I watch a lot of movies: good, bad, indifferent; all genres; English and non-English speaking; and, occasionally, I write a few comments about those I enjoyed. Here are six mini-reviews, in no particular order. The percentage/numerical ratings in the title fields are from the review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes (where I look for 60% or higher), and the internet movie database, IMDb (where I look for 6.0 or higher). Movies for Movie Buffs: Index lists all my reviews so far posted.
55. Eastern Boys, Drama/Romance/Action, Director Robin Campillo, 2013 France, 89%/6.9
This three-act genre-hopping film annoyed some of the critics but held my attention despite the subject matter—homosexuality and male prostitution. Act 1 starts with an aerial view of people milling around at Paris’s Gare du Nord railway station. At first, all you see are hundreds of people strolling purposefully in and out of the station’s main entrance. Then, gradually, you become aware of a number of male youths gathering into a group, playfully jostling and joshing each other while under the watchful eye of a station manager. This is no random grouping. These youths, East European in appearance, probably immigrants, clearly know each other and may or may not be up to no good. The camera then begins to zoom in onto a lone middle-aged man who is circling the group waiting to catch the eye of one particular youth, and the penny drops. Some of the boys are rent boys and the middle-aged man is looking to link up with one of them.
Eventually, eye contact is made, the chosen boy separates from the group and wanders off to a quieter part of the station followed by the middle-aged man. They meet, start a conversation, strike a deal—what, when, where, and how much—and, foolishly, the man gives the boy the address of his apartment.
The following day, at the appointed time, the man, Daniel (Oliver Rabourdin), opens the door expecting to see the boy, Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), but instead is confronted by the whole street gang who invade his apartment, cart off most of its contents and load into a van waiting in the street, consume lots of alcohol while partying heavily to loud music, all under the control of the leader of the gang, Boss (Daniil Vorobyov). The atmosphere is both convivial and menacing at the same time and one wonders whether Daniel will survive the home invasion despite reluctantly joining in with the dancing.
But survive he does and Act 2 opens with Marek returning alone to Daniel’s apartment a few days later and asking whether Daniel is still interested in the €50 homosexual act. Surprisingly, Daniel agrees and thus begins a sexual encounter that gradually becomes something more than just an act between a customer and a prostitute—love blossoms.
In Act 3, we see that this burgeoning relationship between Marek and Daniel angers Boss and he seeks to punish Marek. Thus starts the action part of the movie and introduces us to Chelsea (Edéa Darcque, a French actress originally from Cameroon), the concierge of the hotel that houses the Eastern Boys’ immigrant gang. Her confrontational scenes with Boss are subtlety loaded with nuances of ingrained East European white male supremacy over Central African coloured female authority, and restrictions on instinctive gangster-like behaviour while under immigrant status.
Although not the main protagonists, the performances by Daniil Vorobyov, who plays Boss, and Edéa Darcque, who plays Chelsea, are exceptional. Daniil Vorobyov possesses piercing blue eyes and his ability to project menace while, apparently, acting in a friendly manner is, for me, amazing. Similarly, Edéa Darcque portrays courage and conviction even though she understands that her authority over Boss is wafer-thin and likely to cause an explosive response that she will not be able to control.
Finally, I should mention that there are homosexual sex scenes in Act 2 but they are not explicit.
56. The Major, Action/Crime, Director Yuriy Bykov, 2013 Russia, 69%/7.2
If this storyline is a reflection of the ethics of the police force in post-communist Russia, then Zeus help all those who live in that country! The story starts with a senior police officer, Sergei Sobolev, the titular Majór played by Denis Shvedov, receiving a phone call informing him that his wife is about to give birth to their first child and urging him to make his way quickly to the hospital in nearby Ryazan. Set in the wintertime, Sergei jumps into his 4WD vehicle and drives at speed along treacherous icy roads bordered by snow-covered flat fields all under a canopy of a snow-laden grey sky. As he approaches an isolated bus stop, a young 7-year-old boy opposite the stop runs across the road to join his mother inside the stop despite her urgent plea for him to stay put until the approaching car has passed by. The boy ignores his mother’s command and the inevitable happens. Sergei sees the boy and tries to avoid him but goes into a skid and hits the boy killing him instantly. All this happens within the first five minutes of the film.
Torn by grief and guilt and stressed by the anguish of the mother, Sergei calls his colleagues back at the police station who immediately suggest a way of covering up what happened rather than have Sergei confess to causing the death of the child. They rush out to the scene of the crime, produce a bottle of cognac, and advise the distraught mother, Irina Gutorova (Irina Nizina), to, ‘Have a drink. It will calm you down,’ and wait for the medics and crime scene technicians to arrive. When they do, the medics are advised by the police to take a blood sample (later used to ‘prove’ she had been drinking and thus not in control of her child) and the technicians are ordered to reduce the recorded measured length of the skid mark from 30 metres down to 10 metres. (The length of the skid can be used as an indication of the speed of the car at the collision point.)
Back at the police station, the Chief of Police continues the cover-up and forces the mother to sign a confession exonerating Sergei’s culpability in the death of her child. So far, Sergei has gone along with the cover-up although he is clearly torn with guilt for what he has done and the guilt escalates when the boy’s father, known only as Gutorov (Dmitriy Kulichkov), has learnt of the death of his child and spoken to his wife to hear what really happened. Eventually, Gutorov faces the corruption the only way he can—with a shotgun—and violence erupts both at the station and afterwards when Sergei realises that his colleagues have now decided to kill Irina so that she cannot reveal the truth to an Internal Affairs tribunal.
There are Dostoevskian shades to the way that Sergei processes his role in the death of the child and the ending is not what we would have hoped for. But, the story will hold your interest and, in retrospect, we would like to think that it is not a true reflection of the way Russian police behave when one of their own commits the crime of involuntary manslaughter.
57. Meander (Méandre), Horror/Mystery/Sci-Fi, Director Mathieu Turi, 2020 France, 70%/5.8
Do not watch this film if you are in any way, shape or form claustrophobic. A hitch-hiking woman, Lisa (Gaia Weiss), still struggling to come to terms with the recent death of her daughter, is offered a lift in a car by a lone man who might be the serial killer announced in a car-radio news item and who deliberately brakes the car hard throwing the woman into the windscreen where she is rendered unconscious. She awakes clad in a catsuit and confined in a metal container, larger than a coffin but not large enough to allow her to fully stand up. There is a circular exit port in one of the walls but it is closed. She also discovers she has some sort of instrument attached to one of her wrists. After a few minutes of fruitless exploration and futile shouting, the exit port opens, the instrument displays a count-down time, and she is confronted by a long tunnel barely large enough to allow her to belly-crawl along it. It is clear she must enter the tunnel and reach a new haven within the time limit. What is not clear is what will happen if she fails to make the next haven although that is soon revealed—death by fire, death by acid, death by crushing, death by drowning, death by barbs, even death by something alive that resembles a human but is clearly depraved.
If you can stand watching a person crawl through very small tunnels, unaware of what the next peril will be and pursued by something unknown but evil, this movie is for you. The horror of the woman’s situation remains high throughout the film’s 90-minute run time and the ending is not what you would expect. In fact, you may have to google, ‘Meander film ending explained’ after you’ve watched the film. I did but I had an inkling at the 67-minute point. See if you can work it out.
58. June Again, Drama/Comedy, Director JJ Winlove, 2020 Australia, 100%/7.3
June Wilton (Noni Hazelhurst, an Australian ‘national treasure’ actress) was once a successful entrepreneurial businesswoman, starting a bespoke hand-crafted wallpaper business and matriarchally managing the lives of her son and daughter, their partners and offspring. When we first meet her, however, she has been living in a care home for five years, suffering from vascular dementia caused by a stroke five years ago. During one of her regular assessment sessions with a medical doctor, June experiences a rare return to lucidity and stunningly recalls the full names and other significant details of all the members of her family; something she has not been able to do for five years. (Note: this can occur in patients with dementia. It’s known as paradoxical lucidity and can last for several hours or even a day. Why this sometimes happen is the subject of ongoing research.) Accordingly, her old personality asserts itself and she ‘escapes’ from the care home and seeks out her family home which, she discovers, now has new owners and where her distraught daughter, Ginny (Claudia Karvan), finds her.
June then discovers that all is not well with the wellbeings of her daughter, son, and grandchildren, and with the business she founded, and in a series of interventions, meetings, phone calls to old contacts, car journeys, and common sense, she sets about restoring relationships, repairing the fortunes of the family business, and, in the process, reveals a youthful fling with a man for whom, even now, she still has feelings.
June Again is an emotional ride full of comedy, pathos, family bonds, and pulls on the heartstrings. It’s a movie for all the family to enjoy.
59. In Bloom (Grdzeli Nateli Dgheebi), Drama, Directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, 2013 Georgia, 90%/7.5
My Happy Family (Chemi Bednieri Ojakhi), Directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, 2017 Georgia, 100%/7.4
In Bloom and My Happy Family is a duet’i slice of Georgian life as seen through the eyes of the duet’i directors, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß. And both films are well worth seeking out.
In Bloom tells the story of two 14-year-old girls, Natia (Mariam Bokeria) and Eka (Lika Babluani), who are friends growing up in Tbilisi just after Georgia gained independence following the collapse of the USSR in late-1991. Natia is vivacious, attractive and flirty and already attracting the attention of the local boys, notably Lado (Data Zakareishvili), for whom she has strong feelings, and Kote (Zurab Gogaladze), an older boy to whom Natia is not attracted. Natia fully expects to be married off before her next birthday and to soon be pregnant thereafter.
Eka, on the other hand, is more reserved, more career-minded, and wants to break the mould of early marriage and motherhood. As a result, she resists the attentions of the local boys who turn their crude attempts at courtship into bullying. Remember, this is Georgia in East Europe in 1992 just after the formation of the first democratically elected government in 1990 and, as yet, equality between men and women was still a long way off. Women were regarded as second-class citizens: emancipation was still a pipe dream. Society was patriarchal.
The essence of the story is that while Lado is away visiting his uncle in Moscow, Kote abducts Natia and forces her into a loveless marriage despite her protestations and greater affection for Lado. She follows the social rules however and the wedding takes place followed by singing, dancing and drinking. Eka attends the wedding celebrations but is saddened by the plight of her friend. When Lado returns from Moscow, the stage is set for a show-down and I’ll not spoil your viewing of the final act in the film.
A highlight of the film, however, takes place during the marriage feast. Eka has remained mostly silent, circulating the room, talking quietly with her friend, and generally looking very sad. Suddenly, she fills a glass half-full with wine, downs it in one go, moves into the centre of the room, and starts a solo dance. It’s a sublime moment in the film. Eka’s dance is based on a traditional Georgian dance called the kintauri, usually performed by men. Eka adapts the movements to her feelings and, I have to admit, I was mesmerised by her performance. If you are interested just to see Eka’s dance but not watch the whole movie, you can catch it on Youtube—search for ‘In Bloom dance scene’—but bear in mind you will be watching the dance out of context.
Based on my enjoyment of In Bloom, I searched for further films by the two Georgian directors, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, and came across My Happy Family released four years after In Bloom. The story, quite simply, is of a 52-year-old Georgian wife, Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), who walks out of her home and rents a small flat in another part of town; her home that houses her husband, Soso (Merab Ninidze), lazy son, newly-married daughter plus daughter’s husband, and her aging parents, one domineering, the other docile. Manana is a secondary-school teacher and thus able to support herself but this is no Shirley Valentine Georgian-style story. Manana is not looking for a middle-aged romance with a Tom Conti lookalike. So, what is she looking for and what drove her to leave the family home?
Gradually, as the story progresses, Manana’s motives become clear. She is stifled by the members of her family and, as it turns out, also by her brother, all of whom expect her to conform to certain social and familial duties and are astonished, perplexed and even angry that she can and does just walk out to seek her own life under her own terms. Along the way, Manana discovers but does not reveal other facts about certain members of her family that serve to reinforce her decision. Her actions are a strike for feminism, independence and equality and Ia Shugliashvili’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. Like actress Frances McDormand (Nomadsland, Fargo,…), Ia Shugliashvili is able to speak volumes just through the expression on her face or a slight twitch of her body. We, the viewers, are not quite sure we understand all the details of why Manana has moved out of the family home but we are certainly on her side when she is questioned by other family members.
Incidentally, Lika Babluani (Eka in the earlier In Bloom film) has a small but very significant part in My Happy Family. She plays a 17-year-old schoolgirl in Manana’s class who reveals to Manana the reason for her recent absence from school. It’s because she is divorcing her husband. ‘We just didn’t understand each other,’ she explains. ‘We’re very different. It just didn’t work out. If I wanted something, he didn’t want it. If he wanted something, I didn’t want it.’ It’s a telling moment and strengthens Manana’s decision to start afresh.
60. Instinct, Drama/Thriller, Director Halina Reijn, 2019 Dutch, 80%/6.1
A prison therapist becomes obsessed with her charismatic patient, a violent serial rapist on the verge of being paroled. Wikipedia.
Wikipedia’s one-line summary of this film does not do justice to the intensity and ferocity of the sexual relationship that develops between the prison therapist, Nicoline (Carice van Houten), and the serial rapist, Idris (Marwan Kenzari). Nicoline, an experienced and very confident psychologist, is tasked with assessing whether Idris, the convicted rapist, is ready to be released back into society. Idris, looking every inch the smouldering handsome muscular hunk often seen on the cover of trashy pulp fiction novels of yesteryear, is adept at answering a question with a question, or providing the answer he knows to be the one the questioner is looking for, or just looking deep into Nicoline’s eyes with an intensity that reaches into her very core.
Nicoline’s professional cover is pierced. Desperately, she tries to keep her cool, not betray her inner feelings, maintain her professional relationship but Idris knows, with a surety based on 100% masculinity, that Nicoline is under his spell and will eventually drop her guard. But this is no pulp fiction story. Carice van Houghton (Melisandre, the Red Witch, in Game of Thrones) is superb at simultaneously outwardly suppressing yet inwardly revealing her emotions when in the presence of Idris; and Idris is supremely confident as he gradually asserts his dominance over the cool-as-ice woman he’s engaging with. This is a film for adults with its overtones of rape fantasy, total female subservience to an alpha male, and a dormant but inevitable sexual coupling waiting to erupt.
Note: Instinct is one of those films where casting is everything. Director Halina Reijn made the perfect choice in her decision to cast Carice van Houghton and Marwan Kenzari as the two protagonists. With less-accomplished actors, Instinct would have become a farce. With Houghton and Kenzari, Instinct is outstanding.