CAPERNAUM

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

You might call Capernaum the “feel-bad movie of the year,” which is perhaps not the best way to sell people on it. It’s absolutely worth seeing, though, even if it’s by virtue of its subtle defiance. Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki seems to be insisting we face the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.

And it’s not in the manner you might expect. The story revolves around young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, excellent in his resigned stoicism), who is so scrawny and small he appears much younger than his apparent twelve years of age. He doesn’t even know for sure how old he is; his parents don’t either. No one has any official papers to prove it, and his parents (played by Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) never bothered to care.

And therein lies the point: Zain is suing his parents. His reason? Because he was born.

When it comes to kids who are brought up in crime and squalor, this is honestly an impressively clever idea. Zain didn’t ask for this life, and he has no choice in having had it foist upon him. He’s currently serving five years in a juvenile jail for stabbing a man — or, as he says in court, “a son of a bitch.” This elicits giggles from people in the courtroom, and even from the movie’s audience. Then it slowly dawns on you what the true reason behind the attack may have been.

Zain has too many siblings. He still cares about them, especially Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam), who he helps, in vain, try hiding the fact that, at 11 years old, her menstrual cycle has begun. Before long there is talk of marrying her off to the young man who lets them all live on his property rent free. Zain, understandably, doesn’t trust him. His and Sahar’s parents characterize it as a survival move, that they are doing Sahar a favor.

A rather long stretch of Capernaum — which, in the title credits, is translated as “chaos,” a colloquial use of the word that also doubles as the name of a doomed Biblical village — follows Zain after he gets fed up with his family and runs away, surviving on his on on the streets of Beirut. He is taken in by an Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yardanos Shiferaw), working in Lebanon illegally and with her own infant in tow. Capernaum really takes its time with Zain’s day to day life, particularly the one he settles into with Rahil, and the infant he winds up having to take care of on his own.

Zain is just trying to make the best of his situation, with an even mix of resignation and determination. Once he moves from life with his family to life with Rahil, it becomes less certain who it was he stabbed. This is one of several details that don’t become quite clear until the end, with some creative editing that slightly plays with the story’s timeline and is also borderline contrived. The majority of the story is told in flashback, from relatively odd scenes in the courtroom in which Zain insists his parents should not be allowed to have more children. And we’re left to think about how right he is, whether it’s his Lebanese parents or parents in the world beyond.

Capernaum ends on a hopeful note, albeit one that is as bittersweet as it is emotionally affecting. The last image of Zain’s face will haunt you.

Nothing cute to see here.

Nothing cute to see here.

Overall: B+

COLD WAR

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Music: B+

I don’t usually call out the music in a movie unless it’s a musical — or, as in the case of A Star Is Born, barely short of a musical because it’s about singers who are performing original music. In the case of Cold War, one of its many pleasures is its music, which features far more than expected. It doesn’t quite veer into even “almost a musical” territory, but the female lead, Zula (a captivating Joanna Kulig) is indeed a singer. It’s how she meets her star-crossed lover, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, mostly stoic), as he is a music director and she cons her way into a group of young musicians scouted from the Polish peasantry in the early 1950s.

These two are mismatched, their backgrounds are incompatible, they cannot let each other go, they cannot stand each other, they are doomed to love each other beyond all others even as their lives dissect intersect, though many years, well into the mid-sixties. This is an incredible time span to cover in a run time of all of 89 minutes, but somehow director and co-writer Pawel Pawlekowski (Ida) manages it.

From the Polish folk music beginning, the narrative moves to Berlin to Paris to Yugoslavia and back to Poland again, Zula’s career as a singer and Wikto’s career as a musician figuring prominently every step of the way. There are moments when the music subtly reveals itself to be subtly quite pretty, even when Zula is merely singing scales.

As you might have guessed, the Cold War is the literal backdrop of this romance that somehow manages to be epic even within a brief run time. If Cold War proves anything, it’s that a movie has no need for en endless run time to convey true depth. Granted, this is still a stylized foreign film, shot in black and white no less, that will test some short attention spans. It’s also a feast for the eyes of anyone who appreciates a striking and start aesthetic, as even without color, Cold War is beautifully shot.

I kept expecting something more overtly political to the story, but Pawlekowski keeps the narrative grounded firmly in romance, with Eastern European sociopolitical issues merely as its framework, or its lens. Perhaps there is a more overt metaphor at play here, a bit of food for the pretensions of film studies majors. I did not find anything particularly cold about the fire between these two, though — burning passions that veer between romance and resentment.

And then Zula is singing into a microphone at a club, and the sequence is captivating. She drinks a little too much, jumps into a crowd dancing to “Rock Around the Clock,” and the choreography and camera work are impressive. I can’t say I found Wiktor to be the most compelling character; he spends a lot of time staring expressionlessly. He looks good, though. That said, literally everyone in this movie does.

The ending takes a turn that will stay with me a while, especially with a uniquely perfect final line of dialogue. It seems to be the only fate for these two, who forge entire lives independent of each other and yet keep returning to each other, that makes sense. Cold War didn’t quite speak to me with as much profundity as it evidently is with most critics, but it certainly has a sensibility all its own, a point of view from a time and place that reverberates beyond its own confines. It somehow turns a universal concept into a singular experience.

A couple in stark relief.

A couple in stark relief.

Overall: B+

ROMA

Directing: B+
Acting: B-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A+
Editing: A-

It may be that you have to be a bona fide cinephile to appreciate Roma, which is unique in both its subtlety and depth, and really takes its time. If you’re not given to noticing impressive feats of cinematic execution, you might genuinely be bored. The Venn diagram of lovers of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and lovers of foreign intellectual meditations like this one must have the tiniest sliver of overlap.

Distributed by Netflix, Roma has had an unconventional rollout. It opens in theatres today (December 6), only one week before it will be available streaming. Advocates for the film insist it’s an immersive experience that must be seen on the big screen — I took them at their word, and shelled out $17 to see it at Seattle’s unparalleled best movie theatre, the Cinerama. The guy who came out to introduce it raved about its sound mixing: “This will be the best movie you’ve ever heard,” he said. What an odd selling point. So it’s like a radio play, but with pictures?

I have to be honest. I watched the first half or so of Roma wondering what all the fuss was about. Alfonso Cuarón, who serves as cinematographer for the first time on a film he also directs, keeps his camera lingering on a 1970 middle-class Mexico City family living in the neighborhood the film is named after (which is never actually mentioned onscreen). We see them go about their day to day lives.

The central character is the family maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and when we first see her, she is gathering laundry. She cooks, she makes tea, she gathers dishes — she’s part of the family, at least so far as the four children, three boys and one girl, are concerned. In one scene, in the middle of gathering dishes as the family sits on a couch watching TV, she sits on a discarded couch cushion on the floor next to the couch. Within minutes, however, the kids’ mom is asking her to get them a drink.

The many wide, tracking shots packed with astonishingly well-choreographed action in Roma don’t quite register for some time after they’ve started — in some cases, after the movie has ended — because so much of the first half of the film is in quiet observance of this family. The basic beats of the story arc could not possibly be simpler. Then comes the gripping, tense scene of Cleo giving birth, and its one-shot chaos is reminiscent of the birth scene in Cuarón’s jaw-dropping Children of Men (2006). This time, however, instead of being a ray of light in a truly bleak world, that dynamic is inverted.

The key difference between the feats of editing, cinematography and production design of Children of Men and Roma are that in the former film, one could argue that Alfonso Cuarón was showing off. This time, the details are so subtle they are easy to miss, as you very slowly yet very assuredly become invested in the goings-on of this family. Even the truth about the kids’ mother and father’s marriage takes its sweet time to reveal itself.

And then, a string of visual set pieces, seamlessly woven together. Cleo looking on dumbstruck at babies in a hospital nursury when an earthquake hits. Witnessing “El Halconazo,” or the 1971 massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City, through a set of second-story windows while crib shopping. A New Year’s Eve forest fire fought by nearby revelers suddenly tasked with passing buckets of water to splash upon the flames, in a chain stretching from a nearby lake. An unbroken shot from shore, well into the waves of the ocean, and back to the beach again, as Cleo goes out to retrieve two kids who swam out too far, even though she herself can’t swim. Details here and there making lasting impressions: earthquake rubble on top of a hospital nursery’s baby incubator. Onlookers at the New Year’s Eve fire calmly sipping from their champagne glasses.

Almost entirely constructed as recreations of Cuarón’s own memories, Roma is packed with detail, but because he refuses to sensationalize any of them, they can be easy to miss. Cleo’s life is marked by hardship, but she herself barely seems to notice. The problems of the family that employs her seem almost laughable by comparison, but she serves as a sort of rock for them.

Roma has clear sociopolitical implications regarding where class and race intersect — Cleo is of indigenous descent. One wonders how this presentation plays within activist circles in Mexico, and what might be considered offensive or overwrought. The story is plainly told from Cleo’s point of view, though, and its presentation seems to be devoid of cliché, at least from my admittedly limited, white-American perspective.

If anything seems to be typical of Alfonso Cuarón movies, it’s that they tend to be marvels of cinema in nearly every way except one. That one flaw seems to vary. Children of Men suffered from glaring implausibility. Gravity (2013), a stunning achievement in visual effects, was thin on story. Roma suffers no such problems, but the acting is . . . not the best. Not only are all the actors (who speak both Spanish and indigenous languages) completely unknown to American audiences, they seem to have no real acting training either.

One could argue that the actors are themselves often props, part of a succession of elaborately designed action-dioramas. It’s easy to go back and forth on this, the idea of “authenticity” when it comes to the acting in Roma. They may not seem schooled in acting technique, but maybe that makes them somehow more real. I found the acting far less compelling than the presentation at first, but — well, that birth scene is really an emotional gut punch, from which no one, in the film or in the audience, quite recovers.

All this is to say Roma can catch you off guard, provided you have the patience for the time it takes. It seeps into you slowly, its roots slowly digging into your soul. It somehow justifies itself after the fact, well after the credits have rolled, as it slowly dawns on you how much better it is than it seemed in the midst of it.

A family fits as only they can in  ROMA.

A family fits as only they can in ROMA.

Overall: A-

THE CAKEMAKER

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Here is a truly rare film that refuses to put a person's sexuality into a clearly defined category, places no judgment on it, and makes some room for the joy in it. Being a bit removed from typical American puritanism, as a joint Israeli-German production, probably has something to do with that. The Cakemaker, as the title might suggest, also features so many luscious shots of pastries that my mouth is still watering as I write this.

Far more sensual than erotic, this movie really takes its time, but in a way that lets you settle gradually into it, this world of characters who all have a somewhat deadpan delivery, at least until a key moment when one of them breaks down sobbing. These sorts of performances can be difficult to gauge, and are often typical of independent or foreign films. Do none of these people just act like normal, chill people? They're all sort of waiting quietly, perhaps for their moment, when they do something deceptively minor but specifically consequential.

The Cakemaker of the title, named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, a curiously attractive bit of beefcake), is certainly the most calculated in this endeavor. He runs a cafe in Berlin, where he embarks on an affair with a married Israeli man, Oren (Roy Miller), who comes to Berlin from Jerusalem once a month or so for work. But when Oren dies in a car crash in Jerusalem, Thomas takes off for Jerusalem and, without them knowing who he is, gradually befriends Oren's widow Anat (Sarah Adler, also in this year's excellent Foxtrot) and their son, Itai.

There is obvious historical tension in a relationship between an Israeli and a German, which writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer cultivates with effective subtlety. Perhaps my favorite thing about his layered script is how incidental the sexuality of the characters are. This story would play no differently if the affair were between a man and a woman. It just happens to be between a man and a man. Not one person in this movie ever even draws attention to that fact.

Instead, the prejudice on display is by Anat's brother Moti (Zohar Strauss), who bristles at a German working in the kitchen of Anat's certified-kosher cafe. Still, he gives Thomas a chance, offering him an apartment in the building he manages, and over a lengthy period of time, Thomas takes small steps toward relationship territory with Anat herself.

Now, I do have some questions. Who the hell is running Thomas's cafe back in Berlin? He tells us his parents are gone but not why, and that he was raised by his grandmother. is he independently wealthy? What small business owner can just go live in another country for an indeterminate period of time to pursue a bit of borderline skeevy stalking?

Maybe there's a sort of obsession going on, although The Cakemaker never makes that overtly clear. Does he simply want to become the man he was in love with and lost? Graizer refuses to spoon feed his audience, and okay, I can respect that. There's a couple of great scenes with Oren's mother that strongly suggest she knows what's up ("You knew my son?" she asks, innocently), but again, this is never made explicit.

As this story unfolded, I found myself deciding I would like it best if in the end, Thomas just lived the rest of his days as part of this new family with none of them being the wiser. The way it ends isn't exactly an inevitable alternative, but then, The Cakemaker ends without the satisfaction of a hard resolution.

There's that refusal to spoon feed us again. Graizer -- and Thomas -- are too busy with rolling pins in hand instead, letting tension build gradually and steadily, until a love triangle involving a dead man reveals itself to the living. It's fascinating -- and satisfying -- to see such sociopolitical elements explored in a movie that makes absolutely nothing of its inclusion of a same-sex relationship. I'm not even sure if there is any deliberate metaphorical strain to Thomas unwittingly using the oven in Anat's cafe at the wrong time, thereby threatening her kosher certification.

A fair focus is put on Anat and her family's Jewishness, and Anat's being comparatively non-religious, not eating kosher at home, only applying that to her cafe because it makes business sense. None is put on Thomas's religion, if he even has one; only his being German. Nothing even makes direct reference to Nazi history; Graizer lets the obvious speak for itself. His script, in fact, reveals itself to be more impressive upon further reflection -- a few burning questions notwithstanding. I'd have liked the performances to feel a little more natural, but, as with everything, I suppose that's a matter of taste.

Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Overall: B+

THE LAST SUIT

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

I'll give The Last Suit this much: it has a novelty to it I had not yet encountered -- namely, a story about Polish Jewish immigrants in Argentina. Typically movies about Jewish people are either seen through the lens of American perspectives, or if they are foreign films, either German or Israeli -- for obvious reasons. Conversely, most films from Latin America are specific to the Latino experience. This movie combines those two things.

Beyond that, however, Argentinian director Pablo Solarz oversimplifies things a tad, in so doing somewhat cheapening the truly tragic history of the Jewish people. Even though we learn that the elderly Abraham Bursztein (Miguel Ángel Solá) once witnessed the Nazi execution of both his parents as well as his sister, this movie never truly succeeds in bearing down the weight of the Holocaust. It's too busy following this eccentric man's travels and exploring diversions with people he comes across.

We do learn that he was born in 1927. A reference to the iPhone 6 by one of his great grandchildren establishes the present day to be fully modern: the story is set now. Being released in Argentina in 2017, that would make Abraham 90 years old. Miguel Ángel Solá was born in 1950, which means the actor was significantly aged for the part. I'll admit the movie's makeup department does a good job here.

Abraham, disillusioned with grown children who now want to put him in a retirement home (he's ninety, for fuck's sake), skips town in Argentina and takes flight to Europe, on his way to the Warsaw of his youth to reunite with the best friend who nursed him back to health after returning from a concentration camp. The first stop is Madrid, where his one estranged daughter still live. He travels, over the course of the story, from Madrid through Germany -- much as he tries to get to Poland without having to set foot in Germany -- to Warsaw.

Other characters come and go through his travels. The young man sitting next to him on the airplane, who gives him a ride to his hostel. The older woman working the front desk at the hostel, who takes him out. And potentially the most problematic, the middle-aged German woman he meets on the train who seems to exist only as an avatar for German's national shame about the Holocaust. "Things have changed in Germany," she says, after speaking to him in Yiddish because she studied it in college, and then spends a good portion of the film being a sort of German Good Samaritan for his benefit.

All of this is readily engaging, but never really gets to the meat of the issues, or particularly the history at play. Furthermore, it's maybe halfway through the film before we get flashbacks to 1945 Warsaw, and the scenes of Abraham being nursed by the young friend he's now searching for -- the lack detail and context, to the point that they fail to ring true. Those scenes in particular feel a little like watching an amateur play.

The Last Suit does have its charms. It's about a cranky old man bringing a suit back to a friend, now a taylor (hence the film's title), he hasn't seen in seventy years. Those charges are incongruous with the horrors in the man's past, barely touched on, mentioned almost in passing. Those family murders are only brought up as justification for Abraham's hatred of all Germans. Predictably, his heart softens with the German woman after a while.

It's all just too tidy. As a film, there's nothing terribly wrong with The Last Suit, but neither does it ever feel quite right.

Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly .

Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly.

Overall: B-

FOXTROT

Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Foxtrot is presented in three acts, each pretty radically different from the last, almost as though watching three separate 35-minute short films. They are inextricably linked, however, and as such do not feel so separate, in spite of the jarring change of environments.

The first and third act feature the same characters, but a different focus. The first is on middle-aged father Michael Feldman, played by Lior Ashkenazi, who looks rather like a cross between Christoph Waltz and Steve Carell. Writer-director Samuel Maoz takes an almost uncomfortably intimate look at a father's grief when he is told his son was killed in action, Ashkenazi showing a shattered vulnerability rarely seen with men onscreen.

In this first act, Michael's wife, Daphna (Sarah Adler), has been drugged and spends much of the time incapacitated in bed. I began to wonder if Foxtrot would be a disappointment in its sidestepping of its female characters. But when the story returns to these two in the third act, the focus shifts much more on her.

In between, the story shifts suddenly to the military post where their son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), is stationed with three other young men manning a checkpoint out in the middle of nowhere. Just as often as the gate is raised for Palestinians passing through, it's raised for a camel meandering down the road.

In spite of these soldiers' general lack of emotion, this entire second act is hypnotic in its pacing and in its stark imagery. Grimy computer equipment is used to scan passport photos to check for clearance; makeshift tools are used to keep a run-down radio working. It all feels like an old vision of a dystopian future, distant echoes of films like Blade Runner, as if to demonstrate that such dystopian visions are very real, current realities in certain parts of the world.

The soldiers have an eerily dispassionate approach to their jobs. In one memorable sequence, a middle-aged Palestinian couple dressed in formal attire is asked to step out of their car. They wait as their passports are scanned, drenched quickly under a sudden torrential rainfall.

Foxtrot is full of fairly obvious metaphors, not least of which is the title itself, with separate characters at different times literally dancing the Foxtrot to demonstrate how they always wind up right back where they began. The young Israeli soldiers hang out inside an abandoned shipping container, which is slowly lowering into the ground at one end. One of them says, "We're sinking." Indeed. Somehow, though, obviousness notwithstanding, these metaphors stop short of feeling forced.

With another carload of young Palestinians, something goes terribly wrong, a simple mistake turned into tragically fatal error. Jonathan is involved, but the way he fits into the broader story arc of Foxtrot is not quite what you first expect. Sudden turns of events that alter people's lives and fates can come out of nowhere, quite randomly, with no apparent link to moral cause and effect. In the real world, there is no karma -- only senselessness.

There's a sort of elusive perfection to this movie, a clear precision, a unique finesse, without spelling out exactly what Samuel Maoz is trying to say. Certainly plenty of Israelis feel they understand it, as this movie has proved controversial in its country of origin. That's hardly surprising. For the rest of us, further removed from those cultural biases, it's easier to take Foxtrot as a beautifully artistic portrait of familial grief, and how perception can radically alter meaning. Jonathan's parents observe one of his drawings left behind, of a bulldozer moving a wrecked car, as a representation of themselves. They have no idea the drawing is a straightforward representation of a life changing event.

Foxtrot is the kind of movie that stays with you, both provocative and deeply moving. It reminded me in certain ways of The Hours, otherwise very different but also a portrait of emotional pain, from varying perspectives that click into place like a psychological puzzle. Its themes are definitively depressing, but there's something extremely satisfying about it.

It's a dance that just brings you back to where you started.

It's a dance that just brings you back to where you started.

Overall: A-

LOVELESS

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Russia, Russia, Russia! Anyone sick of hearing about Russia might hesitate to see Loveless, the new movie by Leviathan (2015) director Andrey Zvyagintsev. And, like Leviathan, I don't seem to be quite as in love with Loveless as many other critics.

Somewhat ironically, although the critical consensus is barely lower on Loveless, I actually liked Loveless better than Leviathan, which had rather bored me -- but, although Loveless lives up to its title and is about miserable people who lack empathy, it was at least compelling, in its way. It's also very well shot, full of indelible images that find beauty in what otherwise might be drab landscapes and cityscapes.

The premise is simple. Married couple Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are going through a bitter divorce, both of them distracted by separate lovers as they contend with trying to sell their apartment. Lost in the mix is their twelve-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), neglected and willfully ignored, until he overhears his parents bitterly trying to pawn him off on each other, like an unwanted pet. Although he is the very first character seen onscreen, very little is seen of Alexey, because he disappears.

Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Was there an accident? It takes two days for Zhenya or Boris even to be faced with these questions, because they've both gone to their respective new flings' homes. Zhenya returns late and assumes Alexey is home asleep; wakes up late assuming he's gone to school. She only finds out he's missing when the school calls to ask why he's been gone for two days in a row.

It gradually becomes clear that this story is less about Alexey specifically, than it is about Zhenya and Boris and their patterns of unsympathetic and narcissistic behaviors. Soon enough they are traveling to the home of Zhenya's bitch of a mother, and we get a sense of how Zhenya became the detached mother and wife she is. Boris, for his part, is with a new young girlfriend who is herself pregnant, and he is clearly repeating the very same cycle all over again.

Zvyagintsev pointedly peppers the narrative with radio and TV news reports of conflict in the Ukraine, as well as speculation about irrational public expectation of the Mayan "end of the world" in 2012, when most of the story is set. This is clearly a commentary on the state of modern Russian society, although it's never particularly straightforward. Granted, a shot of Zhenya jogging on a treadmill in a tracksuit with RUSSIA written across her chest is a little on the nose.

Still, when it comes to these people who are more concerned with taking selfies than they are with nurturing relationships, this is a story that could just as easily take place anywhere else -- such as, say, the U.S. There is a universality to this story, bleak as it is. People like this exist everywhere, although there may be something to be said for specific cultural trends that discourage empathy.

Loveless is fairly well done, but it isn't exactly a good time. It feels more like commentary than entertainment. Taken just as the story of a miserable couple who basically misplace their young boy, it doesn't have much to recommend. It's often very pretty to look at, and that's the most pleasant thing about it. None of the people here are all that fun to hang out with. If you're looking to have a good time, I'd steer clear of this one -- but if you want something to contemplate on, you could do worse.

Mother Russia in all its maternal glory.

Mother Russia in all its maternal glory.

Overall: B

FACES PLACES

Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

I suppose it's natural to wonder what might get lost in translation with foreign films, considering in this case that the original French title, Visages Villages, actually translates literally to Faces Places. But, since they rhymed in French, naturally they wanted it to rhyme in English. I guess not that much is different between the words "villages" and "places." Except, you know, nuance.

Thankfully, a whole lot of this pleasant and charming documentary needs no translation, so much of it is reliant on visual art. Faces Places is by, about, and features the photography and art of a relatively odd-couple set of friends, thirty-three year-old JR, and 88-year-old Agnès Varda.

They travel the French countryside in a small truck, on the sides of which, the walls behind the cab in which JR drives and Agnès rides shotgun, is printed the image of a giant camera. The truck has been rigged to print out giant, poster-sized sheets of photographs within minutes (maybe less?) of them being taken, like it's a giant Poloroid camera. They stop from town to town, getting to know the locals, taking their picture, and then pasting them as giant photo murals on the sides of buildings.

This makes for a great many truly unforgettable images -- I was tempted to say indelible, except that in many cases weather washes the images away -- my favorite of which is of an old German bunker deliberately knocked off a cliff, and which happened to land propped up on its side. It essentially became a work of art in its own right once landed there, but now JR takes an old, 1950s photo of an old photographer friend of Agnès's and pastes it larger than life across its face.

That's just the tip of the iceberg, however. They take photos of three wives of dock workers and paste them in massive sizes onto stacked shipping containers. JR gets photos of Agnès's feet and also a close-up of her eye and pastes them alongside train cars. One young woman becomes a local celebrity after a lovely shot of her sitting with a parasol is pasted huge against a building in her small hometown.

Faces Places is, for the most part, just a succession of stops on Agnès and JR's meandering tour of their country, their subjects emotionally reacting to photographs of them being turned into giant public wall art. And indeed, this alone is often genuinely moving, in the midst of the fun of just hanging out with these two photographers, their friendship seeming relatively unlikely, until Agnès and brought to meet JR's still-living, 100-year-old grandmother. He clearly loves her dearly.

We also get a fair amount of scenes between JR and Agnès that are quite transparently staged, and with this, mileage may vary. JR has evidently tried to make it part of his persona to refuse ever taking off his sunglasses, no matter how much Agnès pesters him about it. This becomes something intended as a plot point in the telling of their story, but winds up coming across much more as a gimmick.

But, okay, fine. Faces Places is not always straightforward when it comes to being a "documentary." One could argue that's part of the point, this film itself being a unique work of art in its own right. This makes the occasional, subtle artistic flourishes perfectly appropriate.

And if nothing else, the friendship and affection between JR and Agnès is genuine. That and the art they create, which is shared generously here, easily makes Faces Places worth seeing.

 

My favorite of many fantastic images in  FACES PLACES.

My favorite of many fantastic images in FACES PLACES.

Overall: B+

A FANTASTIC WOMAN

Directing: A-
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B
+

It's sort of unfortunate and backward, that the thing that makes A Fantstic Woman truly stand out is its lead is a transgender character played by -- gasp! -- an actual trans actor.

To be clear, I don't subscribe to the idea that non-trans actors playing trans characters is inherently wrong. It's an age-old debate also often had by people in the disability community: should every disabled character be mandated to be played by an actor with whatever disability the character has? My argument has always been that this is the very nature of acting itself: playing the part of something you are not. It's all make-believe, right? (There's always a line, of course, and something like blackface crosses it.) The flip side of this argument is that people who are trans or disabled -- or gay people or people of color -- should be cast more often in parts that are for anyone, not expressly written for whatever characteristic by which they are most defined by the outside world.

That said, much like the superb Tangerine (2015), A Fantastic Woman is indeed a trans story, and having a trans actor play the part certainly gives it a fresh authenticity. This doesn't have quite the unique vision of Tangerine, which was unlike any other movie ever made (in more ways than one), but Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal certainly gives it a unique perspective.

There is also a certain fascination in seeing a story like this told from the point of view of another culture, here specifically Chile. A lot of people treat Marina terribly, and a lot of it is pretty typical of trans stories: harassment, being called a "faggot," humiliating treatment from local law enforcement even when they are insisting they are there to help. It's tempting to complain about A Fantastic Woman from this perspective, but for two things: first, these things in reality remain all too common; and second, who am I to judge this as a reflection of a slice of Chilean culture? I don't live there.

Marina's story is indeed a sad one, though, which, while not nearly as tragic as it could be (Boys Don't Cry this is not, thank God), can get pretty heavy. At the beginning of the story, Marina is happily coupled with a man much older than she is. But one night she wakes up to find him having an attack of some sort, and not long after she rushes him to the hospital, she dies there. A Fantastic Woman is the story of how Marina deals with this blindsiding event while the man's family treats her terribly. One particularly searing line, when Marina is getting kicked out of the funeral she has been explicitly told not to come to: "Have you no respect for other people's pain?" As though Marina's own pain, which is easily just as intense as anyone else's, if not more so, is meaningless, a notion to be discarded along with her humanity.

While Marina endures emotional traumas one after another (starting at the very hospital she rushes to, where she is misgendered by police and asked to produce an ID that has not yet been changed), she moves through this story as a paragon of resilience and strength -- and without contrivance. She occasionally makes ill-advised choices, but never fatal ones, and stays a course that runs between resolve and defiance. Even in the midst of a life turned upside down by a random, tragic event, of all the people in this movie, Marina emerges as the hero.

Perhaps to add something adjacent to levity, director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio sprinkles in occasional stylistic flourishes: Marina walking against massive guts of wind; the occasional visions of her beloved Francisco. There's even a night club dance number, which sounds out of place in a story like this, but Lelio integrates it seamlessly. A lot of these diversions are cut into the movie's trailer, which makes it seem a bit more stylized than it actually is; most of it is much more straightforward. But using such flourishes sparingly only helps it.

If anything makes A Fantastic Woman worth seeing, however, it's Daniela Vega, quietly intense in the title role. She makes choices one might call brave, and offers a kind of representation never seen onscreen, with a frank and realistic portrayal of daily living as a trans woman. She exists here just as a regular person, after all -- she's just a waitress, not a sex worker, much as the police might assume her to be. She led a normal life until unfortunate circumstances befell her and ignited the small mindedness of those around her, and this is a film that depicts how it's the rest of society, not her, that is in urgent need of an attitude adjustment.

Yes, it's true: Marina is indeed a fantastic woman  .

Yes, it's true: Marina is indeed a fantastic woman.

Overall: A-

TWIST Advance: BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE)

Directing: A
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A
Editing: A

I have only good things to say about this movie, which offers a window into an era not well enough remembered, from the unusual vantage point -- for Americans, anyway -- of another culture.

Maybe straight people today aren't as familiar with ACT UP, the radical activist organization started in New York City to fight for the rights of people with HIV and AIDS. The same could be said of younger queer people today, who have no real understanding of the vast devastation this epidemic unleashed on sexual minority communities. And the U.S. was hardly alone in this.

BPM tells the story of ACT UP Paris in the early nineties. The reference point to which director and co-writer Robin Campillo regularly returns is the organization's weekly meetings, the opening scene being a quick orientation of new members. These activists squabble and organize, disagree on certain key points and band together. They discuss whether or not a demonstration going unexpectedly is good or bad for them, and the story flashes back to a group of them storming the stage at a speech by a government official. Cut back to the weekly meeting, all these activists assembled in a large classroom with stadium-style seating. They move on to their plans to throw fake blood all over the offices of a pharmaceutical company that is not acting quickly enough to save lives not deemed valuable enough by the public at large. Then we're in a flash-forward to the actual scene, these angry activists making a mess of an otherwise very normal-seeming office setting.

As such, from the very start, BPM pulsates with tension and urgency; it crackles with excitement until it inevitably evolves into the dread of personal loss. You don't expect this kind of energy when the setting starts in a classroom of political activists discussing strategy.

All these transitions are done with impressive grace, the entire film edited beautifully, shot with a uniquely tender intensity. We meet several of the activists, but the story zeroes in on Nathan (Arnaud Valois), one of the new recruits who has somehow managed not to get infected, and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the HIV-positive activist Nathan falls for. They grow close, become a couple, and also emblematic of everything ACT UP fought for.

The sex scenes between Nathan and Sean are unusually frank, and I think this is important to mention. The things they do with each other are very common, arguably even "vanilla," and yet there are few American distributors, if any, who would quite be able to stomach it. The thing is, not only is the sex seen here no more graphic than virtually all straight sex seen onscreen -- it is also among the best I have ever seen depicted, in terms of its parallels to real life experience. Here it is not voyeuristic or necessarily titillating to anyone besides the characters involved. It's a reflection of humanity, an authentic intimacy, a depiction of comfortable sex-positivity gay people have had for ages but gets very little accurate representation on camera. ACT UP was all about fighting stigma, which is what makes BPM's sex scenes so appropriate.

It should come as no surprise that BPM ends in sadness, and a kind that is likely to cut very deep for any viewers who actually lived through the era it depicts. Of course there are countless movies that in one way or another depict the AIDS epidemic, but BPM taps deep into the very specific anger about government inaction, and does justice to the disruptive activists who made a difference.

I found myself thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement as I watched this film. Anyone who insists their disruptive demonstrations are counterproductive would do well to consider groups like ACT UP. Sometimes disruption is the only option available. And with both groups, they were -- and are -- talking about literal lives at stake, lives undervalued by the public at large. These are courageous people fighting to make the world a better place.

Even in my forties, I barely missed the era of HIV and AIDS killing a staggering number of people -- I can barely fathom what the experience was like, both for those who died and for survivors who saw their entire social world decimated, at the same time many of them had families rejecting them. BPM doesn't focus on the latter element (in fact, Sean has an incredibly supportive mother), but it never lets up on the kind of urgency set upon this community. And here is a film that depicts it with finesse. You won't soon forget it, because ACT UP demanded that we never do.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois fall into each other amidst organized chaos and expected tragedy.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois fall into each other amidst organized chaos and expected tragedy.

Overall: A