Taxi zum Klo (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★
Frank (Frank Ripploh) is a thirty-year-old grade school teacher in Berlin who has consistently done a good job in keeping his private life separate from his work. He maintains a very active sex life by frequently visiting baths, restrooms, bars, and other places where he can hook up with other gay men. The responsibility of having to juggle the two spheres proves too much, however, when Frank decides to live with Bernd (Bernd Broaderup), a theater employee who was supposed to be just another one-night stand.
An autobiographical film written and directed by Frank Ripploh, “Taxi zum Klo” offers confronting images about the sexuality of gay men, but it is not created for mere titillation. Underneath it all is a tragedy because it tells a story of a man who is so accustomed to putting up walls so he cannot be read so easily that he ends up not knowing how to relate or connect with another person in a meaningful way. What he comes to know is the physical aspect of sex and beyond it is just darkness.
It certainly has shocking images, at least for its time and for those not exposed to the lifestyle, and, I must admit, I found some of them to be somewhat amusing. I admired that the picture dares to go to a place and is fearless in engaging the audience with details. For example, Frank visits a restroom, obviously a place where sex—one way or another—is involved, and sits in one of the stalls. To his left is a hole where one can observe another man stripping, masturbating, or whatever else. That hole is also used for oral sex. Though I could not help but snicker at what was happening on screen, the camera is unflinching, still, and determined to show what some gay men do—in the closet or not.
A recurring theme involves people being out in public—at a gathering or during a one-on-one conversation—and the exchanges being interrupted with images of sex. In an early scene, Frank and his fellow teachers spend the night out. At first, it seems to be just another scene designed to show that Frank is just another person despite his sexual orientation. On the contrary, and it remains open to interpretation, because of the intercutting scenes of someone masturbating—in color—and a group of men having sex—in black and white—I started to consider that Frank might have a degree of sexual addiction. Are those images thoughts that appear in his head while interacting with his colleagues? Though he seems to listen when someone is speaking to him, is he detached from what is in front of him?
And then there is Frank’s relationship with Bernd. The latter is ready for a commitment, so open in sharing what he hopes the two of them—together—will attain in the future, but the former cannot be bothered to look that far in time. There is a sadness and frustration to Bernd that he refrains from expressing because he is afraid that if he does, he would lose the man he loves. We may not agree with his approach but the mistakes and the dysfunctions of the relationship are interesting and so we are forced to look closer.
“Taxi zum Klo” is a brave and, in my opinion, a successful attempt of taking the subjects of homosexuality and homosexual acts out of the darkness. Though it may offend many due to some of its over-the-top images (there is a sequence that involves Frank urinating on a partner’s face), some going as far as labeling it pornographic, the characters are imbued with complexity that I ended up being more interested in their state of minds than what they do to satiate their carnal desires.
Deadpool 2 (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
Here is the answer for what happens when a story surrounding a foul-mouthed motormouth superhero is stripped away of its element of surprise. In order to compensate, writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds double down on the exaggeration to the point where it is uncomfortable and off-putting—that it is trying too hard to replicate what worked before. Whether it is in terms of dialogue, action sequences, or level of violence, nearly everything is handled with an exclamation point. Even its supposedly quiet moments, particularly scenes designed to tug at the heartstrings (which, naturally, comes with a wink, an elbow nudge, and a kick to the groin), are handled with a sledgehammer. I grew bored of this one-trick pony.
You know what would have been surprising? A sequel that actually takes its title character a little more seriously, one handled with subtlety, panache, perhaps even a teaspoon of elegance. A “Deadpool” movie that is out of its element. While there is no need to go in the opposite direction, it could have remained loyal the “Deadpool” brand while still providing depth, supplying another reason for us to tune in for the inevitable next installment. Instead, we are given yet another parade of sarcastic remarks that never let up, random film and music references, and would-be dramatic situations clearly designed to shock us. I was not moved by any of it because these are elements that we come to expect. We are fed the baseline, but we deserve more.
It isn’t that the story is without potential. On the contrary, it holds great promise in that Deadpool (Reynolds) must assemble a team of superheroes called the X-Force when it becomes apparent that he being part of the X-Men is not a good fit. (For instance, being a part of that ostentatiously virtuous group means no killing.) The joke is how could someone like Deadpool lead a team when he is nearly incapable of holding a serious thought in his brain for more than five seconds? Clearly, the picture wishes to be a comedy first and an action picture second. Hence, why not play upon this situational humor as we get to know every potential member of the so-called X-Force? I wanted to know what they stand for as a unit, as individual mutants, and as people who just so happen to have amplified abilities.
Instead, for example, Cable (Josh Brolin), a man from the future, is relegated to a tank who will stop at nothing to kill a troubled fourteen-year-old boy (Julian Dennison) who is born with the power to wield fire. For someone who comes equipped with the knowledge of future events, his one-track goal becomes duller by the second. I looked at Brolin’s face and the moments in between made me feel like he is not being challenged. It is not that he looks bored—but it is apparent he can do so much more given a more ambitious and creative material. Further, as a kid who grew up with Marvel characters, it feels somewhat of a betrayal that Cable is not given the complexity necessary so that all viewers, by the end of the film, are convinced that he is in fact an invaluable member of the group.
“Deadpool 2” is directed by David Leitch, but the work might as well have been on autopilot. While the film doesn’t offer an intolerable experience, it doesn’t give us an exciting one either. During its slower moments, my mind went back to its predecessor and appreciated, for instance, how great the villain was. Here, there is a lack of an effective antagonist—one that becomes truly formidable, perhaps even fearsome, over time. I found its laziness not only troublesome but also exceptionally disappointing.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
While expressing to his friend over the telephone that he feels he might not cut it as a professor, Yoon-ju (Sung-jae Lee) becomes increasingly annoyed by a dog’s incessant barking. He lives in an apartment where dogs are not allowed and he is angry that tenants are unable to follow a simple rule. So, he takes the dog that he thinks is making all the ruckus, goes on the roof, and holds the animal out as to let it fall. He hesitates. It might get messy. With the dog in his arms, they go in the basement. Yoon-ju hangs it by the neck. It struggles. Will he go through it this time or will he come up with a more cruel way to kill it?
The first thing we are presented with is a notice that no animal is harmed in the making of the film. A dog struggling for oxygen because its airways are obstructed is so convincing, I flinched and was genuinely worried about the animal after having had a laughing fit due to the protagonist’s brazenness to take someone else’s pet as if it were a pen to be purloined. The picture is supposed to be comedic and it is at times executed with elegance.
Particularly strong is the first half as the camera follows Yoon-ju, so desperate to get tenure that he contemplates of bribing the dean, taking out his frustrations on the dogs. It is a classic case of a man feeling like he has no control over where his life is heading and so he attempts to gain control of what he believes to be of lesser value, not realizing, for instance, that a dog may be considered as a family member by its owner.
Underneath Yoon-ju’s ordinary and harmless appearance is an unrealized insanity. The longer we spend time with him, the clearer it becomes that he is a little off and perhaps dangerous. After all, if he can hurt an animal, what else is he capable of? We look warily at his pregnant and nagging wife.
It takes too much time for its two main strands to meet. Hyun-nam (Doona Bae) works as a bookkeeper adjacent to the apartment complex. She notices that, within a span of a week or so, more people are coming in to xerox flyers about missing dogs. The picture runs longer than it should because too many scenes are dedicated to Hyun-nam and Eun-sil (Ho-jung Kim). We watch them hang out but they neither say or do something remotely as interesting as Yoon-ju. When the camera is on them, the screenplay is stagnant.
There are a few more morbid humor sprinkled throughout. A character I found to be very funny is the janitor who likes to cook in the basement. Trust me when I say you would not want to try his stew. There is also a homeless man who lives down there. I was surprised that the writers, Joon-ho Bong, Ji-ho Song, and Derek Son Tae-woong, have found a way to tie this character neatly into the story. I did not expect him to be more than a joke that involves the janitor and his favorite food.
I am certain that “Flandersui age,” also known as “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” “A Higher Animal,” and “Dog of Flanders,” has a sense of humor that will not appeal to everybody, especially those who love dogs and do not want to see them in pain—even if it is simulated. Its main problem lies in the structure: by disallowing Hyun-nam to really get into the meat of investigation early on, a strong heroine, one that we know well, is not established. I found myself not caring if she would make it to the end.
Player, The (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a movie studio executive, has received seven threatening postcards in two weeks and he has reason to believe that they are being sent by a writer with whom he promised to get back to but never did. Griffin has too much on his plate: there is word going around that Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) is out for his position, too many writers are pitching terrible ideas in his office, and his superiors consistently put on the pressure–though in an off-handed way. Everyone wants a piece of his time that his job has turned into a sickness. He needs a solution real quick and the strand that he thinks he has control over is finding the man with the postcards.
Though the setting takes place in the star-studded underworld that is Hollywood, with the satirical punch to boot, “The Player,” based on the novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, is most compelling during its simple moments of the studio executive, superbly played by Robbins, expressing to another through words or actions how his occupation has inevitably shaped him into a person he might not necessarily like. Because the lead character is allowed by the script to express his inner machinations without asking us to pity him, almost everything else that unravels around him fascinates.
The story involves a murder and Griffin is a suspect. We know whether this man is innocent or guilty and yet there is tension because, killer or not, the screenplay does not lose track of his humanity. For instance, I think that people who are under a lot of stress can look at Griffin and say to themselves, “I know how that feels like.” Notice that we never see Griffin at home. We never learn his hobbies or see what he likes to do on weekends. As much as it is a satire of people who green light movies, it works as a cautionary tale. It is a story of a workaholic in mental shambles.
Robert Altman, the director, is very confident behind the camera. There are jokes about long tracking shots in classic movies, especially early on in the picture, and it is amusing that the tracking shots in this film are very noticeable but never distracting. The technique enhances a handful of scenes especially when the camera starts off very far from the people of interest engaged in conversation and slowly zooming in on them. We get a sense that we are paparazzi in Hollywood and we want that perfect shot of celebrities sitting in an outdoor restaurant, eating lunch, and talking business.
Whoopi Goldberg who plays one of the detectives investigating the murder does not get enough screen time. She is such a ray of sunshine because she plays her character almost like a Venus flytrap. She reels us in with her easygoing personality and the moment we get too close, we realize how Detective Avery got to where she is. I wished she was given more to do because she is the most interesting character next to our protagonist.
The cameos did not make much impression on me because many of the people in the business back then, the early nineties, are not necessarily in the business now (or not as visible). Still, I caught myself smiling at the sight of big names like Jeff Goldblum, Nick Nolte, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell, and Malcolm McDowell—including a joke that involves the last two.
“The Player” is a picture that demands to be seen more than once not only for the hidden jokes in the dialogue, the strength of Robbins’ performance, or the cameos, but also in the way the camera moves so freely and yet in control. These days, many movies do not move the camera that it verges on boredom or shakes so unrelentingly that it induces migraines. This film offers a happy, creative medium.
Sweet Virginia (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Curious dramatic-thriller “Sweet Virginia” is so sparse in its look and content that the viewer is compelled almost immediately to consider not only where it is heading but also what the point of it is, if any. Is it a genre exercise? A character study? One of those thrillers that pivots halfway through when we least expect it? One thing is certain: It is the story of two damaged men, Sam (Jon Bernthal) and Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a former rodeo champion turned motel manager and a sociopathic killer, respectively, who must meet simply because destiny requires that they do. I found it poetic in its simplicity.
The casting choice is inspired because one looks at the physicality of its lead actors and one might assume that Barnthal ought to play the murderer-for-hire and Abbott the motel manager. Given the former’s body frame is quite large and muscular, that he commands a domineering presence, it feels appropriate—it fits—that he portrays the person who commits a triple homicide in the opening scene. On the other hand, Abbott’s physique, by comparison, is smaller, his face angelic at times depending on the lighting. The default state of those eyes communicates a certain loneliness, like that of a bird yearning to be free of its wounded wings. By playing upon the less expected, our curiosities are piqued. Note how both performers play their characters with quiet desperation. It is an intelligent choice because without this similarity, the drama would not have been as potent.
One might critique the work for simply being composed of one buildup after another. While I do not disagree, in my eyes, it is not a shortcoming but a fresh choice to tell a story. The rising action is done well: it is suspenseful, always intriguing, and nearly every scene makes a statement about how complex humans are… even if they happen to be monsters. I admired the camera’s willingness to keep still, particularly when two people are facing each other, both in profile relative to the viewer. We may see only half of their faces, it is likely they have something to hide, but their body language communicates everything.
The look of the picture is foreboding because nearly all colors have been sucked out of their vibrant energy, the element that makes them stand out. It encapsulates the lifestyles of these characters and the small Alaskan town they live in—the inhabitants know that the ennui of the every day is draining the life of them but most of them either do not have the means to make a change or have surrendered to the way life has been for generations. I enjoyed that the folks in the background look like regular people; as they make their way to the foreground from time to time, they may not say anything but their accessible presence made me curious about their stories.
Directed by Jamie M. Dagg, “Sweet Virginia” is not for those who cannot tolerate deliberately slow pacing. Although the premise promises violence, and once in a while we come across it, it is not so much about violence but rather why people result to violence and the aftermath of it. Although not the most exciting thriller, it is full of suspense. There is a difference and this film wields an understanding of it.
★★ / ★★★★
Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and Joanne (Amy Shiels) are about to leave their high-rise apartment. Tommy figures he should bring down some containers to the taxi before assisting his very pregnant wife out of the building. Upon his return, he encounters a malfunction in the elevator. Although it takes him to the correct floor, the door does not open. Almost immediately, he sees three hooded figures, potentially children due to their height, walk up to Joanne and start attacking her. When Tommy finally gets out of the box, he sees his wife covered in blood with a syringe having punctured where the baby is supposed to be.
Written and directed by Ciaran Foy, “Citadel” piques our interest by not completely letting us in on whatever is going on until well past the halfway point. While it does have positive qualities, in a way, the technique works against itself. By forcing us to exercise our imaginations, most of us will have come up with wild scenarios prior to the reveal. Unfortunately, its secrets are not entirely worth the wait.
The look of the picture is depressing which is appropriate. Not only is Tommy in a state of grief, he has developed agoraphobia since the encounter. The scenes set outside are ugly: no other color is present other than white, black, gray, and occasional tinge of blue; trash bags and broken furnitures are never picked up by garbage trucks; and, for an urban milieu, there seems to be no one around. At some point, I wondered if Tommy is living in a type of purgatory where he is meant to suffer for his sins.
It is not certain whether something supernatural is going on. There are pieces that seem to suggest that such a thing is occurring. Interestingly, the screenplay is adamant on focusing on the human factor for most of its running time. Tommy’s crippling agoraphobia and his awkward but warm interactions with a nurse, Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), who may or may not be interested in Tommy romantically, are utilized as anchors in order for the story to have some level of realism. These are more rewarding than the would-be horrors or thrills later in the film.
What the movie needs is a jolt in order for it to take off. When a priest (James Cosmo) and a blind boy (Jake Wilson) are introduced, there is an excitement because it appears as though the pieces are finally going to be put together. However, these characters prove to be so one-dimensional, they eventually start to feel too much like tools of the plot rather than interesting people who happen to have a little bit of knowledge about the bizarre attacks happening all around. It is difficult to care about what will happen to them.
“Citadel” has an interesting premise but its potential is squandered slowly by the writer-director consistently failing to advance the story in ways that makes sense for its universe. It has its menacing environ down pat. Everything else, however, needs to fall into place if we are putting the time and brain power to figure out its curiosities.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Watching Max Schreck as the vampire Graf Orlok truly is a marvel. Although his face and arms are covered in thick cosmetics, there is not a moment when the graceful performer looks laughable or ridiculous. On the contrary, depending on the time of day and the shadows that rest on his face and limbs, the vampire can look like a sad creature or a predator that haunts one’s nightmares. Look at the way Schrek plays the character before midnight strikes and compare it once the both arms of the clock hits twelve. In a way, he delivers two performances. One is permanently embedded in film history.
The gothic horror film “Nosferatu” is not scary under modern horror standards. But just because it does not fit the current mold does not mean that the images have lost their power. On the contrary, they are fascinating to experience and examine exactly because we rarely or no longer encounter them today. The film, based on the novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, is directed with flair and panache by F.W. Murnau. It offers a wealth of images worthy of being appreciated—wether these are done on purpose or by accident.
The picture’s premise involves a man named Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) who is tasked to visit Graf Orlok in Transylvania, rumored to be the land of phantoms, in order to close a real estate deal. Most enjoyable is that the material takes its time to show Hutter’s journey, especially in showing the locals and peasants he meets along the way. Observe carefully when the protagonist enters an inn. For a second or two, the figures huddled in the background, who appear to be conversing, do not have faces. Or at least it looks like they don’t because their location relative to the camera and amount of lighting result in the obfuscation of their faces. They look like apparitions who eventually warn the visitor to go back from whence he came.
Notice the coach drivers who take Hutter to the outskirts of the creepy castle. (They refuse to go beyond the bridge because night is coming.) From afar, the drivers look like shadows with clothes on. We expect to see their faces and hands to be revealed as they move closer to the camera because light should be stronger as they inch toward the focal point of the action. But the thick shadows on these figures remain. As they move closer, the viewer begins to feel uneasy because drivers’ features during the shot are never revealed. Again, these images fit the rumor regarding the land of phantoms.
These are only two of the numerous examples of images worth noting during the real estate agent’s journey. And the picture isn’t even halfway over. I will refrain from describing Graf Orlok’s scenes inside his home and outside of it. They are best experienced firsthand. Observe carefully how lighting is utilized to enhance his shadow, particularly in how the shadows of his fingers appear to be growing in front of our very eyes depending on the changing angle of the light as well as the angles of the surfaces that serve as template. It is so impressive because this film was released before special and visual effects became prevalent. The filmmakers are required to be incredibly creative, patient, and imaginative in order to create such nightmarish imagery.
The best horror films establish a specific mood and “Nosferatu” is no exception. At first, I was frustrated by how certain scenes are supposed to be taking place in the middle of the night but it is clearly daylight outside. But because the atmosphere it creates is quite dreamlike, eventually I either forgot or stopped caring about the time of day. The viewers become invested in the action because there is a hypnotic quality in its hauntings.
Samouraï, Le (1967)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le samouraï” is a most suspenseful neo-noir crime-thriller because it is filled to the brim with highly intelligent and intuitive characters who just so happen to excel at their jobs. We observe these experienced specimens interact and combust as variables in the equation change at a moment’s notice. It demands our complete attention in addition to our powers of deduction in order to speculate motivations and foresee endgames.
And yet the plot is straightforward. The hunter becomes the hunted after contract killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon) becomes a prime suspect after having murdered a nightclub owner. Although his alibi (Nathalie Delon) is airtight and the five witnesses cannot agree unanimously that Jef is indeed the man they saw at the nightclub (four of them did not get a good look at his face), the investigator in charge of the homicide case (François Périer) remains thoroughly convinced that they have the right man in custody. Meanwhile, Jef’s employers believe that since the police may likely get the hitman to talk given enough pressure, it is paramount that they get to him first.
Clearly influenced by gangster pictures and samurai films, the work understands the importance of patience coupled with a willingness, even enthusiasm, to present details. Because it takes the time to show the audience the minutiae—how a hit is carried out, what must be done in order to minimize the possibility of being caught, the police investigation—we grow invested in the process. Take notice of the first act when our anti-hero is taken into custody. Instead of simply showing a scene involving a lineup where witnesses must attempt to pick out the correct person, as so often done in modern pictures, we do not remain behind a one-way mirror. Instead, these witnesses must come face-to-face, only a few inches away, from the possible suspects and look them in the eye.
It may be dramatic but doing so personalizes the experience. Without a wall or filter, a witness remains aware that his or her answer may change the course of a person’s life. Tension increases because there is apprehension in their eyes. In a way, we become the witnesses and we are one with what might be going through their minds. Notice how the placement of the camera changes as it focuses on a witness’ face versus a suspect’s. It takes an extra beat or two to rest on an expression and we hold our breath as we anticipate their response. The technique leaves room for empathy and doubt.
This is a masterstroke because, at the same time, we do not wish Jef to get caught even when he is in fact murderer-for-hire. Delon plays the character with a level of soft-spoken charm, perhaps even a relatable loneliness that comes with his profession. (He does, however, own a pet bird that miraculously becomes critical to the plot.) We do not learn any important information about his personal life and yet we cheer for Delon’s character to evade the authorities and those shady folks who wish to shut him up for good. The chase sequences in the subway and the like are secondary to the tricky humanity of the film.
But it is not a neo-noir without the requisite twists and turns. I was so invested in the poetry of the procedure that I found myself blindsided by such turn of events. This is a testament to the screenplay’s raw power: we know what to expect and yet we are surprised nonetheless when they are thrown onto our laps. Melville, like Hitchcock, plays the audience like a piano.
Breaking In (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
The problem with “Breaking In” is that it does not aspire to become more than a standard thriller. A scene involving our heroine having to scramble for the gun in order to save herself and her family can be anticipated not from a mile way but due to the inevitability of its premise involving an innocent family having to fight against lawless thieves. In this day and age, having ambition is required—a minimal element, really—in order to have the chance to tell a familiar story in an inspired way. Not one decision in this film surprised me. It is a tolerable but occasionally bland cable movie that was lucky enough to have received theatrical release.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the picture is Gabrielle Union getting a chance to play a rough, physical role. In her previous parts, specifically in romantic comedies, she oozes charisma in a seemingly effortless way. All she has to do is stand in one place, usually saying nothing, yet her presence demands that she be seen, that we be interested in the woman who appears to have strong opinions and sharp intellect.
Here, she has the opportunity to set aside the softness and go hard. It is most frustrating then that the screenplay by Ryan Engle fails to inject substance to the character. Shaun is a mother of two (Ajiona Alexus, Seth Carr) whose millionaire father had been brutally murdered. Like most parents, she is highly protective of her kids. What we learn about her stops here.
One gets the impression that the writer does not understand what makes movies like “Die Hard” work as a genre piece as well as a successful mainstream entertainment. Yes, elaborate set pieces are expected but the magic lies in the small moments of character discovery—through humor or insight or creativity—that the audience learns to invest in the protagonist’s plight. In this film, focus is almost always on the action rather than the person undergoing through a challenge—when the action isn’t that impressive in the first place.
Director James McTeigue uses the environment in a manner that is accessible. The majority of the story takes place inside a sizable house, littered with security cameras, motion-activated lights, and bulletproof glass, that sits on an estate. Unlike intolerably bad films that squander the potential of a stylish setting, we get a pretty solid idea of the house’s geography. It is necessary that we do because there are times when tension is directly tethered to the heroes and villains just missing each other as one enters a hallway while the other makes a well-timed turn. Although few and far between, there are moments of levity and amusement.
Films that fall under the home invasion sub-genre almost always require memorable villains. Here is where the material drops the ball completely. Not once do we come to learn why this particular group of robbers (Billy Burke, Richard Cabral, Levi Meaden, Mark Furze) are especially formidable. While they need not have an interesting backstory, it is critical that the threat be real and almost unsurmountable. The four, together or apart, do not hold a candle against Union’s presence. And so we are not completely convinced that Shaun might fail to protect her children.
“Breaking In” is the kind of work that one begins to forget the moment the credits start rolling. While the in-the-moment experience is not excruciatingly painful in any way, it is never impressive. In the middle of it, I caught my mind wandering and wondering how provocateur Michael Haneke might have reshaped this second-rate thriller in look, tone, and content.
God’s Own Country (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film that explores what love is and its many definitions.
Filled to the brim with thick Northern England accent with no subtitles to guide the viewer, I was frustrated that I could not make out what was being said exactly by the dialogue. I felt my dissatisfaction grow when it becomes apparent about fifteen minutes in that although words are scant, they command importance. This is especially critical because our protagonist is a person who is closed off, desperately lonely, and an expert when it comes to internalizing his thoughts and feelings. So I tried a different technique in order to try to understand: listen to the dialogue but do not hang onto them. Let the images serve as a guide to make sense of the story and its characters. It quickly becomes apparent that this is the preferred avenue to absorb this film’s quietly disarming power.
The picture presents a definition of love as a romantic connection. Numerous LGBTQ+ pictures, especially generic comedies and bad dramas, appear to write the material around sexual encounters and sudden twists of fate that lead to a happy or tragic ending. Not here. There is emphasis on fear of being alone for the rest of one’s life because one is gay and in the closet, how this fear is perverted into numbness, unexpressed rage, and self-sabotage which then leads to a consistent self-denial of perhaps connecting and exploring with another person who just might help to break one out of this cycle.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is tasked to mind the farm after his father (Ian Hart) had suffered a stroke which led to his paralysis. Johnny is reckless, unemotional, and prone to binge drinking after a long day of work. So that Johnny will have help during the lambing season, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a migrant worker from Romania, is hired. Avoiding every trapping and predictable beats of the sub-genre, Gheorghe and Johnny establish a connection. Although they are far apart in personality, temperament, and view of the world, they actually like one another. Notice how writer-director Francis Lee employs minimal dialogue. Instead, emphasis is placed on how the two men look at one another, how they take up space when near each other, the silence simmering between them, and the amount of distance between their bodies when all they wish to do is embrace for hours.
The film, too, underscores love as passion for one’s work. In the beginning of the film, we assume that Johnny detests farm work through how he handles tools, interacts animals, the overall lack of regard on how well chores are done. In a simple but moving exchange between father and son late in the picture, we learn the truth behind Johnny’s actions. When it comes to Gheorghe, the elemental opposite of Johnny, it is ensured we appreciate details. We observe how he takes off the skin of a dead lamb, how he milks goats, how he cooks, how he operates machines. When Gheorghe is front and center of the frame, there is a much-needed moment of exhalation and tranquility. In other words, it is communicated to us, without relying on words, what Johnny sees in him.
Finally, the work highlights love as family. Again, the screenplay defies expectations. There is no critical moment in which Johnny must come out to his father or grandmother (Gemma Jones). There is no confrontation where one tells another that homosexuality is wrong due to some twisted moral high-ground or that because the Bible says so. Sometimes it is enough to show a person privately learning to come to terms with a knowledge or feeling one has. Furthermore, I loved that the writer-director is willing to show what stroke does to a person and how family rallies to take care of their loved one even through humiliating situations.
“God’s Own Country” is profoundly moving because it is filled with intimate moments. It requires the performers to communicate paragraphs using only their eyes or how they move their limbs just so (and when). On the other hand, it demands the viewer to be open to absorb the story, its vulnerabilities, quiet longings, and messages through unexpected means. Francis Lee should be proud for creating a standout directorial debut. I learned later that he grew up on a Yorkshire farm, and it shows. In some scenes, I could smell the blades of grass and the poetry whispered by the wind.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
It is surprising that “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is based on a novel, “The Little Broomstick” authored by Mary Stewart, because it is neither character-driven nor does it offer a grand adventure that stretches the imagination. For the most part, it provides a tolerable experience with occasional eye-catching details, particularly magical creatures that would fit right alongside the best of Studio Ghibli works, but one yearns eventually for a more involving, emotional, or thoughtful experience, especially since part of the story unfolds in a magic school named Elder College, its existence dating back to the age of dragons.
The story begins with great potential as we come to learn about Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill) who is bored in the countryside while staying with her great aunt (Lynda Baron) because she arrived there a week early prior to the start of the new school year. No other kid appears to be around with the exception of a boy named Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who not only teases Mary for her bushy red hair but one who is the opposite of how others perceive her to be. Peter is considered to be hardworking, responsible, and dependable.
Much of the amusement early on stems from Mary attempting to provide assistance to the adults around the estate but her good intentions almost always end up generating more problems. In a way, her own eagerness gets in her way. Because the material takes the time to show the girl’s tenacity for problem-solving and providing services, one suspects that this aspect is going to be the highlight of her adventure. One would be wrong.
The material meanders from one accident to another, whether it be taking a book of magical spells from Elder College’s headmistress (Kate Winslet) out of panic or ending up on an island that appears to be detached from the current timeline. On the surface, it provides an exuberantly lively adventure as it jumps from one setting to another, but more thoughtful viewers are certain to realize eventually that the experience is hollow and empty. As a result, Mary’s growth is most unconvincing; we do not believe by the end that she is a more mature person or someone who is more capable at controlling her emotions in order to accomplish a specific task. Comparing her evolution to Chihiro from “Spirited Away” is inaccurate, perhaps even misleading, because the latter’s evolution is thorough and compelling.
Its animation style is undeniably beautiful; I enjoyed it most when it focuses on the details of the blades of grass or how a cat moves its body as it attempts to communicate a highly specific line of thought. This is an example of a movie having the most stunning animation but the experience ending up substandard overall since the thesis of the story is not fully defined and fleshed out. Action happens simply because it must rather than building up to a climax outside of an action sequence.
Perhaps the film, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, might have been a more engrossing experience had its goals been simpler. For example, instead of taking down a pair of big-personality villains who brazenly throw ethics out the window in order to push the boundaries of their transformation experiments, why not take a more personal approach, certainly a quieter one, and allow Mary to get into situations that are specifically challenging for her, trials that push her to grow on her own terms? In the middle of the picture, I wondered why this story must be told through Mary’s perspective. The answer is it didn’t need to be.