woman, where he is able to walk down a stairway to a locked entranceway where she is housed, and they can kiss and touch each other through the iron gates, presumably even have sex.  The tip-off that this is happening is he removes the lightbulb in that corner, where they can fondle each other under cover of darkness.  Throughout this lengthy film, lights are seen turning on and off in distant corridors, seemingly at random times, where one wonders how much of this is related to similar behavior.  No one ever seems to sleep in the dark, as lights remain on even at night while everyone’s sleeping, though one might expect lights are a necessity for filming, revealing the filth and constant grime, where part of the brutality is the stark ugliness, including the graffiti written on the walls.  Occasionally men cohabitate under the covers, where it appears some are regular partners, which are among the only moments of tenderness or affection seen throughout the film, while at other times men wishing to climb under the covers are soundly rejected.  In a rare inexplicable moment, one man goes home for the New Years holiday, which feels so out of place as inmates are routinely seen talking about family visits, but this feels like wish fulfillment, as no one ever actually leaves.  It’s the only moment where the viewer is spared having to share confined space with the inmates, feeling like a breath of fresh air, but once home with his wife, living in what looks like an open aired, abandoned building, they have absolutely nothing to say to one another.  Instead he’s forced to take long walks, where it’s apparent the camera is expanding the existing space, opening up to a world outside, but one that has little to offer, as his wife nags him that it might be time for him to return to the asylum.  Instead he walks away, obviously with no place to go, but he walks anyway, seen walking down a desolate highway late at night, where even in freedom, his only destination is to lose himself in utter oblivion.  Returning back to the facility afterwards, we briefly follow what appears to be a couple, showing an awkward, unorthodox nature, but also a unique closeness, where even in this dumping grounds, friendships develop.  In scrolling intertitles at the end, we learn that some of the men confined were caught murdering friends or family, yet they co-exist with alcoholics, men brought in by the police, or those with physical or mental impairments, including one who is obviously a mute, yet they are all treated with the same indifference and disdain, as the state doesn’t recognize a difference in their criminal history other than they are all considered undesirables, unfit to mix with society. 



7.)   SUNSET SONG     Sunset Song             A-                   

Great Britain  Luxembourg  (135 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Terence Davies


And out she went, though it wasn’t near kye-time yet, and wandered away over the fields; it was a cold and louring day, the sound of the sea came plain to her, as though heard in a shell, Kinraddie wilted under the greyness. In the ley field old Bod stood with his tail to the wind, his hair ruffled up by the wind, his head bent away from the smore of it. He heard her pass and gave a bit neigh, but he didn’t try to follow her, poor brute, he’s soon be over old for work. The wet fields squelched below her feet, oozing up their smell of red clay from under the sodden grasses, and up in the hills she saw the trail of the mist, great sailing shapes of it, going south on the wind into Forfar, past Laurencekirk they would sail, down the wide Howe with its sheltered glens and its late, drenched harvests, past Brechin smoking against its hill, with its ancient tower that the Pictish folk had reared, out of the Mearns, sailing and passing, sailing and passing, she minded Greek words of forgotten lessons — Nothing endures.  


And then a queer thought came to her there in the drooked fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land she passed across, tossed and turned and perpetually changed below the hands of the crofter folk since the oldest of them had set the Standing Stones by the loch of Blawearie and climbed there on their holy days and saw their terraced crops ride brave in the wind and sun. Sea and sky and the folk who wrote and fought and were learned, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted but as a breath, a mist of fog in the hills, but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurt you. And she had thought to leave it all!


She walked weeping then, stricken and frightened because of that knowledge that had come on her, she could never leave it, this life of toiling days and the needs of beasts and the smoke of wood fires and the air that stung your throat so acrid, Autumn and Spring, she was bound and held as though they had prisoned her here. And her fine bit plannings!—they'd been just the dreamings of a child over toys it lacked, toys that would never content it when it heard the smore of a storm or the cry of sheep on the moors or smelt the pringling smell of a new ploughed park under the drive of a coulter. She could no more teach a school than fly, night and day she’s want to be back, for all the fine clothes and gear she might get and hold, the books and the light and learning.  


The kye were in sight then, they stood in the lithe of the freestone dyke that ebbed and flowed over the shoulder of the long ley field, and they hugged to it close from the drive of the wind, not heeding her as she came among them, the smell of their bodies foul in her face-foul and known and enduring as the land itself. Oh, she hated and loved in a breath! Even her love might hardly endure, but beside it the hate was no more than the whimpering and fear of a child that cowered from the wind in the lithe of its mother’s skirts.


—passage from Sunset Song, first of a novel trilogy known as A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932, A Scots Quair - Page 119 - Google Books Result


Based on the 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the pseudonym of James Leslie Mitchell, part of a collective trilogy known as A Scots Quair consisting of three novels, Sunset Song published in 1932, Cloud Howe in 1933, and Grey Granite in 1934, completed shortly before his death the following year at the age of 33.  For decades afterwards his books were all but impossible to buy, though they have steadily come back into print.  The first, Sunset Song (mandatory reading in Scotland), is considered the best Scottish book of all time according to a 2005 poll from The List magazine conducted in association with the Scottish Book Trust (BBC NEWS | UK | Scotland | Mearns classic lifts book honour), though it caused a moral scandal when it was released.  While not explicit by modern standards, the book dealt openly with sexual matters in a frank manner that caused many to reject it at first, but eventually the book was embraced by the same northeast Scotland Aberdeenshire community being depicted in the novel.  Mitchell’s father was an impoverished farmer who was bitterly hostile to a child’s education interfering with his livelihood, so he read everything he could get his hands on, loathed farmwork, considered it slave labor, and instead ran away from home at the age of 16 to become a young reporter.  A fierce advocate of socialism, he was blacklisted by the newspaper and eventually joined the army, becoming a clerk in the RAF for nearly a decade, traveling to the Middle East, before devoting his life to writing.  Drawing heavily upon his childhood, Sunset Song is a revolutionary work, a mixture of stream-of-conscience and social realism, cleverly crafted in an innovative blend of English and Scots language (while his other works are written in plain English), noted for its use of humor, politics, and worldly characterization, showing amazing insight into a woman’s mind, a deep understanding of the complexity of human behavior, and a compassion for the human race, creating one of the strongest female characters in modern literature, following her as a young 14-year old girl in a tight-knit farming community through the passing seasons, weddings, funerals, and the eventual toll of World War I, becoming a testament to Scotland’s agricultural past that was wiped out and destroyed by the war, becoming a powerful statement about waste, loss of tradition, and social deterioration in the modern world.  Writing a first draft for the film in 1997, Terence Davies noted the film has languished in a kind of funding purgatory for nearly two decades following repeated rejections from funding sources, claiming “That kind of thing erodes your soul, and I almost gave up.  I’m not a mainstream filmmaker and the UK Film Council was set up to try and ape Hollywood.  So the climate was terrible for the type of film I wanted to make.” (News News - The Sunday Times)


Without subtitles (which would definitely enhance the experience), much of the language is missed, while initially there is an odd and peculiar style that takes some getting used to, especially the blend of artifice and searing realism, but the wrenching power is unmistakable, creating a haunting and elegiac work of ultimate devastation.  Davies is a master at getting to the heart of the matter, and by the end, much like his best works Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), his poetic literacy is just stunning.  Opening with a rapturous look of the golden wheatfields, the novels are set in a fictional village in “The Mearns,” a sparsely-populated area characterized by farmlands, forestry and empty hills that rise heading inland from the coast towards the peaks of the Grampian Mountains, while the film is haunted by the foreshadowing of early words spoken by the protagonist’s mother, “You’ll need to face men for yourself.”  Chris, played by Agyness Deyn, English fashion model, actress and singer, is a 14-year old farmer’s daughter with a thirst for education, harboring ambitions of becoming a teacher, which is viewed as among the noblest professions.  We soon recognize the dichotomy of the family, a bullying and overly pious father (Peter Mullan) and an overburdened mother (Daniela Nardini), where the father continually picks on her older brother Will (Jack Greenlees), finding him weak and fragile, singling him out for harsh punishments that include beatings, while also brutalizing his own wife with uncontrolled lust, where the prevailing view of marriage at the time, supported by religious dogma, was for women to be bound by a man’s wishes and desires, treated as little more than personal property, leaving her utterly demoralized.  This was the path of righteousness in her father’s eyes, yet what they witnessed in his ruthless behavior only made them cower with fear, and in Will’s case, generated outright hatred, where he wanted to get as far away from him as he could.  The merciless patriarchal behavior on display is not only disconcerting but grotesque, yet in one extraordinary shot the anguished cries coming from the bedroom lead to the protracted wailing of child delivery, reminiscent of the agonizing screams in Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972), among the most extended uncomfortable moments in film.  When it’s announced that twins are born, instead of elation, it only adds to a perception of deepening misery, further exacerbated by scenes of the entire family moving to a larger countryside home in a deluge of rain, eventually settling into the Blawearie place on the fictional lands of Kinraddie.  In no time, the mother poisons herself and the newborn twins after discovering she is pregnant again.  Davies leaves no mistaking the brutal harshness of the conditions, rendering a faithful portrait of Scottish life dominated by men, where women silently suffer in perpetuity.  Chris assumes the role of her mother, but is torn between competing versions of herself, an English Chris that loves books and wants to go to University, and a Scottish Chris that loves the land of her birth, but also develops a growing resentment at the arduousness of farming life. 


Contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the violence inflicted upon one another, the film is luxuriously shot by cinematographer Michael McDonough, where the outdoors resembles painterly masterpieces hanging on museum walls, using 65mm for the lush exteriors as well as a digital camera, where the literary aspect of Chris’s inner narration offers a kind of unapologetic pastoralism that provides the guiding light of the film, “But the land was forever.  It moved and changed below you, but it was forever.”  Using a stylistic technique known as “memory realism,” Davies portrays everyday life with a vivid naturalism, which allows him to delve into the inner psychology of Chris, whose maturity, represented by her changing mindset, continues to advance the story.  The surrounding land of Kinraddie is seen as mythical, viewed in almost utopian terms, where it is a land and tradition worth defending, even if the inhabitants remain stuck in their own backward ways, where one of the strongest impressions counteracting her father’s viciousness comes from a neighboring farmer, Chae Strachan (Ian Pirie), a strapping physical specimen whose gentle kindness always feels welcomed and appreciated.  His presence throughout the film becomes synonymous for the mindset of the other farmers, where he is always viewed as a virtuous man.  When her father suffers a debilitating stroke, paralyzed and bedridden afterwards, barely able to speak, totally reliant upon his daughter, yet his abusive mindset never changes, where he attempts to impose his wrath upon his daughter, with suggestions of incestuous rape.  With a blasphemous justification of his lust for Chris, and his brutality towards Will, we see the destructive possibilities of his harsh, single-minded religious belief.  When she ignores him afterwards, shutting him out of her life as if traumatized, it’s hard not to be sympathetic for her position, even when he dies.  As if a dark cloud has been removed from hovering overhead, her demeanor changes instantly, emboldened by her own freedom, as for the first time she takes charge of her life.  Inheriting the farm, as her brother ran off to Argentina, she takes an interest in one of her brother’s friends, Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), humorously realized in a street scene where both are overwhelmed by a flock of sheep that suddenly appear in the middle of a conversation as the sheep are herded down the middle of the street.  In no time at all they are married, where the meticulous nature of the extended wedding sequence is sumptuously realized, an uplifting and joyous occasion with plenty of drink, dancing, and song, where Chris drops hearts with an a capella rendition of “The Flowers of the Forest,” a sad lament with historical roots that may as well be the Scottish National Anthem.  This punctuates their marital bliss with a particularly appropriate spiritual blessing, resulting in the birth of a child, named after Ewan, where their lives, never happier, feel beautifully intertwined and in perfect harmony with the surrounding fields, whose rhapsodic harvest resembles Dovzhenko’s mythic pastoral depiction in EARTH (1930), where this brief rural idyll seamlessly evolves into poetic literary description where only the land endures, becoming “the splendour of life like a song, like the wind.”


It came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for besides sheep-buchts, remembered at night and at twilight.  The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs. 


While Chris feels relieved when her father dies, it is from him mainly that she inherits her peasant spirit, where she is drawn to the presence of the Standing Stones (Pictish stones) that dominate the landscape, relics of a pre-Christian era that connects them all to their pasts, that embody a sense of timelessness, yet whose meaning remains elusive and lost.  At the onset of World War I, which is the first moment we really get a firm sense of time, there is a jingoistic spirit in the air, where Chae Strachan enlists, believing it will bring about a new socialist era, thoroughly misled by the newspapers to volunteer for the army in 1914, where those that didn’t were called cowards.  Ewan has no interest in fighting, as his life is running a farm, but he’s goaded into joining the thousands of other young men sent to the European front for prolonged trench warfare, where the idea of honor and nobility becomes confused with masculinity, as his entire perspective undergoes a crude transformation, where the influence of war turns him into a ruthless savage, returning shortly after training where he is little more than a bullying beast, the spitting image of her father, coarse, brutal, and vulgar, drunk nearly the entire time, treating her horribly, where Chris needs to grab a knife to defend herself from his boorish advances, leaving again shortly afterwards for France without so much as a word from Chris.  But the reality of the war is a distant event and is barely noticed in Kinraddie, yet the magnitude of its impact leaves an indelible impression, as so many men that left never returned, including Ewan Tavendale, who we learn afterwards was shot as a deserter, where there are fleeting moments that remind one of the absurdity of the military trials in Kubrick’s PATH’S OF GLORY (1957).  In the aftermath, the sweeping aerial shot of the abandoned war zone is a stark reminder of those who lost their lives trapped in a vile and meaningless existence of barbed wire and mud, a kind of hell on earth that is both beautiful and appalling, yet also a chilling reminder of how a nation so willingly sacrificed their own sons in an excessive display of warmongering at the expense of human conscience and genuine humanity.  A thought provoking film, where the overriding tenderness lies in the aftermath of war, punctuated by Scottish folk songs, languorous images of a timeless landscape, time-altering 365 degree pans, and dissolves between shots that make it appear people are melting into the earth and sky, where it’s hard not to be swept away by the sheer painterly beauty of the film.  But the emotional intensity of the last fifteen minutes is utterly transfixing, deeply tragic and profoundly uplifting, that begins with an eloquent tracking shot following the inhabitants of the entire town, one by one, walking through the wheatfields on their way to a church memorial service, where the thunderous sounds of a mournful chorus accompany them throughout, Glasgow Phoenix Choir - 'All in the April Evening ... - YouTube  (3:39), where the elegiac music becomes the unspoken sermon.  But nothing is as memorable as the final outdoor memorial service, where the names of the Kinraddie men killed at war are inscribed in the Standing Stones, where a new reverend makes an impassioned speech with clear communist leanings, denouncing the British government’s war policy, comparing it to imperial Rome, “They have made a desert and they call it peace” (A Scots Quair - Google Books Result), while a Highlander in kilts and bagpipes is silhouetted against the sky, much like the bugler against the red sky in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), playing “The Flowers of the Forest,” not really a folk song, but a national song of reverence commemorating the Scottish dead at the Battle of Flodden against England in 1513, now reserved almost exclusively for funerals or memorial services.  


In the sunset of an age and an epoch we may write that for epitaph of the men who were of it. They went quiet and brave from the lands they loved, though seldom of that love might they speak, it was not in them to tell in words of the earth that moved and lived and abided, their life and enduring love. And who knows at the last what memories of it were with them, the springs and the winters of this land and all the sounds and scents of it that had once been theirs, deep, and a passion of their blood and spirit, those four who died in France? With them we may say there died a thing older than themselves, these were the Last of the Peasants, the last of the Old Scots folk. A new generation comes up that will know them not, except as a memory in a song, they pass with the things that seemed good to them, with loves and desires that grow dim and alien in the days to be. It was the old Scotland that perished then, and we may believe that never again will the old speech and the old songs, the old curses and the old benedictions, rise but with alien effort to our lips. The last of the peasants, those four that you knew, took that with them to the darkness and the quietness of the places where they sleep. And the land changes, their parks and their steadings are a desolation where the sheep are pastured, we are told that great machines come soon to till the land, and the great herds come to feed on it, the crofter is gone, the man with the house and the steading of his own and the land closer to his heart than the flesh of his body. Nothing, it has been said, is true but change, nothing abides, and here in Kinraddie where we watch the building of those little prides and those little fortunes on the ruins of the little farms we must give heed that these also do not abide, that a new spirit shall come to the land with the greater herd and the great machines. For greed of place and possession and great estate those four had little heed, the kindness of friends and the warmth of toil and the peace of rest – they asked no more from God or man, and no less would they endure. So, lest we shame them, let us believe that the new oppressions and foolish greeds are no more than mists that pass. They died for a world that is past, these men, but they did not die for this that we seem to inherit. Beyond it and us there shines a greater hope and a newer world, undreamt when these four died. But need we doubt which side the battle they would range themselves did they live today, need we doubt the answer they cry to us even now, the four of them, from the places of the sunset?


And then, as folk stood dumbfounded, this was just sheer politics, plain what he meant, the Highlandman McIvor tuned up his pipes and began to step slow round the stone circle by Blawearie Loch, slow and quiet, and folk watched him, the dark was near, it lifted your hair and was eerie and uncanny, the ‘Flowers of the Forest’ as he played it . . .


It rose and rose and wept and cried, that crying for the men that fell in battle, and there was Kirsty Strachan weeping quietly and others with her, and the young ploughmen they stood with glum, white faces, they’d no understanding or caring, it was something that vexed and tore at them, it belonged to times they had no knowing of.


He fair could play, the piper, he tore at your heart marching there with the tune leaping up the moor and echoing across the loch. Folk said that Chris Tavendale alone shed never a tear, she stood quiet, holding her boy by the hand, looking down on Blawearie’s fields till the playing was over. And syne folk saw that the dark had come and began to stream down the hill, leaving her there, some were uncertain and looked them back. But they saw the minister was standing behind her, waiting for her, they’d the last of the light with them up there, and maybe they didn’t need it or heed it, you can do without the day if you’ve a lamp quiet-lighted and kind in your heart.




8.)  RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da)     Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da)            A-                   

South Korea  (121 mi)  2015 ‘Scope  d:  Hong Sang-soo


Hong Sang-soo was born in Korea but got a bachelor’s degree at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and his masters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Making films since 1996, Hong is known for complicated narratives, sometimes showing the same events twice, each time through a different character's eyes, but also for the most obnoxious male characters on the planet, usually grotesquely overbearing, with bad manners and a tendency to get drunk and hop into bed with younger girls, usually they are artists like film directors or professors sleeping with younger students, where they perform miserably if at all.  Impotency is a key ingredient, even if only psychological, as his characters mostly remain in a state of emotionally repressed inertia.  He's certainly a minimalist, writes his own films, and remains perhaps the last of the independent film movement left in South Korea.  He's left alone to make art films that exist in his own universe, though NIGHT AND DAY (2008) was partially financed by France and was filmed in Paris.  Critics love to call him the Eric Rohmer of the East, as his films are nearly all dialogue, examining relationships in much the same way, but this is misleading, as Hong is far more confrontational in his use of deluded and misbehaving men, using complex narrative schemes that result in a more experimental style all his own, as his films are a devastating critique of befuddled male abhorrence, where it’s fair to say the abominable behavior on display is universal, the ultimate power play option where men are constantly trying to get the upper hand even while they’re flailing away in utter futility.  They simply refuse to admit their weaknesses, even when they’re caught in the act.  None of his films register as a Wow factor, instead they are all low key, intimate, and conversational.  He has an extremely naturalistic style of storytelling, creating a compelling atmosphere, especially a complete lack of artifice, which he uses to shoot among the best sex sequences in the modern era, as there are simply no inhibitions.  But men are boorish and women are mysteriously attracted to their authority.  The director’s first 8 films were all shown in Chicago, either at Facets or the Film Festival until 2008, bursting onto the scene with distinguished flair and imagination, but then haven’t been seen since though he’s continued to make one film a year.  Now releasing his 17th feature film, the last 8 have all been shown at the New York Film Festival, while none have screened in Chicago.  In June at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York even screened a retrospective of his entire feature-length output (The Hong Sang-soo Retrospective Is a Must-See - The New Yorker).


Hong has always had a fascination with mirror images, treading the same ground twice, allowing characters to see themselves differently, where this slight variation on a theme often leads to startling results, where he finds moments of gripping honesty that come out of nowhere, like a shock to the system.  Shooting in a tableaux style, the camera remains affixed, usually to a tiny, enclosed space, often holding for extended sequences, allowing the scenes to develop, and perhaps at the last moment the camera will veer up into the trees or sky or distant landscape, once again holding the shot, or zoom onto a specific object of focus, such as a face, allowing the emotional state of mind to register.  In this way, the director decides what the audience sees and notices, carefully making subtle changes at appropriate moments, inevitably changing the outcome significantly with almost surgical precision.  Many claim Woody Allen has been making the same film for successive decades, with only slight variations.  The same can be said for Hong, though far fewer people see his films, which have just about become an endangered species, as his top-grossing film until now has been IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (2012), featuring international star extraordinaire Isabelle Huppert in the lead role, raking in a grand total of $25,000.  So this guy operates on a completely different wavelength than what we’re used to, often dealing with modern routine and repetition, yet showing a surprising amount of originality.  Like a puzzle piece that all fits together in the grand scheme of things, he operates with almost mathematical certainty, continually changing the players, shifting their focus of attention, yet the prevailing themes are immediately recognizable, an adherence to social customs, male power and vanity on display, the elusiveness of love, the difficulty of sustaining relationships, violating moral boundaries, a refusal to learn from past mistakes, leading to regrets, apologies, moments of tenderness, and personal torment, as he’s an extraordinary playwright who continues to explore the human condition by finding a seemingly unlimited variation of new possibilities.  While one might think being away from his films for nearly a decade it would be easy to fall out of the rhythm and visual language of his cinematic style, where memory plays so heavily in the slight shifts and variations from film to film, instead it felt like “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” as there was a renewed appreciation for what we’ve been missing all along, which is a director that shuns pretense and commercialism, but instead insists upon exploring how people operate within themselves, using a Jacques Demy choreography of missed opportunities, showing how easily the choices we make might lead to another direction, where he loves to compare parallel storylines, each one a distinct possibility, where there’s no one single existing reality, but a merging of what takes place only in the imagination and what actually happens, where it’s up to each individual viewer to distinguish the difference. 


What’s amusing, yet tragically profound, is how this film reveals Hong’s autobiographical arc, as he has in real life finally become a character from one of his own films, breaking from the years of routine and repetition, in this case 30 years of marriage, to run off with the female star of one of his films, Kim Min-hee, who is twenty years younger, declaring his love for her and his intent to start a new life.  This has caused such a major scandal in Korea that it has become tabloid fodder, with both at the center of attention in what can only be described as a moral dilemma.  Besides being an actress, Kim was a spokesperson for a line of cosmetics, but after public adultery was exposed, she was immediately dropped with the company demanding compensation for back pay.  Meanwhile Hong’s longtime wife is outraged, claiming her husband is failing to support their own daughter, claiming he is no longer paying for her education abroad as he needs to support his new girlfriend, covering for her unexpected financial loss.  Back and forth texts between Hong’s wife and Kim’s mother have been made public, with one claiming the other should have been a better parent, while the other reminded the irate wife that she is having difficulty raising her own daughter.  Like Woody Allen and his 1992 breakup fiasco with Mia Farrow, running away with one of her own adopted daughters, declaring his undying love, while at the same time fending off charges of child molestation that have stuck with him throughout his lifetime, let’s just agree that this is another huge mess, though Hong’s wife indicated she had some inkling something was up after watching this film, with its own stark revelations, where truth and fiction intersect.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the lead male role is an art film director, Ham Chun-su (Jung Je-young), visiting the city of Suwon for a screening of his most recent film, where he is invited to participate in a Q & A discussion.  The title card interestingly reads, “Right Then, Wrong Now,” a distinct play on words suggesting something is out of place.  Arriving a day early, as the event was pushed back a day, he mulls around town visiting historic sites, including an ancient palace, carrying hot coffee in a cup to warm him from the winter chill in the air, where he soon notices an attractive girl, Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), introducing himself, where he’s surprised to discover she recognizes his name as a noted director, inviting her for coffee, learning she is a former model that decided she was much happier instead spending her days painting, though it leaves her alone and isolated for much of the time.  Pressing to see her work, they retreat to her art studio, which happens to be nearby, describing her paintings as loosely going with the flow without an inherent plan, which is also how he describes his movies, believing they have something in common.  While obviously attracted to her, making that plain for her to see, he seems more interested in drawing her out of her shell, yet hides his real intentions behind pleasantries and flattering politeness, while she remains shy, quietly hidden behind a customary wall of reserve.  Working up an appetite, they go out for sushi, which includes a heavy dose of soju (rice alcohol), making toasts to one another, before heading off to a café where a friend is having a party.  Imbibing in still more alcohol, he inadvertently blurts out more than is discreet, causing Hee-jung to excuse herself, as his constant attention is making her uncomfortable.  Both having drunk too much, they depart on separate paths. 


The next day at the screening shows amusing aftereffects, as in front of a scant few, Chun-su suffers an emotional meltdown, still hung-over from the previous night’s drinking binge, erupting in anger at having to describe in one sentence what his films are attempting to convey, floundering for a while before gaining momentum, where his words only grow more aggressive and inflammatory, as if it’s ludicrous to even attempt such a thing, claiming his films have always fought “against” words, eventually walking out of his own film discussion, having reached a breaking point.  Once outside, having a smoke, he rails against the insipid shallowness of the film critic on the podium, describing him as “ignorant,” absolving himself of any responsibility for the incident before returning back to Seoul.  Retracing its steps, the film begins again with a different title card reading “Right Now, Wrong Then,” as the two meet in front of the palace, head off for coffee and tea before visiting her art studio.  This time Chun-su is more demonstrative, calling her work utterly conventional, as she refuses to challenge herself, suggesting she may need to reevaluate her artistic motives.  She is floored and dumbstruck by these remarks, which he quickly apologizes for afterwards, suggesting he needs some air to smoke.  As he steps out the door, she asks if all directors are like that.  Grinning sheepishly to himself, he responds, “Yes, we are.”  Surprisingly, she takes more interest in him when he’s inconsiderate and wrenchingly honest, even to the point of being brutally cruel.  This time, in the drunken conversation over sushi and soju, Chun-su passionately declares his love for her, like uttering a personal proclamation, but then collapses into a heap of embarrassment and personal torment by revealing he’s married and has kids (a pertinent piece of information that was not revealed the first time around), which seems to have a crushing effect upon him.  Although consumed by tears, he once again declares his love, making sure there is no misunderstanding.  Overheated by all the drama, he needs to step outside to clear his head, welcoming the blustery winter cold.  At the party, Hee-jung quickly excuses herself, claiming she’s drunk too much, leaving Chun-su to make a spectacle of himself, as he hilariously removes every stitch of clothing to several terrified women who react in horror, utterly petrified by what they see.  This panicked confusion is followed by Chun-su and Hee-jung leaving together, where they wonder if they need to invent a lie or create an acceptable explanation to avoid moral suspicion, which is equally amusing, considering what just happened.  Once outside, Chun-su suggests they take a taxi to Kangwon Province (a reference to his second film), which she readily agrees to, but then both lose their courage when a taxi arrives but is pointed in the wrong direction.  Several more taxis go by just crossing the street, so they end up walking instead down dimly lit, narrow streets that are completely empty in the late hours as they approach her house when Hee-jung receives an anxious call on her cellphone from her mother, wondering if she was with that “madman” from the party earlier, as one of the girls obviously described him as a lunatic that took all his clothes off in front of them.  Scrutinizing him afterwards, she curiously asks what got into him, but they’re both still too inebriated to make a fuss.  Not yet ready to say goodbye, still flush with the adrenaline of possibilities, Chun-su urges her to go in, but come back outside, suggesting he’ll wait in the bitter cold.  Promising to do exactly that, she goes inside, with her mother greeting her at the door, while Chun-su has a smoke in the bitter cold, still standing in a nearby alley, which also references his fourth film TURNING GATE (2002), where a gentleman suitor waits hopefully in an alley waiting for a girl to step outside her family home.  In each case, they wait in vain, as Chun-su, showing no patience, quickly exits.  The next day there is no meltdown at his screening, no verbal jousting, instead he stands around outside the building smoking with friends, accepting all flattery that is directed his way, which includes greeting Hee-jung’s arrival, as she eagerly anticipates viewing his first film, vowing to watch his others as well, again, both going their separate ways.        



9.)  THE LOBSTER     The Lobster               A-                   
Greece  Netherlands  Ireland  Great Britain  France  (118 mi)  2015  d:  Yorgos Lanthimos


From Greece, the same country that gave us Costa-Gavras’s brilliant political exposé Z (1969), showing the demise of a military junta during absurdly repressive times, the country again is in deep economic turmoil over its national debt, where the abruptly changing insecurity of life in that society simply does not resemble anywhere else in the rest of the world, causing this Greek filmmaker at least to take a completely unique worldview.  Evoking the depths of Greek tragedy with a true artistic realization, Yorgos Lanthimos invents an absurdly bleak universe that is such an extreme form of dark comedy that it appears to exist in its own universe, where it’s often hard to equate how it mirrors our own world.  Unsettling, to say the least, demonstrating a kind of scathing sarcasm that hasn’t really been seen since Terry Gilliam’s nightmarish BRAZIL (1985), the film has a power to enthrall but also confuse, as it lends itself to no easy answers.  Like the best David Lynch films, the director would be hard pressed to find any critic that actually understands specifically what the director was trying to achieve, though from an audience standpoint, it’s not like anything else you’ll see all year.  Weirdly reminiscent of LORD OF THE FLIES (1990) for adults, the starkness of the situation calls upon a completely new societal order, where nothing is as it seems, but exists in the bizarre logic of the moment, told exclusively through deadpan humor, surrealistic flourish, and completely absurd events.  At the center is a subversive rebellion against conformity, where characters are forced to accept the most peculiar set of rules as the norm, and then carry out their daily routines within the appalling restrictions of those imposed standards, each weirder than the next, where the outer shell capitulates willingly, showing no sign of aversion, while the inner being is profoundly disturbed, but can’t show it, as the entire film evolves around the core idea of pretending to fit in.  David, Colin Farrell in his most unglamorous role, plays a pot-bellied, middle aged, ordinary man with no outstanding attributes, whose wife of eleven years has just dumped him, where in this society it’s a crime to be single, so he’s sent to a “home” for recovery, a rehabilitation hotel with strict rules and the most ominous consequences.  Here he has 45 days to find an acceptable mate or he will be transformed into an animal of his choice, while accompanying him on his journey is Bob, his brother turned into a dog, transformed years ago from a previous visit to this same recovery home.  


Described as an “unconventional love story,” the film is set in the near future where being single is considered a crime, so people’s lives depend on finding a partner.  While the hotel establishment resembles a health spa, it’s more appropriately a cruel and sadistic prison with draconian regulations that are strictly enforced, where the rules are accepted without question, as if this has been a longstanding tradition, including morning visits from a maid, Ariane Labed (the director’s wife), who nakedly straddles David’s lap until he gets an erection before abruptly departing, leaving him in a state of permanent dissatisfaction, where there isn’t the slightest hint of love or happiness anywhere to be found, instead residents cower in fear at the inevitable, willing to accept the slightest hint of compatibility as a sign of true love.  Couples are drawn together by an exaggerated notion of having something in common, using physical attributes as “defining characteristics,” where both are left-handed, walk with a limp, have a speech impediment, or are subject to nose bleeds, etc, a seemingly random or arbitrary trait, where people are so desperate to be accepted that they attribute maximum importance to seemingly insignificant details.  For David, it’s his nearsightedness, for his friend Robert (John C. Reilly), it’s his lisp, while John (Ben Whishaw) walks with a limp, as they seek to find a partner who matches their own personal characteristic.  Part of the intrigue of the film is the novel use of originality, where they have literally created a futuristic Brave New World that exists in its own peculiar mathematical certainty, but makes little sense.  Being stuck in the absolutism of this Kafkaesque totalitarian world is the fate of each character, where no background information explains how society arrived at this point, yet the lifeless and banal quality of their lives is matched by a musical soundtrack that is wrenchingly emotional, including Beethoven String Quartet No 1 in F major, Op 18, No 1 Adagio ... YouTube (8:34), which recurs throughout like a musical motif, becoming a parody of what’s missing.  Also featured is the equally rare and obscure, yet extremely stylized romanticism provided by Sophia Loren and Tonis Maroudas singing “What Is This Thing They Call Love,” Sophia Loren, Tonis Maroudas - Ti 'ne afto pou to lene agapi (1957 ... YouTube (2:26) from BOY ON A DOLPHIN (1957).  The film is narrated by the voice of Rachel Weisz, an unseen character that doesn’t appear until well into the second half of the film, who speaks in a halting voice, with no voice inflection, never sure of herself, as no one, not even the narrator, is capable of actually expressing themselves clearly, instead everything is communicated in strict robotic deadpan without ever showing an ounce of emotion.  While this conveys an amateurish feel, as if actors never really rehearsed their lines, it’s part of Lanthimos establishing a totally “new” world that is both haunting and ridiculous, provoking outright laughter at times, adding bizarre twists that are weird and increasingly uncomfortable, tapping into an extreme degree of pain and anguish.


With the arrival of new guests, the coolly efficient hotel manager (Olivia Colman) speaks with uncanny ease, “The fact that you will be transformed into an animal should not alarm you,” as she and her partner (Garry Mountaine) provide pop songs and inane skits for the identically dressed hotel guests advocating the advantages of couples, Something`s Gotten Hold Of My Heart - The Lobster - YouTube (4:08), while the throbbing electrical sounds resembling a fire alarm signals it’s time for The Hunt, extraordinary scenes when the residents are bussed into a nearby forest to hunt down escapees and other individuals called Loners with tranquilizer darts, gaining an extra day for every captive delivered, dramatically elevated to a slow motion operatic montage shot by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, Apo Mesa Pethamenos - Danai (The Lobster OST - HD Video ... YouTube (3:06).  One of the guests, a ruthless misanthrope who is easily the hotel’s most unpleasant resident known as the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), takes sadistic relish in bagging record numbers of hunt victims, each targeted for animal transformation and returned back to the forest.  The sinister nature underlying each and every scene only grows more chilling, where there’s a lot going on under the surface, most of it indescribably dark and cruel, like being stuck in a Grimm fairy tale.  When David finally escapes to the forest, he discovers yet another rebellious society of wandering outcasts run by the tyrannical rule of Loner Leader Léa Seydoux (couldn’t help but wonder how she became the leader), a terrifying force of evil who inflicts her own ridiculous set of rules, where touching, kissing, and falling in love is forbidden, punishable by mutilation, so they survive like hidden guerilla fighters.  It’s here that David meets his soul mate, the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), but they are unable to express affection, so they develop a coded sign language designed to hide their true feelings from others.  “When we turn our heads to the left, it means I love you more than anything in the world, and when we turn our heads to the right, it means Watch out, we’re in danger.  We had to be very careful in the beginning not to mix up I love you more than anything in the world with Watch out, we’re in danger.  Inexplicably, the Loner Leader and a randomly chosen partner lead David and his chosen partner on covert visits to the City, ostensibly to visit her parents (both play classical guitar), where she invents a life and a career, as the City is run by an equally arcane set of rules, with police on the lookout for non-married individuals who are subject to arrest.  Shrewdly written by Lanthimos and his frequent co-writer Efthymis Filippou, exhibiting a more accomplished sense of overall direction, where one can’t help but be a bit wonderstruck by all the perplexing, unanswered questions, the film draws heavily upon existentialism and the theater of the absurd, where the specter of liberation or conformity shadows every scene, creating a thought provoking and oddly moving experience where romance remains undefined and continually under construction, even by the end, which couldn’t be more disturbingly ambiguous.



10.)  LA LA LAND     La La Land           A-                       

USA  (128 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Damien Chazelle


A critically acclaimed Hollywood revival that owes its artistic soul to Jacques Demy and his lavishly colorful musicals of the 60’s, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort) (1967), as Demy was a great admirer of the Golden Age of MGM Hollywood musicals, where his films were basically a love letter to the Hollywood movies of the 40’s and 50’s, incorporating the dreamy music of Michel Legrand and bleak elements of poetic realism into his bursting kaleidoscope of colors that vibrantly come alive onscreen through movement and dance.  A key to understanding Demy’s films was the effortless naturalism on display, where he didn’t hire the best choreographer or music instructor, as the singing and dancing were not legendary, but simply incorporated into the rhythm of the picture, part of the DNA of the product, so characters didn’t walk so much as skip and twirl down the street, where this visualized fantasy world included the bit players who simply exited gracefully offscreen, so that the totality onscreen was always greater than the sum of the parts.  With that in mind, this film takes a while for the full effect to kick in, as at least initially it feels forced, opening without an introduction to any of the characters, so there’s no emotional connection established, yet it breaks into a show-stopping opening number that only reluctantly generates interest.  Set in a typical Los Angeles freeway traffic jam where the traffic isn’t moving at all, where one’s patience is at the boiling point, one by one people start coming out of their cars, singing and dancing, climbing on the roofs of cars, creating this fantasized, color-coordinated alternate reality that makes the wasted time feel a little more bearable.  What works is that the misery caused by this kind of freeway logjam is real, something we can all relate to, where our minds tend to wander anyway, so why not allow an outpouring of an over-sized imagination in response?  So while it’s bit contrived, reality quickly kicks back in gear once the cars start moving again, where an unlikely road rage encounter between strangers (the two protagonists) results in typical hostility and disdain.  


Only afterwards are the characters introduced, where Mia (Emma Stone) works as a barista in a corner coffee shop on the grounds of a Warner Brothers movie studio, where important people come in and out, people used to being ogled and pampered, often complaining of the service, where the employees are star struck by being so close to movie stars.  When a customer accidentally spills coffee on her white blouse just before an audition, it does not bode well for her getting the job, probably more embarrassed than anything else, yet the rudeness of the people she is trying to impress stands out, cutting her off in mid-sentence, with some not even looking up from their phones.  Meanwhile, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) lives in a near-empty apartment where none of the boxes are even opened as he wonders how he’ll pay next month’s rent, visited by an over-controlling, financially secure sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who seems used to bossing him around trying to get his life in order, where she gets under his last nerve before he heads off to work as a jazz pianist forced to play Christmas tunes in an upscale restaurant, the epitome of artistic humiliation, which he endures for as long as he can before breaking into one of his own compositions, defying his boss’s strict instructions, none other than J. K. Simmons from Whiplash (2014).  When Mia returns home, she has a giant Ingrid Bergman poster on the wall next to her bed, with a bedroom filled with Hollywood tributes.  Her roommates, all in different colored attire, break out into song trying to cheer her up by inviting her to a posh party that evening.  After initially blowing it off, she decides to join them at the last minute, but feels completely out of place in such an artificially contrived upscale environment.  Making things worse, she’s forced to walk home, as her car has been towed.  Hearing a lilting melody as she passes the restaurant, a lovely jazz riff with a beautifully melancholic theme, she is drawn inside at the exact moment Sebastian is getting fired for disobedience, recognizing him from the earlier road incident, but ignoring her complimentary remarks as he steams past her out the door, soon to become a distant memory. 


Months pass before they meet again, this time at another poolside Hollywood party where Sebastian’s hiding behind dark sunglasses playing electronic keyboards in an 80’s pop cover band, the evening’s entertainment, so she plays along and offers a song request, doing a blatantly fake dance in response that is actually kind of cute, showing signs of an all but absent personality.  Walking to their cars afterwards, the only emotion they share is utter sarcasm, reaching an overlook showcasing the glimmering city of lights, where despite their pretend contempt, they break out into an elegant song and dance, swinging on a lamplight in a riff of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in SINGIN IN THE RAIN (1952), lamenting how such “A Lovely Night” is wasted by being with someone who is so clearly not interested, yet for the first time a spark of magic is in the air, where we’re beginning to get the charm of these two delightful characters.  When Sebastian shows up at the coffee shop, all bets are off, as they walk through a studio lot as if they’re gliding on air, suddenly hanging on every word, confessing their innermost dreams, as she’s been striving to become a successful actress since she was a little girl, while he’s always wanted to be the owner of his own jazz club, where the chemistry between them is electric.  When she blurts out “I hate jazz,” suggesting it reminds her of Kenny G and elevator muzak, the kind of stuff that sends you to sleep, he’s compelled to reach into his soul and reveal what makes it so alive for him, suggesting every jazz musician composes their own spontaneously created symphony that is different every night, challenged by the musicians around him, the changing moods, constantly discovering new territory while playing onstage.  It’s a kind of free form poetry that only exists in this intrinsically American art form that began by blacks playing live music in the brothels and bars of New Orleans, including Louis Armstrong, one of the most influential figures whose career spanned five decades, literally introducing a new style of music to the entire world.  His enthusiasm is so apparent she can’t help but be moved by his passion, where he later brings her to a small jazz club where they are literally smitten.  This conversion, of sorts, has a way of persuading the viewers to give this kind of movie a chance, where jazz and cinema are synonymous with a treasure-trove of history, where all you have to do is kick back and enjoy, allowing the artistry to work its wonders.   


Much of the film does exactly that, borrowing from the past, replicating some of the wondrous moments of movie history, where couples would fall in love and find themselves transformed by imaginary Hollywood backlot sets that couldn’t be more luxuriously decorated, transcending the limitations of theatrical space, where we watch the couple float through the stars of the Griffith Observatory, waltzing into the air as planets and galaxies roll by.  This is thoroughly enchanting stuff, where it’s hard not to be moved by the changing moods of the romantic couple whose lives become a brilliant mind-altering fantasia that comes to represent their unspoken interior worlds, filled with a dazzling elegance that literally fills the screen, shot by cinematographer Linus Sandgren in extra-wide CinemaScope.  Most of this has been seen before, where it’s like a collection from movie history, but the most poignant moments are reserved for just the two of them, as the viewers become invested in their characters once they reveal themselves to us with such brazen authenticity.  The film uses the changing seasons as chapter headings that invoke different periods of their lives, which don’t always mesh as we might expect.  Perhaps the biggest contrast comes when Sebastian is hired to play keyboards in a popular jazz fusion band called The Messengers lead by an old school friend Keith (John Legend), complete with a singer, scantily clad dancers, and other MTV music video looks, where he’s finally making money, but growing farther away from his dream.  Their onstage performance couldn’t be more hostile to the film’s artistic concept, yet it represents what’s more customarily accepted in the modern world, where the format is to make a record, then go on the road for a year or so promoting the music.  This has a disastrous effect on their relationship, while Mia devotes all her time writing and staging a one-woman play that is an instant flop, sending her back home to the safety net of her parents.  With their dreams deferred, a single event changes the status quo of avoidance and disinterest, offering Mia, and perhaps even their relationship another chance.  Her audition is the most personalized and poignant moment of the film, “The Fools Who Dream,” (“Here’s to the hearts that ache, / Here’s to the mess we make”), becoming a mantra for the thousands of people who have flocked to Hollywood having this exact same dream, just hoping they might get their chance, but the exhilaration of most are left dejected and disillusioned.  The film imagines two completely different endings, where one is like the flip side of the other, where you get your fantasy fairy tale ending as well as a more realistic possibility, where both are one in a million chances, but all it takes is that one lucky break.   Mia’s heartfelt audition is easily the most original aspect of the film and is the one scene that far and away distinguishes it from the rest, as overall the film feels more like a recreative montage of cinematic scenes and styles that came before.  Chazelle has stylishly created a melodramatic tearjerker, a musical film fantasia, and a sure audience pleaser.   



Honorable Mention



JACKIE ROBINSON – made for TV     Jackie Robinson    A-                   

USA  (240 mi)  2016  d:  Ken and Sarah Burns, David McMahon   Jackie Robinson PBS page


A return to form for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose earlier film BASEBALL (1994) barely covered the life of Jackie Robinson, despite nearly 19-hours in 11 exhausting episodes, so this is a more extensive portrait, becoming analogous to an exploration of the changing race relations in America, as Robinson’s life is characterized not only by the abject horrors of the journey, but the ability to transcend prejudice and bigotry with an extraordinary talent on the playing field.  Targeted with death threats and venomous race-baiting, Robinson was living out the last vestiges of the Jim Crow era in the South where blacks could not stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as whites, so traveling with the team became a lonely and particularly isolating journey, where these laws were designed to humiliate and punish blacks for their supposed inferiority.  Robinson’s stature, however, transcends sports, as he almost single handedly dispelled the notion of black inferiority, where his Hall of Fame career spoke for itself, becoming a role model for courage and grace, both on and off the field as he opened doors, calling into question the senseless injustice of a segregated white and black America, becoming a good will ambassador for integration and equality, an advocate for Civil Rights, where his life serves as a personal and professional inspiration, posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.  What’s particularly noteworthy in this film is the distinguished presence of Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s surviving widow, who at age 93 remains as sharp and alert as ever, as her own perceptions add an extraordinary dimension to the complexities of her husband’s life, as she shared most all of these moments with him along the way.  First Lady Michelle Obama notes in the film, while sitting alongside President Obama, “I think that’s a sign of his character that he chose a woman that was his equal.  I don’t think you would have had Jackie Robinson without Rachel.  To go back and have refuge with someone who you know has your back, that’s priceless.”


Born Jack Roosevelt Robinson (where his middle name was in honor of the President who died just 25 days before he was born), the youngest son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, Robinson was 14 months old in 1920 when his father abandoned the family, so his mother moved her five children from the small town of Cairo, Georgia to Pasadena, a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, where she found work as a maid.  Moving to an all-white neighborhood, the family faced constant harassment, including burned crosses on their front yard, but they refused to move.  The neighborhood pool was for whites only, where blacks, Asian, and Latino kids could use it once a week on “International Day,” where the pool was drained and scrubbed cleaned afterwards before opening again the next day for the exclusive use of whites.  Robinson learned early on that athletic success did not guarantee acceptance in American society, as his older brother Mack was an exceptional athlete and a track standout, earning a Silver Medal in the 200 meters at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, finishing just 0.4 seconds behind Jessie Owens, yet the only job he could find afterwards was as a street sweeper and ditch digger, despite having a college education.  Jackie attended Pasadena Junior College, playing alongside mostly white athletes, before transferring to UCLA, becoming the school’s first varsity athlete to earn letters in four sports, football, basketball, baseball, and track, winning the national title in the long jump at the 1940 NCAA Men's Track and Field Championships.  Ironically, baseball was Robinson’s “worst sport” at UCLA, hitting only .097 in his only season, although he went 4-for-4 in his first game and stole home twice.  Twice he led the Pacific Coast League in scoring in basketball, while he was such a threat to score in football, one of only four blacks on the team, that a rival coach from Oregon claimed, “I guess you’ve got to have a mechanized cavalry unit to stop this guy.”  He was a football All-American and, along with Jim Thorpe, a contender for the greatest all-around athlete in American history.  Robinson left school in 1941 once his baseball eligibility ran out, without graduating, against the wishes of his future wife, Rachel Isum, who he met as an entering freshman when he was a senior.  


After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Robinson was drafted and applied for Officer Candidate School in Fort Riley, Kansas, where blacks were routinely rejected at the time until the intervention of Heavyweight Boxing champion Joe Louis, who was also stationed there, eventually led to his acceptance, quickly leading to a personal friendship between the two men.  Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943, became engaged with Rachel shortly afterwards, and was reassigned to Fort Hood in Texas.  It was there that a white Army bus driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of a military bus, which he refused, more than a decade before Rosa Parks refused a similar request in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, which led to his arrest and a recommended court-martial, adding on additional charges, including insubordination and public drunkenness, though Robinson did not drink.  Robinson, who described himself as “the kind of Negro who isn’t going to beg for anything,” was eventually acquitted of all charges.  The court proceedings, however, kept him stateside, while the unit he was assigned to, the 761st "Black Panthers" Tank Battalion, were the first black tank unit sent into combat during the war.  As most of the military training facilities were located in the Deep South, the black trainees were forced to train over several years, while whites were being sent overseas after just a few months, making them subject to hostile acts of violent racism, including beatings and even murder.  Rachel graduated from UCLA in 1945 with a degree in nursing and the couple was married a year later, a year before he broke into the big leagues, as he was instead playing baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, offered an obligatory tryout with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, which was largely a political show to appease black newspapers and desegregationists, with no intentions of ever giving him a shot, as he was routinely subjected to racial taunts throughout.  The Red Sox were actually the last team in Major League Baseball to sign a black player in 1959.  While there were other black players with bigger names, like Josh Gibson and Satchel Page, it was Robinson who was selected, largely for how solidly grounded he was with a stable marriage.  After a lengthy discussion with Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodger President and General Manager, who “was looking for a soldier,” according to Rachel, where he famously lays down the law, explaining the turn-the-other-cheek scenario in the first few years requiring Robinson not to respond to the racial animosity that would inevitably come his way, telling him “I want a ball player with guts enough not to fight back,” Robinson was assigned to the Montreal Royals as the first black player in the Brooklyn Dodger farm club of the International Leagues, where he led the league with a .349 batting average while also being named the Most Valuable Player.


Rachel Robinson recounts the ordeal of reporting to Jackie’s first spring training in Daytona, Florida just two weeks after their wedding, where the trip amounted to their honeymoon, flying from Los Angeles to New Orleans, where they were bumped off their connecting flight to make room for white passengers, leaving them stranded at the New Orleans airport where none of the restaurants would serve them.  Anticipating this, Rickey met them there offering a bucket of fried chicken, which they graciously accepted, making it last throughout their ordeal.  Eventually taking a flight to Pensacola, Florida, with a connecting flight to nearby Jacksonville, they were ordered off the plane to make room for two white passengers.  With little recourse, they boarded a bus for Jacksonville, where the driver, calling him by the racial slur “boy,” ordered them to move to the back of the bus, as the front seats reclined, but not in the rear.  After a long and arduous journey through a part of the country where blacks who challenged discrimination were often jailed, beaten, or murdered, with six blacks lynched in 1946 (Lynching Statistics), and more than 20 others were rescued from angry mobs, they finally made it to Daytona Beach, where Robinson was so angered and humiliated that he was ready to quit.  Only after talking to journalists Wendell Smith and Billy Rowe from The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper avidly following his story, was he convinced that he had to endure these indignities so others after him would have opportunities that were closed to him now.  Robinson, the only player allowed to bring his wife, was not allowed to stay with his teammates in the same hotel, so instead the newlyweds stayed in the home of a pharmacist and influential black politician, Joe Harris, known as the “Negro Mayor of Daytona Beach.”  Making matters worse, only Daytona Beach allowed him to play on the field, and even there he received death threats, while in nearby towns, the Sanford police chief threatened to close the facilities if Robinson appeared, and in Jacksonville the team arrived only to find the stadium padlocked.  During his time in the Negro Leagues, Robinson displayed a defiant spirit, sitting at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworths where he would not move until he was served, refusing to sit in the balcony at movie theaters, the designated area for blacks, while also refusing to buy gas from gas stations that prohibited blacks from using the rest room facilities.  Of interest, in the same year of 1946, Robinson’s backfield teammate at UCLA, Kenny Washington, became the first black player to sign a contract with the NFL in the modern (postwar) era.  The following year, just days before the start of the season, Robinson was called up to the major leagues at the relatively advanced age of 28, starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, making his major league debut at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947 before a crowd of 26,000 spectators, which included 14,000 especially excited black fans.  50 years later, the city of Sanford issued a public apology to Jackie Robinson and proclaimed that day Jackie Robinson Day.  Major League Baseball followed suit officially retiring his number on April 15, 1997, adopting a tradition of Jackie Robinson Day in 2004 where baseball celebrates his legacy every year on April 15th, a day many players elect to wear number 42 in his honor.  The last player to wear the number 42 year-round was New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, an All-Star Panamanian pitcher who retired after the 2013 season.   


Early in his career Armed Forces veteran Robinson was called upon to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1949 as a stark contrast to singer and black activist Paul Robeson’s claim that black Americans wouldn’t fight for their country, where he was largely duped by reactionary conservative politicians to undermine a man with a huge black following in Robeson, leading to his eventual blacklisting, this at a time when Robinson was still not allowed to shower with his teammates, forced to accept a locker off to the side in the corner of the clubhouse.   But others coming up after him looked to Robinson with hope, thinking now they might get a chance, where the weight of carrying an entire race on one man’s shoulders is never really fathomable to the rest of us, where he certainly felt the weight, according to Rachel, as “He knew if he failed that social progress was going to get set back.”  Described by New York Post sports journalist Jimmy Cannon as “the loneliest man I’ve ever seen in sports,” the only way he could fight back was to do well on the field and help his team win, something he did brilliantly throughout his storied career.  As President Obama notes in the film, “Jackie Robinson laid the foundation for America to see its black citizens as subjects and not just objects.  It meant that there were 6, 7, and 8-year-old boys who suddenly thought a black man was a hero.”  While there is famous footage of Robinson at age 36 stealing home in the 1955 World Series, there is also a considerable post career look at his life after baseball, where he served on the board of the NAACP, supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential campaign, as he attended the 1960 Democratic National Convention, where he heard reports that Kennedy was serious about civil rights, but after seeing him prominently sit arch-segregationist Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus on stage with him, Robinson walked out in disgust, but he later praised Kennedy for the action he took on civil rights, and was disappointed and angered by the conservative Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, eventually becoming a voice for black economic progress, but had his run-ins with Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and other black activists that felt he was out of touch with the movement, calling him an “Uncle Tom.”  A lifelong Republican because the Democratic Party’s Dixiecrat wing ran his family out of Georgia, he became one of six national directors for the unsuccessful 1964 Presidential campaign of Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller in New York, leaving the Republican Party convention completely demoralized when the nominee chosen was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, where Robinson witnessed firsthand, “out of thirteen hundred delegates, 15 were black, and of those 15, one had his credentials revoked and another had cigarettes put out on him by Goldwater supporters,” claiming in his 1972 biography I Never Had It Made that he now had “a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,” eventually switching parties and supporting Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in 1968.  According to director Ken Burns, “Robinson was there in 1960 and 1964 when the two parties switched sides on the Southern white vote, and that’s a huge moment in American history.  He witnessed it firsthand.”


With Keith David delivering the narration, and Jamie Foxx reading from Robinson’s letters or columns, we get a fuller picture of just what drove the man, as he continued to fight against racism and rail against inequality well after his career was over, where he worked as a business executive, the first black to serve as vice president of a major American corporation, helped found a minority-owned bank, wrote a regular newspaper column, and was politically involved.  Delving more into his family history and the relationship with his wife and children, eventually buying a house in Connecticut, we hear the voices of his now grown daughter Sharon and his son David as they reveal a deep sense of anguish felt by their father at his inability to connect with the emotionally distant Jackie Robinson Jr. who had a history of drug abuse, yet was well on his way to an apparent recovery before a car accident took his life at the age of 24, where there is an unseen backside exposed like never before, making him all the more vulnerable and human, as his life is anything but perfect or heroic.  Even as a player, Robinson didn’t always remain quietly passive, becoming more aggressively argumentative after his first few years, challenging umpires and opposing players, where his innate personality opened up, but his outspokenness drew the ire of once-adoring fans and beat writers who preferred his passivity and accused him of being “uppity” or ungrateful, where his own black teammate Roy Campanella felt his combativeness on the field was often divisive and hurt the team.  “Without that anger, you don’t get Jackie Robinson,” suggests sportswriter Howard Bryant, while according to Rachel, “He was not an angry black man.  He was an athlete who wanted to win.”  Robinson, who spent his entire Major League career (1947 to 1956) with the Dodgers, was voted Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949, when he won the National League batting title with a .342 batting average, becoming an All-Star for six consecutive seasons beginning in 1949, receiving more votes that year than any player except Ted Williams.  With a .311 career batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants, helped win a World Series in 1955, and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.  While Brian Helgeland’s Hollywood movie 42 (2013) offers a glimpse into the racism and discrimination that Robinson encountered, even from his own teammates, during his Major League career where more than a third of the league’s players at that time hailed from former Confederate states, this film offers a much more extensive portrait behind the scenes of a man who endured the neverending assault of racial attacks to lay the groundwork for the acceptance of blacks in America, fighting tirelessly for more black managers and executives in the game of baseball, where Martin Luther King Jr. called Robinson “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides,” eventually becoming an active spokesperson and fundraiser in the Civil Rights movement, joining King at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the March on Washington in 1963 attended by 250,000 people hearing King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.  He’s a man that helped blacks believe that things they could not imagine were now possible, where Robinson took the hateful insults, racial slurs, death threats and abuse and made it just a little bit easier for the next person of color to become the “first” or second in their school or workplace.  Again, according to Burns, explaining his overriding interest in making the film, “Jackie Robinson is the apostle of our better selves and is the apostle of the better angels of our nation.”



LITTLE MEN      Little Men              A-                   

USA  Greece  (85 mi)  2016  d:  Ira Sachs                 Official site


Our parents are involved in a business matter, and it’s getting ugly, so they’re taking it out on us.

—Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri)


Ira Sachs has been described as a New York City filmmaker, where like many who have come before him, the city is used as a backdrop throughout the film, highlighting the scintillating streets of New York, feeding off the thriving neighborhood energy, where diversity in the population goes almost unnoticed, viewed as part of the changing landscape, yet has a major impact in his intimate dramas.  Quoting Bilge Ebiri, Sundance Review: Little Men -- Vulture:  “If Martin Scorsese was the quintessential auteur of New York in the 1970’s and 80’s — with its wise guys and street toughs — and Spike Lee that of New York in the late 80’s and 90’s — with its Balkanized enclaves and attitudes — then Ira Sachs is gradually becoming the quintessential auteur of today’s New York — the one of class inequality, and of relationships transformed by the changing city around them.”  Offering expansive ideas in a small film, the drama is concise, yet very powerful, feeling like a follow up to Fred Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights (2015), highlighting the ethnic diversity that exists within this New York City neighborhood in north-central Queens that’s being driven out by real estate prices and gentrification, yet while Wiseman’s is filled with detail and minutiae, this film provides all the heart that is missing in that film.  New York is increasingly just for the rich, with entire neighborhoods driven out of existence by rising costs.  Specializing in stories about people in crisis, this film focuses on two different families living in the same building where common interests unite them and bring them together, only to eventually be separated by class distinctions, where the exorbitant price of real estate in New York City ultimately becomes a wedge that becomes more powerful than existing bonds of friendship.  It’s a traumatizing story filled with heartache, yet offers a distinct view of how urban neighborhoods drive out the minorities through supposed economic concerns, never admitting to any prejudicial views, yet the racial component is unmistakable.  The future in each case is uniquely different depending on whose shoes you happen to be in, where white privilege and a sense of yuppie entitlement aggravates existing tensions, creating an anxious divide of class hypocrisy where there was once harmony, or at least tolerance.  The gentrification conflict is one most urban residents can recognize, as few neighborhoods are spared, where tense Brooklyn real estate dilemmas have been seen in movies before, including Hal Ashby’s THE LANDLORD (1970), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), and Noah Baumbach’s THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005), but this is one of the few that cares to explore the personal impact.  Lest we forget, cities across America were formed by an influx of people migrating from different parts of the country and from around the globe all seeking work, where the postwar generation after WW II felt a special obligation to shelter those that were driven from their homelands during the war, where a welcoming spirit was synonymous with the American spirit, where the Statue of Liberty reads, in part:


Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!


But generational shifts have changed that sentiment, with greed playing its part, where people only care about themselves.  This film is like a time capsule into the mindset of the modern era revealing how once revered values have been excoriated and tossed aside to make way for more selfish concerns.  This is the changing face of America, where minorities are once again excluded, but this time there’s no redlining, no mention of housing discrimination, no need to establish malicious intent, as it’s all done legally, where the competitive market drives the jacked up prices, and those on the economic fringe are sent away in droves.  Whites left the inner cities in the 50’s and 60’s for safety concerns, superior schools, and the promise of a better life in the mostly white suburbs, but now, with newly attained wealth, they’re moving back into the cities building million dollar mansions that drive up the real estate prices.  While this film never provides any political backstory, it clearly shows the drastic human impact of gentrification on ordinary families.  The film was shot in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, though it’s never mentioned by name.  “You’re gonna like this neighborhood, it’s become a very…bohemian area.”  Meet Tony (Michael Barbieri), a charismatic and wildly precocious 13-year old as he introduces himself to Jake (Theo Tapitz), a contemplative, aspiring artist who likes to draw but keeps to himself most of the time and doesn’t make friends easily.  These two are the titular heroes of the film, snubbed and socially excluded around others, yet easygoing and likeable with each other where they instantly flourish, becoming inseparable over time, probably the best thing that ever happened to either one of them, as they’re simply on the same wavelength.  Like a shelter from the storm, protected by the innocence of childhood, the two remain immune to the various problems of the adult world, which strike at the opening with the death of Jake’s grandfather, where a memorial service is held in his behalf.  We are quickly introduced to Jake’s parents, an Upper West Side couple from Manhattan that includes Brian (Greg Kinnear), an actor on the fringe doing scantily paid non-profit works, and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist who supports the family, often called away for emergency medical situations.  In order to help make ends meet, they move to their grandfather’s home in Brooklyn, something he left for his family, where one of the first things we hear from Brian, “You know, I grew up in this house.”  While they live on the second floor, the first floor has a dress shop, a small boutique with handmade dresses made and designed by Leonor, Paulina García from Gloria (2013) , almost always seen working tirelessly at her sewing machine, a single Chilean immigrant mother who lives with her son Tony, the same age as Jake.  By some apparent oversight that seems benign at the time, Leonor was not even invited to the funeral services, yet both sets of parents seem thrilled that their children have taken an instant liking to one another, apparently filling a previously existing social void. 


The rhythm of the film is established by the brash energy of the two kids, who also carry the dramatic weight of the film, often seen careening around the sidewalks of the city, Tony on his kick scooter with Jake on rollerblades, accompanied by long musical interludes composed by Dickon Hinchliffe, known for his poetic music in Claire Denis films, where the kids discover the city around them at the same time they explore their developing relationship.  Stylistically, shot by cinematographer Óscar Durán, these are among the best scenes of the film, as they broaden the compositions to include a wider canvas of New York City in flux, often seen in painterly images, like views of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge expressed with a liberating fluidity of movement, where it’s as if the kids are clearing their heads of any and all emotional baggage, leaving them open and more receptive for something new.   Both decide they want to attend the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, the same one, Tony notes, attended by Al Pacino and Nicki Minaj, though apparently Pacino dropped out.  Tony, the true revelation in this film, wants to be an actor, while Jake draws and paints.  One of the scenes of the film is an acting exercise with Tony mimicking his screaming instructor (Mauricio Bustamante), each trying to gain the upper hand, with the kid holding his own throughout, Little Men CLIP - You Did it Again (2016) - Michael Barbieri Movie YouTube (1:49).  But reality intrudes, where flamboyance is replaced by the claustrophobic inertia of the adult world, reflected by Brian’s performance in Chekhov’s The Seagull, and a decision made to restructure their finances.  With the intervention of Brian’s sister Audrey (Talia Balsam), who has also inherited a share of the home, they have come to realize that the downstairs apartment is worth five times more than the current rent, which hasn’t been raised since the neighborhood changed.  When Brian personally delivers a new lease tripling the rent (“still below market value” according to Audrey), Leonor doesn’t even have to look at it, as she knows the message being delivered.  Relations grow tense, as a seething Leonor refuses to respond, knowing she can’t pay what they demand, so Kathy intervenes, claiming she’s an expert in conflict resolution, but it feels a lot like bullying, as the point of view is one way only, as Leonor’s position is completely ignored, blocked from reality, as it’s all about dollars and cents.  While Brian tries to be a decent guy, it’s clear he’s not at all like his father, who was the epitome of a decent guy, willing to overlook financial concerns as he felt the neighborhood benefited from the presence of Leonor’s one-of-a-kind boutique.  Their talks grow colder and more personally hurtful, where Leonor suggests she was actually closer to his father than Brian, speaking every day for years, where she tended to him when he grew sick and frail, reminding Brian that he was never there.  None of that matters, however, even after the kids give their parents the silent treatment, knowing something poisonous is in the air, but they are thunderstruck to learn Leonor is getting evicted, with Jake breaking the silence, offering a tearful, desperate final plea that is also ignored.  So much for conflict resolution, or the best interests of your kids, who end up being pawns in a grown-up battle, where class and country of origin are never mentioned, as only money matters.  The unseen emotional toll in this film is reminiscent of Baumbach’s THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005), with divorced parents fighting to supposedly maintain the best interests of their children, but only end up inflicting further harm.  The final epilogue sequence has an air of inevitability around it, filmed inside the Brooklyn Museum, offering a tragic sense of something lost.



MIDNIGHT SPECIAL     Midnight Special             A-                   

USA  (111 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Jeff Nichols                       Official site


Holy shit!  Jeff Nichols has made a John Carpenter film.  While a genre film in every sense of the word, this is an extremely well-constructed and thought-provoking sci-fi film, and the first studio movie made by this otherwise well-known indie director of films like Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), and Mud (2012), made for a modest $18 million dollars, perhaps following on the footsteps of Take Shelter that anticipates a coming apocalypse.  Right from the outset, the film has a stunning opening, where we discover a frail, young 8-year old boy reading Superman comics by flashlight under a white bedsheet while wearing earphones and blue swim goggles, but we’re in the middle of an unraveling event witnessing two heavily armed men sneaking the boy out of a dive motel in Texas where the windows have been completely sealed by cardboard and tape, finding their way into a customized muscle car as a television news report simultaneously runs an Amber Alert about a missing boy, observed by the motel clerk, matching the descriptions of the men getting into the car.  As they head out onto the open highway, with the boy continuing to read comic books by flashlight, a John Carpenter pulsating piano motif leads to radio reports identifying the car and license plate number, forcing them to veer onto an alternate path down more desolate country roads in the dark of night, with the driver putting on night vision gear, switching off all the car lights, traveling full speed into the abyss, which leads to the opening credits, Midnight Special - Trailer 1 [HD] - YouTube (1:48).  Immediately, with viewers still completely in the dark, you get the idea that some major event is taking place, but the calmness of the boy and his familiarity with the men suggest they pose him no danger.  What’s really going on and why remains shrouded in secrecy, as the director is in no hurry to reveal any backstory, doling out only bits and pieces of a building storyline as the film progresses, often filling in the details only after events have occurred, where part of the thrill is being deftly taken along for the ride.


Michael Shannon plays Roy Tomlin, portrayed by the news media as a ruthless kidnapper dragging Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) between cheap hotels with authorities in hot pursuit before finding a safe house.  But appearances are misleading, as Roy turns out to be the child’s father, accompanied by longtime personal friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who we learn later happens to be a Texas state trooper.  Due to the severity of their mission, both look like hardened characters who are risking their lives trying to protect this kid, who can hear radio and satellite transmissions in his head, possessing unearthly supernatural powers, yet remains, at heart, just a sweet kid, who leads a nocturnal existence as his powers are diminished by the sunlight.  We also get a glimpse of where they’re coming from, as Tomlin and his son are running from a communal ranch of religious extremists in Texas headed by Sam Shepard as Calvin Meyer, a cult leader that assumes power by legally adopting the children of his followers, including Alton who was stripped from his father, where the group considers the boy a prophet and a messiah, resembling the dress and manner of the Fundamentalist Mormon group known as FLDS seen in Amy Berg’s Prophet's Prey (2015), especially the subsequent images of the FBI politely rounding them all up in busses for individual interviews regarding their chosen one, a chilling reminder of images of Texas law enforcement and child welfare officials in similar raids on the FLDS Church’s YFZ Ranch in 2008 after suspecting sexual assaults of minors.  Behind the scenes, Meyer can be seen giving explicit instructions to one of his henchmen to retrieve Alton under any circumstances, “What you do will decide our whole way of life — you have four days to get the boy back here.  The Lord has placed a heavy burden on you,” as this cult believes their Armageddon is near, a cataclysmic event prophesied by Alton.  The FBI’s interest is in the startling revelations expressed by this young boy, as much of it remains top secret and classified, including highly encrypted secret government information communicated by satellite, so they believe a spy is in their midst feeding this kid information.  When they finally interrogate Calvin Meyer, he’s almost shocked to discover the government’s own naïveté, “You have no clue what you’re dealing with, do you?”


Through interviews with the Ranch’s congregation, with NSA specialist Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) serving as the resident expert on Alton, we begin to get a picture of what we’re dealing with, where he’s like a little Harry Potter with magical powers that he’s too young to know what to do with, where he speaks in tongues, hears radio transmissions, or has nightmarish fits that cause destructive earthquakes, yet they believe he is the only one who can protect them against the coming Judgment Day.  In no time, the audience sees for themselves suggestions of Alton’s powers, where in a brilliant sequence that takes place in near silence, he inexplicably brings down an orbiting satellite back to earth, where it breaks up into thousands of pieces of burning shrapnel like a splintered meteor shower that wreaks havoc and destruction to a gas station below, as Alton apparently had a sense that the satellite was “watching” them.  This ominous sense of unbridled telekinetic power recalls Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978) and a chilling Twilight Zone episode, “It's a Good Life” (The Twilight Zone), where a temperamental young boy could simply make people disappear if he grew angry or disappointed with them.  While Alton appears unscathed and innocent, it’s not clear whether his omnipotent powers will be used for good or evil, as the government thinks he’s a secret weapon, while the ranch believe he’s a savior.  The key to the film’s success is that it remains at heart a small film filled with personable moments and recognizable locales, another journey by this director into the American heartland of gas stations, cheap motels, pickup trucks, and trailer homes, where the influence of radio and television messages are as everpresent as guns and religion.  It draws from the rural malaise of feuding redneck families in his extraordinary first film Shotgun Stories, the director’s first hint of the supernatural, cast in the minimalist apocalyptic uncertainty of Take Shelter, but also a curious, Mark Twain-inspired life on the run in Mud, a film set on a river in the director’s home state of Arkansas.  What these films have in common is that they are grounded in the everyday ordinary experience, minimalist stories conceived and observed with a cool and poetic detachment. 


Shot in 40 days in and around New Orleans, including treks to Mississippi, Florida, and New Mexico, the film is a high-speed chase film with a family under immense pressure to provide the necessities of safety and shelter, becoming a road movie that connects with the intergalactic mysteries of the universe.  Driven by a David Wingo soundtrack that echoes the brooding synth scores of John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream, the film feels electrifying in its emotional peaks and valleys, tapping into a core of suspense and heightened inspiration.  While it’s clear fatherhood gives Roy an elevated sense of purpose and identity, desperately driven to protect Alton from nefarious outside forces that are collectively trying to find him, what’s less clear is the personal transformation happening inside Alton himself.  When Roy leads him to his mother Sarah (Kristen Dunst), who was excommunicated from the ranch, there is an instant connection of warmth and maternal love that seems to resuscitate Alton’s sagging spirits.  A throwback to an earlier era of childlike sci-fi innocence and wonder in Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), especially the spectrum of light and depiction of authoritative government intervention, the film cleverly moves from tightly focused, small-scale family moments to something more incredibly mind-altering and soul-reaching, discovering powers that extend out into the unknown vastness of the cosmos.  Alton senses the nearing of his final destination as the appointed hour nears, with several key clues astoundingly presented, where there are unanticipated detours experienced along the way, some that come as an utter and complete surprise, where it’s hard to believe this all takes place over the course of just four days.  While Shannon and Edgerton beautifully portray the weighted anguish and pained severity of their calling, Dunst is at her best without ever uttering a word, deeply concerned yet seemingly lighter than air, a gentle spirit evoking a tender grace that was altogether missing in Melancholia (2011), yet the circumstances, while not the same, feel hauntingly familiar.  As if by Divine hand, something happens which cannot be explained, yet we witness a moment of celestial transcendence, where the lack of imagination and full extent of human flaws and limitations seem ridiculously inadequate in comparison.  The title song by Lucero is interestingly sung over the end credits, a traditional composition rewritten in 1934 by Leadbelly in Angola Prison, Lead Belly "Midnight Special" (With The Golden ... - YouTube (3:07), where the light of a passing train shone into the prison cells at night, offering a spiritual expression for a hoped-for release, given a more mystifying connection here.           



AMERICAN HONEY     American Honey         B+           

Great Britain  USA  (162 mi)  2016  d:  Andrea Arnold


I won’t compromise
I won’t live a life
On my knees
You think I am nothing
I am nothing
You've got something coming
Something coming because

I hear God’s whisper
Calling my name
It’s in the wind
I am the savior


—Raury “God’s Whisper” 2014, Raury - God's Whisper (Official Video) - YouTube (4:39)


A film with an attitude, where sometimes in the Darwinian universe that’s all one has from those at the bottom to keep them alive.  Winner of the Jury Prize (3rd Place) at Cannes, the director’s third instance of receiving this award following RED ROAD (2006) and FISH TANK (2009), while also receiving an Official Commendation from the Ecumenical Jury, as the film reveals “mysterious depths of human beings,” the film is skillfully directed, where the director’s talent for getting extraordinary performances out of non-professionals is what makes this movie tick.  This is another film with a European view of America, similar to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Wim Wenders Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten) Road Trilogy Pt. 1  (1974) and Paris, Texas (1984), but also Aki Kaurismäki’s LENINGRAD COWBOYS GO AMERICA (1988), Emir Kusturica’s ARIZONA DREAM (1993), Bruno Dumont’s TWENTYNINE PALMS (2003), or perhaps the least seen and maybe the most delightful of them all, Percy Adlon’s BAGHDAD CAFÉ (1987).  These directors bring a curious eye to the American landscape, often adding their own humorous insights, but they also capture a completely different mood and set of questions about the world we live in.  Roughly based on the startling abuses discovered in a 2007 New York Times article ("For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews") about traveling groups of teenagers, many of them runaways or from broken homes, who sell magazine subscriptions for unscrupulous managers that show little sympathy for their best interests and instead drop them off anywhere along the road if they don’t produce, ruthlessly exploiting them for minimum pay, working purely on commission, as they only earn 25% of all subscriptions sold, but nearly all end up spending most of what they earn for daily needs, as what they’re provided is not nearly enough.  A Congressional investigation in 1987 uncovered 418 sellers, where 413 remained in debt to the company, while the managers themselves reported huge profits.  If sellers regularly had poor success rates or complained about the job, enforcers were brought in to instigate violent beatings.  The behavior of the managers unfortunately resembles pimps in the sex industry, where they intimidate and resort to cruel and excessive punishment to guarantee they get their money.  A grotesque portrait of capitalism, suggesting it is alive and well, where sometimes art is meant to be uncomfortable, and here it’s aimed as a heat-seeking missile directly into the heart of the status quo. 


One of the criticisms of the film is just how blunt it tends to be, offering a wrenching view of poverty in America, and an explosive, in-your-face look at throwaway kids living off the grid, barely garnering enough attention to matter even in their own lives, where instead they are seen as a forgotten or lost generation, as their parents and families have little use for them, while a nation barely notices.  So the film focuses on a rag-tag group of teenage dropouts and misfits in search of something better than the often disturbing places they are leaving behind, with ringleaders signing them up to work as a team of about a dozen kids from various places across the country selling overpriced magazine subscriptions that people don’t really want to buy, literally dropping them off in targeted neighborhoods while they spend their day going door-to-door as they make their way in a van traveling across the heartland of the American Midwest, stopping in cheap motels along the way, where they tend to drink heavily and do drugs, often partying long into the night.  Rather than sell the magazine, each kid has to sell themselves, using some imaginative, heart-tugging technique to grab someone’s attention straightaway, then using fabricated or personalized embellishments about how they’re trying to better themselves, making the buyer feel good about their potential investment, that it’s going to a good cause.  The audience wants to believe in these kids, even as we learn it’s all a scam.  To Arnold’s credit, the spirit of the film is uncompromising, as nothing is soft peddled, offering a damaged portrait of the American Dream conveyed through a bleak tone of broken lives, yet it’s filled with a youthful exuberance that’s beautifully expressed by a brash contemporary soundtrack reverberating throughout the film, much like the communal spirit of this song, Raury - God's Whisper (Official Video) - YouTube (4:39), where the incessant flow of extended music video style images are so in tune with the characters onscreen that almost every kid knows the lyrics to each and every song, an anthem to lost and disaffected youth, as the downbeat tone and searing social realism breaks out into a musical format, as if the music has a spiritually cleansing effect, shaking them out of their doldrums, resuscitating their wounded souls, and literally bringing these kids back to life.  It is this energy they feed on, more than any junk food they eat for nourishment, sticking with the audience long after they’ve left the theater.  


While casting took pace in Oklahoma, searching beaches, construction sites, parking lots, and street activity, the lead character Sasha Lane was discovered while sunbathing on spring break in Panama City, Florida.  A 20-year old student at Texas State University, she was at a crossroads, trying to get her life back on track when she met Andrea Arnold, who auditioned her in the hotel where she was staying, offering an opportunity to go on the road for two months filming a movie.  Shooting in Muskogee, Okmulgee, and Norman, Oklahoma, the crew traveled to Mission Hills and Kansas City, Kansas, Omaha and Grand Island, Nebraska, going as far north as Williston, North Dakota.  The opening sequence plays out like a prelude, yet typifies the lives of so many others, as Star (Sasha Lane), a fragile soul in dreads, is living a dead-end existence somewhere in Texas dumpster diving and taking care of two kids that don’t even belong to her, while living with an older, abusive guy who’s more interested in staying drunk and getting high.  By chance, she spies a group of kids pulling off the road into a Wal-Mart parking lot, where in the store she makes eye contact with one of them, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who immediately starts flirting with her, jumping on the check-out counter, dancing to the upbeat vibe of the piped-in music, Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” American Honey | We Found Love | Official Clip HD YouTube (1:34).  Transfixed by his personal magnetism, as well as the expressive abandon of the entire group, Jake turns out to be a recruiter for the mag-crew, encouraging her to join them, suggesting she be at a Motel 6 the next morning, as they’re leaving for Kansas.  It’s only then that we’re offered a window into her deplorable homelife.  On the spot she decides to leave, sneaking out the window, marching both kids over to a local country western bar featuring line dancing and dropping them off with their stunned real mother, "American Honey", extrait du film YouTube (1:17).  By morning she is heading to Kansas, suddenly free as a bird.  While this carefree group of characters feels upbeat, constantly joking and horsing around with each other, they each similarly have no one else in the world to call a friend, as all they have is each other.  Star’s uninhibited, free-spirited nature doesn’t kick in at first, where she’s unfamiliar with their near cult camaraderie, discovering they share the same kind of groupthink that’s been beaten into their heads by their cutthroat boss, a surprisingly strict Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) as Krystal, a woman who takes most of the profits and has Jake completely under her thumb.  She has no problem with their foolish shenanigans of staying wasted on the road so long as the crew brings her money.  Consider her George C. Scott from THE HUSTLER (1961).  At her most manipulative, she reads Star the riot act while clad in a Confederate bikini with the price tag still hanging from it, with Jake dutifully oiling her legs, just for good measure, American Honey | Krystal's Motel | Official Clip HD YouTube (1:42).  She leaves no question about who’s in charge, aligning her troops on the street every day with military precision.  At the end of the day, those who sell the least are forced to fight each other, with the others looking on with heightened interest.     


Arnold has a tendency to showcase young underprivileged women characters, but the electrically charged Star surprises even herself, as she sabotages Jake’s pitch when it turns too manipulating, finding it morally objectionable, something she cannot bring herself to do, while Krystal is wired to believe lying and selling are the same thing, suggesting that’s the business of making money.  Instead, Star has a tendency to go off script, engaging in extremely risky behavior, where she comes across as somewhat pure or saint-like in an otherwise bleak universe engulfing her, where she has a habit of saving bugs or insects, and is even visited by a friendly bear at one point, though this may just be imagined, and while she continually puts herself in harm’s way, jumping alone into groups of strange men, convinced they will purchase magazine subscriptions, she retains a spirited attitude throughout her entire ordeal, where her face is constantly on camera, where a light seems to follow her wherever she goes.  Beautifully shot by Robbie Ryan, working regularly with Ken Loach as well as Andrea Arnold, who seems to find a balance between well-manicured suburban lawns and dilapidated houses on the outskirts of town, taking in the entire spectrum of social classes, where easily the most affecting are those experiencing profound poverty, living in hopeless circumstances where small children are routinely left alone, with one young girl, a child of meth addicts, proudly spouting the lines of a Dead Kennedy’s song “I Kill Children.”  Despite the length of the film, the stream of images onscreen feels like a barrage to the senses, a joyous and optimistic journey that is musically transformative, with every day feeling like the 4th of July, although there is excessive drug and alcohol use, where it’s hard to believe they could actually perform cognitively under such a constant onslaught, yet there is no one watching over these kids, who are free to willingly walk in their own shoes and make their own mistakes in life.  What the film has is a distinguishing swagger, where there’s a boldness in their discovery of personal liberation, in their willingness to defy conventional wisdom, yet these risks have a downside, as there are consequences for going too far.  Star’s moodiness with Jake leads to a drop in his sales, where there’s some question whether she can actually cut it, which forces her to recklessly take even greater risks.  While there’s an undeniable attraction between them from the outset, as he’s the only reason she joined in the first place, their whirlwind romance is only briefly interjected throughout, as it’s constantly thwarted by Krystal’s dominating presence.  Shia LaBeouf is outstanding, where all he has to do is just be himself, charming, impulsive, dangerous, yet incredibly flawed.  The film is extremely well directed and has a beautiful rambling flow about it, but there’s not much of an actual story, as there’s no real beginning or end, much like the undeveloped lives of these kids, suggesting an impressionistic, stream-of-conscious montage of youthful impulses, where it’s as much about a yearning to be free as it is a deplorable picture of capitalistic exploitation, yet perhaps its greatest strength lies in vividly capturing the lives of discarded kids who are barely ever acknowledged, who feel they have no future, no place in society, yet remain among our most vulnerable, living a shadow existence that most of us never see. 


American Honey Soundtrack on Spotify



GRADUATION (Bacalaureat)     Graduation (Bacalaureat)         B+                           

Romania  France  Belgium  (128 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Cristian Mungiu                  Official site


Winner of the Best Director prize at Cannes, the film is brilliantly written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, among the best directors working today, still best known for his Palme d’Or winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile) (2007), one of the most legendary and influential films of the last 20 years, with no musical soundtrack, but presented through a grim, social realist style that is expressed with a throbbing, dramatic urgency, while being one of the first Eastern European films to challenge the entrenched patriarchal hierarchy.  Once more, Mungiu has provided another bleak look at the profound depths of entrenched corruption in the post-Ceaușescu era of Romanian society, despite this being the generation of hope.   In this case, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a bedraggled middle-aged guy who already looks like he’s been beaten down by the system, not at all like a Romeo, is a respected doctor in a small rural community where crime is rampant, sheltering his 18-year old teenage daughter Eliza, Maria-Victoria Dragus, the young blond girl in Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON (2009), through the storm, providing an educational pathway out of the cesspool that is the town of Cluj, as she has the grades to get into Cambridge University in England to study psychology, but needs to pass a final exam with a score high enough to preserve a grade point average that qualifies for a scholarship.  So the film sets up a realistic and reachable challenge, only to be impeded by unforeseen obstacles.  One of the first moments of the film is the sudden surprise of a rock being thrown through a window, where Romeo runs outside to see who might have thrown it, but is at a loss, creating an eerie and ominous opening salvo that shatters any idea of things being normal.  What distinguishes this film is the meticulous attention to detail, showing a town in decay, with colorless concrete tenement buildings that all look the same, stray dogs wandering the streets that can be heard throughout the night, offering a grim view of a stagnant society that is crumbling before our eyes.  As he drops his daughter off at school the next day about a block from school, he’s in a hurry to meet his mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici), one of Eliza’s teachers, living in another one of these grim-looking concrete structures.  While there, he gets a call that his daughter has been sexually attacked at a construction site near her school, but that she fended off a would-be rapist, injuring her arm in the process, which ends up in a cast, and is severely traumatized.  Overwhelmed by grief for not taking her all the way to the school steps, Romeo blames himself for what happened, thinking if he wasn’t in such a hurry to hop in the sack with his girlfriend, none of this would ever have happened.


At police headquarters, Romeo is desperate to help his daughter, having failed to get the exams postponed, where she begins the first of three days of final exams on the very next day.  On the advice of the police chief (Vlad Ivanov), an old friend from school days, he suggests Romeo seek the help of Vice-Mayor Bulai, who is friendly with the school’s exam committee president (Gelu Colceag) and could use help getting bumped up on the liver transplant waiting list.  “People should help each other,” the Vice-Mayor explains.  It’s the proverbial a friend of a friend syndrome, a world of favors and male privilege, extending the old boys network practices of the past with a connecting link of male friends that know another male friend, which is really how things get done.  Romeo’s mind is racing at the thought he might be able to cut corners to guarantee the test results his daughter needs, a dreadful thought, really, resorting to cheating, so disrespectful of his daughter, but something in the long run that he thinks will seem insignificant.  While his own marriage seems to be surviving on fumes, as he and his listless wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) barely speak, it’s clear they left under Ceaușescu communism but returned post 1989 with high hopes and dreams, thinking they could “move mountains,” but nothing’s changed and he has regretted the decision ever since, surrounded by incompetence, corruption and moral failings.  While he’s apparently never resorted to these kinds of methods before, his daughter performs poorly after the first day of tests, where he feels he must intercede on her behalf if she is to fulfill his dream of getting her out of Romania, but it must be with her implicit participation.  Meanwhile, someone has thrown another rock through his car window, adding an element of paranoia to an unsettled mood of disturbance.  The film is seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Romeo, whose dogged persistence through an abyss of disillusionment is a tribute to Titieni’s brilliance, as his feelings and failed ambitions are channeled directly to the audience, which might explain why he always has to have the last word on any matter, thinking he’s the smartest guy in the room, making sure his way prevails, as he’s worked it out in his mind that this is for the best.  His daughter is not so sure, and hesitates to do what her father asks, as it goes against everything he’s ever taught her.  Making matters more complicated, Eliza has been spending time with Marius (Rares Andrici), a low-life guy on a motorcycle with little future, who never took studies seriously, and may hold her back.  While reviewing surveillance footage of his daughter’s attack, Romeo thinks he recognizes Marius at the scene and confronts him, suspicious of his alleged non-involvement, but Marius claims it’s a case of mistaken identity, leaving what actually happened in a cloud of ambiguity. 


This feeling of “nothing is as it seems” pervades throughout, like the opening rock through the window, suggesting an alternate reality, an unseen presence lurking nearby, like an underground shadow existence that is felt, but never seen.  Romeo insists on investigating clues himself, but feels like he’s being watched, as if someone is following him, leading to eerie scenes that veer into the thriller genre, as if there is an element of dread and unanticipated horror about to manifest itself, his guilty conscience hounded by the sounds of dogs barking, which is accentuated by the filmmaker’s intricately controlled aesthetic, with hand-held, over-the-shoulder camera shots, along with a tendency toward long takes that reflect the puzzled interior suspicions of the protagonist, who is not exactly the pillar of the community, as he’s a man that continually harbors dark resentments, which is why he has an overcontrolling personality, as he insists that things go exactly as he plans.  But his system breaks down, with even Romeo realizing the futility of his methods, as Eliza distances herself from her father and gravitates more to Marius as her boyfriend, who at least is her same age, while at the same time Magda finds out about the secret affair and throws the bastard out, along with his personal belongings, maintaining a shred of what’s left of her dignity, leaving Romeo in an emotional and psychological freefall, as he’s literally out on his own.  Meanwhile, a few special investigators come snooping around the hospital asking questions about stolen organs and tampering with the organ donor waiting list, keeping the pressure on his frazzled state of mind, as he has to keep one step ahead of the rest, but it’s clear he’s near the breaking point.  With the music of Handel playing on the car radio, Andreas Scholl Largo di Handel Ombra mai fu Aria da Xerxes HWV 40 ... YouTube (3:11), this gorgeous mastery of controlled restraint resonates deeply as a stark contrast to Romeo’s interior world that’s falling apart.  It’s an extraordinary character study, a complex film of psychological subtlety and moral weight, and a powerful social commentary on how the moral compromises seen in the world around us have a way of infiltrating our defense mechanisms and making their way into our own behavior as well, where we’re so consumed by taking preventative measures that we become what we’re fighting against.  Perhaps without realizing it, the sins of one generation are handed down onto the next.  Like the Coen brothers pulling the strings and pestering the protagonist in A Serious Man (2009), Mungiu loves adding new surprises that further complicate Romeo’s growing dilemma, chief among them is that Eliza may not be that interested in going to the UK, an idea that her father insists is mere foolishness, while Sandra was not too keen on introducing her young son to Romeo, initially seen wearing a mask, exactly like the Shakespearean character at the masked ball, though after the initial suspicion wears off, they seem to develop an unspoken truce with one another.  In the end, this unvarnished film examines a nation’s damaged conscience through a drama of raw, accumulated day-to-day detail, where each scene has its own impact, revealing the small ways that we undermine the society we live in, continually lying to ourselves and rationalizing the benefits of our personal decisions, presumably made with the best intentions (“Do good reasons make up for bad decisions?”), yet this all contributes to a toxic air of societal mistrust. 





Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic

Jeff Bridges– Hell or High Water

Parker Sawyers – Southside With You

Adrian Titieni – Graduation

Tadanobu Asano – Harmonium 

*Casey Affleck – Manchester By the Sea



Isabelle Huppert   Louder Than Bombs (1) + Elle (2) + Things to Come (3)

Sonia Braga – Aquarius

Huang Lu – Dog Days 

Amy Adams – Arrival 

Viola Davis – Fences

*Natalie Portman – Jackie 



Jack Reynor – Sing Street

Devin Druid – Louder Than Bombs

Ben Foster – Hell or High Water

Christian Bouillette – Staying Vertical 

*Mahershala Ali – Moonlight

Stephen Henderson – Fences



Léa Seydoux – The Lobster

Tatiana IekelSieranevada

Bérénice Bejo – Sweet Dreams  

Kirin Kiki – After the Storm 

Lily Gladstone – Certain Women 

*Naomie Harris – Moonlight 



*Barry Jenkins                                    USA                                        Moonlight

Andrea Arnold                                    USA  Great Britain                 American Honey

Joachim Trier                                 Norway  France  Denmark            Louder Than Bombs                          

Bi Gan                                                 China                                       Kaili Blues

Cristian Mungiu                      Romania  France  Belgium                  Graduation

Kôji Fukada                                        Japan                                       Harmonium 



*Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou – The Lobster

Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water

Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins – Moonlight 

Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester By the Sea

August Wilson – Fences 

Noah Oppenheim – Jackie 



Emmanuel Lubezki – The Revenant (2) + Knight of Cups (1)

Michael McDonough – Sunset Song 

*Jani-Petteri Passi – The Happiest Day in the Life of Ollie Mäki

Barbu BalasoiuSieranevada

Tudor Vladimir Panduru – Graduation

James Laxton – Moonlight 



Louder Than Bombs

The Lobster


The Happiest Day in the Life of Ollie Mäki


Manchester By the Sea



Knight of Cups

Sunset Song 

The Happiest Day in the Life of Ollie Mäki



La La Land



Louder Than Bombs

Kaili Blues

The Happiest Day in the Life of Ollie Mäki






Hail, Caesar!

Captain Fantastic

Dog Days


*La La Land

Hidden Figures



*Ola Fløttum – Louder Than Bombs

Giong Lim – Kaili Blues 

Dickon Hinchliffe – Little Men 

Patrick Jonsson – Dog Days

Miika Snåre – The Happiest Day in the Life of Ollie Mäki

Mica Levi – Jackie 



O.J.:  Made in America

‘Til Madness Do Us Part

Jackie Robinson

Requiem for an American Dream

The Seasons in Quincy:  Four Portraits of John Berger

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