Village Rockstars

Bollywood’s loss is our considerable gain when Rima Das who left her remote Indian village to find work as an aspiring actor in the Hindi film capital of Mumbai, finally came to the realization that if she were to make it in the movie industry, it would not be in front of the camera but rather behind it bringing her own visions to the screen. 

Village Rockstars is self-taught filmmaker Rima Das’ beautiful charming coming-of-age story and stunning visual homage to her hometown of Chahaygaon in rural northeast India, and a love poem to remote village life and its people struggling to survive the yearly floods. 

Opting for a more realist experience very much in the spirit of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), we follow a playful ten year old girl Dhunu (Bhanita Das), living an idealic childhood as a tomboy who loves to run and roughhouse with the village boys climbing trees, walking to school and pretending to be in a rock band with her friends using Styrofoam cut-out guitars.

Dhunu and her widowed mother are managing without her father who died in an accident during one of the previous floods and her mother gently teaches her daughter to be independent, allowing her the freedom to enjoy her childhood. But once puberty strikes there is pressure from the villagers to keep this free-spirited girl out of the trees and indoors.

When Dhunu finds a real guitar for sale at the local market, she dreams of the fame and fun she and her friends will enjoy as a village rock band and tries to find a way to make enough money to buy the guitar. First she consults the wise village elder who gives her the idea of helping the neighboring villagers with little favors and tasks that they cannot do themselves; like collecting fruit too high to reach by climbing tall trees and shaking the branches. This way she’s able to eventually save enough money and also make valuable friendships in the process.

There are some striking similarities with another touching coming-of-age film, Wadjda (2012), also about a savvy ten year old girl living with her mother in suburban Riyad, Saudi Arabia who also finds some crafty ways to make money to buy a bicycle she wants so she can ride to school with the boys. In much the same way that Wadjda learns to use her natural skills as a young entrepreneur, Dhunu also learns that with determination, she can achieve her dreams.

This is the kind of life that director Rima Das had grown up in and lovingly rediscovered again in her adulthood after returning from Mumbai as a failed actor. While following and getting to know this group of rambunctious children as they go about their daily lives spontaneously enjoying playful activities in their natural environment, even allowing them to participate in the actual making of the film, Rima gives us a real sense of what life is like for these people as we witness them struggling with nature, animals and weather. 

It’s a remarkable achievement as the film is totally self-financed using a non-professional cast of characters from her own village, and a documentary style of filming. With very little dialogue or story, Rima Das is able to create the kind of experimental minimalist neorealism pioneered and championed by legendary filmmakers Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostami.  

Village Rockstars’ heartfelt story and authentic organic locations are so fondly visualized in such intimate detail and evocative vignettes; we can feel the mud huts baking in the sweltering heat, and the coolness of soaking in water pools among the grass fields. It’s an absolute gem, the kind of crowd-pleaser that will most certainly enjoy universal appeal.

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Alanis

Alanis is a powerful character study from the acclaimed award winning Argentine filmmaker Anahí Berneri who is known for her extremely intimate and raw authentic depictions of women struggling with motherhood and societal expectations ; Aire Libre (2014), It’s Your Fault (2010). 

She has chosen for her latest film an even more provocative perspective on life from the dark underworld of prostitutes struggling to survive while working on the urban streets of Buenos Aires. 

With Alanis, Berneri focuses on the remarkable and gripping story of a young resilient sex worker and new mother struggling to stabilize her life and that of her new toddler when she is locked out of her downtown apartment that she rents and works out of with an older colleague she shares the space with.

After her friend Gisela is arrested in a raid of their flat by undercover inspectors, Alanis takes her baby, Dante, played by her actual son, to a nearby relative who owns a women’s clothing shop to crash for the night until she can get her belongings back which are locked in the apartment.

Alanis played by Sofia Gala Castiglione is absolutely riveting to watch and carries the film as we follow her through a range of daily activities from mundane dressing and breast feeding her child, to the matter-of-factness of her job performing sex acts with some of her clients, and the more disturbing suspenseful scenes of surviving on the seedy streets of a busy multi-cultural metropolis. She makes it seem completely natural and honest as if it’s all part of life.

Alanis feels like and harkens back to the best of Italian neo-realist cinema of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), but without any sentimentality or moralizing and without any judgement. We are simply present to what seems like actual documentary style footage from what could be her cell phone camera. We also get moments of visual beauty that transcend her predicament and elevate the film and our hopes.

There’s a peripheral social comment in the film that exposes the way sex workers are treated by the state, law enforcement and the attitudes and perceptions of society. But mostly we focus on Alanis’ immediate needs to provide for the survival of her child and herself, at once tender and reflective, then suddenly violent and desperate.

Alanis never displays any signs of shame or apology for what she does. As dire as Alanis’ circumstance are, she seems to take it all in stride, determined to show her pride and dignity in the face of adversity and judgement. It’s as if this has always been her reality and indeed she is so accustomed to her bohemian lifestyle that it seems unnatural for her to imagine any other life. When she does get an opportunity to make a living as a cleaner, she quickly grows tired and depressed finding it more degrading than what she was doing and returns to the more familiar nocturnal territory of the streets.

The hard rock soundtrack appropriately gives Alanis the sense of living a life on the edge of society where there are few people and resources she can turn to for help, while also reflecting the hardened persona she has had to develop in order to survive her harsh environment.

But Alanis is not the kind of film that gives us hope or answers. It’s more honest than that, and by the end of the film she has had to endure many dangers and people who want to take advantage or punish her. But she refuses to be a victim and continues to live the only life she knows while finding happiness nurturing and loving her child.

Alanis had its premiere at the TIFF 2017 Toronto International Film Festival this past month and has since won the Best Actress award for Sofia Gala Castiglione, and the Best Director Award for Anahí Berneri at the 65th San Sebastián Film Festival. Berneri became the first female director to win the award in the 65 year history of the Festival.

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What Will People Say

What Will People Say is a gripping autobiographical film from Norwegian filmmaker Iram Haq that deals with the cultural conflict of first generation Muslim immigrants who must find a way to fit into the lifestyle of their newly adopted country while also adhering to the traditions and culture of their parents. 

Born in Norway to Pakistani parents, Actress, Writer, Director Iram Haq tells a disturbing personal story about the harrowing experiences she was subjected to by her own family when she was only 14 years old. She waited a long time to tell this story in order to give it the balanced treatment she felt it needed to understand her father’s behavior and also be true to her own feelings.

Part of the Platform program at the 2017 Tiff Toronto International Film Festival, where What Will People Say had its world premiere, the film is a searing indictment of the brutal subjugation inflicted on Muslim girls that continues to exist today in many European and North American countries where the practice of forced child marriage and so called ‘honor killings’ has been imported with immigrant families from India and Pakistan.

Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), born and living in Norway with her Pakistani parents leads a typical life of a European teenager when she is caught with her Norwegian boyfriend in her bedroom by her father Mirza (Adil Hussain) who is so outraged that he physically assaults the boy and tries to marry her off believing that they must have had sex.

When the misguided father disowns his daughter and Child Services gets involved, the family is so concerned about their reputation in the Pakistani community that the mother deceives Nisha into believing that all is now fine and she can return home only to be kidnapped by her father and brother who secretly take her by force to Pakistan to live in isolation with an Aunt she doesn’t know.

Horrified at being abandoned by her family in a country she has never been to, she makes several attempts to escape and communicate with her friends in Norway. Unable to leave, she is threatened with being married off to a poor family where she will spend the rest of her life as a child slave if she tries to escape again. 

Incredibly, Nisha’s ordeal only gets worse from there and she’s eventually forced to flee her family who subject her to ever increasing humiliations in the name of restoring their status in the community. 

Maria Mozhadah and Adil Hussain’s performances as the suffering father and daughter are powerfully convincing with real conviction and passion. A strong feeling of anger and outrage may accompany the viewing of this film and others like it that deal with this controversial topic. Forced child marriage is still widely practiced in all parts of Pakistan.

What Will People Say is part of an increasingly vocal and ever growing movement by female and male filmmakers to expose the shocking truth about the treatment of women by oppressive patriarchal and religious societies, but as the film points out, even as we become aware of these issues that exist in our own neighborhoods and cities, there is little that can be done to protect children from such abuses in the highly insular and socially controlled Muslim communities. 

Giving voice to issues of gender inequality has become vital in recent years as more female filmmakers are working now than ever before opening our eyes to disturbing practices in an ever increasing diverse world where it’s becoming imperative that we learn to live together in harmony.  

Here are some other excellent films that also tell similar stories: A Wedding - Noces (2016), As I Open My Eyes (2016), Sand Storm (2016), Layla M. (2016), Mustang (2015), Dukhtar (2014), and Circumstance (2011).

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The Insult

Two working class men; a right-wing Christian and a Palestinian refugee, are locked in a clash of wills that turns into an overblown feud exposing the country’s tinderbox of historical and sectarian divisions. No it’s not Trump’s America, although this story could be happening anywhere in the world and does eventually explode into a wider national crisis. This is Lebanese writer, director Ziad Doueiri’s vital and exhilarating new film The Insult.

There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of The Insult proclaiming that the views expressed in the film are not those of the Lebanese Government. Clearly they must have felt the complex political subject matter depicted in the movie to be highly controversial. The Government needn’t have been worried. The Insult is a profound and accomplished work by a talented and remarkable filmmaker that the Lebanese can be proud of.

Filmed in the busy and dusty streets of Beirut, a haphazard maze of narrow laneways lined with concrete apartment buildings and shuttered storefronts that blend together in shades of grey and white strewn with tangled clusters of electrical wires. The sundrenched city becomes very much an angry volatile character in itself. 

When the Mayor tasks the city works department with improving infrastructure and removing code violations in an Arab Christian neighborhood known for its complex mix of religious and cultural backgrounds, it requires a delicate hand to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities. The construction company that has been contracted to do this job employs mostly Palestinian refugees working illegally in Lebanon.

This is the foundation on which this tough, hard-hitting human story is told with an extremely tight narrative that moves along at breakneck pace; throwing the viewer into a seemingly common everyday dispute that unexpectedly grows into something much more complicated.

A hot-headed Lebanese Christian auto mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) and a Palestinian Muslim construction foreman Yasser (Kamel El Basha) get into a heated argument over a balcony gutter drain that quickly escalates when neither side is willing to concede to the other. We immediately sense that there is more to this altercation than meets the eye.

Based on some of Mr. Doueiri’s own personal experiences when, as a young man, he impulsively insulted someone while on his balcony in a neighborhood where people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds were living. The experience changed him and had a profound effect on him. What he learned remains as relevant as ever.

The Insult, Lebanon’s foreign language Oscar submission for the 2018 Academy Awards, is an urgent film that takes on many of today’s pressing issues of illegal migrant workers, deep seated cultural and religious hatreds, the effect of the media in our justice system, free speech vs hate speech, and egos getting in the way of decency. Ultimately we see how people can create toxic situations in their present lives due to festering unresolved anger carried from their past.

It’s Tony’s angry reactionary impulse, and Yasser’s, the older of the two, intense emotional restraint that holds us glued to this powerhouse drama. Kamel El Basha won the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his performance but they all deserve recognition. The utterly convincing performances by all the actors, including the two lawyers representing their clients, are invested with such intense emotion that one feels compelled by turns to sympathize with both parties. The realism is so palpable that one could be forgiven for thinking the film is some kind of docudrama. To his credit, Ziad Doueiri gives us a balanced analysis from all sides.

Ziad Doueiri who was first assistant cameraman on many of Quentin Tarantino’s films including Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Jackie Brown (1997), is working here with cinematographer Tommaso Fiorilli to give the tight conglomerate of dust veiled buildings in Beirut a dramatic cinematic energy. Doueiri’s visual style was also influenced and inspired, as many filmmakers were, by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke’s landmark films The Qatsi Trilogy (1982 – 2002) and the amazing Baraka (1992), and Samsara (2011) series.

What really sends this perfect storm of family drama, political drama and courtroom drama into the realm of classic cinematic heights is Doueiri’s confident direction, skillfully blending brilliant performances with a single-minded focus on a deeply felt storyline about two men both claiming to be victims and ruining their lives in order to be right, all stunningly infused with searing visual bravura that breathes authentic life into every scene.

The Insult must surely be Ziad Doueiri’s answer to some of the difficult issues that Lebanon and many other parts of the world are grappling with in today’s tense political sectarian environment. As one of the film’s lawyers points out, “No one has exclusive rights to suffering.” This is the kind of thought provoking filmmaking Governments should be celebrating, not deterring.

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Good Time

You’ll have a hell of a ‘good time’ at the cinema watching this wild hypnotic adrenaline induced crime drama that bleeds off the screen with manic electric energy. The title is ironic as the characters are having anything but a good time in this film by the Safdie Brothers, Josh and Benny, a fresh and startling new voice in today’s cinema.

In competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Good Time won praise and a standing ovation from many critics for its performances, stylish look, hyper relentless pace, and disturbing but humanizing ambivalent depiction of Queens, New York’s urban underground. 

In the course of a single night, anything that can go wrong, does, and just keeps getting worse for Constantine (Connie) Nikas, played by an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, a fast talking reckless hoodlum and con artist who leaves a path of destruction in his wake both physical and psychological. He takes advantage of everyone and every situation he comes in contact with, using them to his own single minded purpose. Even his mentally disabled younger brother Nick, (Benny Safdie) a child in a man’s body, is not exempt from Connie’s intense drive to get what he needs to survive.

After Connie coerces his brother Nick to help him pull off a daring bank robbery, things suddenly explode in his face when Nick is captured during a botched getaway and sent to prison. Connie knows that Nick will not survive long in jail without his help, so he desperately tries to raise the bail money he needs to get him out quickly.

Connie is not particularly likeable but he is extremely watchable. What keeps us hooked into the story is the way the Safdie brothers cleverly draw us in with Connie’s innocent sympathetic abused brother Nick who we see at the beginning of the film undergoing a psych evaluation by a community psychologist before Connie bursts in to take him away. It’s for his sake that we want to root for Connie, but only in a way that we might do seeing a panhandler with a loyal dog at his side. We may not want to give money to the beggar but we might for the sake of the dog.

In this dark Scorsesian thriller, there is something seamy about the people and places in the film, and the stylish visual design is intended to further enhance the feeling of depraved dread with a raw, smudged and over saturated color palette. The handheld camera angles are kept tight to Connie’s determined face as he manipulates the various characters he runs into. In this respect the film has a very European cinema verity feel and visual style.

Daniel Lopatin’s otherworldly retro electronic echo acid soundtrack is a throwback to 1970s and 80s musical scores of Tangerine Dream in suspense thrillers like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1981). Good Time is tragic and darkly comic but also mesmerizing as we follow Connie through nocturnal cityscapes from one absurdity to another, starring in disbelief at the crazy decisions he makes. The pulse-pounding score steadily increases the pace, blurring the neon house-of-horrors milieu, and allowing us to keep up with the action. 

I went into the film knowing nothing about it and came out pleasantly surprised at its edgy dark desperate vision and unique exciting perspective reminiscent of Scorsese’s early work, which may not be for everyone. Robert Pattinson’s stand out performance in particular is all-out stunning and more than carries the film with his frantic energy. 

Like a nightmare you can’t escape, Good Time gets under your skin and crawls into your psyche, wreaking havoc wherever it goes. This movie goes and goes without stopping until it just falls off the screen, leaving you wondering, like a bad dream, what did I just experience?

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Dunkirk

Dunkirk refers to the coastal town of Dunkerque in northern France, which played a vital role during the early part of World War II in what is known as the Battle of Dunkirk, when British Expeditionary forces, aiding French troops to defend France from Nazi invasion, were overrun and beaten back by the powerful and aggressive advance of the highly organized German army.

Forced to retreat, the British, French, Canadian and some Dutch and Belgian troops were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk where they were to be evacuated across the English Channel back to the safety of England. With the Germans hot on their heels, the evacuation stalled when ships sent from England to pick up the beaten troops were torpedoed by German U-Boats and the vulnerable troops became sitting ducks for German Luftwaffe fighter planes to pick off at will.

This was the desperate situation that approximately 400,000 exhausted and virtually defenseless soldiers found themselves in for an excruciating 9 days while the English scrambled to make alternate plans to defend and evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk while the Nazis closed in for the kill.

As war films go, Dunkirk offers a stunningly dark and immersive experience that gives us an all-encompassing view of the events as they occur from multiple perspectives cutting between a montage of scenes from the three main theatres of war; the frightening experience of the soldier on the ground, the lonely isolated bird’s eye view of the British fighter pilot flying over the English Channel engaged in aerial combat with enemy planes, and one of the many civilians who made the dangerous journey across the Channel in small privately owned boats to try and help save as many lives as they could from the sea.

Christopher Nolan - Interstellar (2014) – The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 - 2012), attempts to show specific aspects of the battle from the English viewpoint. We never see the faces of the enemy. The threat is shown only as an unseen relentless force driving young men into desperate situations.

Soon after the start of hostilities in 1940, Europe quickly found themselves completely outmaneuvered and outgunned by a German war machine the size and speed of which had never been seen before. Young inexperienced European soldiers were completely unprepared for the violent onslaught that rained down upon them from the air, ground and sea.

As a survival story, Nolan’s Dunkirk greatly enhances the viewer’s feeling of despair and tension by throwing us into the bewildering battle as the confused and disoriented soldiers must have experienced it without any lead up to the events or character backstories.

Hans Zimmer’s eerie pervasive soundtrack is more like a synthesized screaming of string instruments that you might expect to hear in a horror film. The music has the harrowing screeching quality of a spitfire engine closely careening overhead that’s reminiscent of portions of The Dark Knight (2008) soundtrack.

Nolan’s intention is to give the viewer a visceral experience, making the events at Dunkirk accessible using the large IMAX format which is superbly well suited for putting the viewer in close proximity to the absurd war experience. The epic scale of the film with its vast expanses of beach, troops and sea, and the many threats from air, water and ground overwhelms with stunningly powerful scenes of war and destruction.

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The Big Sick

The Big Sick is a delightful heartwarming original romance and the perfect antidote for the current fearful intolerant times threatening to separate people from various backgrounds instead of uniting them which will resonate with many filmgoers. 

Kumail Nanjiani, a TV actor on HBO’s Silicon Valley, plays himself in 2007 when he was a struggling comedian and dating his white Christian girlfriend Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan) who he met as a grad student at the comedy club in Chicago during one of his standup routines and is based on their real-life romance.

Kumail dreams of making it big as a stand-up comic and actor in Chicago. He practices his cultural brand of comedy at a small comedy club by night and works as an Uber driver by day. His parents are devout Muslim Pakistani Americans who are busy trying to match him up with a steady array of Pakistani American girls who keep dropping by the house whenever he comes over for dinner. Yes visions of Meet the Patels (2015) and Punchline (1988) come to mind. 

What Kumail is hiding from his parents is that he enjoys his American lifestyle and is not interested in their cultural tradition of arranged marriages. He just wants to be like other normal American guys his age, but he can’t tell his girlfriend what his parents are expecting of him for fear of losing her, his parents, or both. 

Kumail and Emily have a charming playful chemistry together and we enjoy watching their courtship flourish. But when the two are at a stage in the relationship where Emily wants to meet his parents and for him to meet hers, Kumail tries to stall while he figures out how to explain his family situation. When she eventually finds out on her own, she’s heartbroken, accusing him of lying to her and bitterly breaks up with him.

After the abrupt breakup they go their separate ways and Kumail goes back to his old life of dating random girls he meets at the comedy club. But it so happens that this time fate steps in to give them both a reality check that will make them see each other in a whole new light and bring them back together in a most unusual way.

Like a classic Bollywood musical where our hero couple, after a magical courtship, suddenly separate during an angry disagreement, and then unexpectedly find themselves drawn back together after a big tragic event, so Kumail and Emily are reunited during a traumatic medical crisis when fate strikes a tragic blow.

At this point The Big Sick turns into an emotional hospital nightmare with hilarious awkward moments when Kumail rushes to Emily’s bedside after he discovers that she has fallen ill with a mysterious infection. He eventually finds himself face to face with Emily’s parents who know all about what has happened between him and their daughter and are none too happy to see him.

The situation for Kumail keeps getting more and more bizarre as we are kept in suspense and stitches with Kumail’s sincere deadpan facial expressions and dry humor when he’s confronted with serious doctor’s questions and Emily’s worried parents, played perfectly and honestly by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who are stuck in the hospital together for days while waiting for news of Emily’s condition. 

The Big Sick, which premiered at Sundance, walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy, touching on interracial relations, cross-cultural clashes, Islamophobia, and family bonds, resulting in a big emotional payoff. The film’s significant themes of tolerance, acceptance and diversity are a welcome trend made more relevant in today’s tense political environment of Trump’s volatile America.

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Baby Driver

Baby doesn’t talk much. He’s constantly hooked up to his iPod that pumps out tunes selected to suit his moods, prompting one character in Baby Driver to ask “Is he retarded?” about the young kid getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), in this adrenalin rush, pulse pounding heist thriller with a shuffle mix beat. 

Another character replies in his defense “Retarded means slow. Is he slow?” From what we’ve just witnessed in the opening sequence of the film, Baby is anything but slow. In fact Baby is a maniac behind the wheel. Baby Driver is so fast it will make your head spin with delight.

It’s a careening frenetic fun ride that hits all the right notes literally with a wall-to-wall soundtrack that inspires the action sequences and car chases in a way that we’ve never quite seen before. Edited almost exactly to the beat of the music, Baby Driver is precisely choreographed to the action with an eclectic mix of Rock, Funk and Hip Hop songs as heard through Baby’s iPod and stolen car radios.

Baby learned how to drive like no one else after his parents were killed in a car accident when he was little, with him being the only survivor. Now slightly hearing impaired, he can’t live without the music blaring in his ears to drown out the constant hum giving him the superhuman ability to drive a car with a single minded focus. 

His driving ability makes him a valued asset to a group of bank robbers lead by a daring fast talking crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who coerces Baby to work for him using his talent to get them out of sticky situations.

The songs drive the film in such a way that the audience hears what Baby hears through almost the entire film and the results are fascinating and exhilarating, putting us right in the driver’s seat.

Baby Driver makes a pit stop at a roadside diner where Baby hangs out when he’s not driving just long enough to develop a quick love relationship with an attractive young waitress, Deborah (Lily James), he has his eye on. When Baby thinks he is finally free to leave his criminal past behind and make an honest living to be with his new love, Doc has other plans for him which he cannot refuse. 

A guy who wants to use his remarkable talent to break from his past to be with the woman he loves is not that new a concept. Movies like Punch Drunk Love (2002) come to mind, but what makes this film unique is it’s blending of genres like the heist crime thriller with a unique musical slant. Here Punch Drunk Love meets Drive (2011) but with more action, humor and music.

British director Edgar Wright, well known for his hilarious send ups of other genres with films like Hot Fuzz (2007), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and The World’s End (2013), does it even more successfully here while raising the bar for all future action films and creating an instantly memorable film that will have audience’s jaws dropping and heads bopping to the beat.

Don’t miss this insanely stylish and enjoyable film that’s sure to make you a Baby Driver fan when it comes to cinemas June 28.

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American Honey

Fearless, uncompromising, and shocking, American Honey exposes the harsh underbelly of the elusive American dream. This swerving road adventure is energized with a youthful exuberance for life and a hopeful future while living on the seedy edge of an amoral lifestyle. 

It’s the Easy Rider for millennials; an unflinching and mesmerizing odyssey that follows Star (Sasha Lane), a gutsy teenage girl fed up with babysitting the young children of irresponsible parents who spend their time drinking at the local bar, when she flees her impoverished home to join a ragtag group of misfit runaway kids who ‘work hard’ scamming and robbing their way from town to town as they travel across Middle America in a van selling magazine subscriptions.

Andrea Arnold, the British director of the acclaimed film Fish Tank (2009), also about a teenage girl coming of age in working class Essex housing projects while witnessing the struggles of her single mother eking out a living by prostitution and drugs, was herself the product of years of living off welfare and scraping by while feeding her children. Here Arnold turns her eye on the American equivalent of lost aimless youth.

Using a mostly non-professional cast of actors who are utterly natural just being themselves, and filming in an array of veritable locations; truck stops, trailer parks, parking lots and abandoned houses along the endless highways of America, American Honey looks and feels as authentic as an amateur home video that never censors itself from the ugliness and beauty of the people and places it visits for short periods.

This little seen behind the garbage dump corner of American life could well be the ignored, underrepresented, low income America that recently put a reality TV business mogul in the White House.

The camera never stops moving as we are ferried endlessly in a van full of tired restless kids, capturing desolate mind numbing expanses of American landscapes, strip malls and billboards. But what is most distressing is the moral emptiness of these kids who will do anything for a buck and are heading for a dead-end life of drugs and lost dreams.

Sasha’s performance as Star is courageous and vulnerable at the same time. She wants to find an authentic life and is awestruck by the life of freedom and fun the traveling group of wild kids seem to lead. Led by the charismatic slightly older hustler Jake, Shia LaBeouf is exceptional here in a fascinating performance and brilliantly cast as the longtime team leader and go-between for the gang of kids and their intimidating female boss Krystal played by Riley Keough.

Throughout their travels and adventures together Jake and Star quickly form a strong sensual bond and have a great chemistry between them. The hip-hop soundtrack of contemporary hits that blasts on the radios of their vehicles and inside various department stores gets the kids hollering and dancing with glee as the ever changing landscapes flash by in the background giving the film a surreal fun-house feel.

Innocence is quickly lost in this dreamlike alternate reality America as the homeless kids are exposed to the severe realities of their desperate situations but do so with a life affirming resilience that is all too recognizable in children shielding themselves from the uncertainty of their plight. 

American Honey is an intimately observed and brutally honest drama about kids in hopeless situations living day to day never knowing where they will find themselves and a sad commentary on the effects of a consumerist and morally corrupt society gripping America’s youth. 

JP

KONG: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island is an epic size apocalyptic creature feature that relishes in its grand visual spectacle. Not since Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic King Kong (2005) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) have we seen such awesome digital monster clashes.

Set in 1973 Vietnam War era, the psychedelic music of the 70s drug culture sets the tone for an appropriate mythic adventure of destruction and discovery. Swarms of Huey military helicopters heading into the eye of the storm, a makeshift boat cruising down jungle rivers into the heart of darkness all evoking a fond homage to Apocalypse Now (1979).

This is not a retelling of the classic King Kong beauty and the beast story but more a reimagining of and continuation of the Kong legacy. The film gets off to a stunning start with a W.W. II airplane battle between an American and Japanese pilot who crash on the undiscovered island in 1944 that could be the start of a new Indiana Jones movie.

Fast forward 29 years into the future where a government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) is putting together a secret task force of soldiers, mercenaries and scientists to find an as yet undiscovered mysterious island thought to be a black hole into which many a plane have disappeared.

The expedition, under the guise of a geological survey team, to locate and scout the uncharted island hidden from satellites by a perpetual hurricane that surrounds it, starts out in spectacular fashion that brings together a group of unusual international characters not unlike the animated Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001).

Soon everyone is running through the jungle to Creedance Clearwater Revival and helicopters are swooping down unloading their lethal ordinance in a ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ style Vietnam War montage that explodes with operatic energy and is one of the films highlights.

A heady hybrid of jungle warfare and colossal monster films colliding in stunning awesomeness, Kong is visually glorious and a blast to watch even before we see the first Jurassic glimpses of Skull Island creating an energy and momentum that will delight even the most skeptical fan boys and girls. Even the poster is a mashup of Apocalypse Now’s sunset with Kong’s silhouette standing in for Marlon Brando’s head.

Brie Larson is well cast here as brave strong-willed heroine Mason Weaver, an independent anti-war photographer who discovers that Kong has taken a shine to her and may not be the most dangerous creature on the island. 

John C. Reilly’s comic performance as Hank Marlow, a stranded W.W. II pilot who has survived by befriending the natives of the Island almost steals the show in a role that’s equivalent to the one played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Most of the other characters are underdeveloped, serving mostly as fodder for Kong who is definitely the stand out star of the show.

Made by the producers of Garth Edwards Godzilla (2014) and directed by newcomer Jordan Vogt-Roberts - Kings of Summer (2013), this film is poised to start a new franchise of heroic large scale creature brawl films where the new digital age of monster effects dominates the landscape.

Kong: Skull Island gets the summer block buster season off to a great start if you’re looking for nostalgia and escapist adventure on a grand scale. 

JP

A Man Called Ove

Sweden’s Oscar entry, A Man Called Ove is a touching, bittersweet, comic tale that’s a deeply satisfying emotional experience, and it’s fully deserving of its 2 Oscar nominations for best foreign film and best hair and makeup.

Based on the international bestselling debut novel by blogger Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove’s main character, played by Rolf Lassgard, is definitely one of the grumpiest middle aged men portrayed on film in recent years that saw a growing spate of ageist comedies like Grandma (2015) and The Grump (2014).

As the self-proclaimed security guard and all round handyman in his well-maintained community of row houses, Ove has a long established routine of sternly making sure his neighborhood is safe and secure from vandals and thieves by diligently enforcing the rules to the letter. One can’t be too careful nowadays with irresponsible youth and the influx of immigrants. 

Ove has an intimidating presence with his mean scowl and quick imposing finger that he points at everyone who approaches him with a question or a simple good morning greeting. He calls everyone idiots, hisses at stray cats, tells off little old ladies who ask him for help, and yells at people who drive through the traffic free residential lane way.

Ove, who has tragically lost his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) to cancer recently, is grumpier than usual and has decided, after being forced to retire, to follow his true love into the afterlife. The problem is, every time he’s about to kill himself he’s interrupted by some imbecile neighbor who needs his help.

We can’t help but laugh as Ove matter-of-factly attempts and fails to do himself in. At first we have little sympathy for him but as we learn more about Ove’s past and especially his relationship with his wife, it becomes apparent that he has lost someone very special and is having trouble coping without her.

But the outside world that he hates so much keeps barging in, coming to his rescue as he learns to adjust to a new reality and we discover that he is not the evil unsympathetic man we thought he was.

The story takes some unexpectedly humorous turns including a backstory about his rivalry with a good friend that drives a wedge between them as they obsessively try to outdo each other with their loyalty to Swedish car makes Saab and Volvo.

Rolf Lassgard portrays Ove with perfect balance of comic bombast and vulnerability, bringing this unlikeable man to life in a way that we can all deeply relate to. 

Acclaimed Norwegian composer Gaute Storaas has created an evocative and moving musical score that beautifully blends comic and tragic moods touching the right emotional strings. Ove’s plodding base theme ‘Janitor’ perfectly complements Lassgard’s bold daring performance.

A Man Called Ove is the surprise sleeper hit of the year steadily gaining both critical acclaim and audience praise. It unexpectedly got onto the Academy Award’s radar and is a strong contender to win the Oscar for best foreign film this week against a tough group of excellent films.

A crowd-pleaser that deals with surprisingly relevant social issues and packs an emotional punch as it builds and develops one of the most endearing characters of the year; A Man Called Ove is a cherished experience that will stay with you long after its final fond images are seared into your heart.

JP

After the Storm

Hirokazu Kore-eda, a vital voice in Japanese cinema, known for his emotionally distressing family dramas – Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), I Wish (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2013) and Our Little Sister (2015), champions the everyday struggles of regular working class people and especially the complex family relationships between children and their parents.

After the Storm is a quietly desperate and darkly humorous portrait of a lower class Japanese family struggling with divorce, separation, financial uncertainty, and society’s expectations. 

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who has the charmingly disheveled looks and manner of a Japanese version of Hugh Grant, is a divorced novelist working as a part time private detective to make ends meet while keeping tabs on his estranged wife and son. He must come to terms with his failed marriage while competing for his son’s affections with his ex-wife’s new fiancé.

After achieving early success with an award winning novel in his youth, his family and friends keep mocking him for his lack of ambition and keep asking him when his next novel will come out. But as he struggles with midlife crisis looking back on his failed career as a novelist, his mother (Kirin Kiki) reassures him that great talents often bloom late in life.

Behind on the rent and his alimony payments due to his reckless gambling addiction, Abe’s Ryota gives an endearingly comic performance of a man-child, revealing a parent awkwardly struggling to bond with his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), while trying to step-up and mend his reputation as a father by buying him expensive gifts he can’t afford.

We follow Ryota on his daily grind as he gambles and participates in shady extortion schemes to stay financially afloat. Sensitively told with delicate performances that speak volumes, the film visually immerses us in authentic lived-in locations filmed in tight intimately detailed spaces giving us the tactile feeling of a typical close-knit Japanese urban life. 

Visionary auteur Kore-eda knows how to get subtle nuanced moments out of his actors and is able to vividly unveil a human tenderness and understanding of such depth and power that it harkens back to the neorealism of Italian cinema showing regular people suffering with painful universal family issues.

When a typhoon (storm) hits Japan while visiting his mother, Ryota and his son and ex-wife Kyoko (Yôko Maki) are forced to spend the night together in her small ancestral cozy apartment, the close quarters allowing for a chance to remember the old family bonds that were lost after the divorce and confront their family failings.

After the Storm is a contemplative yet heartwarming optimistic experience that effectively deals with bitter generational human issues with a humor and insightfulness that everyone can relate to and will resonate with a wide audience of all cultures and classes.

JP

Lion

Lion is the profoundly moving true-life story of Saroo, a five year old boy living in a remote Indian village with his mother and siblings who is lost and separated from his brother one night while scavenging a railway station. 

After falling asleep from exhaustion on an empty train, Saroo finds himself being whisked away across India for thousands of kilometers to the chaotic city of Kolkata. Illiterate and unable to speak the Bengali language spoken by Kolkatans, Saroo had no idea where he ended up, or how to get back to his home. 

Surviving on the hazardous streets by himself for weeks while running from various unlawful fraudsters posing as kind Samaritans, he is finally taken to a crammed orphanage where he is eventually adopted by an Australian family and taken half way across the world to live with his adoptive parents John and Sue Brierley in Tasmania.

Based on his actual experiences, the movie follows Saroo Brierley on his incredible journey which he wrote about in his memoir A Long Way Home.

After growing up in a well to do middle class western family for the next 25 years, Saroo who now speaks English with an Aussie accent, can’t stop thinking about the family he left behind, and what they must be going through after his disappearance.  

After all, Saroo was not a runaway or abused by his family like many other children who end up on the streets. Saroo came from an impoverished but loving family who must have been extremely worried, wondering what had happened to him. 

Now much older and seeking his true identity, he decides to find out if he can retrace his steps back to where he came from and find his lost family using only his memories as a 5 year old, and a groundbreaking new satellite mapping technology called Google Earth.

Lion is a harsh but hopeful tale with a power and purpose that pays off big at the end of the film. We are treated to arresting aerial photography of some of India’s sweeping landscapes by cinematographer Greig Frazer who also lensed Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Lion feels much like a documentary that takes place in and around the maelstrom of India’s swarming streets and railways stations known for its dangerous and deadly accidents. 

The performance by the young non-professional Sunny Pawar who plays Saroo at age five is mesmerizing and note perfect. The supporting portrayals by Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother and Dev Patel – Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – as the older Saroo are also excellent but Sunny Pawar’s stunning and charming performance steals the show and clearly carries most of the film.

Making his feature film debut, Australian born commercial director Garth Davis skillfully relies on the power of the striking images to tell the inspiring story and allows his actors to convey the heartfelt realism of Saroo’s experiences.

Winning the runner up prize for the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Lion found a passionate audience and is well worth seeing in any season. 

Oscar buzz aside, allow the magic of this inspirational gem to take you on an unforgettable emotional journey you won’t soon forget.

JP

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Fans and filmgoers rejoice! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story rocks, setting a new high standard for the space fantasy franchise and exceeding fan expectations. Rousing adventure and exhilarating spectacle are back in cinemas in time to make your Christmas wish list come true.

Gareth Edwards – Monsters (2010), Godzilla (2014) – is part of a new generation of filmmakers who grew up with the mythology of the Star Wars Saga and is now able to play in the Universe that George Lucas created and bring their own sense of fun and reverence to it. 

Edwards clearly has a passion for the series being a fanboy himself, and still very much in touch with the awestruck child inside of him. Able to draw from 40 years of Star Wars lore, he has brought to the screen everything that people love about the original films as well as the acclaimed animated Clone Wars series. 

Darker and grittier in tone than previous films in the series, Rogue One follows a young woman, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), taken from her parents at an early age whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was recruited by the Empire to help build a secret weapon that will bring order to the galaxy. 

Everyone knows about Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia’s adventures with the help of Han Solo to smuggle stolen plans of the Death Star back to a secret rebel base and mount a successful attack that would destroy the Empire’s most feared weapon. Well… Rogue One is the first new Star Wars film which is an adjacent story, not part of the Skywalker saga, with never before seen characters that fills a time gap just prior to the events of A New Hope (1977), revealing the story of who and how those plans were stolen and delivered into the hands of our legendary heroes.

As outlined in the opening crawl of Episode IV: A New Hope, “Rebel spaceships, striking out from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the Evil Galactic Empire” and in fact the Rebel Alliance’s secret base on the fourth moon of Yavin plays a much bigger role in Rogue One as we get to see more of the ancient temple ruins hidden among the jungle forests of Yavin 4 where the rebels regroup and plan their next move.

“Rebellions are built on hope” according to one of Rogue One’s most dedicated members Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) whose morals have suffered due to having seen too many bad things and having done things he’s not proud of in the name of the Rebellion. But hope is in short supply at this crucial time in the Star Wars saga; the Jedi, guardians of the peace and justice, are a distant memory after the Emperor’s purge in Episode III some 20 years earlier, and the growing power of the Empire is on the verge of completing a superweapon capable of destroying entire planets.

Against such a threat the Rebels have no defense or any power to stop such an attack unless they can find a way to destroy it from within before it can do any harm. But this will not be easy and will require much courage on the part of many over the course of four films.

Armed with only vague information about a critical design flaw in the Death Star’s construction covertly sent by her father, Jyn eventually inspires a small rogue band of freedom fighters, extremists, Imperial defectors and reprogrammed war droids to infiltrate a secure Imperial archive facility to steal highly sensitive plans that could save the galaxy from certain destruction.

Much like World War II where the Allies were out classed by superior weapons of the German Empire, Rogue One is very much a war film about a small but courageous ragtag band of warriors coming together by fate for a common cause to fight a more advanced enemy against all odds.

Rogue One skillfully pays homage to moments and characters from previous Star Wars films and other media especially Episode IV: A New Hope which Rogue One directly precedes, and much of the fun for fans will be recognizing those moments which resonate with earlier films. The locations are once again chosen from many parts of the world, with Iceland, Jordan and the Maldives standing in for an array of unique otherworldly planets.

Rogue One also does a great job of creating memorable new characters and matching the look and feel of the original classic films. It has a rousing and spectacular ending that plays right into the beginning of A New Hope, which had audiences on their feet and cheering as the final credits role. 

JP

The Red Turtle

Studio Ghibli’s first collaboration with Dutch Academy Award winning animator Michael Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is a playful and moving meditation on life and the passage of time. It’s an allegorical fable about human existence that’s intensely heartfelt and artfully animated, reminding us of our limited time on earth and our deep need for companionship.

A man finds himself stranded on a tropical island with only crabs and birds for company. He makes several attempts to escape the island by building a raft with the bamboo he finds in a nearby forest but he’s continually foiled by a large sea turtle.

Angry and consumed with hatred for the turtle and desperate with diminishing resources at his disposal, he makes a plan to kill the giant turtle, yet what happens in the aftermath of the confrontation between man and turtle is an unexpected  all-consuming compassion for the subject of his hatred.

This bizarre story turns into a magical tale of deep sympathy and compassion with life taking its natural course and the turtle becoming an essential part of the hero’s happiness. In many ways the story calls to mind the same themes and ideas of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964) based on Kobo Abe’s novel The Woman in the Dunes.

The film focuses closely on the physical and emotional turmoil of the castaway as he deals with his predicament; his determination to leave the island, his frustration, wonder and struggles. The absence of any dialogue contributes to a meditative philosophical mood in a place with no other humans and only the wind, the sea and nature all around to interact with.

The animation has a clean clear cinematic look with natural colors often used in European comics. It’s drawn in a minimalist yet detailed naturalistic style that harkens back to the popular Belgian cartoonist Hergé who is best known for The Adventures of Tintin.

The story’s underlying existential theme touches on the random connections that life presents us with and how our relationships and circumstances define our existence. Before we make those personal connections we are just consumed with selfish pursuits, but once we stumble into a deep love connection, it feels at first like a trap or prison, a restriction on our egocentric existence until one day we realize our life is being fulfilled beyond our expectations and we no longer seek to escape it. 

The Red Turtle steadily grows into more than the sum of its parts and is a rewarding emotional experience for those who have the patience to see it through to its satisfying conclusion.

JP