Joker

Yes, this is the same “Clown Prince of Crime” from the Batman franchise, but don’t be fooled, this is not a comic book franchise movie. This is an adult themed origin story about the human side of the man who laughs, Arthur Fleck, a pitiful figure who will eventually become Batman’s arch nemesis.

It’s not what you would expect from a supervillain film. Todd Phillips’ Joker is a gritty realistic take on the character. It’s a dark tragic tale that treats its bedraggled antihero with great sympathy and insight, resulting in a memorable but dismal story that feels like a low budget independent film.

The film is set in 1981, when Bruce Wayne is still a young boy and only appears briefly at the end of Joker, setting up the personal clash between these iconic characters. What’s not well known is how this insecure and tormented man who works as a party clown, is driven to be one of the most feared villains in Gotham.

The Gotham City of Joker is a shadowy, crime ridden, rat infested retro New York City of the 70s and 80s as seen in Scorsese’s early films reinforced by a bleak gloom drenched visual palate. Arthur Fleck is a kind of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976) seemingly quiet and gentle, trying to bring some joy into his drab world as a party clown and aspiring stand-up comic, but inside he harbors rage and anger.

He’s mentally unstable, and his strange medical condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably when he is nervous or under stress makes people uncomfortable. They sometimes think he’s mocking them, which can get him into trouble with the wrong people.

But Arthur tries hard to see the positive side of life in the face of his misery. He always tries to be honest and do the right thing. His mother tells him to “always smile and put on a happy face”. But it just seems to make things worse and society just keeps pushing him to the limits of tolerance.

The city’s denizens eventually get the better of him and in fact, he does get into trouble with the wrong people. He is bullied, name called and violently beaten up because of his clownish cackle, which can be analogous to the stigma of mental illness.

Joaquin Phoenix’s moving portrayal is convincingly creepy as a man on the verge of being unhinged. His performance as someone who seems to constantly be on the brink between love and hate is scary and mesmerizing to watch. He makes Arthur Fleck a sympathetic character who society has pushed too far until a revelation about his past sends him over the edge. 


Joker, in his first stand-alone film, is a disturbing, shocking and painful vision that reflect our own angry hate-filled and corrupt times. It’s an uncompromising and uniquely intimate character study done with great empathy and shown through an unsentimental lens that talks directly to our fears and insecurities as a society at large.

Icelandic composer extraordinaire, Hildur Guonadottir’s cello score is not only hauntingly beautiful but also perfectly evocative of Arthur’s tragic journey into mayhem. She was also the cellist on Sicario (2015) and The Revenant (2015), and recently won the golden globe for the Joker music and an Emmy for the award-winning TV series Chernobyl.

Joker is nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Hildur’s music score, the most of any film this year, which is a testament to its powerful appeal.

JP

Monos

Monos is a modern twist on the Lord of the Flies story, while also recalling the surreal jungle insanity of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972).

Set in an unknown Latin American jungle, a group of teenage guerrillas are training for a war that seems to be happening somewhere beyond the Andean mountain camp where they are based above the clouds while waiting for orders.

It’s a classic tale of how children from different social backgrounds, unsupervised and isolated from civilization left to their own devices armed with deadly weapons, will bring out their most violent instincts.

Playing soldier, the young commandos, addressed by their war names like Rambo, Lobo, Smurf, Dog and Bigfoot, are tasked with holding an American female doctor hostage (Julianne Nicholson). As rivalries grow, and opinions differ, shifting alliances form into separate camps that eventually threaten to tear apart the fragile order of the wild cult of kids with deadly results.

What makes Monos so intriguing and powerful is its unflinching and unnerving look at how a cadre of child soldiers, wielding automatic weapons, steadily degenerate from free spirited self-discovery, to baser warlike instincts and survival in the lower depths of the jungle.

The original music, a mix of drums, whistles and synthesizers, by Mica Levi contributes to the dark dense eerie atmosphere and feeling of primeval beauty and terrifying horror. With echoes of the hellish tribal chaos of Apocalypse Now (1979), Monos is a bold unpredictable film with an impressive ensemble cast of young unknown actors.

They are referred to as Monos, meaning monkeys, which is exactly what they appear to be devolving into as they savagely lose their innocence, regressing to a state of anarchy and eventually forced to individually fall away from the group to find their own way out of the jungle.

As the film builds to a gripping climax, we are left with the wild forces of nature consuming any sense of humanity. The visuals become darker, hallucinogenic and confused. A small breakaway group of aggressive fanatical “monos” enter into another world, another reality, absorbed by the heart of darkness.


Visually stunning, Monos was beautifully filmed by cinematographer Jasper Wolf on remote locations in Colombia’s Andean mountains and dense jungle rivers that were mostly untouched by humans.

Director Alejandro Landes in only his second fiction feature, brings us a mesmerizing nightmarish vision; an unforgettable experience with fully realized characters, and makes it relevant for our modern times with all its metaphorical elements in tack. He is an important new voice in Colombian cinema.

An International co-production between eight countries, Monos has won multiple international awards including the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and was selected as Colombia’s official Oscar submission for the Best International Feature Film.

JP

Jojo Rabbit

A child’s eye view of war in Nazi Germany and the propaganda machine that vilified Jews, Jojo Rabbit starts as a hilarious farcical romp that mocks Nazis and their Hitler youth indoctrination program, and becomes a surprisingly poignant and touching comment on hate and the toxic effect of lies.

Written and directed by New Zealand wunderkind actor, producer, director and comedian Taika Waititi who previously directed Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), from a novel by New Zealand-Belgium author Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is very much a reflection of Waititi’s own wacky irreverent Kiwi humor.

A mixture of zany comedy and uplifting drama that makes no bones about portraying the Führer as a childish buffoon as played by Waititi himself. This Hitler is the imaginary companion of ten-year-old ardent Nazi follower Johannes (Jojo) Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis).

To help the audience understand the extent of Hitler’s popularity in Germany, there is a brilliant musical sequence early on that shows images of adoring crowds screaming and reaching for Hitler put to I Want to Hold Your Hand by The Beatles. If you didn’t know who these people were, you’d think they were crazy Beatles fans.

Jojo, egged on by his imagined Hitler, thinks war is fun and exciting, so when he must prove his courage at the Hitler youth camp by killing a rabbit with his bare hands and fails miserably, he’s teased by the other kids who call him a scared rabbit.

After being injured in an accident during war games while trying to prove he can be as fearless as the other kids, he starts questioning the blind fanaticism of the country. It’s not until he discovers a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) secretly living in his house, a “monster” hidden in the attic by his mother (Scarlett Johansson), that he starts to question his own loyalty and humanity.

Part of Jojo Rabbit’s huge appeal is Waititi’s hilarious performance as Hitler and how it contrasts dramatically with the innocent naive sweetness of Johannes who tries to be the perfect Nazi killer but just can’t seem to live up to the morally corrupt expectations of his Nazi superiors.

Sam Rockwell who won the best supporting actor Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), brilliantly portrays a hysterical disillusioned Nazi training officer who clearly struggles with the Nazi ideology.

Jojo Rabbit is a fun and moving satire that exposes the absurdity of war and the harmful consequences of blind faith in propaganda. In this there are a few similarities with the Roberto Benigni film Life is Beautiful (1997). Both are coming-of-age stories that have at their heart a young boy who is protected from the horrors of war by an adult who plays into the illusion of war as an exciting game.

Jojo Rabbit has just won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019, and it’s a good bet to do well at the Oscars. You won’t find a more crowd-pleasing and audacious film than this one.

JP

Honeyland

Amid the ruins of a remote, long abandoned stone hamlet somewhere in the Balkan Mountains of North Macedonia, lives one of the last remaining European women to practice an ancient tradition of beekeeping.

This visually stunning documentary and winner of multiple Sundance Awards, follows Hatidze Muratova as she goes about her daily routine taking care of her ailing mother in a small stone hut as she moves about the barren valley landscape tending to her beehives and collecting honey according to ancient traditions.

Without electricity, phones or transportation, her dedication and love of the wild bees is apparent as she respectfully safeguards her beehives, ensuring their sustainability by only taking from the bees what she needs, leaving enough honeycombs for the bees to continue their production.

It’s a quiet solitary existence but Hatidze seems content to live this simple way of life harvesting and selling her pure honey to the marketplace in the capital city of Skopje, some 12 miles away by foot.

Set in a world seldom seen in film, the breathtaking visuals are realized with starkly beautiful vistas showing a way of life now gone or quickly disappearing. It harkens back to a time when people worked the land in harsh conditions always conscious of the delicate balance of nature.

When a family of Turkish gypsies arrive with their herd of cattle, Hatidze is glad for the human company, especially the children that she befriends and teaches about the ways of beekeeping. But her trusting and generous nature is betrayed and her livelihood threatened when their father Hussein is forced to supplement his income to support his growing family by starting his own beehive business with disastrous results.

The naturally unfolding drama is a microcosm of today’s problems in society as a whole and environmental allegory. Being a docudrama, filmed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov over the course of three years, the experience of Hatidze’s hard life, which plays like a neorealist parable, is as real and heartfelt as it gets.

Honeyland recalls the early films of the acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami – Close-Up (1990), and Jafar Panahi – Taxi Tehran (2015), 3 Faces (2018) in style and setting; about people living on the fringes of society in extremely poor and desperate circumstances.

For those who are looking for an eye-opening experience and learning about how some people are living in isolated regions of the world, this is a must-see. But this film is more than that eventually revealing an important cautionary tale about our consumerist greed.

JP

The Cinema of Astronauts in Jeopardy

On the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I have compiled a list of films that have attempted to capture both the adventurous wonder and the dangerous horrors of space travel.

As we learn more about vast new expanses of our universe with unmanned space probes, space travel becomes a more tangible prospect within our grasp. These films have captured our imagination and whetted our appetite for the challenges of exploring the universe beyond our own planet.

In recent years we have seen a slew of big budget films exploring the technology and spirit (or folly) necessary for traveling through space and reaching unknown destinations. The infinity of space is both intriguing and terrifying. Even more so today since advancements in science and technology have shown that we are very likely not alone in the universe. 

Our imaginations run wild as we contemplate the unknown with possibilities both positive and negative. But as humans have taken their first steps into space we have discovered that the study of science and physics are critical to the understanding of the cosmos and how to survive in it.

Whether you are fascinated by the prospect of space exploration, discovering unknown regions of our universe, the challenges of living in isolation from the rest of humanity while floating in a self-contained bubble orbiting the earth, or stranded on an uninhabited planet, scientific reality-based astronaut films that attempt to portray realistic adventures in space while keeping the fantasy elements to a minimum are becoming a genre on it's own. 

We have come a long way toward making those ambitious dreams of life in space a reality and recent films and documentaries have made the prospect seem a little more exciting if scary. IMAX space documentaries such as Blue Planet (1990), Cosmic Voyage (1996), Space Station (2002), Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon (2005) and Hubble (2010) have ignited the imaginations of many filmmakers, making the idea of living and traveling in space tangibly real.  

The latest in a new sub-genre of Sci-fi space films have created a whole new visual vocabulary for realistic interstellar space travel. Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) set a new standard for astronaut films, Alfonso Cuarón’s award winning film Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) and Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015) each taking the perennial Homeric hero’s journey to a whole new metaphysical level with both intellectual and emotionally satisfying results.

Below is a list of 26 films that represent the evolution of the astronauts-in-jeopardy adventure cinema since 1950. You are now go-for-launch. T minus 3, 2, 1, liftoff…

Ad Astra (2019)

First Man (2018)

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Passengers (2016)

The Martian (2015)

Interstellar (2014)

Gravity (2013)

Stranded (2013)

Europa Report (2013)

Prometheus (2012)

Moon (2009)

Sunshine (2007)

Solaris (2002)

Red Planet (2000)

Space Cowboys (2000)

Mission to Mars (2000)

Armageddon (1998)

Lost in Space (1998)

Event Horizon (1997)

Apollo 13 (1995)

The Right Stuff (1983)

Alien (1979)

Marooned (1979)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Rocketship X-M (1950)

JP

Bohemian Rhapsody

I grew up with Queen’s music while going to school and loved their dramatic, lyrical, diverse sounds, but I knew very little about the band itself during that time.

Whatever you might think of the rock band Queen, or director Bryan Singer, or whether this musical tribute to the band is accurately portrayed, it matters little as there is no denying the sheer emotional power of this rapturous film that tells the story of one of the legendary performers of our time.

Bohemian Rhapsody follows frontman Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) as he gains fame and battles with his identity as a bisexual of immigrant parents, and his relationship with fans and the other band members.

The music of Queen is so brilliantly used here to connect the turbulent story of lead singer Freddie Mercury and his rise to fame; a performer who believed so strongly in himself and his ability to capture an audience with his amazing vocal range that his bursting onstage energy could barely be contained.

The historic epic performance of the band’s Live Aid appearance that bookends the film is one of the most euphoric and powerful cinematic experiences of any film I’ve seen.

We meet Freddie at the beginning of the film working as a baggage handler at an airport in England and scribbling poetry and lyrics in his spare time. When he goes out at night to see a small band play at a nightclub gig, he approaches the band members after the show to offer his admiration and boast of his own musical talent. This is the early group of musicians who would eventually become the musical phenomenon of the 70s known as Queen.

Bohemian Rhapsody shows us the creative process of a disparate group of misfits with an unwavering belief and acceptance of each other while working as a family unit. And the power of Queen’s music comes from Freddie’s ability to use his incredible vocals in a way that spoke to those who are outsiders and feel unwanted or unloved.

A special mention is due to the incredible performance by Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury who fully deserves the accolades and awards he has been receiving which include the Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. He embodies the spirit of Mercury’s larger than life persona both onstage and off.

Like Queen’s music, the critics were not always kind to the film, slamming it for its inaccuracies, but for many fans that are not familiar with the band’s private or public history, Bohemian Rhapsody absolutely works as an emotionally satisfying film with so many iconic songs that it easily warrants multiple viewing. Most filmgoers have come away from the experience with elation.

Bohemian Rhapsody was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rami Malek who has already won the Golden Globe and the SAG Awards, making him the front runner to win the Oscar. The film also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Drama.

JP

Border

Border or Gräns is a unique and fascinating Swedish take on mythical creatures living among us from Scandinavian folklore. A fantasy film that looks and feels as real as the contemporary world we live in today.

When we first meet Tina (Eva Melander), we know she is different. Aside from the way she looks she also behaves oddly. At first, we can rationalize her behavior as a product of her loneliness due to her strange unsightly appearance. But slowly we realize it may be something else.

Tina has a live-in companion at home but they have a platonic relationship and his pet dogs are instinctively hostile toward her. She likes to walk alone barefooted through the forest surrounding her remote backwoods cabin home. Wild forest animals are attracted to her and are not threatened by her. She seems to have an almost supernatural connection with nature and wildlife. And her fear of lightning is more than justified.

Tina works as a customs security officer in Sweden on the border with Finland where she uses her extraordinary ability to smell people’s emotions and feelings, making her valuable for picking out criminals or people who are hiding something.

Many things in this film aren’t what they seem. We are given clues but even Tina is not aware of the truth about herself. The questions she has, slowly come to light after she meets a man named Vore (Eero Milonoff) who resembles her with many similar physical features.

After her second encounter with Vore, she becomes curiously intrigued by his strange behavior and senses that he’s hiding something when he reveals his knowledge of insects that she has always had a fascination with since her childhood.

As they get to know each other and become romantically involved, Vore eventually opens her eyes to a whole new world, making her aware of her true identity and powers. But what she discovers about herself will change her life forever, forcing her to make the toughest decision of her life.

Border is a weird but powerful tale about how people who look and behave differently are pushed to the edges of society, touching on issues of identity, racism, compassion and living in harmony with nature. It should resonate deeply with anyone who feels like an outcast, an orphan or has in some way been marginalized.

Thanks to the fearless daring performances of Eva and Eero, the characters of Tina and Vore are nothing short of mesmerizing and totally convincing. Border captivates with a world that reimagines ancient Nordic mythology for a modern audience while staying true to mythic traditions.

Directed by Iranian-Swedish filmmaker Ali Abbasi and winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the 2018 Cannes film festival, Border is a dark, mysterious thought-provoking drama unlike any other film I’ve seen and will leave audiences stunned in amazement, wondering what they have just witnessed.

JP

The Accused - Acusada

The Accused follows a young 21-year-old student, Dolores Dreier (Lali Esposito), accused of murdering her best friend at a house party where she was the last one to see her alive. Under virtual house arrest for two and a half years, Dolores becomes increasingly frustrated and angry by the physical limitations imposed on her life by her family.

Set in contemporary suburban Buenos Aires just days away from her trial, which has become a high-profile case intently followed by the Argentine media, Dolores is strictly coached by her lawyer and parents, and her freedom of movement restricted to avoid media attention while preparing for the trial.

This intense drama is clinically shot with cold icy blue tones and intimate camera work that reflect the dark mood of Dolores who is portrayed unsympathetically at times and seems quietly distant as if hiding some unspoken secret.

Lali Esposito as Dolores gives a gripping subdued performance as an embittered teenager preparing for the worst, making her seem less innocent and more ambiguous than her family would like. But she remains a compelling character due to Lali’s empathetic portrayal and the film succeeds in keeping us guessing about her innocence.

Public opinion seems stacked against her as the media scrutinizes her and her upper-class wealthy family. The media circus surrounding the murder case and how the family deals with their daughter’s public perception is the main focus of the film and the financial and psychological toll it takes on the family.

As the day of the trial draws closer, the tension increases as we slowly discover that her father Luis (Leonardo Sbaraglia), has used his considerable wealth to protect his daughter and influence public opinion to defend her.

There is a lot at stake for Luis, his family and his career as the pressure mounts and Dolores becomes more unstable. It eventually becomes too much for her to handle and she decides to take a big risk by going off script and greatly jeopardizing her chances.

Director Gonzalo Tobal skillfully focuses our attention with a stunning mix of darkly alluring cinematography, interesting ambiguous characters, brilliant performances and a captivating story

The Accused also touches on modern day issues of cyber bullying, media manipulation and public scrutiny. Dolores’ guilt or innocence is always kept a mystery in the film but it becomes less important whether she has committed the crime or not as the film becomes more about manipulating public opinion to blur the truth.

The media at one point is focused on someone’s claim of a loose wild Puma sighting in the suburban neighborhood and as police investigate, the media attention stokes a frenzy in the public, but whether or not this Puma was ever really seen or not becomes unimportant. The mere possibility is what fuels people’s imagination and becomes a kind of metaphor for the situation Dolores finds herself in.

The Accused is a satisfying and poignant drama well made with an assured hand, perfectly cast and with a stunning visual design making director Gonzalo Tobal one of Argentina’s foremost filmmakers to pay attention to.

JP

Green Book

Green Book is the kind of moving holiday crowd-pleaser endowed with so much charm it’s sure to be an Oscar contender with equally memorable performances. In the current racially charged times, it might also just be for African Americans what PRIDE (2014) was for the LGBTQ, it could melt even the most prejudiced heart.

Directed by Peter Farrelly - Dumb and Dumber (1994), Green Book is a racial justice road movie with lots of humor that hits all the right notes. But don’t think wacky Dumb and Dumber type of buddy comedy. The laughs in this film come straight out of a genuine respect for its characters.

Based on true events set in 1962 America, Viggo Mortensen plays Tony (Lip) Vallelonga, a working-class Italian-American bouncer and con artist at a New York night club with a talent for “persuading people to do what they don’t want to do” and a lot of street smarts.

When the night club he works for closes down for repairs, he applies for a job as a driver for a gifted classical pianist and composer Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who was a virtuoso performer and traveled all over the US with his trio playing for the country’s wealthiest establishments.

When the record company sends Don Shirley and his trio on a three-month concert tour through the deep South, which was highly segregated in the 60s, Don who happens to be a black musician in America at a time when African Americans were still looked down upon as inferior and dangerous, decides he will need the services of someone who can protect him while also getting him to all his engagements on time.

This unlikely pair and their awkward relationship play like a kind of Oscar and Felix odd couple, but as opposite as they are in every way possible, they also depend on each other for their survival and eventually gain a stronger bond and greater respect for each other.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are perfectly cast and hold the audience completely enthralled. What we learn about these two people while spending time together on the road is often hilarious and heartwarming.

The Green Book of the title is a segregation era motorist travel guide for Black Americans faced with pervasive discrimination while traveling in America. Being refused accommodation and food by white owned businesses was a common dilemma for Blacks in the southern states, the Green Book helped them to find hotels and restaurants friendly to non-whites.

Being a colored person, Don Shirley was often refused entry to whites-only Hotels and restaurants, even at places where he was actually performing, so while Tony could stay and eat wherever he wanted, Don would often have to find other accommodations during their road tour.

The power of Green Book lies in its emotionally uplifting story, its inspirational message of love and friendship, and the way its flawed human characters are treated with humor and dignity without judgement. The closest film I would compare it to is the French hit The Intouchables (2011) in its portrayal of an improbable comradeship and triumph of the human spirit.

Winner of the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where it had its World Premiere, this is one of the funniest and moving films of the year.

JP

First Man

First Man is not your typical astronauts in jeopardy film. Its closest relative is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1997), which set the standard for the NASA space film. Set during the same time period, it’s the true story of Apollo 11 and contains many of the same astronauts that were involved in the Apollo program and eventually went on to fly on Apollo 13 and other missions.

But where Apollo 13 glorified the accomplishments and sacrifices of NASA’s space missions and the astronauts who flew them, First Man is decidedly more cerebral showing us a more personal portrait of the psychological impact the astronauts and their families suffered during the space program, particularly Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy).

The moon mission is actually more of a secondary story in the background here, focusing mainly on the intense psychological drama playing out through the mind of Neil Armstrong who is shown here as being a deeply focused, highly concentrated and a dedicated pilot, the embodiment of calm under pressure.

Neil is the kind of soft-spoken super human whose quick thinking and determination gets him out of the most difficult hair-raising situations. He was in many ways the perfect person to pull off such a dangerous undertaking.

But his stoicism did not always sit well with his family, particularly his wife who sometimes needed him to be more nurturing, especially during a family tragedy that occurred just before Neil was selected to be a part of the Gemini program, which is the precursor to the Apollo program.

Where Apollo 13 was sometimes criticized for not showing the social political atmosphere of the country in which these missions took place, First Man makes more of an attempt at showing some brief scenes of news footage covering Vietnam war protests and general public attitudes towards NASA’s moon missions.

Visually, First Man is more intimately concentrated on Armstrong the man, as opposed to the heroic pubic figure of our imagination, and his experiences dealing with the uncertainty and magnitude of the tasks he and the other astronauts faced while dealing with overwhelming pressure to succeed.

Based on his essential biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, Damien Chazelle decided to make very few cuts between the Houston crew on the ground and the astronauts in space, opting to keep our attention focused on Neil Armstrong’s first-hand experience.

The flag controversy surrounding the film is really a non-event as it’s clear that the film takes the perspective of Neil’s personal and private journey connected more to his suffering after a family loss than to the monumental task he has been given.

When asked by reporters if he will be taking any personal items up to the moon with him, Neil characteristically responds with a deadpan serious expression showing again his pragmatic dedicated focus that he wished he could take more fuel with him.

So, it was deeply satisfying when First Man ultimately culminated with a powerful emotional climax after arriving on the moon that is completely unrelated to being on the moon. While surveying the barren lifeless cratered surface, Armstrong flashes back to memories of his life back on earth and the moment becomes not about the moon or even the human achievement, but a personal object that Neil brought with him, which has haunted him since his journey began.

JP

Shoplifters

Shoplifters is a sensitively portrayed look at a charming surrogate family living on the fringe of society, making a compelling case for the way families we create or fall in with can sometimes be more meaningful and satisfying than the families we are born into.

The cinema of Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda from Nobody Knows (2004), Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015), and After the Storm (2016), have all had a similar thread underlying these stories of unconventional families created out of genuine kindness under crisis situations who share a special bond that goes deeper than blood relations.

Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters, focuses Kore-eda’s themes of what it means to be a family more powerfully than any of his previous films, while also commenting on Japan’s social class system. Along with Our Little Sister, it’s one of his best films.

Where Our Little Sister was a gentle upbeat feel-good story of sisters living in their mother’s ancestral home who take in a young girl after the death of their father; their half-sister, Shoplifters is decidedly less optimistic showing a bleaker more tragic heartrending side of humanity.

What at first appears to be a poor family of part-time vagrants living together in a packed shared accommodation among urban dwellings in a Japanese neighborhood, is slowly revealed to be a loving group of outcasts who have come together to help each other for mutual benefit. They share everything and despite the extremely difficult living arrangement, the group seems to thrive and enjoy each other’s company, engaging in family outings and activities.

A kind-hearted and generous low-income couple in their 30s and 40s, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), living with an elderly lady, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), left to fend for herself by her own family, have adopted a young boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi) who was abandoned, and a teen girl who works at a strip theatre. Osamu the father figure teaches the boy the art of shoplifting to supplement their meager earnings.

When they come across a 5-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) who is neglected and abused by her mother and left out in the cold without food, Osamu decides to help her and takes her into his care. Yuri quickly thrives on the love and affection she receives from her new makeshift family. But when a news story appears on TV that a small girl has gone missing that fits Yuri’s description, the couple tries to return her to the parents. However, whether out of compassion for the girl or maybe for selfish reasons, doing the right thing becomes morally complicated.

The group of outcasts (shoplifters) forge a real bond and sense of belonging that’s stronger than any family they ever had. But when the police discover them, the consequences for everyone as the state returns the children to their real families are devastating. What Shoplifters does so well is show us how people from all ages and walks of life are being marginalized by a society that values individual gain and material wealth over human kindness and genuine affection.

Hirokazu Kore-eda uses his abundance of reality shooting style and dense interior locations that instantly puts you in the tight living spaces of typical Japanese homes. Visually, the film is dedicated to its characters and a high level of detail in their crammed surroundings.

Shoplifters is thought provoking and revealing of Japan’s growing threat to families for whom an addiction to social media and online living is causing them to neglect their everyday real-life existence instead of enhancing it.

JP

El Angel

Argentine filmmaker Luis Ortega’s stylish crime thriller El Angel set in Buenos Aires during the early 70s is based on the true story of a notorious 17-year-old baby-faced thief and killer with a fondness for burglarizing luxury suburban homes of the wealthy.

Eventually joining a crime gang, Carlos Robledo Puch aka El Angel was known as the Angel of Death for his innocent looking childlike demeanor and blond curly hair with a tendency to be quick on the trigger, casually robbing and killing innocent people while capturing the fascination of the Argentine media.

An all-star cast of well-known Latin American actors give solid performances and an especially riveting standout performance from newcomer Lorenzo Ferro in the title role of sexy serial killer Carlitos Robledo Puch.

Like El Clan (2015) from Argentine director Pablo Trapero three years earlier, this period in Argentina’s history is fertile ground for stories of intrigue, intimidation and crime, foreshadowing the country’s right-wing nationalist mentality and government corruption during the dictatorship era.

Carlitos comes from a middle-class family; his father, a vacuum cleaner salesman and his mother a home maker from German descent, try to raise him with good working-class values. But Carlitos has other ideas. He doesn’t believe in ownership like everyone else. He says in the film “I don’t believe in this is mine, and this is yours.” And he has a knack for breaking into places. At first he steals whatever takes his fancy and either keeps or gives them away as gifts to gain friends.

When he meets a schoolmate who he finds attractive, Ramón (Chino Darin), who comes from a crime family, he gains his friendship, quickly becoming partners, and proves himself to be a daring fearless thief but, to the alarm of Ramón’s family, also a loose cannon. He and his new crime family are soon pulling bigger and bigger jobs which invariably lead, almost casually at first, to deaths and murders that draw the attention of the authorities.

The 60s and 70s set design, consistent pacing, and vintage music give the movie an appealing authentic feel. Like the enigmatic character of pretty boy Carlos who loves to savor the time he spends while robbing magnificent posh estates, the movie presents us with the opulence and lavish lifestyle of the rich, then slowly as Carlos’ covetous greed grows and he becomes increasingly psychotic, his surroundings become decayed and empty reflecting his state of mind.

El Angel rocks with 70s fashion style and a stunning sensual performance by Lorenzo Ferro as Carlos who carries the film convincingly, showing us an intense portrait of a young merciless teen killer intoxicated with the power of his outrageous criminal acts. There is a palpable erotic tension between the two young thieves Carlos and Ramón that eventually turns deadly.

Ferro looks strikingly similar to the real Carlos as seen in pictures from that time period. The real Carlos Puch is still alive and is now famous for being the longest serving prisoner in Argentina’s history.

Produced by K&S Films and Pedro Almodovar’s company El Deseo who also gave us Wild Tales (2014) and The Clan (2015), Luis Ortega’s El Angel succeeds in giving us an aesthetic experience that’s daring, disturbing and highly entertaining.

JP

Blindspotting

Based on the actual experiences of co-writers and co-actors Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs while growing up together in West Oakland and the Bay area, the film follows Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) as childhood buddies who are struggling with the loss of their beloved neighborhood as new affluent hipsters are rapidly infiltrating and changing the dynamics of the city and ultimately throwing their relationship into turmoil.

Blindspotting starts out as a buddy comedy but eventually becomes a serious social commentary on race relations, police brutality and the effects of gentrification by throwing together a mix of people with very different values and experiences that see the locals changing their perspective on their old community.

The independent gritty drama opens with a split screen montage of West Oakland, California and the Bay area ghetto street life set to Verdi’s opera "Libiamo Ne' Lieti Calici Brindisi", starting the film off with a fun celebratory vibe juxtaposing old and new images of a city in flux between what it used to be and what it’s becoming.

This low budget buddy drama about the friendship between Collin, a soft spoken quiet young black man, and Miles, his hotheaded fast-talking white friend who grew up having to adapt to the predominantly black cultural hub of West Oakland, takes place during the last three days of Collin’s probation period, but Miles’ volatile temper keeps threatening to violate Collin’s strict parole terms.

When Collin witnesses a police shooting of a black man one night while driving home, it affects him more than he realizes and we quickly suspect that his last few days serving his probation as a convicted felon could easily end with him back in jail and losing his freedom.

Meanwhile the strange transition and metamorphoses of his community into unrecognizable people and places, and the innate police prejudices toward young black men are making his plans to leave a life of incarceration behind more difficult than he imagined.

Blindspotting refers to a psychology term called Rubin’s Vase where two images exist simultaneously but depending on one’s background and experiences, we only see one image while missing the other until it’s pointed out to us. The film thus shows how we are unconsciously biased toward one perception of certain people until we are shown another.

Using unique Bay area vernacular and slang that was prominent in West Oakland, Collin and Miles who are longtime Oakland locals and real-life rappers often communicate in rap verse and poetry slams throughout the film. The performances are superb all around including the two main leads who have a genuine chemistry and comradery as they are childhood friends in real life.

A passion project that was ten years in the making, Blindspotting is the culmination of years of planning and went through many iterations over the years, but despite its long incubation period the film feels remarkably current, dealing truthfully with today’s extremely topical issues.

Blindspotting is a tough hard-hitting reflection of urban inner-city life that has a good heart and no small amount of humor mixed with tense drama. It’s an amazing tribute to the affection and determination of the filmmakers that this fun visual record of a period in transition from old school boom box to new digital cell phone apps nostalgia has been brought to the screen with such honesty and flare.

JP