By William Wolf

MOTHER!  Send This Review to a Friend

In “Mother!,” which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival just before its commercial release, Javier Bardem plays a desperate man with a writer’s block. Would that director-screenwriter Darren Aronofsky also had writer’s block. It would have spared us from the most obnoxious film of the year.

Whatever was on Aronofsky’s mind with respect to the horror genre, “Mother!” is a pretentious exercise in mounting violence with a thoroughly repulsive ending. Maybe horror fans will relate to it, but others may find the violence upsetting and the finale just plain disgusting. And the entire film makes little sense.

Jennifer Lawrence as the mother in question goes through most of the film screaming, and that’s before she is set afire (there’s worse). The camera loves her, as well it should, but she has an empty one-note sacrificial role.

The set-up involves a recently married couple living in a house that had been destroyed. In the title role Lawrence is fixing it up with devotion. Bardem is creepy and manipulative as a writer frantic to receive approval, welcoming people who supposedly come to celebrate him but rip the house apart.

What happens is a steady, ever-growing wild mob invading, starting with visitors played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, whom the husband welcomes but against whom the wife angrily protests. More and more people show up to storm the house, as the destruction is piled on in scene after scene. Meanwhile, the wife discovers that she is pregnant.

What may sometimes be illusion on the part of the wife and what is reality can be pondered. But what we see is what we get, and the horror is ever-mounting, not with wit, but with an exercise in cinematic outrageousness.

If you find it worth analyzing, you can spot a “Rosemary’s Baby” idea, for example. Perhaps one can accept “Mother!” as satire of the horror flicks. But any potential meaning is undermined by the unfettered violence without anything seriously or comically making sense. Given all of the hype about the film, you may want to see for yourself. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. A Paramount Pictures release. Reviewed September 15, 2017.

FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER  Send This Review to a Friend

Angelina Jolie deserves to be commended for her striving to bring human values to the fore on screen and for her determination to use artistry for that purpose. Her latest, “First They Killed My Father,” which she directed as well as co-wrote and co-produced and which was seen at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival just before its release, is a haunting exploration of trying to survive under the oppressive reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

The film stems from a memoir by Loung Ung of the terror she as a young girl and others in her family faced when Phnom Penh was invaded in 1975 and brutalized as part of the Khmer Rouge genocide against its victims. Ung, who collaborated on the screenplay with Jolie, was forced to flee. Her father had been in the military and had to run for his life, which meant that his family would also be targeted.

The story unfolds through the perspective of Loung, played as a youngster by the excellent Sreymoch Sareum. She and her siblings are forced into working the fields and being subjected to the austere, doctrinaire discipline that militates against owning anything privately and trains youths to be vicious fighters loathing the stated enemy.

The film depicts the intense brutality and the heroic efforts to escape and survive against all odds. Jolie doesn’t flinch in dramatizing the destruction and desperation. There are both emotionally touching scenes as well as horrific ones. Her location filming is excellent and she exhibits talent for raising a work to epic level, with very convincing casting to achieve maximum reality.

Jolie and her production team succeed in providing a sprawling look at the Cambodian tragedy of that era, always illuminated via the struggle of Loung Ung and her family. Fortunately, there is also an early reference to President Richard Nixon’s unjustified U.S. assault on the country.

It has been interesting and informative to follow Jolie’s career and her talent as a filmmaker. What obviously also drives her is being a deeply caring person, and that clearly stands behind virtually every scene in this film that is important historically as well as for its artistic achievement. A Netflix release. Reviewed September 15, 2017.

INDIVISIBLE  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Edoardo De Angelis’s film about co-joined twins in Italy features excellent performances by real-life but not co-joined twins and an outlook that dramatizes the exploitation of the sisters by their grasping father. The situation is also against the background of townsfolk who see the sisters as a symbol of religious glorification.

The screenplay by Nicola Guaglianone explores in depth the feelings of the twins nearing the age of 18 and the differences in their personalities. They have grown up in poverty in a town outside Naples, with a father, Peppe (Massimiliano Rossi), who from their birth viewed them as his ticket to survival. Their mother is subjugated and has gone along with her dictatorial husband, who gambles away money earned by the twins singing songs he composes at local social and religious events.

Angela and Marianna Fontana are wonderfully effective as Viola and Daisy, and they portray the twins perceptively, both in illuminating their being tied together and the different feelings that develop. Daisy has greater aspirations than her sister and dreams of a life of sexual expression and personal achievement. Viola is more content to adore her sister and maintain their emotional bond. When they meet a doctor who says it would not be a problem to safely separate them in surgery, given their being co-joined at the hip and not involving basic organs, Daisy is taken with the idea, but Viola is fearful of life apart.

The situation is compounded when Daisy sets her eyes on a glib-talking entertainment agent (Gaetano Bruno), who promises to help her and her sister. To an audience it is clear he is a dangerous phony. The father of the twins forbids them to undergo surgery—that would end his opportunistic ability to exploit the girls. Although the doctor has offered to perform the surgery without a fee, the twins need to raise money for the hospital costs and the trip to Switzerland for the operation.

There is a poignant section of the film in which they secretively leave home and attempt to get to their destination, with Daisy under the illusion that they can get no-strings money from the supposed benefactor aboard his yacht. We sympathize with her, fully expecting that no good will come of the expedition. What happens when they reach the yacht justifies our fear.

How all ultimately works out seems rather contrived, but still does not undercut the depth of feeling engendered by the superb performances by the Fontana twins, and the fairy-tale aura that the director and screenwriter create around them even though “Indivisible” is filmed with realism. This is a drama that, in addition to the deeply personal story, also involves poverty, class, family, exploitation, religion and superstition. Reviewed September 16, 2017.

MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS  Send This Review to a Friend

If you are familiar with shoe chic, you should have heard of Manolo Blahnik, whose shoe designs have captivated women indulging in high fashion. Michael Roberts, a writer and editor, has put together what amounts to a documentary tribute to the Spanish Blahnik, who was born in the Canary Islands and is now 74 years old.

The odd subtitle stems from his childhood playing, which already demonstrated his interest in design. The film ranges through his life and achievements, and follows his renown in in the fashion world.

Rest assured, the film pays close attention to what his shoes look like and why they have achieved status among women who like to show off their footwear, generally with spike heels.

Manolo’s colorful personality shines through, and we see him in his factory paying close attention to what’s going on. It is clear that he has enjoyed the creative design process and takes pride in his work.

We also meet those who appreciate what he has accomplished, including the eminent fashion authority Anna Wintour, designer John Galliano and various others. (As you might expect, the prices for Manolo’s handiwork are high--an online check shows one model for more than $1700. But one can also find some discounts available for online orders.)

Manolo maks an interesting subject, especially for anyone interested in fashion and the design and production of colorful, elegant shoes. A Music Box release. Reviewed September 16, 2017.

THE WILDE WEDDING  Send This Review to a Friend

Even with Glenn Close in the cast, writer-director Damian Harris can’t make “The Wilde Wedding” more than a character-crowded mess that has some amusing moments but comes across as a cliché.

Close plays Eve Wilde, an aging movie actress, who is about to be married for the fourth time in an elaborate bash on an estate in New York, with a huge retinue of guests invited for the celebration. The husband to be is a writer, Harold Alcott, played by the venerable Patrick Stewart. Eve is troubled with some last minute doubts.

Stimulating the doubts is the appearance at the event of John Malkovich as actor Laurence Darling, to whom Eve was previously wed. Darling exhibits more mischievous charm than the new intended. One can easily predict the course the film will take, although one might not predict that Harold will have a fling with a sexy young woman and further the plot.

The romantic comedy is colorfully filmed, even though the tale will lead to the inevitable re-pairing of Eve and Laurence that we can see coming. The guests will get their wedding, although not the one they came for, and we are left with only an intermittently amusing patchwork, and the disappointment that the stars could not have been in a more satisfying movie. A Vertical Entertainment release. Reviewed September 16, 2017.

RED TREES  Send This Review to a Friend

Directed by Marina Willer, “Red Trees” is a different take on the Holocaust. Her film traces the lives of her family members, who managed to survive and find a fresh start in new surroundings.

The documentary emerges as a personal exploration of her background, as well as a recounting of what happened to the Willers, one of only 12 Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague during World War II.

The title derives from the color-blindness of the director’s father, Alfred Willer, who as a youngster liked to draw but found himself drawing red leaves on trees. (One might also think of a double meaning in this case—the Willer family tree.)

The voice of Alfred is supplied by Tim Piggot-Smith (who has since died), and the film follows the post-war fortunes of the Willers after they emigrate to Brazil, where Alfred pursues a career as an architect and raises his family.

The film is rich in detail through interviews, clips, and observances. Director Willer is skillful and incorporating her material, and as a screenwriter, she was assisted by Brian Eley and Leena Telén. What makes the documentary especially interesting is the unusual take about survival, even though the film acknowledges the tragedy of those who were not so fortunate. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed September 15, 2017.

THE UNKNOWN GIRL  Send This Review to a Friend

Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have in their new film, “The Unknown Girl,” created a mystery entwined with a woman doctor’s social conscience. What happens when one doesn’t answer a doorbell and what might have happened if one did? That is the basis for a well-conceived and executed suspenseful drama that is set in Liège and involves an assortment of characters while exploring the main drama.

Dr. Jenny Davin is played by the excellent Adèle Haenel, who works at her surgery and has a young, struggling intern, Julien, portrayed by Olivier Bonnaud. One night she is ready to close up and leave when her downstairs bell rings. The last thing she wishes to do at that point is to see another patient. She doesn’t answer, an inaction that will come back to haunt her.

When the battered body of an African immigrant woman is found along a river bank, Dr. Davin surmises that she was the one who rang her bell. Conscience-stricken, the doctor becomes a detective determined to uncover the woman’s identity, any relatives and see that she be given a proper burial.

It is a tough task, what with interacting with police and finding herself in danger by unsavory underworld characters who want her to butt out. She also deals with a patient whom she suspects may be connected to the crime.

The Dardenne brothers create an overall atmosphere with their customary narrative and visual skills and extract first- rate performances all around, from the star character of the doctor to all of those introduced along the way during her quest to discover what happened and who is responsible.

Always present is the doctor’s feeling of personal responsibility dramatized against a background illuminating class differences, the immigrant world and machinations going on in Liège. As a bonus, we also get a picture of what a medical practice can be like and how a dedicated doctor copes with her daily responsibilities under her country’s health care system. An IFC Films release. Reviewed September 5, 2017.

COMPANY TOWN  Send This Review to a Friend

What chance does a small community have against a mighty company that townspeople insist has been polluting the area with deadly effect? The odds are great for Crossett, Arkansas, up against the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant owned by Charles and David Koch, ultra rich and ultra powerful. “Company Town,” co-directed by Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian, documents the raging battle for justice.

A community hero trying to stop the alleged pollution is David Bouie, a local clergyman, who inspires others to speak up and take action and demand that steps be taken by government to end the problem. The charge is that there has been an unusual rise in deaths from cancer that is attributed to the pollution. Pastor Bouie, who worked at the plant for 10 years, reports that on the street where he lives 11 out of 15 homes had someone die of cancer.

The film traces the situation from discovering the supposed proof of the healh hazards to people in the area. We meet many citizens, witness the meetings and discussions and follow the trail of the actions being taken.

The fight that unfolds is very frustrating, a typical little-guy versus entrenched power conflict with all of the stalling that occurs. What comes through importantly in the film is that this battle is symbolic of other situations in various communities beset by industries. Thus the troubles in Crossett have more significance than just the local struggle.

However, the filmmakers concentrate on the ongoing details and the individuals involved in Crossett, including those who came down with cancer, various activists and a particular a whistle blower. “Company Town” sharply addresses concerns about the environment and although the film could be tightened a bit, overall it is an important contribution to this very topical issue. A First Run Features release. Reviewed September 5, 2017.

SCHOOL LIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

The documentary look at a year in what is described as the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland is as much about the dedicated teachers as the assortment of students. Husband and wife filmmakers Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane take a fly-on-the-wall approach as they record doings in the Headfort school, located in an old, imposing castle-like building on sprawling, woodsy grounds.

The main faculty focus is on the dedicated couple John and Amanda Leyden, who have been teaching at the school for 46 years. John is especially good in teaching music and forging some students into a lively rock band with vocals. Amanda loves to instill the children with appreciation for literature.

It takes a somewhat boring while to get into the subject, but as one gets to know the Leydens, and some of the students as individuals, one can warm to the portraits and become much more involved. For me a highlight was Amanda whipping the students into shape for putting on a school play, Shakespeare no less, and watching some of the kids plunging enthusiastically into the dialogue is a hoot.

We see the students getting into sports and striking up friendships in relating to one another. The Leydens provide a relaxed, intimate atmosphere and their dedication in trying to instill the best in the youngsters is evident. At the end of the school year, we watch faculty members meeting for student evaluations, and ultimately there is the final assembly at which awards are given, one girl earning three of the four prizes presented.

Saying goodbye when parents come to pick up the students is quite emotional for some, given the experience of togetherness that has existed. Appropriately we get an intimate final view of the Leydens, who after all the years, are facing the prospect of retiring. One senses that would leave a big gap in their lives, although they would have the satisfaction of having had a positive influence on so many of the students in their charge. The filmmakers capture all of this in their quiet approach of observing. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed September 5, 2017.

WHITE SUN  Send This Review to a Friend

A film with particular political interest at this year’s New Directors/New Films series was “White Sun,” now in commercial release. Directed by Deepak Rauniyar, it is set in Nepal against the background of the divisions and political rivalries in that country. But the story is a personal one, and that gives the film a very human quality.

The plot involves a Maoist activist who returns home after his father has just died. His father believed in the monarchist regime, which the Maoists fought in a lengthy civil war. The son’s brother also was on the monarchist side.

What happens in the effort to perform a burial according to the required rituals and the clashing relationship make for an involving and sometimes satirical film. How all is worked out holds one’s attention and tells us much about human behavior. Parts are very funny, and other moments are filled with anger. Through it all are the logistics of the task at hand, and those can provide amusement as well. Reviewed September 6, 2017.

  

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