Hearts Beat Loud

This Sundance Film Festival favorite will melt the hearts of all but the most jaded of viewers. It’s a profoundly touching crowd-pleaser if ever there was one that wears its heart on its sleeve using a combination of original songs and lyrics performed by a father and daughter musician duo jamming together to creatively express their inner torment.

A hipster widower Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) who runs a vinyl record store in the Brooklyn NY neighborhood of Red Hook, and his singer songwriter daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) who wants to go to medical school, are struggling with the loss of his wife and mother to Sam.

It’s the end of an era for single father Frank as he deals with issues of his aging mother, the regrets of his youth, losing his record store, and now his daughter who is about to go off to UCLA to attend medical school to become a doctor.

When Frank submits one of their jam session songs onto the free online music streaming service Spotify, the song becomes a hit on a popular indie mix, and Frank suddenly gets visions of touring with his daughter across the country and becoming famous as a live band act. But his dream of rekindling his former life as a successful pop rock musician is fading fast as he tries to convince his talented daughter to put aside her “childish dream” of becoming a doctor for a life as a musician.

Hearts Beat Loud starts out as a low key comedy focusing on the daily drama of its charming characters and gradually, like the music in the film, crescendos into a devastatingly heartfelt emotional explosion on multiple levels.

The film is a sad commentary on coming to terms with today’s new social and economic realities, the disparity between art and commerce, and nostalgia and regrets of past glories. But the film also emphasizes the power of the creative process to renew our hopes for the future.

This musical drama follows in the tradition of such recent let’s-start-a-band indie films as Once (2007), Begin Again (2014), Sing Street (2016) and Band Aid (2017). I also loved how we were exposed to some high-tech gadgets that help musicians create music in this new age of social media and computer-generated synthesizers that have changed the music industry.

Not only do we get the outstanding musical talents of the main characters, Kiersey Clemons is a real-life classical jazz singer, and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation (2009) is hilarious as a man-child dealing with adult responsibilities with his deadpan humor while trying to elicit reactions from his daughter, we also get an excellent supporting cast of characters; Ted Danson, Sasha Lane from American Honey (2016), Toni Collette, and Blyth Danner.

Director Bret Haley shows a sensitive touch with the realistically awkward and complicated relationship between a vulnerable father and daughter who start a band to deal with their real-life issues.

Hearts Beat Loud is a wonderful if sometimes sappy sentimental feel-good film we could all use in these harsh divisive times of intolerance.

JP

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo, the second stand-alone Star Wars anthology film from Disney/Lucasfilm since Rogue One (2016) features a young Han Solo that’s set exactly ten years before the events of A New Hope (1977) and his famous encounter in the Mos Eisley alien cantina with Luke and Ben Kenobi who hire him to pilot them to Alderaan to meet their destiny.

It’s also ten years after the end of the Clone Wars when all the Jedi have been killed or exiled by the Sith Lord Darth Sidious and his fallen Jedi apprentice Darth Vader. It’s a lawless time when powerful crime syndicates like Crimson Dawn are competing for resources and a few pockets of resistance are starting to rise up against the Empire’s authoritarian rule.

Solo is a solid coming of age adventure ride that harkens back to the Old West/cowboys-in-space vibe of the original films, taking us on a hyperspace journey through the darker underbelly of the Star Wars universe; from the industrial shipyards on Han’s home world of Corellia, to a war zone on the mud planet Mimban, to the dingy gambling hide-out of Fort Ypso on the snowy mountain planet Vandor,  to the oppressive spice mines of Kessel, and ultimately a stand-off at a deserted oceanside refinery on a sand dune wasteland called Savareen.

Much has been made in the media about Solo’s production problems and questions of the need for a film about Han Solo’s backstory, but in the end none of that matters because the movie, like Solo himself, beat all the odds and works amazingly well showing no evidence of the behind-the-scenes turmoil. The story is exciting and emotionally engaging, giving us new insights into the Star Wars universe with many fun nods to the classic films and the expanded universe books.

Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon are of course major characters in the Star Wars saga, and we get to see how these two iconic characters bonded and became synonymous with the Han Solo legend. For Chewbacca fans, we haven’t seen the Wookie fuzz ball get this much action since The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Solo, which I suspect will be the first in a series of Han Solo adventures, stays generally, if loosely, faithful to some of the Han Solo lore that was established in the various expanded universe novels while also exploring new directions. It’s encouraging that Solo is proving new filmmakers are still able to find inspiration from the Expanded Universe stories and are not completely ignoring the non-canon books.

I’m happy to say that Alden Ehrenreich’s interpretation of Han Solo is in perfect keeping with the tone and spirit of the character created by Harrison Ford. He embodies the younger space pirate wonderfully giving a solid fun performance as the charming ambitious idealist smuggler who wants to make his mark in the universe with plenty of swagger. 

Another standout performance comes from Donald Glover as the suave gambler and entrepreneur Land Calrissian. Glover was able to channel Billy Dee Williams smooth attitude with uncanny resemblance. In fact, the duo of Ehrenreich and Glover have great on-screen chemistry.

One of the coolest side-splitting sequences in Solo was the filmmakers’ attempt to explore droids’ rights issues, given that androids are generally treated as slave labor in the Star Wars galaxy. One droid in particular plays a fantastic role in Lando’s navigational co-pilot L3-37 played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge who has more personality than we’ve ever seen from other Star Wars droids.

The music score by John Powell ties Solo most closely with A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with John Williams’ familiar themes being re-used here and there to instantly recall situations from the earlier films.

For fans, Solo has a revelatory ah-ha moment with the re-appearance of a popular villain long thought to be dead and who was resurrected in the CG Animated tv series The Clone Wars (2008 – 2014) that will be discussed for years to come and promises more intriguing stories in future episodes. 

Solo can also be enjoyed immensely by the casual viewer as a retro/futuristic adventure heist film set in a galaxy far, far away that feels like a Western in space with memorable characters who seem strangely familiar. So, bring your best Wookie roar, your quickdraw blaster and enjoy the ride.

JP

Han Solo gets his own trilogy

Han, Chewie, Lando and the Millennium Falcon are some of the most iconic characters from the Original Star Wars trilogy. Longtime fans of the Star Wars saga will remember reading about the adventures of the galaxy’s most notorious space pirate before he met up with Luke, Leia and Ben Kenobi through the character bios and many Expanded Universe books that have been written about them, including A. C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy, and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures

Well, now we finally get to see for ourselves these mythic events and characters brought to life on the big screen for the first time when Solo: A Star Wars Story opens in cinemas worldwide on May 25th.

Fans will finally get to witness the legend of Solo’s humble beginnings and shady past as an orphan growing up on his home world of Corellia. How he and his Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca first met, how he joined a gang of thieves running scams under the mentorship of their leader, and how he eventually won the famous Millennium Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, from his sometime friend Lando Calrissian in a card game.  

Most of us have heard how Han escaped his life of crime on Corellia to joined the Empire as a TIE pilot only to be disillusioned and discharged from the Imperial navy when he refused to participate in the enslavement of Wookiees and saved the life of one such Wookiee named Chewbacca, whose custom was to swear a life debt to Han. Together they became one of the most notorious partners running spice for the Hutt clans, one of whose members was Jabba the Hutt.

It will be interesting to see just how much of this original backstory of Han Solo is kept in the film as much of the Expanded Universe books are no longer considered canon by Disney when they bought Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise. But from the evidence seen in the new trailers for the film online it would seem that much of Han Solo’s legendary life remains intact although we will see how much of it was altered and where new directions are explored.

As we have seen in Rogue One (2016) and The Last Jedi (2017), some of the vast non-canon material produced for the Expanded Star Wars Universe could eventually end up being used in a Star Wars film somewhere in the future, thus returning it to canon status.

Solo:  A Star Wars Story reportedly features a mud planet called Mimban, which was first introduced by Alan Dean Foster, the ghostwriter of the first Star Wars novelization, in the very first expanded Star Wars novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye back in 1978, which is a non-canon novel continuing the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa shortly after the events of A New Hope. Mimban will now make it’s feature film debut in Solo.

First reports of the Premiere showing of Solo in Hollywood and at Cannes last week are very encouraging with many people proclaiming it a fun fast ride with plenty of surprises that will satisfy the hard core faithful followers of the saga. 

By all accounts the decision to bring in longtime friend of George Lucas and veteran Oscar winning director Ron Howard half way through production to finish the project on time has paid off and saved the film from potential disaster. (or at least from a delayed release) The important thing now for fans to remember is not to dwell on the production woes but to judge the finished product on the screen. 

I’m looking forward to seeing a different kind of Star Wars movie we haven’t seen before from the point of view of beloved characters not associated with the Force or the Jedi Knights. Han Solo has no special powers, he’s the quintessential cynic loner with a conscience who stumbles through one pitfall after another while selfishly pursuing riches. He never imagined he would one day meet a princess who would convince him to join a rebellion to defeat the tyrannical Empire he was once a part of.

JP

Padmaavat

Reportedly the most expensive Indian film ever made, Padmaavat lives up to expectations of a visually spectacular mega mythological/historical epic of feudal India. Drawing on its rich history of legendary figures that have invaded and influenced Indian culture over thousands of years, Padmaavat is the Bollywood equivalent of Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Troy (2004). If you’ve never experienced a Bollywood blockbuster this would be a great place to start.

Padmaavat depicts the staggering opulence of 13th century medieval India where good versus evil, heroes and villains are shown as larger than life. In typical Bollywood fashion there are grand palaces, vast armies clashing in full armor, over-the-top drama, a massive city siege, dazzling luxuriant costumes, and grandiose musical dance sequences that puts Hollywood’s golden age to shame. 

Loosely based on the Hindustani epic poem by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Padmaavat is the story of Padmini (Deepika Padukone), a princess from the Kingdom of Singhal in Sri Lanka whose reputation as the most beautiful woman in the world eventually reached Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the ruler of a Rajput warrior clan in Rajastan occupying the largest and strongest fortified city in India called Chittor, built on top of a high cliff hill. 

Ratan Singh, known for his proud ancestry, honour and strong warrior ethic, travels a long way to meet Padmini who he soon learns is not only beautiful but also strong and intelligent. While hunting one day in a dark dense forest filled with wild animals, Padmini accidentally shoots the King Ratan with an arrow while he is admiring her from the bushes wounding him in the shoulder. While recovering from his injury at her father’s palace they fall in love and marry, eventually returning to live together as the new King and Queen of Chittor. 

Purdah, or the seclusion of women to protect them from the eyes and harassment of other men, was a custom of the Rajput nobility, so when a court musician is caught spying on the couple during an intimate moment, Ratan banishes him from his kingdom. The musician travels to Delhi where a ruthless Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) has just conquered the Delhi Sultanate.

He tells Alauddin of the extraordinary beauty of the new Mewar Queen of Chittor, Padmini, knowing he will do anything to conquer her and thereby gain his revenge on the Rajput King for banishing him. Alauddin who is known for his brutal reign of terror from 1296 – 1316 collecting precious birds and women, now decides he must possess Padmini and immediately gathers his army and lays siege on the impregnable fortress of Chittor.

The movie has become highly controversial in India among Hindu nationalists who have made attempts to sabotage the film because of its depiction of the disturbing Rajput practice of Jauhar; the Hindu custom of mass self-sacrificing of royal women who set themselves on fire to avoid capture and enslavement by foreign invaders.
 
Written, produced and directed by one of the most widely acclaimed directors working in India today, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is no stranger to controversy. His films have won critical praise and garnered many awards both at home and internationally. He is known for his large scale mega musical dramas like Devdas (2002), Black (2005), Ram-leela (2013), and Bajirao Mastani (2015) all of which have achieved mega box-office success despite the controversies surrounding them.

Padmaavat is both historical and entertaining, filmed on real locations with stunning cinematography and strong characters with a heightened flare for the dramatic. Throw in a few wild mind-blowing musical numbers and you will gain a new appreciation for Indian history that’s as epic as any Homeric poem.

JP

Loveless

A middle aged Russian couple Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) in the midst of an ugly divorce is completely oblivious to the effect their cruel toxic fights are having on their 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). They both work and each have moved on to other more blissful relationships as they can’t stand to be around each other. But as we later learn, they have chosen more strategically beneficial relationships with people that will in some way increase or maintain their class status in society.

The performances are as surgically precise as the subject is devastating and we get no redeeming characters. The husband Boris has chosen a much younger fiancé with whom he had an affair and who is now pregnant with his child. He is worried that the company he works for will find out that he is divorcing as they only hire married men. The wife Zhenya, looking out for her future comfort is now with an older and much wealthier man than her husband.

Unknown to them while neglecting their own son’s needs, Alyosha has decided to run away and his absence goes unnoticed for days. The rest of the film focuses on the two parents as they reluctantly come together to enlist the services of state departments in search for their missing boy.
Loveless turns into a kind of procedural as we are introduces to various government agencies and search parties are deployed in a number of desolate wintery landscapes and abandoned buildings. The parents become increasingly distraught and we discover more details about their past relationship as the search drags on with no results.

This evocative tragic drama by acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev – Leviathan (2014) is like looking through a dark icy crystal. The people in it are as bleak and dour as the silent barren landscape that the camera lingers over. Visually stunning, Loveless has a distinct austere beauty reflective of the soulless, morally corrupt characters in it. 

The connection between the harsh humanist subject matter and the grim landscape is tangible. Taking place in a suburb of Moscow, it seems class divisions have created a population motivated only by achieving quick and easy self-satisfaction while ignoring more compassionate parental responsibilities.

The visual design is stunningly arresting and darkly desolate as we progress from modern antiseptic interiors to frozen lifeless exteriors, and increasingly more hostile environments leaving us emotionally cold to the stern reality of the film. It’s a somber and brutally honest drama that focuses its shocking story on the darker part of human nature and parental relationships with a visual bravura and stark beauty that will leave you with a cold admiration.

Andrey Zvyagintsev is an important new voice in Russian cinema and a gifted auteur who has been revealing contemporary problems of modern middle and lower class Russians since his first acclaimed film The Return (2003). 

Loveless is Russia’s Oscar entry and now with its Best Foreign film nomination is a strong contender at the 2018 Academy Awards airing on March 4, 2018.

JP

Blade Runner 2049

When we left Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the futuristic cop who hunts down bio-engineered humans called Replicants at the end of the original Blade Runner (1982) some 30 years before the events of this first sequel, he had eluded the authorities and escaped with a female Replicant named Rachael who he had fallen in love with. Racheal we learned was a special experimental model made by Tyrell Corporation without an expiry date, whereas all previous Replicants had a fail-safe four year life span. Now retired, Deckard intended to live the remainder of his life in hiding with her. 

Hampton Fancher, writer of the original screenplay was passionate about the Philip Dick novel on which the movie was based. He felt strongly about the characters and his screenplay, but when Ridley Scott officially signed onto the project as director back in 1980, his script would go through many changes as Ridley visualized the world of Blade Runner. It was a nightmare for Fancher as tensions between him and the director increased, but Ridley had his own ideas and needed to find a visual esthetic based on the leading edge futurist visions of sci-fi artists at the time.

Naturally when it finally came time to write the long awaited sequel to what has become the seminal dystopian future noir thriller, Hampton Fancher, just as passionate about the story he helped bring to life 35 years earlier, was once again consulted about how the story should progress into uncharted territory now that the look of the world had been established and engrained in the culture.

The story has been smartly and logically projected into the future in an exciting way that leaves the possibility for more chapters in this fascinatingly bleak future world of a discarded earth. Visually stunning and still as relevant as ever, the central themes of what it means to be human in the original film are still very much in the forefront of the modernized sequel Blade Runner 2049, directed by acclaimed French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve - Arrival (2016), Sicario (2015), Prisoners (2013), Incendies (2010).

Earth is now a vast wasteland of garbage, a giant landfill of sorts for the waste from off-world colonies as a backdrop for a potential revolutionary tinderbox when we learn that in the intervening years between 2019 and 2049, the bio-engineered slave class of humans have been secretly working to gain their freedom and right to live among humans and possibly replace them. 

The Replicant Freedom movement was formed by a new class of advanced robots who eventually learn something no one thought was possible and which has the potential to eventually free them from human oppression. The Tyrell Corporation who had produced the synthetic humans in the original film is now bankrupt and replaced by a more menacing company Wallace Corp. that builds new advanced and more obedient versions of the Replicants. 

The young agent in the Blade Runner unit of this film, Agent K, (Ryan Gosling) is now actually a Replicant himself working for the LAPD to find and ruthlessly retire rogue Replicants. He’s regarded with contempt by the rest of the department. Using Replicants to find Replicants is risky but makes sense since Replicants are faster and stronger than humans.

In the first film Replicants were portrayed as evil but we eventually gained a kind of reluctant sympathy for the Nexus 6 Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) after we saw him redeemed while his life expired and he decides not to kill Deckard in his final poetic moments. In Blade Runner 2049 there is an effort to make us feel much more empathy for the discriminated Replicants who want nothing more than to live with dignity and in peaceful coexistence with humans.

The neon noir-ish melancholic mood of the original film has been preserved for this follow-up with expressive synthwave retro-electronic music by Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer, darkly resonating with the original Vangelis soundtrack. 

Likewise, as you would expect, the ground breaking visual style of the original has been enhanced successfully, adding many modern touches by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, in what could be some of his finest work. The dreamlike color saturated environments will linger in the mind long afterward; a testament to his staggering talent. 

Roger Deakins is best known for his work on the films of the Coen Brothers before he worked on films like Sicario (2015), and Prisoners (2013) for Denis Villeneuve, as well as a visual consultant on many computer animated films including Rango (2011) and Wall-E (2008). He is expected to win a long overdue Oscar for his extraordinary body of work.

Music and images blend so well together in Blade Runner 2049 to create a total immersive otherworldly experience, it’s a good bet to pick up some hardware for technical achievement at the Oscars this year and will not disappoint the many fans of the original cult classic.

JP

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

There seems to be a disparity of opinions between many Star Wars fans, and movie critics who unanimously admire the latest episode in the beloved fantasy saga Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the second film in the third trilogy. The reasons why many of the hardcore fans are complaining about The Last Jedi are the very same reasons the critics are praising it.

Yes it’s true, here as with The Force Awakens (2015), classic characters are being killed off to make way for new ones, which can be disappointing for older fans. But The Last Jedi still feels as epic and nostalgic as the previous films, integrating many familiar elements from both The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) but giving them a fresh new vibrant look and feel. 

This film may not be the best in the series but it comes close. There are problems and some story elements did not quite work for me, but let’s not forget that Star Wars is an evolving franchise and all the films had their own unique problems that didn’t quite work for everyone. The Ewoks for example were loved by younger fans and hated by others.

What made the original films so compelling to generations of kids and adults was the human story and the rare pairing of the three lead cast members Mark Hamill (Luke), Carrie Fisher (Leia) and Harrison Ford (Han) who created such a strong chemistry between them that has never been matched since. This new sequel trilogy and the previous prequel trilogy inevitably suffer from the lack of anything approaching that kind of chemistry, and the older versions of the original characters are not given enough screen time together to rekindle that magic. 

But having said that, The Last Jedi does get enough things right; revisiting iconic lore while taking some big risks by introducing us to new characters and expanding our understanding of Jedi concepts and powers, to make it more than a worthy entry in the saga. As a sequel to The Force Awakens it does an excellent job of advancing the story into new directions. As the middle part of the sequel trilogy it leaves our heroes and the Resistance in a precarious and diminished state barely escaping annihilation at great cost.

Much like The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Last Jedi is a bittersweet experience with startling revelations and a darker tone from the previous film. It starts with the hurried evacuation of the Resistance hidden base when they are discovered by the First Order. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has left the Resistance base to find Jedi master Luke Skywalker to learn more about the Force and it’s left up to Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and BB-8 to defend the Rebel fleet.

New characters are introduced in the form of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance technician and new love interest for Finn, DJ (Benicio Del Toro) a code breaker who will work for anyone who pays him, and enough new aliens to satisfy the most hardcore geeks.

The Last Jedi also leaves us with many unanswered questions as to the fate of the First Order and The Resistance, both sides having lost important leaders in their cause. It will be interesting to see what direction the story will take in the next and third part of the trilogy.

Visually writer/director Rian Johnson - Looper (2012) successfully captures the look and feel of the best of the original films being filmed in actual otherworldly location around the world; The Island of Skellig Michael, Ireland, Dubrovnik, Croatia and the salt flats of Bolivia.

One of the problems that some fans have pointed to in the film is that the film tries to do too much in an attempt to please everyone. The Last Jedi is a clever balancing act that takes dramatically heavy and sometimes sad moments and quickly downplays them with terse visual jokes, some would say to the detriment of the seriousness of the moment.

Overall though, The Last Jedi has great pacing and incredible visually stunning set pieces that will thrill and satisfy most viewers with excellent performances from Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver as well as the rest of the cast.

JP

Goodbye Berlin

The new film from acclaimed wunderkind Turkish/German director Fatih Akin who is credited with reviving German auteur cinema with his landmark award-winning film Head-On (2004), and other cross cultural clashes such as The Edge of Heaven (2007), Soul Kitchen (2009) and In the Fade (2017), is Goodbye Berlin (2016), a hilarious joyride which ultimately becomes a revealing and touching coming-of-age story that looks at teen angst through the eyes of an unlikely pair of socially awkward misfits who find friendship on a playful transformative road trip through the German countryside.

A soul searching comedy that has the heart-felt sincerity of Kikujiro (1999) and the free-spirited hijinks of Northern Soul (2015), Goodbye Berlin follows two outcasts from a high school in Berlin at the beginning of the summer vacation. It starts out looking pretty dismal for the 14 year old Maik Klingenberg (Tristan Göbel), who’s bored out of his mind playing video games in his divorced parent’s empty house. His alcoholic mother is in rehab and his father goes on a business trip with his young secretary who is old enough to be his daughter. 

To top it all off, he’s the only kid in the class not invited to Tatiana’s big birthday bash, the girl he has been admiring from a distance all year and who doesn’t even notice him while his classmates make fun of him. Into this depressing mess comes Tschick (Anand Batbileg), a strange Russian migrant student just arrived at the school who is even more  pathetic than he is, in fact, apart from his Asian looks, Tschick stands out like a homeless person who cares nothing for what people think of him. His intimidating half-conscious snarl keeps the other students at a distance. 

But Tschick finds a shared connection with Maik, and when Tschick shows up at his house with a beat-up old Lada, he catches Maik at just the right time to start on a crazy adventure and finally be noticed by Tatiana in a way she will never forget. But what they discover on their wild journey reveals more about each other than they imagined and will change them forever. 

The innovative visual aesthetic, which has become a hallmark of Fatih’s films, finds us following our teen heroes through a variety of visually disparate locations while they are essentially living moment to moment surviving by their wits as they push their boundaries in a raucous road movie that’s engaging and enjoyable to watch from beginning to end. Fatih makes excellent use of the drone camera to create beautiful high pan-out shots that hover over stunning country landscapes giving us a bird’s-eye view that adds to the sense of freedom the boys are experiencing. 

Music has always been an integral part of Fatih Akin’s films, a component that he’s passionate about and this one is no exception. Here the soundtrack is especially remarkable and well integrated into the story with an eclectic mix of German rap, hard rock, 80s pop, and classical music.

Based on the bestselling novel Why We Took the Car by German author Wolfgang Herrndorf, the story’s themes of societal and cultural outsiders coming together to overcome their differences and form a strong bond through shared experiences, attracted Fatih Akin immediately into making a film from it.

What makes it so much fun is the clear chemistry of the two lead characters Maik and Tschick who are totally believable as the odd pair of outcasts and who learn from each other the possibilities of a world beyond their school and transforms Maik into a new person who people will notice and admire.

It’s a positive hopeful film that’s thoroughly enjoyable on many levels. We feel that the director was clearly enjoying himself a great deal while making this film. Goodbye Berlin is a must see that hits all the right notes and has all the elements of a coming-of-age film put together in just the right way.

JP

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.

JP

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.

JP

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).

JP

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 a monopoly on suffering.” This is the kind of thought provoking filmmaking Governments should be celebrating, not deterring.

JP

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, staring 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?

JP