Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Two Film Festival Wrap-ups on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, today at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand.













Monday, November 23, 2020

Wrapping Up the 2020 St. Louis Film Festival 

The Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival recently completed its 2020 edition in its first-ever all-virtual format. With the future of theatrical screenings in limbo due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this alternative approach made it possible for the Festival to go forward, and it worked remarkably well, enabling viewers to screen a variety of films while remaining safe at home. As has been the case with other such events this year, this is a viable approach well worth considering for future programs, even without the threat of a pandemic. It makes it possible to offer the Festival’s films to a wider audience and provides flexible viewing conditions, benefits not necessarily available when presented exclusively in theatrical venues.

Because of this new format, I was able to screen a great number of films. In total, I watched 20 feature offerings, which are summarized below. One of these films was featured in a previous review, and some of the other offerings will subsequently be featured in expanded reviews on this site in the near future.

“Cured” (U.S.), (5/5) (*****)

How do you cure millions of supposedly mentally ill people overnight? By publicly proclaiming that their “affliction” of homosexuality isn’t an affliction at all. So it was in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association dropped being gay from its official list of mental maladies. It was a hard-fought victory in the LGBTQ rights movement, one that’s meticulously detailed in this superb documentary. This film features a wealth of interviews with those who were on the front lines, as well as ample archive footage depicting the key moments in the effort to win over the hearts and minds of those who blindly accepted an assessment for which there was no scientific basis to back it up. In addition to chronicling this seminal development, the film is a fitting tribute to many unsung heroes in the LGBTQ rights movement, giving them the accolades they have long deserved. Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer’s fine offering is great viewing for those who believe in social justice, and it’s especially highly recommended for younger viewers in the LGBTQ community who may not – but need to – know their people’s history.

“Stars by the Pound” (“100 kilos d’étoiles”) (France), (5/5) (*****)

When an idealistic teen (Laure Duchêne) dreams of becoming an astronaut, she reaches for the stars. There’s just one problem – her chubby physique holds her down, both literally and figuratively. Nevertheless, this quest launches her on an unexpected journey of self-discovery as told through this positively delightful French charmer. Director Marie-Sophie Chambon’s debut feature may be a little commercial and a tad predictable, but so what – this release’s gentle humor, touching moments, inventive visuals and expertly cast ensemble make for an entertaining and uplifting time, the kind of movie we could use more of right now.

“There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”) (Iran/Germany/Czech Republic), (5/5) (*****)

“Remorse,” “regret” and “defiance” are words most of us would not readily associate with executioners, but they’re more than apropos when it comes to the characters in director Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest, “There Is No Evil.” This collection of four vignettes about the lives of executioners placed into situations bigger than themselves examines how these individuals cope with their circumstances, revealing feelings that those in this grim profession aren’t supposed to possess. While there are occasional pacing issues and a slight tendency for the filmmaker to wear his heart on his sleeve, these minor flaws are easily overlooked in the wake of the picture’s numerous other strengths. A surprisingly insightful offering.

“9,75” (Turkey), (4/5) (****)


Where does reality leave off and fantasy take over? And what happens when those lines become blurred? Such are the dilemmas plaguing a former Turkish soldier and aspiring writer who’s battling PTSD and coping with a recent brain tumor diagnosis while trying to complete a highly personal novel before time runs out. This intense, emotive adaptation of author Mehmet Eroğlu’s 9,75 Santimetrekare (9.75 Square Centimeters) takes viewers through a range of emotions, backed by the performances of a fine ensemble, superb cinematography and an ethereal, atmospheric score. While the film could benefit from the deletion of extraneous material, and despite the fact that the blurring of the lines is, at times, a little too muddied for its own good, this debut feature from director Uluç Bayraktar nevertheless represents an impressive beginning to what is hopefully a bright career.

“Fisheye” (Poland), (4/5) (****)

When a brilliant research oncologist (Julia Kijowska) makes a huge breakthrough, she mysteriously disappears. Is someone out to steal her work? Or is something else afoot? As it turns out, she’s abducted and secluded in sound-proofed space immediately adjacent to her own apartment, but no one knows she’s there. During this captivity, she’s able to see and overhear developments in the lives of her nearest and dearest – as well as revelations about herself, clues to some of her own unexplained past behavior. But can she earn her freedom? And, if so, how, given that she doesn’t even know who kidnapped her? That’s the puzzle in director Michal Szczesniak’s debut feature, a psychological thriller that intriguingly operates on multiple levels. However, as engaging as this premise is, the picture begins to run out of story about two-thirds of the way through. It’s obvious the film is moving toward some sort of conclusion, but it becomes bogged down in tangents and padding that are likely to prompt viewers to demand “Get on with it already!” The makings of a great movie are here, especially Kijowska’s lead performance, but some much-needed shoring up is required to reach that goal.

“Minor Premise” (U.S.), (4/5) (****)

How much does memory dictate our consciousness? Moreover, how much does our consciousness shape who we are? And is it possible to reshape our consciousness (and, hence, ourselves) by altering the memories that go into it? Such is the work of a research scientist (Sathya Sridharan) exploring technology designed to bring about such changes, using himself as the primary subject of his experiment. But, when things don’t go as planned, he opens a Pandora’s Box that’s difficult to again close. Filmmaker Eric Schultz’s debut feature echoes the works of director Christopher Nolan, as well as themes first raised in the sci-fi classic “Brainstorm” (1983), a hybrid sci-fi/smart horror/thriller that gets better with each passing frame. Although the film is a little too technical and needlessly cryptic in its first 30 minutes, it makes up for that once the story hits its stride, taking viewers on quite a ride all the way to its conclusion. Like many other offerings at this year’s film festivals, “Minor Premise” marks yet another premiere feature from a promising new talent – and one that intelligently kicks some ass in the process.

“My Dog Stupid” (“Mon Chien Stupide”) (France/Belgium), (4/5) (****)


This French comedy-drama about a once-successful author (Yvan Attal) whose life and career have stagnated after decades of marriage and fatherhood takes an unexpected and quirky turn when he impulsively adopts a big, dim-witted, perpetually randy, ever-slobbering dog who wanders into his garden and whose presence subsequently overturns the familiar routine he has long known but grown to despise. What starts off as a frothy farce gradually turns more introspective as the protagonist witnesses his life degenerating even further, a change that he initially believes he enjoys but soon comes to realize otherwise. With fine performances by actor-director Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, this often-hilarious yet thoughtful tale offers more than just another silly rambunctious dog movie, particularly when it comes to assessing our appreciation of what we have – and what we wish we had – as we get on in life. This delightful fare, reminiscent of early Woody Allen films but with its own distinctive spin, entertains from start to finish, even growing on viewers with multiple screenings, as it did for me in my second look. For a complete review, read more by clicking here.

“Nina Wu” (“Zhou ren mi mi”) (Taiwan/Malaysia/Myanmar), (4/5) (****)

How far will one go to achieve success? That’s the question put to an aspiring Taiwanese actress (Ke-Xi Wu) who has been struggling for years for a breakthrough. But, now that a big opportunity has emerged, can she bring herself to do what’s asked of her? And can she do so if the requirements go against her own sensibilities? “Nina Wu” addresses these issues both through her own direct experience, as well as the images of her vivid dreams, bringing her face to face with herself, her internal conflicts and her ability to push her own limits, themes reminiscent of films like “Black Swan” (2010). Director Midi Z’s latest is never dull, providing viewers with a captivating tale through its many changes of mood, quirky humor and fine performances, even if it does begin to lose control of the room somewhat toward the end. Nevertheless, audiences will hang on every frame as they wonder where this evocative character study is going and how it will all turn out. While this may be one of the stranger offerings of recent years, its freshness, timeliness and distinctiveness are curiously and eminently satisfying. 

“The Artist’s Wife” (U.S.), (4/5) (****)


A moving, if sometimes slightly disjointed look at the life of a wife (Lena Olin) who gave up her pursuit to be an artist to support the painting career of her talented, famous and affluent but capricious and egotistical husband (Bruce Dern), a challenge made all the more difficult by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, making him more volatile and unpredictable than ever. The dynamics of a woman torn between wanting to support her beloved and pull away to attend to her own needs are examined in multiple permutations, presenting a profile of a character frustrated while attempting to be conciliatory in multiple regards. The superb lead performances by Olin and Dern, backed by a fine supporting cast, really make this picture, helping director Tom Dolby’s effort shine, even when its sometimes-meandering narrative lets them down. A worthwhile candidate for awards season, especially in the acting categories.

“The Crossing” (“Flukten over grensen”) (Norway), (4/5) (****)

When the parents of a rural Norwegian family attempting to hide two Jewish children during World War II are taken into custody by authorities, it’s up to their own son and daughter (Bo Lindquist-Ellingsen, Anna Sofie Skarholt) to help the refugees (Samson Steine, Bianca Ghilardi-Hellsten) escape to the safety of nearby neutral Sweden. The quartet of youngsters thus embarks on a harrowing journey to stay ahead of their Nazi captors. While director Johanne Helgeland’s debut feature capably tells an inspiring and adventurous tale, the suspense level could certainly stand to be turned up a few notches to overcome the picture’s tendency toward formula and predictability, especially in the final act. The performances of the four young protagonists help to make up for this, however, something that will definitely appeal to peer-aged viewers. Overall, a well-crafted offering that could have benefitted from a bit more inventiveness but a worthwhile view nevertheless. 

“The Dark Divide” (U.S.), (4/5) (****)


When a lepidopterist (David Cross) who’s an expert in his field doesn’t personally know what it’s like to go through the kind of transformation that all of his butterfly subjects experience, he sets out on a wilderness journey that provides him with that very metamorphosis. Filmmaker Tom Putnam’s fact-based story about the odyssey of Dr. Robert Pyle through one of the remotest wildlife areas in the country tells a tale encompassing a range of emotions, from laughter to tears to revelation, a picture highly reminiscent of films like director Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Wild” (2014). Though somewhat episodic at times, the overall narrative rings true to its mission and does so with beautiful cinematography, fine performances and an excellent score. When we all need to get on with our lives, stories like this give us a template to draw from so that we may all take flight.

“The Oratorio” (U.S./Italy), (4/5) (****)

It’s amazing what a little culture can do. So it was in 1826 New York, when the first American performance of Italian-style operatic music was staged in the city’s Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, an oratorio arranged by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist. This little-known event sparked a wave that impacted Gotham’s arts scene across the board, helping to make the city the center of American cultural life. In “The Oratorio,” directors Alex Bayer, Jonathan Mann and Mary Anne Rothberg document a present-day re-creation of that event, with commentary from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Jim Gaffigan, who call the cathedral their home parish. In addition to chronicling the current re-creation by the company of Italy’s Teatro Lirico Cagliari, the film details the original event, the life of its creator and the history of the cathedral, including its ongoing impact as a spiritual center for New York’s immigrant population. While this offering commendably presents material on a wide variety of subjects, its focus sometimes meanders a bit, and it could definitely benefit from more of what this picture is all about – the  music. Nevertheless, “The Oratorio” is an otherwise-engaging and enlightening project that sheds light on a story whose influence has been far greater than its principals probably ever imagined – and one that deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

“African Violet” (“Banafsheh Afrighael”) (Iran), (3/5) (***)

Making up for past mistakes is certainly noble, especially when such gestures of compassion yield unexpectedly beneficial results. Such is the case in this Iranian domestic drama about a middle-aged woman (Fatemah Motamed-Aria) who takes in her elderly ex-husband (Reza Babak) when their children place him in a nursing home, an act of kindness that unwittingly unleashes an array of emotions between her and her second husband(Saeed Aghakhani). While this character study of the three principals has its heart in the right place, it tends to meander with the introduction of a variety of subplots that aren’t always fully resolved and sometimes seem like filler to compensate for a thin central narrative. Thankfully, director Mona Zandi Haghigi’s sophomore outing successfully avoids the trap of becoming melodramatic, but the finished product feels as though it could have used more substance and better focus to fully realize its potential.

“Coming Home Again” (U.S./South Korea), (3/5) (***)


I kept waiting for something to grab onto that would bring out the empathy in me in this tale of caregiving in the face of impending loss. Yet usually-reliable director Wayne Wang never really delivers on this point. Instead, the filmmaker gives us a sincere but ultimately thin, rote premise whose narrative is stretched to the limit, padded with interminably pregnant pauses, artfully photographed sequences (mostly of cooking) shot in stark silence and ample inconsequential dialogue that could easily have been cut. While the performances are generally impressive, much of what the ensemble has been asked to do comes up lacking in terms of evoking viewer engagement and bringing meaning to what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the characters. This offering feels like it could have given audiences so much more but, regrettably, fails to do so. 

“Lapsis” (U.S.), (3/5) (***)


As a hybrid sci-fi/social satire offering, director Noah Hutton’s latest feature works well at the outset but sags in the middle and doesn’t quite stick the landing. The picture’s inventive premise, which examines the ennui, anger and frustration many of us feel about our collective mistrust of technology, a gamed financial system, big medicine, overly intrusive surveillance and condescending corporations, hits close to home (more so than many of us are probably comfortable with), but the flow of the narrative doesn’t tie the elements together as satisfactorily as one might like. It’s unfortunate that this production comes up short, because it starts out with so much promise that ultimately isn’t realized.

“Little Fish” (U.S./Canada), (3/5) (***)

In an age of epidemic memory loss, a married couple (Olivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell) very much in love with one another desperately seeks to hold on to their feelings and memories before they slip away – that is, if they can. So it is in director Chad Hartigan’s latest, “Little Fish,” a bittersweet love story set in the midst of a social and public health crisis. However, despite the film’s intriguing (and undeniably familiar) premise, the narrative ultimately seems thin, becoming somewhat circular as it progresses, as if stalling for time. And make sure the volume is tuned up for this one, too, given the picture’s poor sound quality. Regrettably, these shortcomings stymie the fine performances of Cooke and O’Connell and undercuts the picture’s other superb attributes, such as its lavish score and gorgeous cinematography. Indeed, if you’re looking for an offering that deals with subject matter like this (and better), check out Claire Carré’s “Embers” (2015) or the recently released Greek production “Apples” (2020) instead.

Madre” (“Mother”) (Spain/France), (3/5) (***)

When a six-year-old mysteriously disappears, his mother (Marta Nieto) is left to pick up the pieces and work through her grief. But, a decade later, when an adolescent (Jules Porier) appears who reminds her of her missing son, she’s captivated but unsure how to react, especially when he makes overtures verging on inappropriate, potential kinship notwithstanding. Such is the stage set in director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s latest, a compelling character study that starts out incredibly strong but loses its way the further one gets into the story, particularly in matters of pacing and narrative redundancy. That’s unfortunate given the strength of Nieto’s superb lead performance, along with the film’s atmospheric score and inventive cinematography. It’s certainly commendable that this offering tries to plumb new territory with its storyline, but the finished product could use some much-needed spit, polish and pruning to bring it up to speed.

“Citizens of the World” (“Lontano lontano”) (Italy), (2/5) (**)

While this Italian offering ultimately winds up delivering a pleasant, warm-fuzzy sentiment (although one that largely seems to emerge out of left field), writer-actor-director Gianni Di Gregorio’s latest takes a rather pedestrian path to that destination. What’s billed as a gentle comedy-drama about a trio of seniors (Di Gregorio, Ennio Fantastichini, Giorgio Colangeli) looking to escape the high cost of living in Rome by relocating abroad plays as a remarkably dull outing, with most scenes taking a purely functional approach and falling flat in the process. Sadly, what could have been a potentially raucous farce fails miserably, good intentions aside.

“Pacarrete” (Brazil), (2/5) (**)

As we age and life passes us by without attention, those of us who believe we still have something to say may try to attract that recognition by screaming for it at the tops of our lungs. So it is for an eccentric, egotistical retired ballet teacher (Marcelia Cartaxo) who wants to perform at her town’s bicentennial anniversary celebration. Despite a lack of interest from government officials, she insists on taking the stage and goes to any lengths to attempt to realize that goal. But, when the realities of aging catch up with her, what is she to do? Intriguing though that premise may be, this initially light and quirky comedy quickly becomes tiresome, primarily because the protagonist is not endearing, funny or even interesting – merely annoying. While the film makes up for this somewhat in its darker and more serious (though still overlong) second half, it’s not enough to save a project that just isn’t engaging enough to begin with. Director Allan Deberton’s offering plays like a picture whose script needed to go through a few more rewrites before being committed to celluloid. And that’s unfortunate given the message it apparently seeks to convey – that, just because we grow old, it doesn’t mean we should be casually cast aside, a prospect we’ll all come to face one day.

“Stardust” (U.K.), (1/5) (*)

The prospects for a picture about a historical figure don’t bode well when the opening frame unapologetically proclaims that what follows is mostly fiction. So it is with “Stardust,” an alleged “origin story” about a young David Bowie (Johnny Flynn) seeking to launch his career in America on a 1971 promotional tour plagued by problems, many of which originate with the rising rock star himself. But, given the opening disclaimer, how much of it is true? And, because of that, without further credible attribution, why should any of us care? Add to that a host of underdeveloped story threads, precious little music (including absolutely no Bowie compositions due to a rights issue), and, perhaps most critically, a cogent explanation of exactly how Bowie developed his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, and you’ve got a mess of a movie that’s all over the map. To be sure, the capable performances of Flynn, Marc Maron and Jena Malone help to make up for these shortcomings somewhat. However, given the iconic talent that David Bowie was, he and his fans certainly deserve a better treatment of his life and accomplishments than what’s presented in director Gabriel Range’s sorely disappointing effort.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

‘Apples’ examines the selectivity of memory

“Apples” (“Mila”) (2020). Cast: Aris Servetalis, Sofia Georgovassilli, Anna Kalaitzidou, Argiris Bakirtzis, Kostas Laskos, Babis Makridis. Director: Christos Nikou. Screenplay: Christos Nikou and Stavros Raptis. Web site. Trailer.

Memory is a funny thing. Some recollections are recalled with the greatest of ease, while others may become fuzzy or even seem to disappear completely. Then there’s the matter of total memory loss (i.e., amnesia), whose effects can be devastating and pervasive. So it is for a growing number of residents of a major city in the quirky new Greek comedy-drama, “Apples” (“Mila”).

When a middle-aged Greek man (Aris Servetalis) wakes up on an Athens bus, he has no idea where he is or who he is. When questioned about where he was going, he has no idea. And, when he’s asked about his identity, he has no papers in his wallet. He’s a complete enigma.

This is actually not the first time that viewers see him, though. Before boarding the bus, we see him in what is presumably his apartment, from which he departs, says hello to a neighbor and his dog, and goes to a flower shop to purchase a bouquet of long-stemmed blooms. But that’s as much as the audience knows about him before seeing him waking in his amnesiac state.

The man in question – we’ll call him Aris for the sake of convenience – is not alone, either. A growing wave of amnesiac cases seems to be mysteriously sweeping Athens, with patients all over the city awakening with no knowledge of who they are, how they got to where they were found, or, in some cases, an awareness of even a basic understanding of the world in which they live, as appears to be the case with Aris.

[caption id="attachment_11883" align="aligncenter" width="350"]When an amnesia patient (Aris Servetalis) enrolls in a program to help him develop a new identity, he’s required to carry out – and photographically document – a number of actions designed to provide him with new memories as seen in the quirky new Greek comedy-drama, “Apples” (“Mila”). Photo courtesy of Alpha Violet.[/caption]

Like the others similarly afflicted, Aris is transported to one of several hospitals designated to treat such patients through their Troubled Memory Departments. Patients like Aris are assigned numbers (in his case No. 14842) to distinguish them until their identities can be determined. Patients whose families realize they have missing relatives generally come to claim them and take them home. But those like Aris, who apparently have no family members searching for them, become semi-permanent residents of these facilities, as their care givers realize it would irresponsible to release them without knowing who they are and lacking in basic survival skills.

Treatment measures generally prove futile, too. Some medications are administered, and memory tests are conducted to try to determine what fundamental knowledge of the world the affected have managed to retain. However, as Aris’s doctor (Anna Kalaitzidou) quickly learns, her patient is largely operating in the dark, unaware of even the most fundamental aspects of life that we all take for granted. She also discovers that his short-term memory retention is seriously lacking, prompting her to wonder how he would cope in an outside world in which he seems to possess not even the slightest sense of connection. In fact, about the only thing he seems to have any recollection of is his love of apples, which he consumes in conspicuous amounts whenever he gets the chance.

Because of his circumstances, Aris is considered to be a candidate for an experimental initiative set up by the hospital, the New Identity Program. Realizing that the candidates for the program are unlikely to recover their past memories or identities, the developers of the NIP (Argiris Bakirtzis, Kostas Laskos) engage them in a structured treatment plan to help give them new personas, something from which it is hoped they can form the basis for a new start in life. Candidates are provided with a place to live, a regular stipend and a program of actions to carry out that they are required to document with photographs. From an outsider’s point of view, the designated actions might seem rather strange – ride the bicycle of a child, intentionally crash a car at slow speed, attend a costume party wearing a distinctive outfit, pick up someone in a night club and have sex in one of its bathroom stalls – but they are all distinctive enough to leave indelible marks on the memories of the patients, providing readily recallable memories to help shape new identities. And, with the photos that document these events, the patients have handy reminders that they occurred and that they can easily look back on for memory reinforcement.

[caption id="attachment_11884" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Riding a child’s bicycle is one of many “distinctive” actions aimed at helping an amnesiac patient (Aris Servetalis) forge new memories for a new identity in director Christos Nikou’s debut feature, “Apples” (“Mila”). Photo courtesy of Alpha Violet.[/caption]

Upon completing one of his assignments – attending a screening of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) – while Aris is taking a photo of himself next to the film’s poster at the theater entrance, he meets Anna (Sofia Georgovassilli), another apparent member of the New Identity Program, though it’s not entirely clear how readily he recognizes that. They strike up a conversation and walk home from the theater together. As they stroll, she tells him the amazing true story about a film she saw in which a large ocean liner hits an iceberg and sinks, a tale that’s unfamiliar to both of them. Nevertheless, their mutual captivation with the story of the Titanic sparks a bond of sorts, and they thus begin spending time together. There’s something strange about the relationship, though, as Aris soon begins to find out.

Meanwhile, Aris grows increasingly comfortable with his new life, enough so that he’s able to maintain his home, attend to his everyday needs and carry out his assignments. He develops quite a flair for cooking, and he enjoys his visits to the neighborhood market, where the grocer (Babis Makridis) regularly makes food recommendations, particularly when it comes to the apples Aris so loves. However, when the grocer realizes that his customer is in the New Identity Program, he recommends that Aris try eating oranges instead of apples, because, he contends, they’re said to be good for the memory. Aris decides to give them a try and soon discovers the merits of that recommendation as snippets of his memory return. But he also quickly learns that those memories may involve recollections he doesn’t want to recall, especially when he finds himself going to a flower shop to purchase a bouquet of long-stemmed blooms. Indeed, perhaps it’s best that some memories are forgotten – and that they should stay that way.

Memory is something whose importance we often tend to undervalue. To be sure, we recognize its significance when it comes to the recollection of milestone events, meaningful relationships and other matters of great relevance. However, it also plays a rudimentary role in more mundane matters, like how to use a can opener, how to brush our teeth or where to buy groceries. If we were unable to recall how to do these things, we would have to struggle our way through everyday existence.

[caption id="attachment_11885" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Donning an astronaut suit for a costume party is one of the required actions for an amnesiac patient (Aris Servetalis, center) in an effort to help him forge a new identity in the compelling new Greek comedy-drama, “Apples” (“Mila”). Photo courtesy of Alpha Violet.[/caption]

So how exactly does memory figure into these activities? We use the memories associated with these tasks to form beliefs on how they can be accomplished. And, when we draw upon those beliefs, we use them to carry out these activities, bringing them into being in our reality. That, in essence, is how we make use of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we tap into these resources for shaping the existence we experience. This thus raises the notion, who thought memories were so important?

This is painfully evident in Aris’s case. When he loses his memory, it’s almost as if he can no longer function in some very basic ways. For example, one of the tests his doctor conducts is designed to measure his ability to associate certain types of music with specific activities. When she plays a recording of “Jingle Bells,” he’s given a stack of drawings from which he’s asked to select the one that would most readily go with the song. Needless to say, both he and his physician are disappointed when he picks the illustration of a wedding instead of a family Christmas celebration. That alone shows how pervasive his memory loss has been – and how that deficiency would obviously affect his ability to function on his own without some kind of guidance or assistance.

This is also true when it comes to Aris being able to grasp the nature of his own identity. If he doesn’t have memories of himself, he would also lack beliefs about who he is. In turn, he probably wouldn’t have any clue about what he’s proficient at, what his dreams and aspirations are, or even what he likes (except, of course, his beloved apples). How can one form the basis of a satisfying existence if one can’t even identify the rudiments of one’s own nature?

The implications of this extend beyond just individual amnesiac patients. For instance, if one has no recollections about the way the world works or one’s own personal identity, that leaves said individual open to all manner of potential manipulation. With no memories in place about such matters, one could conceivably be led to believe just about anything. It even raises the specter of being able to convince someone to unwittingly become an aberration of oneself, such as a Manchurian candidate or brainwashed terrorist. In fact, one can’t help but wonder if something nefarious is going on with the heads of the New Identity Program. Are the strange actions they require of program participants aimed at determining how far those subjects would go? It’s certainly food for thought.

[caption id="attachment_11886" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Visiting a strip club and documenting the experience is one of the unusual actions required of an amnesiac patient (Aris Servetalis, right) in helping him make new memories for his new identity in “Apples” (“Mila”). Photo courtesy of Alpha Violet.[/caption]

Of course, given that conscious creation enables us to manifest anything with the power of our beliefs, one might legitimately ask, “Why would anyone create amnesia in the first place, especially in light of its potentially pervasive effects?” And, in the case of this film, that applies both individually and en masse. Because the creation of such circumstances requires beliefs stemming from an underlying intent, that would mean these conditions were materialized on purpose, even if not recognized as such. Therefore, it would likely follow that those affected by this outbreak of amnesia brought it upon themselves to intentionally forget something, be it of a personal or collective nature (or possibly both). What’s being forgotten is difficult to determine, given its inherent absence, but one could speculate that it has to do with painful recollections. The loss of a loved one or perhaps a widespread social calamity are among the possibilities. Given that it’s happening on such a broad scale, though, suggests that there are many individuals looking to tune out, the exact cause of which notwithstanding.

In that sense, one could argue that the scenario presented here mirrors the ennui many of us in society are feeling these days. In a world plagued by myriad social, political and economic issues, not to mention the personal tragedies of everyday life, it’s no wonder that some of us would willingly like to forget what happened and slip into an amnesiac state. However, the danger in that is that, in our hopes of being relieved of such anguish, we might carry things too far, reaching a state where our memories are wiped so clean that we lose the beliefs that enable us to carry out everyday activities. Do we really want circumstances to go that far? If not, we’d better be careful what we wish for. Beliefs are powerful tools in shaping our existence, and, if allowed to get out of control, they can yield outcomes not to our liking – or benefit.

And what’s with the apples – where do they come into play here? It’s common knowledge that apples are a widely recognized symbol in Greek mythology and Biblical scripture, most notably as the so-called “forbidden fruit” that got Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden. According to the Bible, they lost paradise when they ate the one fruit – apples – that God forbade them to consume. This story has since symbolically come to associate this fruit with great loss, a notion that has taken up residence in the consciousness of many of us. If that’s the case, then, why would someone like Aris become so preoccupied with their voluntary consumption? Does this notion apply to him? And, if so, why would he willingly go along with it? Is there something he’s purposely trying to lose – or forget?

Director Christos Nikou is off to a fine start with this impressive debut feature. This suspenseful, nuanced and engaging meditation on the nature of memory and the selectivity of its retention will keep viewers guessing from start to finish, all the while serving up heaping helpings of wry humor and cleverly dangling clues before our eyes that may or may not prove integral to solving the mystery of this intriguing conundrum. The film mirrors the eccentricity of directors like Yorgos Lanthimos and Charlie Kaufman, presents a puzzle not unlike that found in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000) and Claire Carré’s “Embers” (2015), and successfully incorporates the kind of deadpan laughs characteristic of  Hal Ashby’s “Being There” (1979). The film’s inventive, tautly composed script, written by Nikou and Stavros Raptis, deservedly captured the Chicago Film Festival’s Silver Hugo Award for best screenplay. Indeed, if this is what Nikou has to offer in his first major outing, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

“Apples” has primarily been playing the film festival circuit thus far, so finding it may be a little difficult. However, given the strength of this offering, it would be a boon to movie buffs everywhere if it were to obtain a wider release. Keep an eye out for it – it’s definitely worth it.

Memory performs a function more vital than most of us realize or give it credit for. Without it, we could be irretrievably lost, not only in terms of knowing ourselves, but also in knowing our reality. As “Apples” so effectively illustrates, memory is indeed crucial to the core of our being, helping us form the beliefs that makes living our lives possible. And don’t you forget it.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Film Festival Wrap-ups on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio today, Tuesday, November 10, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking hereAnd, if you don't hear the show live, catch it later on demand.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Trial of the Chicago 7" and "God of the Piano," as well as a film festival wrap-up, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

‘God of the Piano’ tackles the perils of desperation

“God of the Piano” (2019 production, 2020 release). Cast: Naama Preis, Andi Lev, Ron Bitterman, Ze’ev Shimshoni, Alon Openhaim, Shimon Mimran, Leora Rivlin, Itay Zipor. Director: Itay Tal. Screenplay: Itay Tal. Web site. Trailer.

Preserving a family legacy is certainly a noble goal. It provides a sense of continuity that links the generations and gives a family its character, reputation and even notoriety. But how far is one willing to go to keep up the tradition? At what point does a goal turn into an obsession? And what are the costs of going too far? Those are among the issues raised and addressed in the captivating new Israeli psychological thriller, “God of the Piano.”

Anat Tal (Naama Preis) comes from a well-known musical family. Her father, Ariah (Ze’ev Shimshoni), has long been connected with the performance and composition program at a respected conservatory. Her brother, Dror (Alon Openhaim), is noted for his performance skills, even if he doesn’t pursue them as seriously as the family would like. And Anat is herself an accomplished pianist, even if her talents don’t quite rise to the standards of the rest of the family. She hopes to compensate for that, however, with the child she is carrying, firmly committed to seeing her soon-to-be-born son take over the family legacy and become an accomplished musician in his own right.

[caption id="attachment_11863" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Pianist Anat Tal (Naama Preis) longs to continue the family legacy of virtuoso musicians but isn’t seen as quite having what it takes to do so in the new Israeli psychological thriller, “God of the Piano.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

When the infant arrives, though, Anat and her husband, Hanan (Ron Bitterman), are in for a rude awakening: the newborn is deaf. The disappointment is nearly crippling: how can a deaf child rise to the status of well-renowned musician? And, when Anat learns there is little hope for her son recovering from his condition, she becomes despondent.

Hanan steps in at this point and requests information from the Silent Speaking Institute, an organization designed to provide education to hearing-impaired children and to assist their families in coping with their particular challenges. But Anat quietly sees this as a wholly inadequate solution, because it doesn’t address the objective she has in mind – that of raising her own little virtuoso, a goal she clings to despite her circumstances. She becomes desperate and impulsively decides to take extreme measures to “correct” for this “accident” of birth. While in the hospital nursery one day, with no one looking, she switches the bracelets of her own child for one who obviously can hear. She tells no one, not even Hanan, and the new parents soon take home their “son.” And, when the child comes back to the hospital for subsequent hearing tests, he’s found to have miraculously recovered from his condition, the doctors chalking up his deafness to an inexplicable temporary impairment.

With no one the wiser, Anat begins raising her young son, Idan (Itay Ziper), to become the musical prodigy she hoped for. His grandfather is understandably proud, hoping for a bright future for the youngster, something that could become a reality with Anat’s committed guidance and Ariah’s recent promotion at the conservatory as an admissions committee member. And, as an older Idan (Andi Lev) approaches his teen years, hopes rise that he will fulfill his expected destiny.

[caption id="attachment_11864" align="aligncenter" width="350"]When musician Anat Tal (Naama Preis) learns that her newborn son is deaf, her dreams of raising the next family virtuoso are shattered in director Itay Tal’s debut feature, “God of the Piano.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

However, despite Idan’s growth as a performer and composer, Anat grows increasingly compulsive about his training and commitment. As a 12-year-old, he’d like to be able to experience many of the same joys as his peers, something that Anat curtails in the belief that such distractions will derail his efforts. Likewise, as someone who is growing into adolescence, Idan wants to be able to start making his own decisions, including some that don’t jibe with his mother’s wishes. The obsessive stage mom attitude begins to run thin, not only with Idan, but also with Hanan, who disagrees with his wife’s strategies for not letting their son be who he is, a growing source of strife in their marriage.

Given Anat’s doubts about Idan’s commitment to his craft, she begins seeking the advice of a famous composer and performer, Rafael Ben-Ari (Shimon Mimran). In the process, considering Anat’s growing marital difficulties, their involvement soon turns personal, leading to an affair. But, while Rafael’s interests genuinely seem sincere, Anat sees their connection only in terms of what she can get out of it, namely, the means to help bolster her son’s chances for admission to the conservatory’s composition program. And that opportunity comes when Rafael lovingly composes a piece for Anat, something that she appears to graciously accept but that she secretly hopes she might be able to pass off as one of Idan’s works if the need arises.

While all this is going on, Anat also becomes uncomfortable that the secret of her hospital switch may be exposed. She’s reminded of what she did when she receives phone calls and mailings from the Silent Speaking Institute. While the communications are most likely attributable to her name never having been removed from the organization’s mailing list, the repeated contacts nevertheless serve as unnerving reminders of her actions. They occur so frequently, in fact, that, despite diligent efforts to cease these unsolicited communications, she finally visits the institute to demand that her name be removed from its contact lists. But that visit becomes even more unsettling when she meets an SSI administrator, Or (Leora Rivlin), who turns out to be Anat’s neighbor. And, when their conversation turns to one of the organization’s children, it strikes an uncomfortably familiar chord. Could it be that Anat’s past has come back to haunt her?

[caption id="attachment_11865" align="aligncenter" width="350"]When budding musician Idan Tal (Andi Lev, right) begins his journey to greatness with the aid of his grandfather, Ariah (Ze’ev Shimshoni, left), he has little suspicion that he’s not who he thinks he is, as seen in “God of the Piano.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

By this point, it seems that Anat has gotten herself into a quandary much more deeply than she ever anticipated. With her son’s future, her current marriage and her own past on the line, she’s facing challenges at every turn. How will they turn out for her? That’s what remains to be seen.

Having goals is certainly admirable, but, when we become so preoccupied with their fulfillment, it’s easy for those objectives to turn into obsessions, as Anat’s actions so clearly demonstrate. And, as those desperate actions show, they can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences. Such fallout can be difficult to deal with, but that’s often the case when we lose our grip over the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience. If allowed to become obsessive, those driving forces in the creation of our existence can turn disastrous, leading to all sorts of new challenges, many of which could prove more demanding than any of those we envisioned at the outset.

Many of Anat’s actions illustrate the practice of un-conscious creation at work. This occurs when we become so focused on an outcome that we seek its fulfillment at any cost, no matter what other side effects may accompany it. This “consequences be damned” take on the process is usually driven by poor choices and an inherently reckless approach, leading to new problems to contend with, many of which are often handled in an equally irresponsible way, in turn prompting new generations of obstacles to overcome.

[caption id="attachment_11866" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Distraught father Hanan Tal (Ron Bitterman) is upset that his overly controlling wife is raising their musical prodigy son in a way that deprives him of the joys of childhood in “God of the Piano,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

Such results often come about from the practice of pushing the Universe, an attempt at manhandling the efforts of our divine collaborator in the conscious creation process. As those skilled in the practice understand, the philosophy works most effectively when we partner with the Universe (or God, Goddess, All That Is, Source or whatever other term best suits you), working jointly to produce sought-after outcomes. This involves making our intents known and then letting our collaborator take over. But, if we don’t allow this to happen, we may unduly interfere when we try to force the issue. It’s as if we doubt the ability of our partner to come through for us, leading to distorted manifestations of what we were initially seeking to achieve, leading to the aforementioned undesired side effects – and leaving us with new problems to be solved.

This is obvious, for example, through all of the challenges Anat faces when she switches the babies in the hospital. Had she not resorted to such a desperate step, she might not have had to deal with an adolescent with attitude issues, the frequent “pestering” of the Silent Speaking Institute or her marital troubles, among other problems. What’s more, all of this might have been avoided if she hadn’t been so single-mindedly focused on achieving her original goal. If Anat didn’t embrace the core limiting belief that a deaf individual was fundamentally incapable of becoming a musical genius, she may have encountered far fewer (and less daunting) problems. (I mean, hadn’t she ever heard of Beethoven? As a musician, one might think that she of all people would know better – and not cling to such a shortsighted perspective.)

[caption id="attachment_11867" align="aligncenter" width="350"]When stage mother Anat Tal (Naama Preis, left) seeks the advice of renowned pianist and composer Rafael Ben-Ari (Shimon Mimran, right) about the future of her aspiring virtuoso son, their relationship turns more than professional in “God of the Piano.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

Anat faces an additional coping challenge through all of the reminders of her actions. For example, try as she might to eliminate the SSI communications, they keep coming back to haunt her, as if they were prodding her conscience to atone for her past. These synchronicities often provide us with clues about what we’re supposed to do. In most cases, they offer us beneficial tips that lead us to contacts or resources that can assist us. But, for Anat, they continually push her to make up for her mistakes, and their recurring nature won’t leave her alone until she does. That can be like living through a waking nightmare; do we really want that?

All of these issues can be avoided by acting authentically, being our true selves, and following our genuine, heartfelt dictates. Given Anat’s reactions to the challenges she eventually faced, she had to realize that her acts of desperation were not in her best interests or those of Idan and her family. Perhaps she had to undergo these experiences to learn that lesson, but, as the problems mounted, at some point she had to understand that what she had done was wrong and that the initial issue only became compounded by new ones as she tried to compensate for the original mistake. The sooner we realize we need to be truthful with ourselves, the better off we’ll be in the long run by creating a reality that best suits us.

Israeli director Itay Tal’s debut feature packs quite a suspenseful punch in its 80-minute runtime, especially in its remarkable ability to move the story along more by deeds than words. This psychological thriller staged in an unlikely setting makes it a fresh, original offering, one that captivates throughout. The film’s excellent ensemble and superb score (much of it original) bring this compelling story to life, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats right up to the end. This surprisingly gripping offering is available for first-run online streaming and is a featured presentation at upcoming events, such as the St. Louis International Film Festival.

When we allow our actions to be guided by our compulsions, we can set ourselves up for serious trouble. This illustrates the power of our convictions. If they take us into territory in which we know we needn’t dare set foot, the road ahead can be a difficult one. So, when such incidents arise, we’d be best to take a step back to consider where our beliefs may be leading us. It’s one of those times when second-guessing ourselves just might prove prudent, both in the short and long term. It could be difficult, but it could also save us considerable anguish, something that no obsession is worth.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.