Birds of Passage (2018): Shortlisted for Academy Award – Best Foreign Language Film

It’s set in a community that doesn’t belong to you, but it speaks about us. This is a family film… We talk about the conflicts between the traditional community and modernity. We also talk about the conflicts between women and men, and the real and the spiritual world, and this is something that touched us in a very deep way. -Cristina Gallego, co-director/co-writer

We wanted to make a genre film, but this gave us the opportunity to put a twist on the genre film- a genre like the gangster film or noir film… which has developed into the glorification of criminals, a celebration of violence. -Cirro Guerra, co-director/co-writer

Few films have captured quite so powerfully the tension between the old and new worlds — a feat “Birds of Passage” accomplishes while simultaneously allowing audiences to channel the Wayuu’s surrealistic view of their surroundings, where spirits walk the earth, and wise women interpret their dreams. -Peter Debrige (Variety)

What first comes to mind when you think of Colombia? Aside from the actors and beauty pageant winners turned models, I bet it’s the drug trade! This movie, set between 1968 and 1980, is mostly spoken in the Wayuu language of the indigenous people of Colombia’s northern Guajira peninsula. Spanish is also spoken, as well as bits of English. The filmmakers are a young (under 40 y.o.) formerly married pair from Colombia, Cristina Gallego and Cirro Guerra. They worked with a team of about 80, incl. 30% of Wayuu actors, non-actors, and crew.

We are first introduced to Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a beautiful young woman of a high-standing Wayuu clan (which is a matrilineal society). When Zaida leaves her traditional one-year seclusion and is ready for marriage, she catches the eye of Rapayet (Jose Acosta). He’s a confident young man who has been working among the alijunas (outsiders, incl. those who speak Spanish and are non-indigenous) and comes from a less prominent family. He was raised by his highly respected uncle, Peregrino (Jose Vicente), a “word messenger.” In this society, it is forbidden to cause harm to a messenger. Rapayet and Zaida do a fast-paced mating dance; he declares: “You are my woman” at the end. We suppose that he could be thinking of family prestige and also genuine attraction.

Ursula (Carmina Martinez), Zaida’s formidable mother, explains that Zaida’s hand will only be available w/ a large dowry (incl. cattle, goats, and 5 necklaces). Ursula looks down on Rapayet, thinking he can’t come up with it. Rapayet sees the chance to get the dowry fast by selling marijuana to a drug-dealing American, Bill (who may or may not be connected to the Peace Corps). Rapayet’s business partner/best friend is a jovial, hard-partying Afro-Latin man, Moises; previously, they smuggled alcohol and cigarettes only. It turns out that (high in the hills) is a big crop of marijuana; the land is owned by a cousin of Rapayet’s, Anibal. When he sees just how much money can be made from the gringos, he’s up for the (dangerous) business.

[1] The landscapes of the film are stunning, and I particularly appreciated the cinematography. But perhaps my favourite thing about the film was it’s heavy use of spirituality and what I can only describe as “magical realism” transposed into film. I thought it was brilliantly done.

[2] It is very easy to look at cultures in real danger of extinction and place them in a pedestal, but “Birds of Passage” very intelligently avoids this by portraying these Wayuu people as greedy, ambitious, lustful and definitely not above using their cultural norms to get their own sinful way, as any other group.

[3] It is gripping and intense and handles its subject material in the best of ways. It is obvious that the creator of the film did everything he could so that the movie feels realistic and interesting to the viewer. Its beautiful and colorful visuals, the exceptional sound design and the strong and immersive soundtrack made you feel as a part of a whole and the film never felt boring or cliche. It is masterfully crafted and really well-paced.

-Excerpts from IMDB comments

 

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Quick Reviews of Recent Views (FEB 2019)

A Star is Born (2018)

There is something missing in this movie, BUT I don’t know what! It could’ve been 15-20 mins shorter. It’s (mostly) predictable, BUT has some nice dialogue and scenes; I esp. liked the first 3rd of it. Lady Gaga did a good job in her movie debut; she has acted before on TV (FYI). Bradley Cooper’s tan makes him look a BIT older and worn out, BUT he’s still got that engaging smile and blue eyes. I was impressed by how well he played the guitar and sang (much better than debacles made by Gerard Butler in Phantom and Russell Crow in Les Mis). I learned that he had help from Willie Nelson’s son (a back-up guitarist in the film). The meet cute scene is quite well done; Jack is impressed w/ Ally’s voice. The parking lot scene was also good; they open up to each other as friends first. And yes, Gaga and Cooper have an easy chemistry (as many others have pointed out)! It’s easy to feel empathy for Ally as she goes from struggling unknown singer/songwriter to Grammy-winning pop star. I loved all the scenes w/ Sam Elliott; I wanted to see a BIT more of him (though the Oscar nom was well-deserved). Unlike the older versions (I’ve seen them all, aside from the Streisand/Kristofferson film), the man gets a FEW more scenes and is more sympathetic. Cooper does a good job for a newbie director.

Cold War (2018)

I don’t understand the love for this Polish film (which got an Oscar nom); it was playing recently at AFI (across the street). The B&W photography is very nice to look at, BUT Roma does it better. The main song which is woven through the story is lovely, and a BIT haunting. There is NOT enough characterization of the leads (an older male composer and a younger female singer). Sorry, that’s a deal-breaker for me (as my regular readers can guess)! Why are these people even in love!? The 88 mins. seems much longer- a bad sign also.

Everybody Knows (2018)

This is a Spanish language film (released earlier this month in the US) which stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, BUT was written/directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar previously). Some of you may have seen A Separation or The Salesman, two of his critically-acclaimed films; this movie was actually shot before The Salesman. The scenery is gorgeous, the tone shifts (from joyous to tense), and each supporting character gets their own moment to shine. Cruz and Bardem are married; they have great chemistry together! Even w/ no makeup and mussed up clothes, they look great, and project charisma and star power (BUT in a toned down way). The acting is in the eyes mainly. Even w/ the mystery at the center, you’ll find things common from Farhadi’s other works: extended families, long-held secrets, money pressures, and class issues. My two gal pals and I really liked it!



Glory (1989) starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, & Andre Braugher

I re-watched this Civil War drama on TCM recently; it’s one of my fave (and most-watched) films! The music is used very well; each scene is enhanced by it, incl. the battles. It was originally released in the Summer of 1989; Fathom Events will be having its 30th anniversary screening later this year in select cities/theaters. Kevin Jarre (a white man) was inspired to write the screenplay when he saw monument to Shaw on Boston Common (shown in the closing credits). Jarre’s inspiration came from two books: (1) One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment (1989) by Peter Burchard, a novel that itself was based on letters written by Shaw and (2) Lay This Laurel (1973), a photographic tribute to the Civil War sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens with text by American writer/arts patron Lincoln Kirstein. Jarre has a brief (yet notable) cameo as the white Union soldier who shouts “Give ’em hell, 54!”

Edward Zwick was initially apprehensive about how his African-American cast would feel about this telling of a crucial part of their history by a young Jewish director. To his delight and relief, he found his cast to be very affable and good-humored towards him, some of them even grateful that he was brave enough to tackle such an important subject. Zwick and Denzel Washington (here in his breakout role) would continue to work together on other (successful) movies. The director later commented (during a promo tour for Courage Under Fire) that “Denzel is always doing something interesting. I don’t want to take the camera off him.”

Several of the extracts from Shaw’s supposed letters to his mother (in voice-over narration) were taken from Army Life in a Black Regiment, an 1870 book by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who commanded the 1st South Carolina Regiment). The historical figures in this movie are: 1) Francis George Shaw, Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, and Ellen Shaw (direct relatives of Robert Gould Shaw), 2) John Albion Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, 3) Charles Garrison Harker and George Crockett Strong, Union generals, 4) Charlotte Forten Grimké, an antislavery activist, 5) James Montgomery, Union colonel, and (6) Frederick Douglas, former slave turned abolitionist, speaker/activist.

Any negro taken in arms against the Confederacy will immediately be returned to a state of slavery. Any negro taken in Federal uniform will be summarily put to death. Any white officer taken in command of negro troops shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection and shall likewise be put to death.” Full discharges will be granted in the morning to all those who apply. Dismissed. -Shaw reads a proclamation sent from the Confederate Congress

Zwick explained that, for the flogging scene of Trip (Washington in his Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning role), the actor was lashed at full contact, with a special whip, that would not cut his back, but still stung. For the final take, Zwick hesitated calling “Cut!” to signal the flogging to stop, and the result was Washington’s spontaneous tear down his cheek. The deep scars on Trip’s back were Washington’s idea; they showed how Trip was already a survivor of many lashings (being a runaway slave w/ a willful nature).

That Col. Shaw- he a hard man! -Jupiter Sharts comments, tired after a tough day of drills

He’s a boy. A scared white boy. -Trip quickly retorts with disgust

At first, the regiment is only given manual labor; this was a fact w/ the “colored” soldiers. They were also given less pay; in real life, Shaw was the one who protested this matter. As my A.P. American Government teacher commented, Shaw used his class privilege (incl. his sense of entitlement and rank) to get what is needed for his men (shoes, uniforms, and rifles); we see this in the scene in the Quartermaster’s office. Shaw is surprised at how quickly his men learn (even under their tough, racist Irish drill sergeant). Broderick’s small, youthful face and micro-expressions (when Shaw was uncertain, nervous, or looked in over his head) were played so well. Andre Braugher (currently on the comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has perhaps the most interesting role; Thomas is an educated, free man who has never before had to fight for his survival. Trip takes an instant disliking to Thomas; they come from such different backgrounds, though both are young black men yearning to prove their worth. Thomas was partly based on a successful freedman who owned a shop in Boston.

I ain’t fightin’ this war for you, sir. -Trip quietly explains to Shaw (after being praised for his skill in battle)

Unfortunately, most of Elwes’ scenes were cut from the film. He and Broderick did not get along, according to Zwick; I think they also had differing acting styles and personalities. Many scenes/subplots were cut from both the theatrical version and DVD; these include Shaw and Forbes attending school together and fencing one another. Nearly all of the scenes of veteran actress Jane Alexander (Shaw’s mother) were cut. Freeman (who brings gravitas to this film, being older and more experienced than his co-stars) did his own stunts, as Zwick asked of all his actors. He used his own experience (Air Force) to inform how relationships would be formed in the unit.

At the end of the film, Shaw is thrown into the mass grave with the black soldiers. Normally, officers were given formal burials, but the Confederacy had such contempt for the black regiment, that the officers were thrown in with the regular soldiers (w/ no honors). After the war, Shaw’s parents visited the site where their son had died. When asked if they wished to have his body exhumed, so they could take it home to Boston for burial, they declined. “We would not have his body removed from where it lies, surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers,” explained his father, Francis George Shaw. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. What a bodyguard he has!”

Related Links

Article by historian (a consultant on the film):

Fathom Events: Glory

 

Seeing Allred (2018)

Incredible film. Saw it at Sundance and the audience jumped to their feet in a standing ovation when it ended. Not to be missed.

Someone who fights for truth, humanity and justice in the way Gloria Allred does, all while being continually misrepresented and misinterpreted, deserves your utmost attention…

To be honest, it’s stunning to me that Allred is still very necessary in 2018 America, but she clearly is. Anyone who can look objectively at what’s happened in and to the country in the past two years knows that.

At this time in American history, we all need to be reminded that women like Gloria Allred made it possible for women to be believed and heard and have their day in court.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This riveting and educational documentary (streaming on Netflix) is directed and produced by women. It focuses on the petite (5′ 2″) dynamo of victim’s rights law, Gloria Allred, who is NOT always seen in a positive light. Some think of her as TOO loud, strident, and a seeker of media attention. Gloria grew up the only child of working-class Jewish parents in Philly; her father was a door-to-door salesman (possibly 1st gen American) and her mother was an immigrant from England. In HS, she met her best friend, who describes her as “very popular w/ boys, smart, loud, and bossy.” In college, she was among 7% of female students- WOW! She met a handsome, witty, frat boy- Peyton Bray; they quickly married and had a daughter, Lisa Bloom (who grew up to be a noted/successful lawyer in her own right). It soon became apparent that Peyton had mental health issues- he was bipolar. Gloria, NOT telling anyone the real reason, left for her parents’ house w/ 4 y.o. Lisa.

Like MANY women of her day, Gloria became a teacher; she worked at an all-boys HS w/ nearly all African-American students. At the same time, she commuted to NYC as she worked on an English Ed. degree at NYU. The focus of her dissertation was civil rights. One of her profs asked: “What about your rights- the rights of women?” Gloria hadn’t thought much about this before!

Being of a “positive” nature, she decided to move to LA, saying: “If I was going to be poor, at least I was going to be poor in the sunshine.” She taught in Watts; teachers were in high demand after the riots (or uprising, as some called it). On a vacation to Mexico w/ a female friend, Gloria met a doctor who asked her out on a dinner date and raped her at gunpoint. That wasn’t the worst of it; she became pregnant and nearly died after getting a “back alley abortion” (before Roe v. Wade).

Gloria and I grew up in the pre-feminist era. …I think we were both rebelling in our own quiet ways, hoping nobody would notice. -Gloria Steinem

At that time, a lot of women were afraid to be called ‘feminist,’ but I wasn’t, b/c I thought being a feminist was great. -Gloria Allred

Gloria got into community organizing work. Lisa recalls attending women’s rights rallies as a very young kid. During this time, Gloria met a successful businessman, William Allred, who encouraged her to go to law school. Gloria marched for the passing of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), and volunteered w/ NOW (The National Organization for Women) when she became a lawyer. The group met w/ the governor; they soon started getting a LOT of media attention.

I though to myself: What should I be like? I decided that I should be strong- that I should show no fear. -Gloria on taking on the role of a women’s rights lawyer/spokesperson at NOW (w/o any role models to follow)

In school, Gloria questions why Lisa and her classmates are NOT reading anything written by women or African-Americans. Her two (male) law partners (who seem reserved and risk averse) are concerned/surprised when Gloria stages a sit-in at the DA’s office. Gloria sues to be a member of the (then all-male) Friar’s Club- she wins! A Loyola prof explains that Gloria was talking re: sexual harassment when NO one else would; some people said she was loud, pushy, and loved attention, BUT such criticism wouldn’t come upon a man.

Starting in 2014, Gloria begins representing MANY of the Bill Cosby accusers; she does this pro bono (for free). Some of you will recall that during the O.J. Simpson trial, she was an advocate for the Brown family. After 19 yrs of marriage, Bill (along w/ 3 others) was convicted of fraud; Gloria doesn’t like to elaborate on this issue, even when pressed by the filmmakers. She has had “more difficult personal challenges” than his betrayal and a (high-profile) divorce.

Although I’m often on the opposite side, I admire what she is doing. -Alan Dershowitz

We see some of Allred’s (famous/infamous) clients. Kelly Fisher, a former supermodel, sued ex-fiance Dodi Fayed after he left her for Princess Diana. Fans of soap operas may recall Hunter Tylo (The Bold and The Beautiful), who was fired by Aaron Spelling from Melrose Place after becoming pregnant. Scott Peterson’s former mistress, Amber Frey, claimed she never knew he was married, as he had created an alternate persona when they were together. Most of Gloria’s cases deal w/ regular people who have faced some sort of employment discrimination.

No, no. I don’t have time. -Gloria on whether she wants to date and fall in love again

In 2015, when marriage equality was passed in California, it was a victory for Gloria, her law partner Mark (who was among those who argued the case), as well as one of her oldest/closest girlfriends. Gloria was ahead of her time when it came to the LGBTQ+ community. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Gloria was a delegate at the DNC; she supported Hillary proudly (of course). During the Women’s March, Gloria is confronted by an burly, intimidating, anti-gay Trump supporter who gets up in her face. A group of diverse, young women come closer and form a circle of support around her; they ask her to speak about this moment in history. Gloria concludes: “We must fight on!”


Roma (2018) directed by Alfonso Cuaron

NOTE: This review contains MAJOR spoilers for the film (streaming on Netflix).

[1] …this was a very personal movie for Cuarón, a lot, if not most of the details came from his childhood. (It was based on his real life nanny named Libo…) He tried to show the struggle of domestic workers in Mexico as well as the differences between social classes that only Mexicans can understand. … for Mexicans see this film as a journey to the past and for younger Mexicans an opportunity to see the Mexico they never knew.

[2] We see so much through Cleo’s eyes, that to expand the focus would have weakened it structurally and thematically. The events were not fleshed out, because Cleo had no way to analyse or see the wider picture. For the vast majority of the population, the political events shown would also have been merely glimpsed or read about.

[3] The turmoil in the streets are a mirror of Cleo and Sofias’ inner lives. This is an honest reflection of the lives of many, many women.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio- a first time actress/former preschool teacher) is a 20-something maid in the household of an upper middle-class family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the 1970s. In this household are Sofia (Marina Tavira), her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), their four young children (Tono, Paco, Pepe, and Sofi) and Sofia’s mother Teresa, along w/ another maid, Adela. The thoughtful blonde-haired youngest boy (Pepe) is a stand-in for Alfonso Cuaron (winner of the Golden Globe for Best Director). Unlike his two older brothers, he doesn’t make fun of or fight much with his sister (Sofi). Cleo shares an especially strong bond w/ Pepe and Sofi; they play, joke, and laugh together often.

Cleo’s daily life with the family incl. cleaning, cooking, taking the kids to and from school, serving them meals, putting the kids to bed and waking them up. Cleo and Adela share a room and are good friends; they sometimes speak in their own (native) language, aside from Spanish. Antonio (who is a medical doctor) leaves for a conference in Quebec; Sofia becomes quite emotional as they say goodbye. On their days off, Cleo and Adela go out to eat and to the movies with their boyfriends (Fermín and Ramón). Several months pass and the children start asking about their father; Sofia agonizes over what to tell them. Antonio is living in town w/ his mistress, having callously cast away his family. Cleo, Tono, and a cousin nearly run into him outside a movie theater one night! After some time, Cleo learns that she is pregnant; she gets no support from Fermin (who denies that he’s the father). He rejects Cleo with a rather nasty attitude (in front of his friends)! Adela urges Cleo to visit her mother; Cleo doesn’t go because she feels like it’d be too upsetting.

This is a slice of life film that has some very emotionally powerful scenes, though it starts out slow. You can see it as a women doing it for themselves film. The men are mysterious; we don’t learn much about them. Notice how Antonio (who represents Cuaron’s absentee father) is revealed bit by bit in his first scene; first we see the large sedan, then the radio, then his hand, and (finally) he emerges from the car. At times, Sofia (who has a strong personality) speaks harshly to Cleo; she doesn’t have her husband to blame. Over time, Cleo and Sofia (who come from quite different backgrounds), have to rely more and more on each other to keep the household (and family) going.

The look of this film is unique, as it is in black and white and the picture is super sharp (clear) in every shot. As one movie critic noted: “Every scene looks like a painting!” There isn’t always a lot of dialogue, but something is always going on within the frame. You hear bits and pieces of conversations, just as Cleo would going about her work. Even when revolutionaries are running the streets, this family has to deal w/ their ordinary concerns, such as furniture shopping. In one memorable scene, the family silently eats ice cream together, their heads lowered in sadness; a noisy and happy wedding party is seen in the background. The most intense scenes in the film show Cleo acting in a selfless (and heroic) manner to rescue Paco and Sofi from drowning in choppy waters of the ocean. She doesn’t know how to swim, which adds more danger to the mix! As the family (all safe) gathers on the beach and embraces, you can’t help but become emotional. I saw this film on Netflix; most critics are suggesting you see it on the big screen (if possible).