No Place Like Home

Rock, Paper and Scissors

by George Wolf

Three characters, and one big house. That’s all that directors/writers Martin Blousson and Macarena Garcia Lenzi need to conjur up a good bit of creepy in Rock, Paper and Scissors (Piedra, papel y tijera).

Jesus (Pablo Sigal) and Maria Jose (Augustina Cervino) are isolated siblings living alone in the family home after the recent death of their father. When their paternal half-sister Magdalena (Valeria Giorcelli) arrives from Spain to discuss the inheritance and plans for the house, Jesus and Maria offer to put her up for the length of her stay.

Magdalena doesn’t want to trouble them for any more than one night, but a nasty fall down the stairs the next morning means little sister isn’t going anywhere.

Suddenly, Magdalena is a captive, and at the mercy of her siblings’ eyebrow-raising eccentricities. Jesus is an aspiring filmmaker filled with questionable inspirations, and Maria is a Wizard Of Oz-obsessed nursemaid who hopes to co-star with a guinea pig named Toto in Jesus’s upcoming film.

Magdalena’s only hope for escape seems to be separating her brother and sister, and probing for ways to work one against the other. Could Maria have pushed Magdalena down the stairs, or is Jesus the real danger in this house? And how did their father really die, anyway?

Blousson and Lenzi move past the Misery-like premise in short order, piling on some surrealistic Lynch-meets-Lanthimos weirdness and bathing it all in a stylistic visual pastiche of earth tone Goth.

The trio of actors reveals their characters’ true motivations at a languid pace that keeps us guessing, right up to the gorgeous closing shot that will leave you looking twice. Maybe three times.

Rock, Paper and Scissors is available on VOD beginning July 6th

Swimming in Romance

Undine

by George Wolf

Christian Petzold is a filmmaker with an almost casual mastery of storytelling. Those stories may seem simple at first, but he fills them with deeply felt narrative shifts, taut editing and pristine shot selections that make every frame feel imperative, and propels them with characters full of mysterious obsessions.

And for anyone unfamiliar with Petzold (Barbara, Phoenix, Transit), Undine (oon-DEEN-uh) is a wonderful entry into the writer/director’s hypnotic style.

Undine (Paula Beer, simply terrific) works in Berlin, delivering tours and lectures on the city’s urban development post WWII. But when her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) leaves her, Undine pledges unity with an ancient myth.

She must take the life of this man who has betrayed her and then return to the water as a nymph.

Undine’s water obsession only gains more fuel with her next relationship. Christoph (Franz Rogowski, also stellar) is an industrial diver, and while he and Undine develop a deep, almost supernatural connection, she never truly lets go of Johannes, who has also moved on with another love.

As Christoph’s dives become more dangerous and Undine’s lectures begin to link the personal and historical, Petzold shapes the romance into a head-swimming mix of mythology, thrills and humor.

Like much of Petzold’s work, Undine is anchored by exquisite framing and lush cinematography (the underwater scenes are especially impressive), and driven by characters drawn with easy fascination. The film’s magic and mystery meet the romance and realism with undaunted confidence, delivering a tale that satisfies via the conventional and the celestial.

Death Be Not Proud

There Is No Evil

by George Wolf

Presenting four short films together as separately compelling variations on a theme is impressive. Make those four shorts all from the same writer/director, telling distinct stories that raise the emotional stakes in distinct ways, and you have a stunning achievement.

You have Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof delivering a political statement of immense weight and moral conviction. You have There Is No Evil.

After an opening segment that lulls you with a family’s mundane daily schedule before dropping a hammer of casual horror, Rasoulof unveils small sets of characters, each dealing with the effects of seemingly impossible choices.

While serving the two-year term of military service mandated in Iran, a man may be forced to perform executions. Go along you’ll get along, and you’ll be a killer. Say no?

“They destroy our lives.”

Each chapter of the film presents a seemingly unique paradox, then quietly mounts the tension before revealing gripping plot turns that unite the strands in memorably devastating fashion.

Dare we hope for any happy endings here, even when a desperate decision seems to pay off?

With four masterful bits of storytelling and the exceptional ensemble cast in There Is No Evil, Rasoulof deftly explores the wages of those decisions, as well as the immoral center of a despotic regime that makes them necessary.

Whack A Mole

Cliff Walkers

by George Wolf

At this point, Yimou Zhang could bring a two-hour rendering of my neighbor’s lawn maintenance regimen to the big screen, and I’ll be there opening night.

After Shadow, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern and so many more, Zhang has proven himself a bona fide stare-at-the-screen-in-awe visual master.

He’s no slouch in the storytelling department either, and those skills move a little closer to the spotlight in Cliff Walkers, screenwriter Yongxian Quan’s intricate tale of espionage in the years before WWII.

It is 1931, and four Russian-trained Chinese communist party agents parachute into snow-covered Manchukuo (a Japanese occupation that was previously Chinese Manchuria) to put operation “Utrennya” into action. Their orders are to locate a surviving witness to a Japanese massacre, and smuggle him out to shed light on the atrocities.

The four agents agree to split up in pairs, and the double-crosses come early and often. As one pair of agents attempts to find and warn the other, a cascade of spy games, torture, accusations and suspicion gels into a suspenseful and engrossing ride.

And though Cliff Walkers may be less overtly showy than Zhang’s usual visuals, it is no less stunning. The constant snowfall becomes a character in itself, deadening the footsteps that run through the streets and enveloping the wonderfully constructed set pieces in gorgeous color contrast.

Many a butt is smoked in Cliff Walkers, and many a deadly stare is leveled in the criss-crossing searches for moles, snitches, turncoats and witnesses. Blood will be shed, and sacrifices will be made.

And again, Yimou Zhang will make it easy to get lost in, and nearly impossible to look away from.

Secret Love

Two of Us (Deux)

by George Wolf

The plan was to sell each of their neighboring French flats and move to Rome. After decades of living in secret, Nina and Madeleine (“Mado”) would enjoy their twilight years loving each other without hiding.

But after promising to finally come out to her grown son and daughter, Mado (Martine Chevallier) hesitates. Nina (Barbara Sukowa) is furious, and the entire plan is up in the air when fate intervenes.

A sudden stroke leaves Mado unable to speak, which makes Nina an outsider in the world of her longtime love.

The debut feature from director/co-writer Filippo Meneghetti, Two of Us cuts deep with its quiet, well-constructed observations. As Mado’s family and a hired caregiver populate Mado’s apartment, Meneghetti returns often to a tiny peephole in the door, silently amplifying the distance separating the lovers, along with Nina’s yearning to conquer it.

The two leads – no doubt relishing the chance to craft complex, aging females – are simply wonderful. When we meet them, Nina is the proud free spirit, and Mado the reserved, closeted mother and grandmother. The stroke reverses their roles, giving each actor room to redefine their characters, and deepen our connection to them.

Though restrained by silence, you can practically hear Mado screaming for Nina, and Meneghetti’s frequent tight shots give Chevallier to chance to break our hearts without saying a word.

Sukowa’s arc is even better, and she makes Nina’s desperation not only palpable, but the understandable product of a love that is simply part of her very being. It is Nina who now must learn to lie, as her only hope for getting close to Mado becomes making up stories that might placate Mado’s slightly suspicious daughter (Léa Drucker).

One of those schemes runs Nina afoul of the caregiver’s adult son, leading to a well-worn and utterly predictable plot device that brings a surprise dent to Meneghetti’s gentle tone.

But by the time Nina and Mado are framed in the sweetest of final shots, all is forgiven. More than a welcome reminder that love is love at any age, Two of Us is a touching testament to how much stronger togetherness can make us.

Dress to Impress

Papicha

by George Wolf

Though it carries the mantle of “inspired by true events,” Papicha works best on metaphorical levels. In her feature debut, director and co-writer Mounia Meddour profiles young women who lean on their friendships amid growing oppression in their homeland, skillfully revealing themes of identity and freedom in the process.

Lyna Khoudri is positively electric as Nedjma (aka “Papicha”), a university student in late 1990s Algeria. Her passion is fashion design, which is in sharp contrast to the extremists who demand that females cover up and submit to archaic methods of control.

As terrorists gain more leverage in the Algerian civil war and the dangers of resistance become more stark, Nedjma is determined to unite her fellow classmates in brave defiance. They will stage a forbidden fashion show, taking the fabric from their required haiks and reworking it for beautifully revealing new designs.

Meddour logically paces the growing passion for the show alongside the increasing threat from religious extremists. As the creeping march of oppression comes closer, Nedjma’s talent as a designer, and as an organizer, becomes an obvious (but effective) metaphor for the women struggling to retain any measure of control over their own bodies.

This layer of “defiant art” may bring to mind various other films – most recently And Then We Danced from last year – as will Meddour’s thoughtful treatment of female friendships under religious thumbs (The Magdalene Sisters). But even in the film’s most familiar moments, Khoudri’s wounded ferocity is always there to give Papicha it’s own sharply resonant edge.

The third act brings a sudden and unexpected tonal change, one that teeters on obscuring a loving and graceful narrative. But what you’ll ultimately take away from Papicha is how it finds intimacy in waves of social change, revealing moments of helpless joy in the fight against them.

Supa Fly

Supa Modo

by George Wolf

At the risk of limb outing, I’m guessing a little film that might restore your faith in human decency would not be unwelcome right now.

Supa Modo may center on a young girl with a terminal illness, but it will warm your heart in the sweetest way, spinning its tale of escapist fantasy, cold reality and the simple joy of the movies.

Nine year-old Jo (Stycie Waweru, wonderful) spends most of her days under the care of a Kenyan hospital, dreaming of flying like her favorite film superheroes. But after a distressing visit with the medical staff, Jo’s mother Kathryn (Marrianne Nungo) decides her dying child should spend her remaining days in the comfort of home.

Jo’s sister Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia) encourages Jo’s superhero fantasies, and her neighbors unite to create situations where Jo can flash super powers and right wrongs in the village.

It’s a lovely “Make a Wish” scenario that is not uncommon, but director Likarion Wainaina and a team of writers deepen the humanity through simple contrast.

Kathryn does not support the indulgence of Jo’s imagination, clashing with Mwix and the villagers over what is best for her child. This push and pull keeps the film grounded when overt sentimentality offers a road more easily traveled.

And, naturally, good conflict makes a more satisfying resolution. Wainaina plays his hand skillfully, turning what could have been a lazy and cliched final shot into a moment full of the happiest tears.

Express Yourself

And Then We Danced

by George Wolf

Despite its title, And Then We Danced uses the art form as more metaphor than setting, as a young dancer fights for the freedom to express himself beyond performance stage or rehearsal studio.

Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a dancer in the Georgian National Ensemble, is unsettled by the arrival of Irakli (Bachi Valishvilli), a replacement for a male ensemble member who has been banished amid scandalous rumors.

Irakli is blessed with more natural talent and assured charisma, and a subtle rivalry with Merab soon gives way to a mutual attraction. When a spot in the main ensemble opens up, both men vie to be chosen, even as the danger of their feelings draws increasingly close.

Writer/director Levan Akin unveils the romance in graceful but familiar fashion, keeping the political undertones evident without becoming overbearing. It’s well-crafted and well-acted (especially by Gelbakhiani), but you begin to wonder just when the film will up its ante with a uniquely resonant statement.

And then Akin (Cirkeln, Certain People) and Gelbakhiani demand the spotlight with a finale of intimate defiance. As Merab grapples with societal expectations as both a Georgian Ensemble dancer and a man, the film finally reveals Merab’s soul, speaking to the beauty of liberation in just the way you were hoping it would.

Honorable Mentions

The Traitor (Il traditore)

by George Wolf

If you think Scorsese set the bar for three and a half hour mob epics, well, you may have a point.

But, although it clocks in at one hour south of The Irishman, Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor also uses one man’s true-life experience to frame an expansive reflection on a life in the mob.

Tommaso Buscetta, the youngest of 17 children in a poverty-stricken Sicilian family, found his ticket out through organized crime. Rising to the rank of “Don Masino” in Sicily’s Costa Nostra, he eventually lost many family members and allies to the mafia wars. Disillusioned, Buscetta became one of the very first to break the mob’s strict code of silence and turn “pentito,” or informant.

Pierfrancisco Favino, who probably gets women pregnant just from introducing himself, is tremendous as the “Boss of Two Worlds.” Unlike DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran, Buscetta is looking back with defiance, secure in his standing as the only man “honorable” enough to call out the less honorable. Favino brings a quiet intensity to this inner strength that comes to define Buscetta after personal loss drives him to the depths of despair.

The moral complexities of honor among killers is Bellocchio’s strongest play. Early in the film, he sets the stakes effectively through sustained tension and stylish violence (a set piece inside a window factory is especially impressive) offset with familiar loyalties. Bellocchio invites our sympathies for a career criminal, and Favino rewards them.

But once Buscetta starts singing to anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), the film gets bogged down in the minutiae of courtroom testimony. Though American audiences may be intrigued by some of the differences in Italian trial procedure, Bellocchio’s prolonged attention to these details makes us long for the pace of the film’s first two acts.

The scope of Buscetta’s story is grand and Bellocchio’s ambitions noteworthy, but even at 145 minutes the film ultimately feels like a finely-crafted overview. Favino has the goods to give us the The Traitor‘s soul, but not the freedom.

Maybe another hour or so would have done it.

Many Mansions

Parasite

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

We’ve said it many times, but since there may still be people who haven’t heard, we’ll say it again. If Joon-ho Bong makes a film, you should see it.

Today, make it Parasite.

The film’s opening act introduces the Kim family, folding pizza boxes in a squalid basement apartment in Seoul and scrambling from room to room in search of free WiFi after the neighboring business locked theirs down with a password.

In a single scene the film appears to articulate its title and define its central characters, but the Kims are not who you think they are. In fact, every time you think you’ve pinned this film down—who’s doing what to whom, who is or is not a parasite—you learn it was an impeccably executed sleight of hand.

Longtime Bong collaborator Kang-ho Song (Memory of a Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer) anchors the film with an endearing and slippery performance. Kim patriarch, he is simultaneously beloved head of the household and family stooge. Watching Song manipulate his character’s slide from bottom to top to bottom again without ever losing his humanity—or the flaws that go along with humanity—is amazing. It’s a stunningly subtle and powerful performance.

He’s nearly matched by Yeo-jeong Jo as the righteously oblivious Mrs. Park, who spends her days in constant search for an empty validation that comes from every new indulgence for her children.

When young Kim Ki-woo ( Woo-sik Choi from Train to Busan and Bong’s last film, Okja) is able to convince Mrs. Park he’s a suitable English tutor for her daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the Kim and Park families become connected in one of the few ways afforded by the social order: master and servant.

Methodically, the rest of the Kim clan gains employment from Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) through the systematic feeding of the Parks’ ego and privilege. And then just when you think Bong’s metaphoric title is merely surface deep, a succession of delicious power shifts begins to emerge.

Think the simmering rage of Joker with a completely new set of face paint.

As the Kims insinuate themselves into the daily lives of the very wealthy Parks, Bong expands and deepens a story full of surprising tenderness, consistent laughter and wise commentary on not only the capitalist economy, but the infecting nature of money.

Bong, as both director and co-writer, dangles multiple narrative threads, weaving them so skillfully throughout the film’s various layers that even when you can guess where they’ll intersect, the effect is no less enlightening.

Filming in an ultra-wide aspect ratio allows Bong to give his characters and themes a solid visual anchor. In single frames, he’s able to embrace the complexities of a large family dynamic while also articulating the detailed contrasts evident in the worlds of the haves and have nots.

Parasite tells us to make no plans, as a plan can only go wrong.

Ignore that, and make plans to see this brilliantly mischievous, head-swimmingly satisfying dive down the rabbit hole of space between the classes.