A few questions might race through your mind during the hectic opening moments of Abe Forsythe's “Little Monsters,” in which an Australian couple shouts their way through an extended public breakup while bubbly piano music plinks by in the background. Questions like: “is that a Hemsworth?,” “can a zombie comedy perfectly split the difference between Edgar Wright and Taika Waititi?,” and “how are Lupita Nyong'o, Josh Gad, and an invasion of the walking dead going to factor into this?”
Like everything else in this funny, spirited, and frequently clever 93-minute romp, the answers come fast and furious “no,” “almost,” and “with the reckless abandon of a movie that doesn't have any time for nonsense like 'reasons' and 'logic' because it's too busy with a Neil Diamond singalong”. Alexander England — who honestly might still be a Hemsworth, despite what the internet and his birth certificate might tell you — stars as David, a scruffy blond musician with a bad case of stunted manhood. Forsythe's script doesn't get into specifics until the third act, but it's clear from the start that David might be a bit too invested in his “stadium rock/death metal” band God's Sledgehammer to really invest in a human relationship, or make room for the kids that sometimes come as a result.
Perhaps that explains why things don't work out with David's ex, and why he doesn't have the first clue how to deal with his ultra-adorable five-year-old nephew Felix a note-perfect Diesel La Torraca. Like seemingly every other director from his corner of the globe, Forsythe knows how to help a child actor thread the needle between cute and cloying; from the way Felix treats his pet tractor yes to his deep kinship with Darth Vader, La Torraca's performance is bright-eyed and open to the wonder of our world in a way that's sweet, hilarious, and ineffably real. England meanwhile becomes a most endearing foil, as he informs his character with such genuine indifference towards the guileless little boy that the scenes between them never feel like old schtick.
Forced to take Felix to school one day, David spends the whole time hitting on his nephew's teacher, Miss Caroline Nyong'o, who all the kids love and listen to without reservation. And when chaperones are needed for a field trip to a petting zoo called Pleasant Valley Farm, David only volunteers because he has hopes of touching something else along the way. He is, needless to say, not particularly well-equipped to handle the students nor their eminently capable substitute mom. The only person who might be more dangerous to have around those people might be beloved kids TV star Teddy McGiggle Gad, a noxious wannabe Mr. Rogers who's actually a sex addict who hates children. It doesn't really matter how he finds himself in a small wooden hut with David, Miss Caroline, Felix, and 20 other little tykes when a horde of zombies breaks out of a nearby military base, but he does.
Forsythe's sense of humor may be less referential and his filmmaking less refined than Edgar Wright's, but “Little Monsters” and “Shaun of the Dead” provoke a similar giddiness from trying to negotiate human relationships in decidedly inhuman times. The action that clutters the last hour of this movie is never compelling enough to feel like anything more than a bloody distraction, but the characters vibe together so well on their own terms that the walking dead only need to provide an existential threat.
For a ramshackle movie that can sometimes feel rushed and tossed off, Forsythe does an excellent job of balancing the various energies of his cast. Gad is most potent in small doses, even if there are only so many times he can drop nuclear-grade F-bombs on a room full of small children before it gets old. Nyong'o initially seems like she'll be stuck playing the proverbial straight man, but this brilliant actress is smart not to bait the laughs; there's something ambiently hilarious and movingly fragile about how dedicated she is towards keeping the students calm, even if that means leading them on a conga line through a field of zombies. By the time she's covered in blood and busting out a ukulele to serenade the kids with Taylor Swift covers, it's impossible not to be impressed with her range and not for the first time this year.
But the nucleus of “Little Monsters” exists in the space between David and Felix, and the movie is at its best when it hones in on the idea that having children — or at least having children around — can be a source of incredible strength. They don't judge adults with the same mercilessness that adults judge themselves, and it can be a total blast however sloppy to watch Felix innocently reveal the root cause of his uncle's fear. With a bit more craft and visual imagination, “Little Monsters” could have been something much bigger, but it has a very good time getting its point across. As one character puts it during a respite from defending themselves against hundreds of flesh-eating zombies: “There are plenty of things to be scared of in this world, but having kids isn't one of them.”
Belgian neorealist master filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make films that might focus primarily on individuals, but they always echo back to some larger trend occurring in society. Similarly, there’s usually a divide in their movies between what happens in the plot and what their stories are truly about. Until their latest film, Young Ahmed, the Dardennes always made film that did not feel like the themes were the starting point – they were an organic outgrowth of their deeply human tales.
In Young Ahmed, theme and narrative feel like one in the same. On its face, this is not some kind of disqualifying feature. But there are many moments in the film where it feels as if the film is a political statement in search of a narrative. While the Dardennes stop short of outright polemicizing, they might have been better served to just embrace more explicit messaging if they intended to elevate political undertones to such an undeniable extent.
It’s hard to ignore, for example, that Two Days, One Night is a film about exploitative capitalism or The Unknown Girl is a film about the European migration influx. But the Dardennes always put their characters first, and it was through identifying with their struggles and travails that the audience could enter these complicated issues from a deeply humane angle. Young Ahmed, on the other hand, is about the conflict created by the titular teenager a sensational Idir Ben Addi in an unflinching debut performance as his instruction at an extremist mosque leads him to lash out. The early clashes stem from his espousing radical interpretations of the Quran, such as refusing to shake his female teacher’s hand or claiming that the Belgian muslim population cannot live in peace with other religions. “Jews and Christians hate us,” Ahmed declares.
His teacher Ines Myriem Akheddiou attempts to counter his fundamentalist instruction with a more modern interpretation of their Muslim faith, one that emphasizes values that comport well with their liberal society. Yet Ahmed’s jihadist zeal quickly makes it clear to her and many others that the regressive influence of his imam requires a more forceful intervention. His community cannot simply talk him down; he needs deprogramming altogether. The film reframes jihadism not as something that only occurs in the far corners of the world. It’s something that can grab a foothold even in developed democracies.
The most affecting moments in Young Ahmed come from Ahmed’s violent outbursts, quick bursts of fury that the Dardennes capture with their typical verité style. These scenes prove so jarring because they make clear the stakes of what happens if society cannot counter his religious instruction. They disrupt the quietness and mundanity of everyday life with such electricity, yet it’s to the Dardenne Brothers’ credit that they can elicit such a response without sensationalizing Islam. By putting such a human face on radicalized youth and rooting his fanaticism in such observable reality, they make extremist religion scarier than any kind of insidious “Homeland”-style music ever could – and without demonizing an entire religion.
The Dardennes focus on the youth and immaturity of their protagonist, not necessarily to solicit pity or to excuse his behavior, but rather to illuminate just how much religion can warp an impressionable young mind. Their contemplation of differences in Islamic practice essentially ends there, and it’s a bit of a stretch to make it last an already brief 80-minute runtime. The brothers tend not to dally much with their narratives, but even adjusting for their typical brevity, Young Ahmed feels like a cursory examination of the social issues they raise. It lacks the incisiveness of their other glances directly into the heart of Belgian society.
Still, there are flashes of their brilliance and reminders of why they are such revered practitioners of verité filmmaking. The Dardennes understand how audiences react to such triggers as violence puncturing veneers of civilization or a child in peril, and they use that to devastating extent in driving home their point. But the relative infrequency of such moments also serves as a reminder of how much the majority of Young Ahmed lacks their usual spark.
Sarah Gavron, the director of British period drama 'Suffragette,' turns her camera on contemporary London in this gritty tale of teen girls battling to survive.
Films about neglected children had special visibility at this year's San Sebastian Film Festival, and they were especially gripping. One of the best is a British movie, Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron, who also made Brick Lane and Suffragette.
The film, which world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month, will have some challenges in reaching an American audience, in part because of the disturbing subject matter and also because the East London accents of the polyglot cast members are sometimes hard to decipher. But this potent work about stolen childhood deserves attention because of the freshness of the cast and because it confirms that Gavron is a director to watch.
“Rocks” is the nickname of the main character, played by a magnetic newcomer, Bukky Bakray, who emigrated from Nigeria with her mother and younger brother. The school she attends is populated by other kids from immigrant backgrounds, but they seem to mix well with some of the white students in the school as well. One of the freshest and most heartening things about the film is the color-blind friendships that sprout at this school.
In a press conference after the screening, Gavron explained the unusual background to this movie. She gave special credit to casting director Lucy Pardee, who worked with the director for a full year to find the girls who would populate the film. It was only then that screenwriters Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson fashioned the script, drawing on what they learned from meeting the girls, many of whom had not acted before.
The story kicks in when Rocks' mother suddenly abandons their home, leaving a note and asking Rocks to take care of her younger brother, Emmanuel superbly played by a most engaging child actor, D'angelou Osei Kissiedu. Obviously this creates major challenges for an adolescent girl, but one of the most moving things in the film is how Rocks makes a superhuman effort to shoulder the responsibility forced on her. Although teachers and social workers try to intervene, Rocks does her best to fend them off. She even engages in robbery to secure the money she needs for basic survival, but her lapses in judgment stem from the crisis facing her.
Despite these pressures, Rocks does not lose her joy in living. One of the most surprising and heartening elements in the movie can be found in the joyful rapport among the girls at school, especially when they respond to music and dance. Survival challenges but does not necessarily destroy the joie de vivre of the characters.
Yet the film is far from an idealized portrayal of teenage friendships. When Rocks takes refuge at the home of her best friend, Sumaya Kosar Ali, a girl from Somalia, she cannot refrain from venting about the jealousy she feels regarding the stable family life that her friend seems to enjoy. And when she moves in with another friend, Agnes Ruby Stokes, Agnes tries to help by alerting the authorities about Rocks' desperate situation; we can understand Agnes' motivation, but we also apprehend the betrayal that Rocks experiences.
There is no clear or satisfying solution to the horrific family dilemma. Both Rocks and Emmanuel are ultimately placed in foster homes, and although their separation is heartrending, the open-ended conclusion suggests that the homes where they land may not be disastrous for either of them. The script and Gavron's direction honor the complexity of the situation.
Gavron enlisted a mainly female crew — including cinematographer Helene Louvart, editor Maya Maffioli and composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch — and their empathy for the vulnerable characters enlivens the film. All the film needs to reach an American audience are subtitles.
Thai-Irish filmmaker Tom Waller is first out of the gate with a chronicle of the global effort to rescue a boys’ soccer team from a flooded cave in 2018.
When innocent civilian lives are imperiled by the forces of nature, or something similarly unexpected, it grabs global headlines and mobilizes nations to save lives. That's the premise of Thai-Irish filmmaker Tom Waller's The Cave, which chronicles the efforts to rescue 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach after they get trapped in a flooded cave system in Chiang Rai province. Based on real events from 2018, the film is strong on cave-diving minutiae but thin on character if real people can be called characters.
The Cave has been kicking around markets for the better part of a year and finally made its premiere at Busan to a largely receptive audience. Though the news of the team's two-week ordeal gained traction on BBC and CNN — Elon Musk pitched high-tech SpaceX gear and then notoriously accused one of the rescuers of being a pedophile — Asian audiences are likely to be more welcoming for the sheer familiarity of the story. And while the world could use some positivity and a demonstration of nations and states coming together for a greater good, The Cave isn't cinematic enough to have real impact. This is a Lifetime-style movie, and as such could have better success on cable and streaming platforms.
Writer-director Waller, who did a great job with the effective The Last Executioner also based on a true story, is forced to work around a number of thorny elements there's no reference to Musk. One is a lingering white-savior tone; most of the divers who do the heavy lifting hail from Europe and North America, and the operation feels more like a U.S. military one than Thai. Fortunately Waller never falls into the trap The Impossible did in its misguided focus on a wealthy Western tourist looking for her family after the 2004 tsunami so they could flee on a private helicopter. He does, however, follow Clint Eastwood's poor decision to feature real people, as themselves, in a crisis situation a la The 15:17 to Paris. There is a reason we pay actors.
Getting off to a swift start, The Cave begins with The Wild Boars and their coach wrapping up practice and heading to the Tham Luang caves on nearby Nang Non Mountain for some fun. When a downpour hits, they're trapped in the cave system for nearly 10 days before an international team of divers is brought together — from the UK, Ireland, Finland, Canada, China — along with hundreds of Thai locals, to aid the Thai and American military on site to get them all out.
It's unfair to fault non-actors for weak performances, but Waller lets a few too many flubs and questionable creative choices slip through the cracks. Playing himself, reporter Todd Ruiz you can tell he's a reporter because he has a notepad is a more excitable narrator than journalist; a well-meaning water pump manufacturer answers his phone before tapping or swiping though admittedly he has the film's best moment flashing an access badge; none of the locals feels genuine, their selflessness coming across less heroic and more cornball. There is an honest-to-god Michael Bay-style slo-mo hero shot.
That's forgivable, but the lack of any idea as to who these kids are — none has any substantive dialogue — isn't. For all its faults, The 33's miners got their moments to live and breathe. The Wild Boars remain anonymous throughout The Cave, though in Waller's defense that probably has a great deal to do with Netflix holding the to rights to their stories. Also unforgivable is the lack of dramatic tension. The potential for a story of bureaucratic bungling is sidelined, and if there was no bungling in reality, the potential for a story of bureaucratic efficiency is also sidelined.
Tech specs are fine with what are likely budget constraints, and when the action heads into the cave and hones in on how to get 13 panicky people through hundreds of meters of murky water over the span of several hours, it sparks to life. The Cave is the first out of the gate with the story but it probably won't become the definitive account of a galvanizing global moment.
Production company: De Warrenne Pictures
Cast: Jim Warney, Tan Xiaolong, James Edward Holley, Phillip Wilson, Eoin O'Brien, Arpa Pawilai, Nirut Sirichaya, Todd Ruiz, Ekawat Niratvorapanya
D.W. Young's documentary, executive produced by Parker Posey, delivers a behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare book world.
Bibliophiles are likely to be increasingly depressed these days, thanks to the rise of eBooks and the continuing demise of bookstores. D.W. Young's documentary, receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, should provide something of a balm to those beleaguered souls. Providing a behind-the-scenes look at the world of rare book dealers but also digressing into topics revolving around the printed word in general, The Booksellers will be enjoyed by anyone who's ever happily spent hours wandering through bookstores with no specific goal in mind.
"The world is divided between people who collect things, and people who don't know what the hell these people are doing collecting things," observes one of the film's subjects. Needless to say, the documentary very much concentrates on the former, especially those who attend the annual Antiquarian Book Fair at New York City's Park Avenue Armory, a mecca for rare book collectors. Ironically, as if to underscore the archaic products being exhibited, the armory is a virtual antique itself, dating back to the late 19th century and featuring a giant clock that no longer works.
Among the dealers who exhibit there are Dave Bergman, who specializes in giant-sized books and whose apartment is packed to the gills with his inventory. "Every time I buy another book, I have to rearrange the entire place," he says sardonically.
We learn that in the 1950s there were 358 bookstores in New York City and that now there are only 79 remaining it's actually surprising there are still that many. Among the notable used and rare bookstores that have survived are The Strand, opened in 1929 and now the only one left of what used to be dozens of such establishments on 4th Ave, once dubbed "Book Row." There's also the Argosy Book Store on E. 59th St., established in 1925 and currently run by the three daughters of the original owner. Tellingly, both of these are family businesses, and their longevity can be ascribed to the fact that the families own the buildings in which their stores are located.
The film fascinatingly delves into the history of book collecting, spotlighting such pioneering figures as legendary British dealer A.S. W. Rosenbach, whose nickname was "The Napoleon of Books," and researchers Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern, who uncovered Louisa May Alcott's pseudonym of A.M. Bernard, which the author of Little Women used when writing pulp romance fiction.
Author Fran Lebowiz offers plenty of amusing commentary throughout the film. "You know what they used to call independent bookstores? Bookstores," she jokes, adding, "They were all independent." Novelist Susan Orlean weighs in as well, talking about having sold her archives to Columbia University and worrying that in the age of computers researchers will no longer have the opportunity to explore writers' creative processes.
Several of the interview subjects point out that while the internet is great for collectors, who can find anything they want with just a few keystrokes, it's been terrible for booksellers. The very word "Kindle" sends shudders up booksellers' spines, although not all of them are ready to write off the printed word just yet. "I think the death of the book is highly overrated," one dealer comments.
The film includes amusing profiles of several of the more eccentric collectors, including one dealer who handles books bound in human skin and Priceline.com founder Jay Walker, who has a massive library in his home dedicated to the "human imagination" and inspired by M.C. Escher.
The Booksellers tends to be a bit too digressive at times, lapsing into many tangents that are never uninteresting but tend to cause it to lose focus. Nonetheless, the film provides an evocative portrait of a way of life that is hopefully not completely vanishing anytime soon.
Venue: New York Film Festival Production: Blackletter Films Director/editor: D.W. Young Producers: Dan Wechsler, Judith Mizrachy Executive producers: Parker Posey Director of photography: Peter Bolte Composer: David Ullmann
Actor Goncalo Waddington's directorial debut features Hugo Fernandes as a damaged abduction survivor struggling to reintegrate into his family.
Actor turned writer-director Goncalo Waddington's debut feature Patrick offers up a dramatic, literal illustration of that old therapeutic adage that “hurt people hurt people.” Filtered through the eyes of its title character Hugo Fernandes, from Cezanne et Moi, a young man who was kidnapped as a child and subjected to years of sexual abuse, the film watches implacably as he abuses both strangers and members of the family he's reunited with back in Portugal after a 12-year absence.
Even accounting for the intrinsic bleakness of the subject, this is one bitter draft that many may find too unpalatable to drink, especially since it refuses to offer even the tiniest chaser of hope — unlike, say, the thematically similar Room. Moreover, there are some procedural details that fray the basic setup's plausibility in places. Still, Waddington clearly has game when it comes to building up suspenseful, fetid intensity and — unsurprisingly, given his experience in front of the camera elsewhere such as Miguel Gomes Arabian Nights films — handles actors with skill.
In the opening scene, 20-year-old Patrick Fernandes is seen having his entirely fat-free body lasered to remove body hair, seemingly in an effort to make him fit a certain ephebe-like ideal of male beauty and mimic a youthfulness that his bad acne and sullen disposition disputes. By night, he prowls night clubs looking for women even younger than himself and getting into fights.
But by day this semi-feral creature lives like a pampered pet in the plush home of a rich older man with whom he has a sexual relationship. When Patrick throws a raucous party one night, the police break it up, interrupting his attempt to rape a drunk young woman. That leads to the discovery of a website he sells access to on the dark web filled with footage of him violating other semi-conscious young women as well as a years-old clip showing Patrick as a child being abused himself.
Taciturn Patrick barely says a word as at first a French cop and later a Portuguese policeman lay out the backstory, revealing that Patrick's real name is Mario and that he was abducted from his hometown in Portugal at the age of eight, and presumed lost until now. It's at this point that the film diverges from the likes of Room by positing that the cops would decide to just drop charges, and send him across the border with a Portuguese detective to be effectively dumped on his mother's doorstep without any kind of post-traumatic therapy and rehabilitation process.
Given that, it's hardly any wonder that it goes pretty badly once Mario/Patrick comes “home,” where his clearly seriously depressed and grief-damaged mother Teresa Sobra struggles to reconnect with him. After all, she lost a little boy and this strange young man who seems hesitant to speak his mother tongue and barely remembers his old life is hardly a substitute. Her sister Carla Maciel, who fusses anxiously and seems to think all problems can be solved with food, arrives with his attractive, engaging young cousin Alba Baptista, perhaps thinking that Mario will open up to his old playmate from childhood. The strategy works up to the point where it all goes hideously wrong and Patrick/Mario flees back to Belgium to confront the mysterious Mark, whom he can't stop trying to connect to on the phone.
The long, somewhat ponderous midsection, full of intentionally phatic small talk from people who don't know what to say in these extraordinary circumstances, is bookended by lurid scenes of violence that punctuate but don't necessarily resolve the story's emotional logic. Nevertheless, Waddington's script and direction evoke through strong visuals and telling silences the fog of pain and remorse that envelops everyone here, even the poor cousin who has carried guilt for 12 years that she didn't go to meet Mario after soccer practice on the day he was abducted.
In its own quiet way, the film confronts viewers with the fact that most people who abuse were themselves abused as children — a fact that's usually veiled by keeping the original sin hidden by the sedimental layers of age, so that we largely associate sexual abuse as something committed by ugly older people, especially men, not by young people on even younger people. Arguably, it's Patrick/Mario's barely-out-of-his-teens youthfulness that makes his own crimes seem so chilling, final and warped. This uncomfortable reminder that such psychology is all too possible is what makes the film so hard to watch.
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival Official Selection Cast: Hugo Fernandes, Teresa Sobral, Carla Maciel, Alba Baptusta, Miguel Hetz-Kestranek Production: An O Som e a Furia, Augenschein Filmproduktion, ZDF production Director/screenwriter: Goncalo Waddington Producers: Luis Urbano, Sandro Aguilar Co-producers: Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo Director of photography: Vasco Viana Art director: Nadia Henriques Costume designer: Peri De Braganca Editor: Pedro Filipe Marques Music: Bruno Pernadas Casting: Karen Hottois, Anja Dihrberg, Raquel Da Silva Sales: The Match Factory No rating; 103 minutes