A Gentle Creature, A Prayer Before Dawn, A Separation, Beast, Brothers' Nest, Icebox, Krotkaya, Last Call at Murray's, Schneeflöckchen, Snowflake, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Forest of Lost Souls, The Hate U Give, The Insult, The Outlaws
I watch many films that do not go out on general release but are available on streaming networks such as Netflix, Amazon or HBO. Some movies are what are known as indies (movies made by independent producers outside the major film studios such those that exist in Hollywood and elsewhere), or are classified as world cinema (movies made within a particular country that, again, are outside of the major distributors), or are specialist movies that are targeted at the art-house festival circuits.
Many of these movies are made by directors who have yet to establish their reputation and feature actors who are not well known. Some are made in the language of their country of origin and thus require English subtitles if they are to be enjoyed by those who only speak English. And some are very challenging in their subject matter.
But, in most cases when I find and view these movies, I am amazed at how good they are – the storyline, the acting, the cinematography, and the entertainment value. The following list of thirteen such movies I’ve watched over the last few months are all recommended if the genre fits your personal choices. In all the descriptions, I have included the official summary from sources such as Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB and then followed with a few comments of my own. I’ve avoided revealing any plot spoilers. Some of these movies will require subtitles unless you happen to speak Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, Arabic, German or Russian.
A Gentle Creature (Krotkaya), 2017, drama/mystery, Director Sergei Loznitsa (Ukraine), Russian language
A woman lives alone on the outskirts of a village in Russia. One day she receives back a parcel marked ‘return to sender’ she originally sent to her incarcerated husband. Shocked and confused, the woman has no choice but to travel to the prison in a remote region of the country in search of an explanation. So begins the story of a battle against this impenetrable fortress, the prison where the forces of social evil are constantly at work. Braving violence and humiliation, in the face of all opposition, our protagonist embarks on a blind quest for justice. (Rotten Tomatoes)
I watched A Gentle Creature recently, all 2 hours 23 minutes of it. What can I say? It’s not a fun film to watch and the Ukrainian director, Sergei Loznitsa, has a habit of holding a long shot for far too long in my opinion. He places the camera far away from something – a prison, a bus stop, for example – and just lets it record while someone walks down a long road or waits for a bus to come by. The runtime of the film could be reduced by at least 15 minutes, maybe more, if he sharpened up the editing.
But, to the film’s story. The first two hours are a savage indictment of the intransigence and bureaucracy of Russian officialdom. The woman (we never learn her name) has sent a parcel to her husband in prison far away. The parcel has been returned to her. There’s no explanation as to why the parcel was not delivered and she sets out to find out what’s happened. Along the way, she meets indifference, apathy, even antagonism, and becomes a target of unscrupulous people who play on her predicament and attempt to draw her into the seedy underworld that exists in the surrounding prison town. She seems unable to resist these people even though she has exhibited independence and perseverance.
She’s also compliant. If someone she’s never met says, “Let’s go,” she goes, or someone not in uniform says, “Give me your passport,” she hands it over with no protest. Maybe it’s a statement about the long-term effect of the 20th-century Soviet rule-by-fear and secret police system but is that still the case in Putin’s Russia? (The year setting of the film is never stated but there are enough clues to figure out that it’s modern times i.e. post-2000.)
Thirty minutes off the end of the movie, there’s a major tone change. I won’t spoil it for you; you’ll know it when you see it, and I’m still trying to work out what the director intended by making this change. It’s surreal.
I can see why the film was entered into the 2017 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or (it lost out to a Swedish film, The Square, a very strange film!) but A Gentle Creature is definitely an art-house movie and will probably not see a general release even though the subtitles are excellent. Also, I wished that, just once, the protagonist (played by the Russian actress, Vasilina Makovtseva) had smiled.
A Prayer Before Dawn, 2017, drama/crime, Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (French), English/Thai language
‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is the remarkable true story of Billy Moore, a young English boxer incarcerated in two of Thailand’s most notorious prisons. He is quickly thrown into a terrifying world of drugs and gang violence, but when the prison authorities allow him to take part in the Muay Thai boxing tournaments, he realizes this might be his chance to get out. Billy embarks on a relentless, action-packed journey from one savage fight to the next, stopping at nothing to do whatever he must to preserve his life and regain his freedom. Shot in an actual Thai prison with a cast of primarily real inmates, ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is a visceral, thrilling journey through an unforgettable hell on earth. (Rotten Tomatoes)
A Prayer Before Dawn is a compelling but brutal film. It’s set in a prison in Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai (actually, the set was in the Philippines). Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) plays the part of Billy Moore and most of the prison inmates were, in fact, actual prison inmates, heavily tattooed and playing themselves.
Some critics have compared A Prayer Before Dawn with the 1978 prison drama movie, Midnight Express, the story of a young American caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. I’ve watched Midnight Express and, quite frankly, the brutality of prison life is nowhere near the level in A Prayer Before Dawn. In addition, A Prayer Before Dawn presents transgender prisoners as a normal part of Thai prison life. They dress and behave as kathoey (lady boys) and are generally accepted by the other prisoners. In American prison dramas, transgender inmates are normally shown as a persecuted underclass.
Incidentally, most of the dialogue is in Thai. These lines are not translated in the subtitles and, apparently, the director, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, didn’t want the Thai lines translated and shown as embedded English subtitles. He wanted the audience to experience exactly the same sensation of not being understood or not understanding as experienced by the young white boxer, Billy Moore. I have a hearing impairment and sometimes I have the same not-understanding problem in dialogue, even if the speaker is speaking in English. I empathised entirely with Billy Moore’s difficulty.
Brothers’ Nest, 2018, thriller/comedy, Director Clayton Jacobson (Australia), English language
On a cold morning in the middle of the state of Victoria in Australia, two brothers arrive at the family home intent on murdering their stepfather, Roger. Terry and Jeff’s motive is simple – killing their stepfather will render their dying mother’s plan to change her will in his favour redundant. A staged “suicide” has been meticulously planned but there is one thing the boys didn’t take into account; that is, spending an entire day together. Old grudges, different worldviews and a general troubled history will pit them against each other. ‘Brothers’ Nest’ is a tragic comedy about family, loyalty and murder because, after all, “blood is thicker than water”. (Rotten Tomatoes)
It’s difficult to combine murder with humour but this movie pulls it off. The brothers, played by real-life brothers, Shane and Clayton Jacobson (who also directs) are as unlike as chalk and cheese and the script plays to their differences with sparkle and verve. If you enjoyed the repartee between Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker (Rush Hour, 1998) or Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg (The Other Guys, 2010), you will also enjoy the Jacobson brothers as they discuss the hows, whys and wherefores of their intended elimination of the stepfather.
Beast, 2017, drama/psychological thriller, Director Michael Pearce (British), English language
Moll is 27 and still living at home, stifled by the small Jersey Island community around her and too beholden to her family to break away. When she meets Pascal, a free-spirited stranger, a whole new world opens up to her and she begins to feel alive for the first time, falling madly in love. Finally breaking free from her family, Moll moves in with Pascal to start a new life. But when he is arrested as the key suspect in a series of brutal murders, she is left isolated and afraid. Choosing to stand with him against the suspicions of the community, Moll finds herself forced to make choices that will impact her life forever. (Rotten Tomatoes)
This is a classic tale of a repressed young woman who meets an attractive free-spirited man and falls under his spell. The two protagonists, played by newcomer Jessie Buckley and singer/actor Johnny Flynn, are perfectly cast and well able to sustain the underlying story of an unsolved murder.
Snowflake (Schneeflöckchen), 2017, crime/action, Directors Adolfo Kolmerer, William James, (German), German language.
Take a dash of Tarantino, a splash of Coen brothers, a metric ton of pretzel-logic self-awareness, and a fast-paced series of humorously violent misadventures, and you’re halfway to grasping the magnificent German madness of this bizarre import. Hunting down the murderer of their families in a near-future Berlin, a gang of lowlife characters all want revenge on each other, but along the way they must contend with a myriad of wicked fairy tale types – assassins, madmen, a blood-covered angel (called Snowflake), and an electric-powered superhero-all apparently come to life through a screenplay written by a demented but clueless dentist. The movie must be experienced to be believed and is guaranteed to twist your mind. (Rotten Tomatoes)
Snowflake, a 2017 German film directed by Adolfo Kolmerer and William James, is a quirky gory weird avant-garde genre-mix movie with touches of the Coen Brothers, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. It’s impossible to categorise it: drama, crime, vengeance, some humour – you name it, Snowflake has it. The reviewers loved it, as did I.
Last Call at Murray’s, comedy/drama/romance, 2016, Director Linda Palmer (USA), English language
Veteran bar-owner Murray is closing his bar, Murray’s. However, hopes for a quiet closing are dashed when a freak blizzard whips through, stranding a host of zany people all night. Between drinks and karaoke, alliances are formed, broken, and blown sky-high. A new life comes into the world, and an old one leaves. And when the snow ploughs finally arrive in the morning, no one goes home the same. (IMDB)
A film I can only describe as being as close to perfection as possible. It has everything – drama, comedy, music, more comedy, triumph, tragedy, and lots lots more. What’s interesting about the movie is that, initially, everyone appears to be a stereotype – the hard-as-nails good-time gal, the marine who’s only interested in one thing, the golden-hearted bar girl, the preacher who may have lost his faith, even the owner of the bar, warm but cynical – but they all play off each other and, in the end, display characteristics and emotions that step outside the stereotypical behaviour. I had never heard of any of the actors but everyone fits their part exactly and the script is terrific. I envy the skills of the script writers, Brian Beatty and Betsy Morris, and enjoyed the movie immensely.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, drama/western, 2018, Directors Ethan and Joel Coen (USA), English language
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a six-part Western anthology film, a series of tales about the American frontier told through the unique and incomparable voice of Joel and Ethan Coen. Each chapter tells a distinct story about the American West. (Rotten Tomatoes)
The Coen Brothers have a reputation for writing and, in some cases, directing highly original and entertaining movies – Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), No Country for Old Men (2007), True Grit (2010), Bridge of Spies (2015), for example, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is yet another triumph. The film is a collection of six short stories about the West circa the late-1800s. Each story is free-standing and explores a range of western genres and emotions. I particularly enjoyed the first story about Buster Scruggs and featuring a dead ringer for the singing cowboy, Gene Autry, one of my cowboy heroes in the ‘50s (remember his horse, Trigger?); and the fifth story, The Gal Who Got Rattled, a poignant story of love in the days when everyone was polite and what was not said was just as important as what was said.
If you like stories about the days of the Wild West, and if you have enjoyed Coen Brothers’ films in the past, you will enjoy The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The Hate U Give, 2018, drama/thriller, Director George Tillman Jr. (USA), English language
Starr Carter, an African-American teenager, is constantly switching between two worlds – the poor, mostly black neighbourhood where she lives and the wealthy, mostly white prep school that she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a white police officer. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right. (Rotten Tomatoes)
We have almost become inured to the news that yet another unarmed African-American youth has either received a severe beating or been shot dead by a white police officer somewhere in the United States. Remember the 1992 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles which resulted in massive riots, looting, arson and even further deaths during the months of April and May of that year? Or, more recently, when Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American youth was shot dead in 2014 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri? A Grand Jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson and the acquittal was followed by several “Hands up, don’t shoot” protest marches.
The Hate U Give, tells a fictional story of an incident similar to the Michael Brown incident and is notable for the outstanding performance of Amandla Stenberg who plays the female lead, Starr Carter. (Stenberg played Rue, the female tribute from District 11, in the first Hunger Games movie, 2012). Critics have labelled her performance in The Hate U Give as break-out. I agree.
If you are interested in why the film title is The Hate U Give, instead of The Hate You Give, it’s because the title came from the first half of a tattoo on the body of a popular rapper called Tupac. The tattoo reads as THUG LIFE and is an acronym. To discover the full meaning of THUG LIFE, click here.
The Insult, 2017, drama, Director Ziad Doueiri (Lebanon), Arabic language
In today’s Beirut, a civilian dispute blown out of proportion finds Tony (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian, and Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee, facing off in court. As the media circus surrounding the case threatens a social explosion in divided Lebanon, Tony and Yasser reconsider their values and beliefs as revelations of trauma complicate their understanding of one another. (Rotten Tomatoes)
This is an incredible movie from the Lebanese director, Ziad Doueiri. The story explores the escalation of a simple argument over the fitting of a gutter on the balcony of a Lebanese Christian man’s apartment who is sensitive to any other man seeing his pregnant wife inside the home. The argument is with the repair contractor’s foreman who turns out to be a Palestinian Muslim refugee. The story plays out against the backdrop of the plight of Palestinian refugees in a country that is bursting at the seams with those whose homeland has been subjugated by another country.
Both men have history; one with a massacre that occurred during the Lebanese Civil War wherein Muslims backed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation attacked towns to the south of Beirut, and the other with the persecution of Palestinians by the Israelis. Consequently, the argument develops into one that involves the differences between Christianity and Islam, and the plight of Muslim refugees in what is predominantly a Christian country. Offset against these big issues are the emotions of the two protagonists, both of whom are honourable men seeking to do what’s right within their own moral, religious and ethical frameworks.
Truly a remarkable and thought-provoking movie.
The Forest of the Lost Souls, 2017, drama/mystery, Director José Pedro Lopes (Portugal), Portuguese language
‘The Forest of the Lost Souls’ is a dense and remote forest, Portugal’s most popular place for suicide. In a summer morning, two strangers meet within the woods. Ricardo (Jorge Mota) is a sad old man, who gave up on life when his older daughter, Irene (Lilia Lopes), took her life in a romantic pact gone wrong in the glacier lake that rests hidden deep in the forest. Carolina (Daniela Love) is an eccentric, unstable young girl who finds all things related to death are fun. As bumping into each other puts them off killing themselves, they decide to go for a walk to discover The Forest of the Lost Souls and see what they will find. As they walk deeper into the woods, they get to know each other and become friends: but one of them is not being honest… (Rotten Tomatoes)
This is a film in two distinct halves. The first explores what happens when an old man, intent on committing suicide in the fictional Forest of Lost Souls, meets a young woman who appears to prowl the forest looking for would-be suicides, but for what purpose? To talk them out of suicide? To encourage the act, even turning it into a double act? To provide religious instruction? The answer to this question leads to the second half of the movie and the changeover is like night and day. I didn’t see it coming!
The Forest of Lost Souls is an intriguing if not challenging movie, raising many questions about the nature of suicide and the impact on those left behind after the act.
Icebox, 2018, drama, Director Daniel Sawka (USA), Spanish/English language
Óscar (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old Honduran boy, is forced to flee his home in Honduras and seek asylum in the United States, only to find himself trapped in the US immigration system. As Oscar attempts to reach his uncle, Manuel (Omar Leyva), in Arizona, he is apprehended by the US Border Patrol and placed in “the icebox,” a processing centre for Hispanic migrant children. Faced against a seemingly impenetrable immigration system, Oscar struggles to navigate a path to freedom, with a journalist (Genesis Rodriguez) and his uncle, himself a recent immigrant, as his only lifeline. (HBO)
As part of Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, a major pledge of his presidential campaign in 2016, families illegally crossing the USA’s southern border with Mexico were separated by the federal authorities with adults incarcerated in federal jails and children housed in processing centres known as Iceboxes. The separation policy came into force in April 2018 but the resulting uproar caused the policy to be placed on hold for an indefinite period starting late-June 2018. Icebox charts the progress of a 12-year-old Honduran boy, Óscar, who, back in his home town, has been inducted against his will into a Honduran drug gang and has an unmistakable gang tattoo on his chest to show his allegiance. His parents, knowing that the tattoo is ultimately a death sentence, arrange for the boy to be trafficked into the United States with instructions to make his way to his uncle, a legal resident living in Arizona who is waiting to qualify for a Green card.
Unfortunately, the boy is caught by the US Border Control and placed in an Icebox pending his right-to-stay assessment by a US judge. The story is harrowing and based on what really happens to children such as Óscar. Two things that stood out to me in the movie were (a) the American authorities are not shown as monsters seeking to harm the children but more as people frustrated by the role they have to play in Trump’s anti-asylum policies, and (b) the amazing acting of Anthony Gonzalez who plays Óscar, and of some of the other children in the detention centre, notable Matthew Moreno who plays Rafael, a boy who befriends Óscar in the Icebox.
If you watch this movie, you will have a better understanding of why 7,000 Central Americans have amassed at the Mexican-US border towns of Tijuana and Mexicali, and why the inhumane family separation policy has been placed on indefinite hold. This is truly a heart-wrenching movie and may jerk a tear the first time Óscar phones home from the detention centre and says the one word, “Mama”.
A Separation, 2011, crime/drama/family, Director Asghar Farhadi (Iran), Arabic language
Set in contemporary Iran, ‘A Separation’ is a compelling drama about the dissolution of a marriage. Simin wants to leave Iran with her husband Nader and daughter Termeh. Simin sues for divorce when Nader refuses to leave behind his Alzheimer-suffering father. Her request having failed, Simin returns to her parents’ home, but Termeh decides to stay with Nader. When Nader hires a young woman, Razieh, to assist with his father in his wife’s absence, he hopes that his life will return to a normal state. However, when he discovers that the new maid has been lying to him, he realizes that there is more on the line than just his marriage.
This is one of those movies that could be set anywhere in the world but, in this case, is set in modern-day Iran, a country ruled by a theocracy and where the inhabitants sometimes struggle to reconcile religious dictates with normal human empathy and desires to do the right thing. The development of the arguments between the husband, Nader, and wife, Simin, is subtle but relentless and the daughter, Termeh, is both a pawn and a central figure in causing her parents to file for divorce.
The needs of Nader’s father are an added complication. He is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and requires constant assistance for even the simple things such as dressing and going to the toilet. When Razieh, a young pregnant married woman living in poverty, is hired to look after the father, she has to ask permission from an Iman to change the old man’s underwear after he has soiled himself. She also has to keep this activity secret from her husband because, under strict Islamic law, a wife cannot see another man’s private parts even if she is performing a nursing duty.
The stage is set for a marital situation ripe for explosive development when Nader accidentally pushes Razieh down the stairs and Razieh then prematurely aborts her unborn child. Was the abortion caused by the accident or is there another reason kept concealed?
I was mesmerised by this story and the acting was first class, as witnessed by the fact that this movie received an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. (Director Farhadi repeated this success in 2016 with his film, The Salesman. He is one of only three directors to win two Academy Best Foreign Language Film Awards and if you enjoy A Separation, you will also enjoy The Salesman.) A Separation is also remarkable in its portrayal of modern-day Iran. We tend to get a warped view of the country from the media – America, the Big Satan; maniacal religious leaders; undercover manufacture of nuclear weapons; interferers in the politics of adjacent countries; and so on. A Separation shows the day-to-day life of Iran’s inhabitants and none of these big bad images is mentioned. Nader, Simin, Termah, Razieh and the rest of the players are just a group of people grappling with domestic problems and solutions overseen by a religion that is sometimes at odds with common sense and practicalities.
A Separation is a remarkable film and well worthy of your attention if you are not put off by the need to read subtitles.
The Outlaws, 2017, action/crime/thriller, Director Kang Yoon-Sung (South Korea), Korean language
Based on real events that occurred in 2007 dubbed the “Heuksapa Incident”, the story follows a turf war that grows between a local gang that runs Garibong-dong in Guro District, Seoul and the Heuksapa gang from Yanbian, China; the police are called in to attempt to bring peace to the neighbourhood. Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-Sang) came from China and now works as a loan shark in a seedy Chinatown area of Seoul. He’s backed up by his bloodthirsty henchmen Wei Sung-Rak (Jin Seon-Kyu) and Yang-Tae (Kim Sung-Kyu). Jang Chen is beyond brutal in his methods to collect money. Meanwhile, Ma Suk-Do (Ma Dong-Seok) is a detective in the Chinatown area of Seoul. He tries to keep the peace, while two Chinese-Korean gangs battle over turf in the neighbourhood. Jang Chen makes his move to take over . (Wikipedia)
Korean gang warfare movies are popular among those attracted to movies of this yakusa/triad/kkangpae sub-genre and, generally, are well made, well-acted, not shy to show gory detail, and well received by critics and fans alike. The Outlaws is no exception. Apparently based on a real-life series of events in a part of Seoul in 2007, the story revolves around a policeman’s attempt to keep the peace between two rival Korean gangs when a third gang (the Black Dragons) from China tries to muscle in and take over the Korean gangs’ territories. The terms gritty, gory, brutal and violent spring to mind when trying to find suitable descriptive adjectives but running through the movie is a vein of humour associated with the role of actor Ma Dong-seok who plays the arbitrating detective, Ma Suk-do. Ma Dong-seok, a heavy muscular veteran of many Korean movies such as the zombie-soaked Train to Busan (2016), plays a policeman who has little regard for anything or anybody, good guy or bad guy, that prevents him from doing his job and he laces his actions with quick-fire traces of humour. I enjoyed his portrayal of the lighter side of policing.
But, make no mistake. This film has several moments of extreme violence, some explicit and some implied, and the big fight at the end is depicted in all its brutal excellence. But, it’s only a film, right?