No Bears: #FreeJafarPanahi

Director Jafar Panahi, who is currently imprisoned in Iran for 6 years, made another film wherein Panahi plays himself in a exploration of Iranian culture. The film takes place in two locations, a town on the edge of the Iranian Turkey border where Panahi is staying and a city in Turkey where the film Panahi is directing remotely is shooting.

Jafar Panahi is staying in a town with questionable internet coverage, despite the sheriff assuring him the coverage was impeccable. Unable to connect and continue directing his newest film across the border, he explores the village that he is staying in with his camera in toe. He wanders above the buildings and takes pictures of those he meets or sees.

That night, his assistant director arrives with a hard drive of the daily shoots. The two take a drive and discuss Panahi’s inability to leave the country and the negative impact that it is having on the filming process. They come across the road that the local smugglers use and Panahi and his assistant drive down the road and flirt with the idea of smuggling the director across the border. Panahi decides he is unwilling to do so and returns to his temporary home in the village.

The next day, Panahi is confronted by some men from the town insisting that he took a picture of a certain couple, and that the picture can be used as evidence against them. The women in this village are betrothed to someone at birth, and the belief is that this woman has been with a different man. Panahi assures the men that he has no such picture. They leave, but clearly are unpersuaded.

The drama that Panahi experiences in the village in which he is staying is mixed with the drama from his film. In the film a couple are attempting to procure passports to escape the country and fly to Europe to begin a new life. The couple comes to odds when one of them acquires a passport, but the other does not. Their love is tested by this potential distance between them.

No Bears attempts to draw a comparison between the couple in Panahi’s film and that of the star-crossed pair in the village which he is staying. In this point the film fails to deliver what it set out to do. Because Panahi is the sole viewpoint, the stories of the four lovers are underdeveloped. The couple in the village is especially underserved as they are not even the secondary point of view of their own story. Instead, the film focuses on what the men of the village think about them.

The other goal of No Bears that Panahi succeeds on is a critique of the culture in both the small village but also in the region at large. Panahi leaves no question that he is against the assigning of marriage partners at birth. He brings such up at a ceremony where he is required to swear that he is telling the truth. On the larger scale though, No Bears accuses the government of not providing for their people and entrapping them in the country.

Panahi’s output since his initial arrest in 2010 has centered around the director playing himself and that conceit has allowed him to take exceptionally personal shots at the country that imprisoned him. No Bears is another film along that line, and while it gets a little lost in some of its side stories, the film is solid. Not Panahi’s best but a strong addition to this phase of his career.



Infinity Pool: A Wild Premise and the Modern Horror Queen

Brandon Cronenberg, son of acclaimed Canadian director David Cronenberg, returns for his third feature film Infinity Pool. Brandon follows in his father’s footsteps in making science-fiction/ horror hybrids, but while David’s films make heavy use of practical effects for literal horrific imagery, Brandon’s films exist in the more theoretic though they are just as visceral. Infinity Pool continues in that tradition by utilizing a low-concept premise to deliver something devilishly twisted.

James and Em Foster (Alexander Skarsgård and Cleopatra Coleman) are on vacation in a swanky beach resort in an extremely poor country. James is a writer infamous for one book six years ago who has been surviving off his wife’s fortune in the years since. One morning near the end of their trip, James meets Gabi (Mia Goth) who along with her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert) become quick friends of the couple.

The two couple borrow a car and go for a joy ride outside of the resort, something which is expressly forbidden, and have a day of drunken partying on a beautiful, deserted beach. After nightfall, they head back to the resort with James, the most sober, behind the wheel. A glitch in the car’s lights leaves James temporarily unable to see, and it is in that moment that a local happens to cross the street in front of the car. Visibily shaken, James and Em want to inform the authorities, but Gabi and Alban, having been to the resort before refuse saying they do not want to end up in jail in such a backward country.

The next morning, James and Em are awoken to violent raps on their door, and it appears that they were unsuccessful in evading the law and James is forced into custody. In custody and staring down a serious punishment, Infinity Pool introduces the science-fiction element that becomes the crux of the remainder of the film.

Infinity pool gets extremely dark through it’s science-fiction element and it is when the film delves deep into those themes that is at its best. The conundrum proposed to James while he is in the foreign jail is innovative and his robotic response to the decision leaves Em, and the audience, uneasy of his coldness. While this piece of science fiction is revisited on a couple of occasions, it is never as dark as the first visit, and the revisits are less purposeful. The film could have definitely explored the consequences of the punishment more, but instead it occupies its time with other less interesting debauchery.

It should come as no surprise after her work last year that Mia Goth is the standout performer of the film. Her ability to be over-the-top and unhinged makes her the modern-day queen of horror. Gabi goes from the girl next door persona to a deranged gun wielding maniac, Mia Goth can do both with great prowess.  

Infinity Pool belongs to a relatively modern subgenre of horror. One in which the goal is not to scare its viewers, but instead to shake and unsettle them. Brandon Cronenberg successfully creates those feelings, and while the premise could have been explored more deeply, the horror queen herself Mia Goth makes what made it to screen ever entertaining.


Living: More than Just a Lead Performance

Oliver Hermanus’s Living is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Ikiru, a film which this reviewer has shamefully never seen. The film has been bubbling in the Oscar conversation for a few select categories for months now, but upon wide release it seems that it’s being underdiscussed if anything.

Bill Nighy stars as Williams, the head of the Public Works department in 1950s London. He seems to be built ideally for bureaucratic work with a nose to the grindstone mentality that has little interest in helping people unless they have first gotten the necessary paperwork from the Parks department.

Williams’s normally untouchable routine is broken one afternoon when he must leave early for a doctor’s appointment. It is at that appointment that he learns that he has terminal cancer and will pass away in six months, eight to nine at the most.

Unable to process, he skips work the next day and happens to meet a young man to whom he spills his predicament. Williams had earlier that morning withdrew a large amount of cash, and he’s in need of someone to show him how to have a good time. The two men go out on a rager jumping from club to seedier club.

The next day, Williams runs into his recently former associate, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) and the two go out for lunch while Williams writes her a recommendation. Williams feels a strong connection with Miss Harris, and they build a friendship which gives him a reason to change his outlook on life for the last few months.

Bill Nighy is the standout performance of the film as the elderly Williams. He captures the meek voice of a man who has never lived but slowly opens up as days go on as he lives his life away from work for the first time. Nighy displays remarkable range despite adhering to Williams rather quiet demeanor.

Aimee Lou Wood is also worth calling out as Miss Harris. She may act as the manic pixie dream girl for Nighy’s Williams, but instead of the traditional MPDG persona, she plays someone much more grounded. She doesn’t feel amiss from the 1950s society that she belongs to, yet she is able to be the catalyst which Williams uses to evolve. Balancing these decisions is difficult, yet Lou Wood delivers remarkably and should be getting more attention.

An interesting decision that Hermanus makes with the film is to change the perspective for the third act of the film to that of Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), a young professional who started working in Williams’s department right when Williams learned of his diagnosis. The film does this to highlight the impact that Williams had on those around him after going through his awakening. While the purpose for this perspective change makes sense with respect to the film’s narrative and deeper meaning, it is still a little jarring when the perspective change takes place.

Living is a simple film with simple themes, and yet the combination of Nighy’s acting and Hermanus’s direction produces a film that feels seminal. The film worms its way int to the subconscious and affects the viewer much the same way Williams’s diagnosis impacted him.


Saint Omer: The Chimera of Motherhood

France’s 2022 submission to the Oscars for Best International Film Saint Omer is an emotional delve into the relationships between mothers and daughters masquerading as a courtroom drama.

Kayije Kagame plays Rama an academic who travels from Paris to Saint-Omer to observe a court case with the intention of writing a new book on it. A few days before the trip she, her partner, and her two sisters have a get together at Rama’s mother’s house. In this scene director Alice Diop starts hinting at the theme for the film. It’s apparent that Rama has a more tepid relationship with her mother than her siblings do.

The trial Rama attends for research is of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga) a woman from Senegal who drowned her 15-month-old infant daughter in the sea. The first day of court plays out in seemingly real time as the judge (Valérie Dréville) reads the details of Coly’s case and inquests her background to try and find meaning to the infanticide. This plays on for an extended period which introduces the uneasiness that punctuates the rest of the film.

After the first day of the trial, Laurence’s mother Odile (Salimata Kamate) introduces herself to Rama, their shared Senegalese background creates an instant bond between them. They agree to meet for lunch on the following day. When they meet for lunch, Odile exposes what was previously hinted at, that Rama is pregnant. This connects Rama to Laurence in a more intimate way.

Saint Omer is deeply concerned with the relationship between mother and daughter. “We carry on the cells of our mother’s and our daughters who will in turn carry on us.” Laurence’s lawyer speaks the theme of the film as a closing statement to the trial. She refers to mothers and daughters as chimeras who share each other’s cells and are thus intimately connected.

What happens when a mother is maybe not physically abusive but emotionally distant? Rama’s mother appears to have been that, and Laurence makes the case that her mother was as well.  Rama’s trauma from her mother is hinted at through flashbacks but never spoken explicitly, but it influences her to this day, and she worries that she will become a version of her mother to her unborn child. Is Rama destined to repeat the sins of her mother, or worse the sins of this woman on trial in whom she sees herself? Diop is greatly interested in these relationships and the permanence of damage that is done.

Alice Diop transforms the traditional courtroom drama into something much more personal and introspective. The film uses the trial as a catalyst for Rama, an unconnected observer, to explore her inner demons and question what it means to be a mother and a daughter.


A Man Called Otto: A Quaint but Pointless Remake

A Man Called Otto is Marc Forster’s remake of the 2015 Swedish film A Man Called Ove (dir. Hannes Holm) a quaint slice of life picture about the curmudgeonly, suicidal Otto.

Tom Hanks plays the titular Otto, a man who has lost the enjoyment he once found in life and instead has become bitter to the world around him. He begins his day by doing rounds through his gated community where he rebels against delivered ads, fixes other’s mistakes in recycling, and is genuinely rude to his neighbors who continue to try and reach out to him.

He attends his last day of work at a factory, where it is made clear that he was forced into retirement rather than choosing the decision on his own, after which he returns home with a length of rope and the intention of hanging himself. Work must have been an outlet for Otto’s meticulous nature and losing that left him with very little to do.

Just at that time the arrival of his new, and parallel parking challenged, neighbors convinces him to leave his apartment and park for them out of frustration. This good deed, even if done out of a selfish manner as Otto does not suffer incompetence well, changes his life as it introduces him to Marisol (Mariana Treviño) the Mexican woman who makes it her personal responsibility to befriend the socially prickly Otto.

The film continues from there with Marisol slowly thawing Otto’s frozen heart. While doing so, the film makes increasing use of flashbacks to tell the story of Otto(played by Truman Hanks in flashbacks) and his late wife Sonya (Rachel Keller). This provides context for some of Otto’s rudeness while fleshing out the story of the film.

Tom Hanks may be one of the great actors working today, but in this film his performance is greatly overshadowed by Treviño’s, who is new to the Hollywood system. Her constant quips at the sullen Otto’s expense provide most of the laughs for the film.

A Man Called Otto falls for the common plight of foreign films remade into English only a few years later in that the film offers very little new outside of the language change. One could easily just watch A Man Called Ove, assuming they are amiable to reading while they watch, and get the same value out of it.

This pointlessness is further exemplified by the fact that the film feels very slight. Otto’s story is interesting enough to keep one in their seat for two hours, but it has little staying power. A Man Called Otto is fine January viewing but will not be remembered come year end.


Women Talking: A Literal Masterpiece

Sarah Polley returns to the feature director’s chair for the first time in ten years, Stories We Tell, and her first narrative film since 2011’s Take This Waltz with the awards favorite Women Talking. Her new costume drama utilizes an all-star cast to create a captivating piece of cinema despite the film living up to its title and being almost exclusively women talking.

The film takes place in 2010 in a Mennonite village directly following an incident where the women of the community caught a man tranquilizing and sexually assaulting a woman. The man gives up a list of other men who are guilty of the same practice and is arrested by the local town. When all but one of the other men go to town to bail the guilty parties out, the women of the town gather to discuss their options going forward.

Forgiving the men, staying and fighting them, or leaving are the choices that the women consider, and despite being illiterate they organize a vote for all the women to decide their fate. When the vote returns, it results in a tie between fighting and leaving so three families convene to discuss their eventual decision.

Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Janz (Frances McDormand) along with a handful of other older girls and women and the only man still in the village August (Ben Whishaw), whose only job is to take the minutes of the meeting, lock themselves in a barn to discuss their future.

Janz immediately gives an ultimatum that forgiving the men is the only option she will accept as it is the only way that they can still attain heaven according to their faith. When the rest of the women rebuke the idea, Janz storms off leaving the remaining women to deliberate between the other two options. The film proceeds from there with the women conversing with only one short break for them to perform their traditional duties.  

While the bulk of the film may seem actionless, the emotion displayed by each woman is entrancing as they grapple with an unknown future. Claire Foy declaring that if she should stay, she “will become a murderer” is devastating. Rooney Mara aptly captures the horror of her situation, an unmarried woman who has just realized that her pregnancy was due to the evils of men and not the supernatural. The terror that the women have endured becomes palpable because of the exquisite acting.

Much has been made about the color grading of Polley’s film, and while the decision is stark, it is both not without reason and not as distracting as out of context screen shots make it appear. The washed-out color leaves the film almost monochromatic echoing black and white filmmaking of the past. This homage to an older time reflects the out of time feeling that the Mennonite community exhibits, and especially the ancient mentality that would allow men to do this to women without consequence.

Highlighted by the unnerving acting trio of Mara, Foy, and Buckley Women Talking is a tour-de-force for a post #MeToo world.


Broker: Koreeda’s unique retread

Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda returns to some recently treaded waters in both plot and theme with his South Korean drama Broker. While the comparisons to his Palme d’Or winning film Shoplifters (2018) are undeniable, he manages to create something fully unique and wonderful despite the similarities.

Broker much like Shoplifters revolves around an abandoned child as its inciting incident. So-young (Ji-eun Lee) is a young woman who leaves her baby Woo-sung in a baby box at a church, an actual thing in which one abandons babies in South Korea, where he is found by Ha Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho best known for his role in 2019’s Parasite) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won). The two men instead of processing the baby into the church’s orphanage, delete the footage of the drop off and take the baby home to sell on the black market.

In a slight change of feeling, So-young returns to the church to see her baby but finds it not there. Ha Sang-hyeon out of a sense of obligation tells So-young where her Woo-sung is and that he intends on selling him. They agree to do so as a team, splitting the money 50/50, and set out on a trip to a potential buyer.

Unbeknownst to the three brokers, two police officers Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and detective Lee (Lee Joo-young) know about the intent to traffic the young baby and follow the group on their journey to catch them in the act.

Throughout the rest of the film, Broker continues to layer on additionally plot points to build tension for the group of would-be criminals. This crescendos in intensity, but without ever overshadowing the small personal revelations of the characters that are the primary selling point of the film.

Another way in which Broker mirrors Shoplifters is in its examination of what makes a family and especially the power that can exist in non-traditional families. So-young and Dong-soo both grew up without a traditional family and have resorted to less than legal means to sustain themselves in their adult lives because of this lack of foundation. San-hyeon on the other hand has an ex-wife and daughter that he feels bad about not being a part of their life. All three brokers have every reason to be jaded about they concept of family, yet together they find a sense of belonging.

It is clear that they have not been completely disillusioned by the concept of family based on their pickiness in selling off Woo-sung. Finding a loving family for the baby none of them can take care of is of primary importance, the cash payment while still essential to them is only secondarily so.

Koreeda’s films always take place in the moments between what little action there is, and this remains true even in Broker’s slightly more active plotline. The tension in wondering if the brokers will get caught by the following police is interesting, but nothing compares to the meticulous work he puts into the dialogue between characters. They slowly reveal themselves to each other and by proxy the audience as a way of revealing universal truths.