Cannes 2024 Finale – The 8 Best Films to Watch Out For From the Fest |

Cannes 2024 Finale – The 8 Best Films to Watch Out For From the Fest

by Alex Billington
June 4, 2024

What are the best films out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival? Which ones should you be taking an interest in? What films should be a priority for you to see? After diving into cinema for 12 days at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, after watching a total of 40 films, it’s time to present my 2024 list of my Top 8 Favorites. This was my 14th year back to this festival (I also handed out 4 signed books), and I still love being there right in the middle of all the buzz and excitement, watching new cinema every single day. As I usually say – there’s always more to see, always more to take our breath away. These eight favorites listed below are the ones that connected with me emotionally or intellectually, and I hope you’ll consider watching a few when they arrive in your neighborhood. They are worth the wait – each one distinct and memorable. It might have been another lackluster Cannes overall, for the most part, though I am happy I caught a few bangers by the end. This is my very final recap of Cannes 2024 – don’t skip a chance to watch any of these with an audience.

My goal at film festivals nowadays is to watch, watch, watch and keep watching as much as possible. I don’t want to miss anything that might be good, and I prefer to get a look at anything just to see what each one is about. The Cannes 2024 line-up looked promising at the start, but ended up one of their most unimpressive selections in a long time. Even though I also said that 2023 was a “weaker year”, the all-timers from last year stand out even more than these 8 favorites below. I do not care for Caught by the Tides, Rumours is mediocre, The Shrouds is overrated, Parthenope is a disaster, Motel Destino is terrible, Beating Hearts is trash (here’s my review). Many other films I saw were instantly forgettable – I don’t know whether to blame the filmmakers, or the festival for programming all these films. I missed a few that others are raving about, including Viet and Nam and An Unfinished Film. There’s never enough time to see everything, and it’s hard enough to watch films over 12 days and still work on the site, too. I’m always relieved I could see this many.

I won’t delay any further with my Top 8 films of Cannes 2024, as these are the films that I loved the most, or left the greatest impact on me, and they all deserve to gain recognition outside of France. My favorites:

Anora – Directed by Sean Baker

Cannes - Sean Baker's Anora

The best film of the fest actually won the Palme d’Or this year! Huzzah! 🍾 Congrats to Sean Baker and the entire cast & crew of Anora. This film is going to become an instant classic, beloved favorite of many once it drops in theaters later this year. It absolutely deserves to win the Palme! I loved this film! Easily the best film of the entire 2024 Cannes Film Festival line-up, impressive in every single sense – from the filmmaking to the cinematography to all the performances to the story itself. I could rewatch this right away, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again. Anora is funnier than expected, making me laugh more than almost any other film this year so far. While also still remaining an intelligent, layered, authentic, clever, riveting story about a melange of people getting into trouble in New York City. Mikey Madison is unforgettable as Ani, aka Anora, with a perfect Brooklyn accent. But the best part of this film is Yura Borisov as Igor, who you’ll discover when you watch the film (he was also in the excellent Cannes 2021 film Compartment Number 6).

Black Dog – Directed by Hu Guan

Cannes - Hu Guan's Black Dog

Of course I love a dog movie! But this one is really something special. Black Dog is one of two major dog movies at Cannes this year – the other one is the Swiss comedy Dog on Trial (my review here). Co-written & directed by filmmaker Hu GuanBlack Dog stars celebrated Chinese actor Eddie Peng as Lang, a man who returns to his dusty, aging, industrial hometown after being released from prison. The town is overrun with stray dogs after everyone moved away to find more work, and he befriends one smart, funny, skinny black dog that lives on its own. His friendship with the doggie (and all of the animals around town) changes him and the entire town in the process. Not only is it a magnificent film about dogs, Peng actually adopted a few of the dogs from the film after the shoot. And the film took great care to treat every animal with respect, including a title card at the end about how they handled them and never mistreated any of them on the set.

The Girl with the Needle – Directed by Magnus von Horn

Cannes - Magnus von Horn's The Girl with the Needle

Another controversial pick from the Cannes line-up (some of my friends did not like this film, while others loved it). This film screened on the second day of the festival, one of the very first films to premiere. It’s an especially unsettling, almost gothic horror tale of a young woman living in a very dirty Copenhagen in the early 1900s. Vic Carmen Sonne stars in the brave lead role as Karoline, a poor, working-class woman who ends up getting pregnant while her husband is missing in The Great War. That’s just the start of her story as she tries to survive and make a living while struggling with her pregnancy, then she meets an older woman named Dagmar (played by Trine Dyrholm) who helps find new homes for unwanted babies. Aside from striking cinematography by Polish DP Michal Dymek, and the dark, disturbing screenplay that has some seriously unexpected twists & turns, the best part of this film is the score. Created by musician Frederikke Hoffmeier (aka by her stage name Puce Mary), this atmospheric, moody, actually freaky score has never left my mind. It stayed with me throughout the entire fest which is no easy feat while viewing so many films.

Emilia Pérez – Directed by Jacques Audiard

Cannes - Jacques Audiard's Emilia Pérez

This movie became the “you either love it or hate it” of Cannes 2024. And yep, I love it! I think it’s ambitious and bold and entertaining and something we’ve never seen before. The whole concept is a great example of “wait, what?!?!” Can he actually pull this off. Yes he can!! I’ve been a huge fan of French filmmaker Jacques Audiard ever since I first started attending Cannes and fell in love with A Prophet in 2009. Emilia Pérez is a totally unbelievable creation – a full-on musical about a Mexican cartel kingpin who transitions from man to woman to become “Emilia Pérez”, her true identity, while hiding from his past. All this happens in the first half, then the movie becomes a story about how she tries to reconcile with her violent past and all she did, and whether or not she can change anything in Mexico. Zoe Saldana also co-stars in a fierce role as her lawyer / friend Rita Moro Castro, who joins the cause in trying to make a difference while also getting caught up in her past as well. Spanish trans actress Karla Sofía Gascón won the Best Actress award, and deserves the acclaim for this challenging role. I’m a big fan of this one – I think Audiard really did pull it off.

The Substance – Directed by Coralie Fargeat

Cannes - Coralie Fargeat's The Substance

Brutal! Shocking! Gross! Loud! This is THE horror movie of the festival! Everyone was raving about it! The audience loved it and went wild at the end! It was one of the best screenings of the festival! Even if The Substance doesn’t have universal praise from everyone who saw it (some don’t like it at all), it is still one of Cannes 2024’s big breakouts that will have an impact on cinema once it hits theaters. Guaranteed. It’s a tad too long at 2 hours & 20 minutes, but the bat-shit, is-this-really-happening finale is worth the wait. Plus it’s exciting watching Demi Moore rock this lead role as “Elizabeth Sparkle”, taking her down weird alleys to places I wound never expect. Before the fest began, I had a feeling Coralie Fargeat would be the talk of the fest that’s pretty much what happened – rightfully so with such a gnarly, gory, spectacular body horror film. I had such a great time watching & talking about this one, it’s this year’s Titane (even though it didn’t win the Palme like that one), and proves that Fargeat is going to have a strong and illustrious career in film.

The Seed of the Sacred Fig – Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

Cannes - Mohammad Rasoulof's The Seed of the Sacred Fig

Essential cinema! This nearly 3-hour Iranian film from award-winning filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof screened on the second to last day of the film festival, arriving just at the last minute to win us over. I was impressed and moved by most of it – a powerful film about Iranian society’s current descent into madness. The story of a family living in Tehran that begins to fall apart. Iman, played by Missagh Zareh, is a loving father of a family of Iranian women living in a very nice apartment – his wife is Najmeh, played by Soheila Golestani, and they have two teenage daughters named Rezvan and Sana, played by Mahsa Rostami and Setareh Maleki, respectively. All four of these performances are exceptionally strong, building this film into a powerful treatise on how paranoia and fear bring about madness. The film’s title, The Seed of the Sacred Fig, seems obscure though it’s actually connected to the many themes within the film and the story of what’s happening with Iran right now – with a healthy nation being strangled by fanaticism and dogma.

Eephus – Directed by Carson Lund

Cannes - Carson Lund's Eephus

Who would’ve thought that a baseball movie from America would end up being one of my favorite films from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival this year? I am so glad I took the chance to watch and discover and enjoy this clever comedy about old timers playing a game of baseball. Eephus premiered in Directors’ Fortnight (aka Quinzaine des Cinéastes) sidebar, marking the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Carson Lund. It’s a remarkable debut, boasting a super smart script full of wise cracks, jokes, and baseball lingo aplenty that will probably go over the heads of anyone who doesn’t already know the game by heart. The cinematography is my favorite part about it, shot by DP Greg Tango, with perfectly composed shots focusing more on close-ups & various players than wide shots of the actual game. It’s a compelling film about dudes getting older, with their time fading away; yet it’s also a baseball movie, unlike any I’ve seen before. I thoroughly enjoyed it, laughed my ass off. Hopefully ends up becoming an indie hit whenever it opens in theaters later this year.

Flow – Directed by Gints Zilbalodis

Cannes - Gints Zilbalodis' Flow

The most adorable and heartwarming film of Cannes 2024! What a wonderful surprise. Another animated stand out from Cannes, similar to Robot Dreams last year. After making his feature directorial debut with Away in 2019, Latvian animation filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis spent five years working on his next feature called Flow. It’s the story of a black cat and his group of friends stuck together on a boat. The dialogue-free story is a beautifully animated tale of animals trying to survive in a magnificent world that is being flooded. As the water gets higher and higher, they journey onward deeper into their realm and meet other animals good and bad. The score by Rihards Zalupe & Gints Zilbalodis, along with the stunning animation work in harmony with this mesmerizing story of companionship. It may be hard to convince anyone else to sit and watch this, but I will do my best as it truly is a rewarding animated tale worthy of the big screen experience.

A few other films from the festival I want to mention even though they didn’t make the list. First, I need to mention The Surfer, the new film from director Lorcan Finnegan (of Vivarium) starring Nicolas Cage as a dude who confronts some suffer assholes on an Australian beach. I was considering including it on the list above, but it barely didn’t make the cut – though I still keep thinking about it. Not only Cage’s character, but the whole concept and commentary baked into it. I also think Andrea Arnold’s new film Bird is quite good, with powerful performances by Barry Keoghan & Franz Rogowski; however it’s not strong as I hoped and compared to these others it didn’t end up as one of my faves. I also enjoyed the stop-motion animated film Savages (aka Sauvages) from Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras, an endearing & touching tale of some kids who rescue a baby orangutan on the island of Borneo. I also enjoyed the Indian film All We Imagine As Light, it’s a tender and touching story, but I don’t believe it should’ve won the Palme d’Or. And I have to shout-out the kooky, weird French comedy Plastic Guns for being so menacingly hilarious in its absurdity.

And that’s it for Cannes 2024, ending our coverage of this film festival. Sean Baker’s film Anora ended up winning the Palme d’Or prize this year – find the full list of 2024 awards winners here. My coverage wraps up with this list of favorites and all my other reviews from the fest. I’m always looking forward to returning to Cannes again, it’s one of my favorite fests and I always enjoy going back hoping to discover masterpieces.


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Cannes 2024: Mohammad Rasoulof’s Film ‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’ |

Cannes 2024: Mohammad Rasoulof’s Film ‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’

by Alex Billington
May 25, 2024

One of the most anticipated films premiering at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival is The Seed of the Sacred Fig, the latest from acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof. His films have show regularly at festivals – Goodbye screened at Cannes 2011, Manuscripts Don’t Burn at Cannes 2013, A Man of Integrity at Cannes 2017; his most recent 2020 film There Is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The Seed of the Sacred Fig is especially important and potent because it really upset the Iranian government – they sentenced Rasoulof to eight years in prison as well as flogging, a fine and confiscation of his property just because he made this film. Part of the big question is why – what does it show and why is the Iranian government so afraid of it? Now we know. This remarkable film is about the current events in Iran, mainly the silencing of many women and young protestors who rose up in 2022 by removing burkas in opposition to the government’s heinous morality police. Not only does the film capture this moment quite powerfully, the filmmaking is also extraordinary, making this nearly three-hour-long film gripping from start to finish.

Written & directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, The Seed of the Sacred Fig (known as Les graines du figuier sauvage in French or دانه‌ی انجیر معابد in Persian) is the story of one family in Tehran and what they go through as Iran’s recent conservatism tightens its grip on the country. It opens with a description of what the “seed of the sacred fig tree” is – a parable about how this seed, spread by birds, lands on other trees then grows and strangles the host tree and begins to take over. This anecdote is an explanation for what happens within this story over the next few hours. Iman, played by Missagh Zareh, is a loving father of a family of Iranian women living in a nice house in Tehran, Iran – his wife is Najmeh, played by Soheila Golestani, and they have two teenage daughters named Rezvan and Sana, played by Mahsa Rostami and Setareh Maleki, respectively. Iman is promoted as an investigating judge in the Revolutionary Court. He complains that he cannot properly investigate his cases, with the prosecutors indicating how he must convict and not allowing him any time to consider otherwise. Slowly this influence begins to rot inside of him and he becomes more paranoid – everything boils over when he cannot find his gun that he usually keeps at home for protection.

This narrative is an especially unsettling example of how paranoia, fear, power, manipulation, and excessive control lead to an increase in conservatism and eventually full-on authoritarianism & sadism. There has been some analysis already as to whether Iman is supposed to be the Iranian government personified in one character. While that is one valid interpretation, I saw Iman as exactly who he is – a man who really didn’t seem all that bad at first, caring for his family, trying to do the right thing at work and at home. Much like the sacred fig anecdote at the start, he’s unfortunately influenced & strangled by the oppressive government that controls & suffocates him (and everyone in Iran), driving him mad even though he seems to be entirely unaware of this happening. One film that came to mind while watching this is Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation, a similar film about how paranoia and fear (of one’s government) can drive someone insane. Iman’s actions and his treatment of his own family becoming increasingly erratic and abusive, with everything spiraling out of control surrounding the missing gun. The film also subtly explores the misogyny, traditionalism, and manipulation prevalent in today’s Iranian society, without being overly blatant about it.

Watching this film at Cannes, everyone going in had no idea what they were about to watch. I was surprised & shaken to discover that the film is literally about the 2022 protests and Iranian women movement that lasted for a few months until the government took increasingly violent action to stop them. Rezvan & Sana are involved in it, following along on social media, and one of their close friends named Sadaf ends up with a horrible injury to her face thanks to police shooting buckshot into the crowd at her college. There are real clips from social media edited in, to reiterate how Iran is falling apart and how horrible all of this was/is. How everything is regressing & moving backwards. This reality is mirrored in the story of the family, with the father falling apart and lashing out at his daughters, saying they shouldn’t have even been there to begin with, blaming them instead of the regime. There is one incredible scene where they’re having dinner and Rezvan, in a chilling performance, strikes back & rejects her father’s claims, pointing out that he is a part of the system and is more obsessed with maintaining the traditionalism he’s employed in rather than accepting that this is what is bad for Iran. It’s an unforgettable scene and my audience reacted with a bit of applause.

The third act of The Seed of the Sacred Fig is immensely satisfying because it departs from everything that came before and moves the action to an entirely different location, letting things play out in a dynamic way (with a big finale that feels like it’s pulled from James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me more than anything else in Iranian cinema). After this intense downfall at their home in Tehran, they flee the city. At this point, it seems Rasoulof really has something to say and won’t take any shortcuts trying to say it. He knows how important this film is and he needs to end it in a way that will be impactful and meaningful. Whether or not he does that is up to every individual viewer, however I believe he achieves that, with a striking final shot that certainly does make its point. While this film specifically is about Iran, I couldn’t help but think about how this depiction of horribleness strangling a healthy mind is an accurate depiction of what is happening in many countries right now – including America. Watching Iman turn from good to evil is a universal story, and many people are falling into this trap because of the paranoia and fear that surrounds them. What can we do to stop this? According to Rasoulof, believe women and support women – at all costs, above all else.

Alex’s Cannes 2024 Rating: 9 out of 10
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Cannes 2024: Sean Baker’s Film ‘Anora’ is a One-of-a-Kind Sensation |

Cannes 2024: Sean Baker’s Film ‘Anora’ is a One-of-a-Kind Sensation

by Alex Billington
May 23, 2024

It’s always an especially exhilarating experience to stumble upon a film so completely unlike anything that has been made before that it leaves you on a cinematic high after walking out of the theater. At the midway point in the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, we finally get to experience the bliss of Anora, the latest film from American filmmaker Sean Baker. Anora is his eighth feature film so far, and he was already in Cannes in 2017 with The Florida Project (in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar) and again in 2021 with Red Rocket. This might just be hist best yet. France obviously loves him, but so does everyone else – this film has received the highest marks out of any in the Main Competition from all of the critics at this year’s festival. The film’s title is the name of the young woman who stars in the film, a young stripper from New York City named Anora who falls for a rich Russian kid after he pays her to hook up with him. On a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas they end up getting married (Vegas, baby Vegas!!) – but there’s so much more going on in this film than just that.

Anora is written and directed and produced by Sean Baker, who is telling another wild and crazy story. Up-and-coming young actress Mikey Madison stars as Anora, who goes by Ani in the film. It’s a star making performance and she totally owns it. She works as a stripper at an upscale strip club in Manhattan (called “Headquarters”) and also occasionally hooks up with clients whenever she feels like it. One day, a Russian kid comes in named Ivan, also known as Vanya, played by Russian actor Mark Eydelshteyn. He’s the son of a Russian oligarch and has an endless amount of money to spend – so he hires her and they start to spend more & more time together. If you watch this film closely, they’re both young & dumb. That’s part of the plot whether you like it or not. Ivan just plays video games and gets wasted every day, spending all of his time in his (rather, his father’s) mansion when not out on the town. After a fun New Year’s Eve party, he hires Ani to be his girlfriend for an entire week, then flies a group of his friends to Las Vegas for more partying, where they end up deciding to get married in a “let’s do it!!” hangover haze. And this is when the real fun begins…

After the debauchery of this opening segment, the “oh shit” thrilling side of Anora kicks in. His parents find out he married a sex worker and freak out – these are extremely rich, powerful people who can do whatever they want, including cancelling a marriage. So they make calls and get their local guy to send his guys over to Ivan’s mansion to sort things out – and get the marriage annulled immediately. They’re in love, so they claim! So this obviously causes tons of chaos. The accuracy of the characters, this entire situation, how it all plays out, is so ridiculously spot on it’s almost unsettling how Sean Baker got all of this right. It’s brilliant. The film is one of the funniest of the year, and I was not expecting that with this kind of story. Despite the very serious, very emotional stakes of what’s going on with this marraige between these two youngsters, there’s humor coming from every line and every happening and every twist & turn. The whole second half of the film is getting compared to Uncut Gems, which makes sense, but it also feels quite unique in the way it follows Ani & Ivan and three men (two Armenians + one Russian who work for his parents) around the city.

Sean Baker is truly one of a kind, making films unlike anyone else that no one else can replicate in the same way. Anora is not just hilarious but incredibly deep, nuanced, layered, intelligent, complex filmmaking that gets every scene just right. I’m still breathless with joy over this film. I’m still going on & on raving about it and the way it handles everything in the plot, understanding the emotions of each character along with the audience’s engagement in the story. It’s best going in not knowing where the story goes and what happens next in each scene because the THRILL is watching it all play out. The second half if stronger than the first because there’s so much more going on – and the implications of their young love, the implications of own predicaments, are explored. I absolutely adore how the film grows & builds & morphs into something more (profound) as it plays out. Yes it’s filled with NYC intensity & thrills in the second half, but it’s also actually building and progressing and unraveling with an immense understanding of people, not just characters, but real people. This is a special filmmaking talent Baker has and it’s also what makes his films so memorable.

There’s no way I can talk about this film without mentioning one of the best parts of Anora. Yura Borisov has quickly become one of my favorite Russian actors, whenever he appears in anything you know he’s going to be the best damn character in it (also see: Compartment Number 6). His performance in this is especially unforgettable. He’s the real emotional core of the film. Everyone will fall head over heels for Mikey Madison, of course, and she absolutely deserves the acclaim for her remarkable performance as Ani. But it is Borisov who begins to take over and become a vitally important part of the plot and, once again, I was not expecting this. The final scenes in Anora are so extremely important to deciphering the rest of the entire film, and the point of everything we’re watching anyway. I worry that many viewers will not be able to fully grasp what is being said and the explanations here. There’s a depth to the characters that is revealed in these final scenes that is astonishing, making this film more than just another exercise in romantic comedy or big city thrills. This is the real magic of Sean Baker and his films, this is the real wonder of truly phenomenal filmmaking.

Alex’s Cannes 2024 Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd – @firstshowing


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Cannes 2024: Coppola’s ‘Megalopolis’ is One Big Ambitious, Epic Mess |

Cannes 2024: Coppola’s ‘Megalopolis’ is One Big Ambitious, Epic Mess

by Alex Billington
May 16, 2024

“Don’t let the now destroy the forever.” There will be no one review that will say everything that one could say about this film. No one critic will be able to cover it all, nor will they be able to accurately describe the experience of watching this film. It is a film that needs to be seen (with your own eyes) to be believed. As cliche as that is to write, considering this is the spectacular new $100M+ passion project from the cinema legend Francis Ford Coppola, it couldn’t be truer anyway. Megalopolis premiered today at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, leaving critics baffled, confused, astounded, and intrigued. No matter what I have to say, no matter my own thoughts, this is just one quick take on it and great cinema is about discussing many interpretations and perspectives. That said, Megalopolis is definitely not a new masterpiece. Maybe it will be considered one in 20 years? Maybe not. Only time will tell… As for today’s viewing experience, well, it’s a mix of everything. Confounding yet fascinating! Exhilarating yet trashy! Even if you hate the film, you really can’t be against Coppola for giving it his all trying to make his point (or many points) before his time is up.

Megalopolis is Francis Ford Coppola’s long-awaited passion project as an ambitiously massive movie that he has been wanting to make for decades. It’s his treatise on America, his critical look at the grand downfall of America (as is happening now) similar to the downfall of Rome. The film’s opening title card literally states that it’s “A Fable” and instead of setting it in the actual city of New York, it’s set in “New Rome”, as he calls it. A bit like Superman’s Metropolis, but Coppola’s Megalopolis. Within this framework, he drops line upon line, title card upon title card, voiceover upon voiceover of diatribes, platitudes, and cliches about America and how it is collapsing like the Roman Empire once did – slowly, but surely, that is. It may not be new or courageous to say anymore, but he posits that it’s because of the greed & ignorance of a powerful few. Adam Driver is the star of the show, playing a visionary architect named Caesar Catalina, who is the ambitious left-minded person dreaming of a utopia. He’s countered by Mayor Franklyn Cicero, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who wants to keep the city and all its glitz & glamour as is, rejecting the potential of any utopia.

Can a movie be simultaneous brilliant and a huge mess at the same time? Coppola certainly tries! And boy does he have a LOT to say. Megalopolis packs in every single thought he has about America and its failures into 2+ hours. On one hand, it is irrefutably a mess, with mishmash of wild scenes that are more bombastic than meaningful. There’s too much stagey showmanship, not enough coherent filmmaking & storytelling, which is strange for a filmmaker who has made more than a few all-timer cinema classics. The result is an oddity. Megalopolis is a truly peculiar work of cinema that some will hate, some will love. I’ve already seen comments saying both they despise it or admire it. There are a couple scenes that I did enjoy, though not enough of them. There are even moments (especially in the second half) where it’s clearly visible on Adam Driver’s face that even he is tired of performing for Coppola and doing endlessly showy takes while letting Coppola try to do whatever he’s trying doing on set to get his shots. The film is nonetheless a compelling criticism of America with a ton of accurate observations, though they’re so blatantly stated that none of it is going to actually connect with viewers and make them contemplate their involvement in America’s downfall.

One of the most bewildering moments arrived about halfway into the film. At our Cannes press screening, a man suddenly appeared out of nowhere, walked onto the stage, a light turned on and he stood with a mic, looking at the stage, speaking into the mic interacting with Adam Driver (on screen). For those curious, as far as I can tell, Coppola wanted to *literally* break the 4th wall in this scene by having a guy (an actor??) appear *in-person* in the theater and “ask a question” during a press Q&A with Adam Driver’s character (in the film). I get what he’s going for, but it happens out of nowhere, lasts for 60 seconds, then never happens again. Coppola has been trying to innovate cinema in his later years, and this kind of gimmick is his attempt to do something that breaks down the barriers of the screen. My belief is that his goal is to try and get the audience to actually feel they are a part of the conversation, that they are literally involved in the discussion within the film about “which future should we build.” One example of the film’s confusion is the way it often says that “participating in the conversation” is good for a healthy society, however it then shows how all of the pompous characters within the story can’t actually have any real conversations with yelling or bickering.

I admire Coppola’s ambition, and I honestly do appreciate what he’s trying to say with Megalopolis; even if he’s trying to say about 100 different things in one film (and that rarely ever works). It’s hilarious how often he straight up quotes Shakespeare or Marcus Aurelius to literally state with dialogue what he wants to say, instead of showing it with cinema. The Shakespearean dialogue and references, right down to various cousin characters criss-crossing in lewd ways, are bothersome because they make the film feel less cinematic and more theatrical. Which then makes his sets and his performances feel like they’re meant for the stage, too. In terms of his criticism of America, I’m on Coppola’s side, and I do believe in a real utopia if we could only stop fighting and get over ourselves (and our greed, selfishness, etc). I wish he had spent more time crafting a more coherent script (and a more coherent film) to make his points, to make sure that audiences would actually absorb his ideas. Perhaps we’ll all look back on this film in 20 or 50 or 100 years time and think, yep, he really got it right. But I still wish it was more entertaining, more understandable film than this one.

Alex’s Cannes 2024 Rating: 5 out of 10
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Review: Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ is an Exercise in Narrative Emptiness |

Review: Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ is an Exercise in Narrative Emptiness

by Alex Billington
April 15, 2024

“What kind of American are you? You don’t know?” Now that it’s playing in theaters, Civil War is one of these movies where everyone must have a very strong Opinion™ about and make sure everyone else hears it. Every moviegoer just HAS to chime in and join the discussion. So here I am throwing my hat into the ring, so to say, with my own critical thoughts. Does it matter? Will anyone care? I doubt it, but of course I’ve got something to say about this movie. We all do. I’m joining the chorus in continuing to emphasize that I really believe Civil War is an empty movie and that’s not a good thing. Aside from the apolitical narrative of “we’re going to follow these supposedly objective war photographers” there’s really nothing else new or interesting or unique it’s saying about war. It is just another bland war movie, regurgitating every last war movie trope but setting in America this time. Thus the pertinent question becomes, “why?” Why set it in America? What is it saying about America’s might-really-happen next Civil War? Not much of anything at all, unfortunately.

First things first, I cannot say Civil War is a bad movie in regards to the filmmaking. Written & directed by British writer & director Alex Garland, and featuring cinematography from British DP Rob Hardy, this war movie is slick and thrilling. The pacing is riveting and unsettling – going from intense, harrowing scenes to quieter, more peaceful moments. Yet the rumbling of war and the threat of what might be waiting around the corner always looms. Just like every other war movie ever made… This time, however, it’s set in the very possible a-second-civil-war-is-now-underway America. Which is especially relevant & frighteningly realistic as a concept, so much so that I don’t think it’s proper or right to call this movie sci-fi. There is not much imaginative fiction in it beyond the idea that this civil war hasn’t actually happened yet. The performances especially from both leads Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny are strong and compelling, even if they are the cliche yin vs yang of experienced vs newcomer war photographers. Stephen McKinley Henderson as the wise and hardened Sammy, though, steals the show and is the only really great character in this movie.

This brings me to my primary frustrations with Civil War. It’s especially ironic to say I “enjoyed” the action in this because it seems the only coherent point that Alex Garland wants to make is that all this killing and all this awfulness of war is bad and we should not enjoy it (as we often do in other war movies) because once it comes to your own backyard it will make you want to puke, too. Such an original thought that, well, every other war movie has had, too. As I feared, Civil War is dangerously careless and unpleasant in its apolitical conceit. It’s so bitterly obvious Garland’s pitch was: “you know all those Middle East civil war journalists-go-there movies, I want to make that but set it in America” though it has nothing more to say anyway. War is bad! Yeah, we know. Your friends will die! Yeah, we know. Journalism is important! Yeah, we know. No side wins when everyone is killing each other! Yeah, we know. Every war movie trope ever + America doesn’t make it interesting. That’s what is so annoying about it… Ignoring the crucial politics of WHY war happens (*continues to happen) and thinking if you show us, for the 1000th time in cinema, that both sides are doing bad things by killing the other side, we’ll all stop fighting and prevent more wars is not helpful nor effective.

Civil War Review

Let me make a controversial statement – it’s exceptionally naive for anyone to think that just because there’s another movie in theaters now depicting with cinematic realism how very bad and horrible and violent war always is, we’ll all prevent the next one before it begins. Really? After 100 years of other (better) war movies why are we all still ending up in more wars? Perhaps because refusing to address that “why” more honestly (and, let’s be honest, by clearly showing that there is a good and a bad side no matter what some believe) is the reason we’re still all shooting each other in the streets… Just look around right now – the war in Ukraine, the atrocities in Gaza, shootings daily in America, etc. Did any of these war movies before stop any of this? Does showing someone a war movie not make them want to fight for something in the real world that deeply matters to them? Nope. That’s why setting this in America and making it seem more relevant to those who can only be scared because it is set in America weakens the message and the entire concept. And let’s not be so foolish as to think that the journalism they’re depicting in this movie is making a real difference either. Unfortunately that era is over. When in this movie does their journalism actually make a difference? Never.

In one interview, Garland actually said that “polarization is not a good thing” is ultimately the movie’s entire message. Once again, this isn’t anything new or surprising or revealing. Alas, he refuses to grapple with the polarization, where it comes from, how it grows, etc. He never wants to dig into this topic despite making an entire movie set around Americans fighting themselves because of polarization. Once again, what is there left to consider if it’s not enjoyable to watch this action. I find it especially strange how so many people have reacted to Civil War as if it is the most horrifying war movie they’ve ever seen, which speaks to their myopic bias towards America and refusal to consider anything beyond its borders as being as important as whatever is happening in America. I can watch Come and See or Apocalypse Now or The Battle of Algiers and feel as unsettled about war not in America. Even the last few years there have been more interesting war journalist movies – Bruno Dumont’s France or Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones or Matthew Heineman’s A Private War.

There are a multitude of different interpretations and reactions to Civil War and what it means and what it’s really about. Is it actually about America or just set in America? Is it about war? Is it about journalism? Is it about trying to be neutral? No matter what any of these viewers claim, it never seems to really explain why this movie is more effective or engaging than any other war movie. Nor do these reactions justify the movie’s ultimate message that is supposed to be “both sides are bad, polarization is bad, let’s not let this happen.” Showing war photographers doing their job only reminds us that they are a necessary part of covering war, not stopping war, or preventing war, because in all these centuries of humanity having books & newspapers, we still haven’t been able to stop ending up in more wars. I wish there was something more going on in here. I wish it had something more to say about America – or war, or how to prevent it. Much like his last movie Men, it’s so empty and ultimately meaningless I don’t want to discuss it further. So many other war movies have handled this better, so many other movies about war photographers have dug into this better. After a few months we’re all going to forget this movie and go back to reading real life updates on more war anyway.

Alex’s Rating: 5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd – @firstshowing


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Lootere Review: The Series Is Both Gripping And Exhilarating

A still from the series. (courtesy: YouTube)

First-time director Jai Mehta’s high seas thriller Lootere rests on the defensive and/or despicable acts of men driven by greed, ambition and duress. Set in an African nation whose people are all at sea, and not only a metaphorical sense, the eight-episode series is chockfull of action.    

The initial release of two episodes of the fast-paced Disney+Hotstar series will be followed by a weekly drop every Thursday over the next month and a half.

The action unfolds in a country on the brink of a civil war, a place where dangers abound. The pulse-pounding rhythm of Lootere is accentuated by Achint Thakkar’s propulsive background score and a lively theme track.

With Hansal Mehta serving as showrunner, the series is expectedly pretty much in the inspired-by-true-events zone. The seasoned filmmaker’s stamp on Lootere is palpable. He brings his proven flair for believable drama to amply bear upon the Shaailesh R. Singh-produced series.

Despite its crime drama moorings – Lootere is unfamiliar territory for Mehta in terms of both location and genre – the show isn’t a conventional swashbuckler. It delves into the seamier side of shipping in a world infested with dangerous, self-serving men out to make a killing.  

Off the coast of Somalia, a band of pirates take control of a ship carrying a contraband consignment linked to the larger volatile politics of the trouble-torn nation. In a universe where anything goes, the lootere of the title are no worse than the people who want the captured vessel and its precious cargo salvaged.

The company that owns the ship, the man who ordered the cargo, the outfit the shipment is destined for, the crew caught in the crossfire and up against constant threats of violence and the pirates determined to extract their pound of flesh fight an intensely bloody battle in Lootere, an action drama that turns increasingly gory as the stakes rise.

The men involved in the fracas are deadly and duplicitous. Betrayal and back-stabbing come easy to them. The story by Anshuman Sinha and the script by Vishal Kapoor and Suparn S. Varma incorporate the personal and the emotional in the wider, wilder world that the show is located in.

A woman running out of patience with a husband who has little time for his family, a mother grieving for a missing son, an amoral immigrant-businessman dealing with the hostility of the natives, boys and men compelled by privation to take to piracy and unholy alliances forged with the aim of fishing in troubled waters.

The director makes the most of the mix of Indian and African actors at his disposal. Lootere is the first Indian web show filmed on the African continent. The location lends it a distinct colour and texture. South Africa stands in for Mogadishu and a couple of smaller Somali towns.

In capturing a range of spaces – shantytowns, the ocean, the bridge, deck and cabins on the ship, roads running through towns and villages, bungalows and hovels – cinematographer Jall Cowasji uses dramatic lighting and angles that heighten the tension and unease in the heart of the darkness that envelopes the landscape.

The mission to save the ship and its cargo and rescue the crew constitutes the crux of the series. A nation’s port authority, a freighter and one Indian family face severe turmoil as the pirates (among whom is a pair of siblings, one the commander, the other a rank rookie) dig their heels in and demand a hefty ransom.

At the centre of the plot is an amoral Indian businessman who grapples with a floundering business and adversaries out to eliminate him. He wants to be re-elected president of the Mogadishu Port Authority. Well-entrenched forces are bent upon thwarting him.

Vikrant Gandhi (Vivek Gomber, who leads the ensemble with aplomb), raised in Somalia and married to Avika (a terrific Amruta Khanvilkar), daughter of the man from whom he inherited the business, is in no mood to concede any ground to his rivals. But will the men he regards as friends in need – Tawfik (Chris Gxalaba), Gupta (Chirag Vohra) and Bilal (Gaurav Sharma) – stand by him amid the gathering storm?  

Vikrant lives with Avika and their son Aaryaman (Varin Roopani). His plans go for a toss when Somali pirates attack a Ukrainian ship owned by a Kyiv-based company. The firm’s managing director, the womanising and smarmy Ajay Kotwal (Chandan Roy Sanyal), is a long-time associate of Vikrant’s.

Vikrant has reason to prevent the ship from reaching Mogadishu. To save the shipment, he turns to Bilal for help. The latter unleashes the pirates. The ship’s crew led by Captain A.K. Singh (Rajat Kapoor), is pushed to wall. They struggle to keep their wits about them and the belligerent pirates at bay.

The pirates are commanded by Karim Barkhad (Martial Batchamen), whose pacifist ways rile a hot-headed gang member, Koombe (Athenkosi Mfamela), who is prone to plying off the handle. When the Indian embassy in Kenya learns of the standoff, the ambassador (Anant Mahadevan) ropes in undercover agent Ghulam Waris (Aamir Ali). The latter offers Vikrant immunity in exchange for assistance in rescuing the ship’s crew.

The women in a what is a man’s world are perpetually at odds with the goings-on. Among the 13 deck hands is the tough Ayesha (Preetika Chawla), a woman who takes nothing lying down. She fights shoulder to shoulder with her mates.

Another woman, the pregnant wife of one of the crew members, Gulrez Singh (Nareshh Mallik), is also on the ship. The two women on board go into hiding when the pirates strike.

Back in Mogadishu, Vikrant’s wife Avika fights a battle of her own. A policeman in tow, she travels to a part of Somalia deemed unsafe for women. Where in the world is any place safe for women, Avika asks the inspector when the latter tries to dissuade her from making the trip.

Avika’s mission is to find the missing son of her maid Jamilah (Mamello Makhetha). Her self-obsessed husband does not so much as lift a finger to help the distraught mother until his own marriage is in danger of unravelling.

The marital drama strand, bolstered by strong performances from Gomber and Khanvilkar, adds emotional depth to the plot. The rest of the show is all about the men gunning for each other.

Rajat Kapoor is perfect as the captain who stands his ground in the face of great adversity. Preetika Chawla, Harry Parmar and Gaurav Paswala, playing crew members, deliver the goods. Among the Cape Town-based actors in the cast, three stand out – Martial Batchamen as the pirate commander, Athenkosi Mfamela as the rebellious gang member and Chris Gxalaba as Tawfik, the man Vikrant Gandhi turns to when his port presidency is threatened.

With its unblemished production values and high dramatic traction, Lootere is a show that is both gripping and exhilarating.                    


Vivek Gomber, Amruta Khanvilkar, Rajat Kapoor, Martial Batchamen Tchana, Preetika Chawla


Jai Mehta

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On the Philosophy of ‘Dune: Part Two’ – Power, Control, Fate & Love |

On the Philosophy of ‘Dune: Part Two’ – Power, Control, Fate & Love

by Alex Billington
March 14, 2024

“Consider what you are about to do, Paul Atreides…” Be wary of the path you are headed down, Muad’Dib… As with the two biggest movies of last year (Barbie & Oppenheimer), the biggest movie of 2024 so far is also an extremely dense, philosophically compelling, morally complex work of cinematic art. It’s exhilarating and fascinating to ponder its epic story of control over the planet Arrakis, and even more exciting realizing that audiences are eating this up. Even if the philosophical ideas may not land as deeply with each viewer, it’s proof that truly believing in moviegoers as smart people is actually the right path to take nowadays. Dune: Part Two is playing in theaters worldwide and after watching it three times at the cinema, I must dig into its philosophical side. The most obvious themes are power & control, along with fate & destiny. However, it also makes me wonder about a bigger quandary: what does it really take to overthrow an oppressor and is there actually a successful way to achieve peace & freedom for all? Or will it always lead to more oppression?

One important note before going on – I have not read Frank Herbert’s books. I am familiar with where the story goes and the general ideas within the books, however my thoughts in this article are based entirely on what we’re shown in Denis Villeneuve’s two movies. Dune: Part Two is adapted by Denis Villeneuve along with sci-fi screenwriter Jon Spaihts. I also agree with this point made in Clint Gage’s editorial on Dune: Part Two and the differences from the book published on IGN: “The bigger philosophical point about adaptations though is that they should be different… Villeneuve and Spaihts wrote the two parts of Dune with an eye on the past and future that would make the Kwisatz Haderach proud, by adapting the source material through space, time and a dose of spice.” Even if there are certain philosophical ideas brought up or explained in the books, my conversation is based purely on what Villeneuve and Spaihts have chosen to show on screen, and how Paul’s arc progresses over these two movies so far. Of course, I’m familiar with where it leads with Paul (it ain’t good) which reminds me to indicate that there will be full-on spoilers from here on out. Obviously.

Dune: Part Two continues a modern sci-fi trend where it asks a whole bunch of intriguing questions, brings up plenty of fascinating ideas and concerns for viewers to contemplate, while refusing to provide more clear or useful answers to these concerns, or an optimistic path to follow (in our real world or imaginations). It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that our planet is not in a good place right now – with wars and tumult and troubles on nearly every last continent. An epic sci-fi movie like this, while obviously based on books that were inspired by the oil-obsessed days of the 1950s & 60s, is commenting on our life as humans on Planet Earth and is telling a story that we can relate to as we fight for freedom and peace – just as Paul & Chani do in the first half of Part Two. However, as much as it might be a good story about Fremen fighting back on Arrakis, it turns into something else and becomes a cautionary tale. Unfortunately this means it is not a guide for how to achieve peace and equality. And many of the philosophical ideas in it are questions rather than answers. I can’t provide definitive answers either, but I am still enticed by the questions anyway.

The two main philosophical themes found within Dune: Part Two are: fate / destiny, your chosen path as an individual, how much control you have over it, and how much you just should succumb to and follow it. Along with power / control, the obsessive pursuit of it, the “calculus” of power (as referred to in a line of dialogue), and how chasing power can cause those pursuing it to lose all control or humility. The question of fate and fatalism is most prominent, a common theme in many, many sci-fi films. The Matrix is also about this exact same philosophical conundrum as well. Does Neo have free will – even if he decides to leave his predestined path behind? What does free will even mean? Can he exercise that free will? Is he destined to become “The One”, the hero of Zion and humanity? Can he decide to become that hero or not? What control does he have over his own life if it is a prophecy he will fulfill simply by existing? Paul Atreides deals with these kinds of heavy “hero” questions as well throughout both of Villeneuve’s Dune movies so far. With an extra caveat thrown in – the Bene Gesserit: whispering & plotting & planning & controlling the galaxy for millennia. They “planted” him generations ago and thus he doesn’t have power over his destiny. Or does he?

Dune: Part Two - Paul Atreides

There is one aspect of Dune: Part Two that I’ve been arguing about ever since my very first watch. Viewers who have read the books know he is about to become an evil “Space Hitler-esque” oppressive leader in the next story. “He is not the good guy!” they proclaim. “Will audiences understand this?” Yes, of course, but he has to become the bad guy first. In this movie we only see him confront the Emperor after drinking the blue water to gain clarity with his visions. In the final act, he starts veering towards being the evil bastard that he’s destined (perhaps? perhaps not?) to become. Thanks to the Bene Gesserit’s whispers & plans. However, up until that moment, up until he drinks the “worm piss”, he actually is a “good guy.” Really. Take a closer look when you watch Part Two again. He refuses to go south knowing it will take him to a very bad place. He fights for the Fremen, with the Fremen, adopting their ideals and mindset. He expresses his desire to help them and be an example of an important fighter, even if he is killed, so the next generation may follow in his footsteps. He wants to do good. He admires the Fremen and their ways. He is trying his hardest not to turn evil – but the Bene Gesserit get the best of him and he falls for their whispers. And, well, the rest is history…

This is when the movie digs deeper into the darker side of the galaxy. My third viewing brought a harrowing question to mind: Can someone wield this much extraordinary power (e.g. control over Spice) and be good? Or will they inevitably always be evil? Essentially, is oppression required in a sense to successfully exploit, sell, and manage an extremely valuable resource? This is the core of Dune: Part Two overall. The opening phrase uttered in this dark, guttural alien language before the Warner Bros logo comes up states: “Power over Spice is power over all.” Yes, this means that power & control are intertwined, and there really is no way to control the Spice without having way too much power (since it’s a vital resource needed for intergalactic space travel). There is even a moment in this movie where Paul quietly mutters that he is not worried about gaining control over Arrakis, he is worried about having too much power and this power will corrupt him. Let’s not forget the classic quote: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” stated by British historian Lord Acton. Even on Earth, it seems to be an absolute truth, thus extended into the Dune universe, it does make you wonder: is there really any way Paul could gain enough power to free the Fremen and Arrakis and not be corrupted by that much power? Herbert’s novels say: no.

Those familiar with the books know that the story is essentially a breakdown of the savior trope, showing there is no practicality of a real hero. It is impossible for there to be a holy savior on Arrakis. The Fremen believe in one, because of course, as Chani states in Part Two – the Bene Gesserit have planted this thought and it gives them some false hope to hold onto and wait for. Even if that means waiting centuries. Once you step back and examine Paul’s arc in Part Two, it really is a great tragedy, akin to Shakespeare’s tragedies of great men falling into spirals of despair & insanity. One compelling reaction from a viewer on Twitter states: “Dune: Part Two has left me in artistic euphoria, and also philosophical heartbreak. THAT is what true art is for. To remind us what it is to be human.” Referring to what happens as “philosophical heartbreak” is interesting because it’s trying to reckon with Paul’s great struggle in this movie: attempt to save the Fremen, take down the Emperor, change the galaxy forever; but to do that strategically he must marry the Emperor’s daughter, which means betraying Chani, which means betraying the Fremen. This is slightly different from the book, but it’s still an emotional wallop and quite overwhelming when you sit through it for the first time.

As spectacularly entertaining & awesome as Dune: Part Two is as a sci-fi blockbuster, it’s also chock full of heavy emotions and fascinating philosophical implications. I am in awe of what I’m seeing on screen, while also in awe of all that is racing through my mind with regards to the Fremen and their fight on Arrakis and the control of Spice. In the first movie, I loved seeing Paul rise to the call to lead a revolution, going down a path he was not expecting to take. In the second movie, I’m rocked by his turn, and how his fate seems to be out of his control, no matter how hard he tries. I don’t like this idea that our fate isn’t ours to control, much like Neo in The Matrix. Unlike The Matrix, though, Paul’s path leads him to darkness no matter what hope I have watching his story. The Emperor explains near the end that Duke Leto Atreides ruled from the heart, and that made him “weak”, ergo he had to be eradicated. I want Paul to rule from his heart, to be a leader who brings good to the galaxy. But perhaps that is not possible when half the people on a planet look up to you as a God. At the end of this second movie, we’re left wondering what will happen next when Paul decides to start a Holy War against the other Houses of the galaxy. Alas, the books tell us his future isn’t a good one.

Chani is right all along: “This ‘prophecy’ is how they enslave us!” No one wants to listen, or accept it, but she knows the truth. Even though she loves Paul and even though she knows him well, the scary truth is that his path will lead them farther from where they want to be, towards even darker times for the Fremen. This tragic story continues to make me wonder: how do we actually defeat oppressors and achieve peace and freedom for all? Can a violent revolution even result in peace in the end? Or will it always lead to more war?


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Berlinale 2024: ‘Spaceman’ is Giant Space Spider Therapist: The Film |

Berlinale 2024: ‘Spaceman’ is Giant Space Spider Therapist: The Film

by Alex Billington
February 21, 2024

One of the strangest films paying at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival is a Netflix sci-fi offering from a Swedish filmmaker named Johan Renck. It’s a strange pick not because the film is experimental or unconventional, it’s strange because it doesn’t make sense this film is playing at a festival. Spaceman will streaming be on Netflix in a few more weeks (starting March 1st). It’s another mostly middle-of-the-road, easily-forgettable Netflix Original, and it doesn’t really do anything crazy or exciting or clever that would make it worthy of a major festival premiere. It’s also just a really strange film because it’s about a giant, benevolent space spider (!!) that appears inside a spaceship that is traveling near Jupiter – astronaut Jakub is on a year-long solo mission to investigate a purple cloud of mysterious space dust that appeared near Jupiter a few years before. It’s actually based on a true story, sort of, about the the country’s first astronaut, Jakub Procházka, raised in the Czech countryside. But this intriguing backstory has nothing to do with what is happening in this movie.

Directed by Swedish filmmaker Johan Renck (of Downloading Nancy, “Chernobyl”, “Breaking Bad”), from a screenplay by Colby Day, adapted from the book “Spaceman of Bohemia” by Jaroslav Kalfar – Spaceman is a sleepy, lonely, unremarkable sci-fi film about a space traveler. Adam Sandler stars as Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut on a lengthy trip to investigate a purple cloud that appeared in our solar system. While the sets and VFX do look quite good, and Sandler does his job well as a tired and lonely “spaceman”, the film reveals itself to actually be a therapy session. It’s not really sci-fi, it’s not really about a Czech astronaut / cosmonaut, it’s not really about where this space spider comes from. It’s about a guy who seriously needs therapy because he misses his wife so much, and after rejecting it for so long, he’s forced to have a therapy session with this big, fuzzy, friendly spider that appears randomly on his ship. He decides to name it Hanus (and it’s wonderfully voiced by Paul Dano) then the creature forces him to revisit memories and moments in his mind that haunt him. He needs to confront the past to move on, and apparently this is the only way…

As a vehement hater of spiders, the most prominent question that plagued my mind: what is the whole point of visualizing his troubled psyche as a spider? Is it some kind of generic and obvious version of “his deepest, darkest fears manifested in physical form?” That would be my therapist confronting me, for sure. The film never really addresses this because it doesn’t want to, it’s about this space creature being an unexplainable mystery, and no answers will be given. Fine. Fair enough. Thankfully this spider isn’t as scary as it may seem – not only is he a fairly kind, harmless creature, they animate his dialogue by giving him a cute little mouth that is clearly visible in a few scenes (they also learned some lessons from the Sonic mistake). And hearing Paul Dano’s voice coming out of this thing just soothes me. Which I suppose is the point, after all… But it’s still odd and so ridiculous there are a few scenes that may make viewers burst out laughing. Why, out of all the possibilities for space creatures or aliens or entities to encounter, did they have to use a spider (!!) as his guide? Whatever the reason, at least it’s a nice spider that helps Jakub on his mission and his mental health.

It’s essentially just a 106 minute shrink session with a lonely, depressed Adam Sandler astronaut. The other big problem with Spaceman is that the other side of the story is its weakest link. Somehow Renck was able to cast Carey Mulligan as Lenka, Jakub’s pregnant wife stuck down on Earth while he is away for a year (or more) on this mission. She is not happy about this, she is not happy about anything about his career or life. There is no chemistry at all between the two of them. For most of this movie, I was sure Sandler and Mulligan had shot their scenes in separate movie studios on opposite sides of the world at entirely different times. Lenka always seems to be upset with Jakub doing anything besides staying home and taking care of her, which is rather strange when he is (supposed to be) the Czech Republic’s first astronaut – something she should be entirely supportive of. Right? Perhaps this is part of way Jakub is feeling so depressed and hopeless out there. Thankfully Hanus helps him understand what went wrong with his wife, and although he’s about to make the most remarkable discovery any human being has ever made, none of that matters because he was wrong to leave his pregnant wife to begin with. Well, okay… That’s all the wisdom to offer?

As a sci-fi fan, I’m particularly tired of all these modern sci-fi movies that take someone extreme distances for some spectacular discovery out in space, only for the finale to be that oh wait, there’s nothing out there, and it’s more important you go home and take care of your loved ones and your family. Yeah, yeah, we get it. Family and significant others and kids are super important. But why do they have to cram this concept into high concept sci-fi scripts? Why aren’t there a few sci-fi movies that are only about making some incredible discovery out in deep space that does change everything? Then bring that knowledge back to Earth and let everything be affected by how amazing this space stuff is. I wish that was the Spaceman movie we could all be watching. But it’s not. Instead, we get Adam Sandler learning how to overcome his past with the help of Paul Dano as a compassionate, hairy spider that also loves the Czech Nutella stored on the ship. Despite my many complaints, I don’t dislike this movie, it’s nothing I would label as “bad”. It’s just not that good either.

Alex’s Berlinale 2024 Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd – @firstshowing


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In The Belly Of A Tiger Review: Incisive And Moving Portrait Of Rural Distress

A still from In The Belly Of A Tiger.

New Delhi:

Located in the liminal space between the stark and the surreal, In The Belly Of A Tiger, an Indo-US-Chinese co-production that premiered on Sunday at the 74th Berlinale, plays out in a tangible world – a North Indian village battered by poverty and exploitation. It is, however, informed with narrative and stylistic elements that lend the film a distinct resonance.

In The Belly Of A Tiger revolves around a landless farmer forced by capitalism at its most exploitative to contemplate a desperate measure in the hope of saving his impoverished family – his wife, son and two granddaughters. But it isn’t only about selfless sacrifice or the deliverance that might result from that act. There is infinitely more to the film.

In his sophomore venture, director-cinematographer Siddartha Jatla (Love and Shukla) travels to a village on the edge of a forest and delves into the dreams and despair of the dispossessed while spotlighting their tenacity, no matter how tenuous it is.

In The Belly Of A Tiger alternates between the lyrical and the profoundly empathetic as it explores the plight of a community of debt-ridden farmers robbed of their land and precariously caught between a maneater on the prowl and a brick factory that runs on their blood and sweat. It is hard to tell which one is worse.

Working with a screenplay he wrote with Amanda Mooney, Jatla crafts an incisive and moving portrait of rural distress in which the hapless victims of relentless systemic violence look inwards and dwell upon their pasts – their last resort – in their search for a way out of the gloom that envelopes their lives.

A farming family is forced out of the land that they once cultivated. Their debts are now beyond manageable limits and agriculture isn’t a viable proposition anymore. The a dark void stares them in the face but that does not stop them from dreaming of what they have lost and what they might regain if they hang in there.

Bhagole’s village – it remains unnamed probably to suggest that this is a universal story – has to contend with a tiger that denotes both danger and salvation. The dread that the animal evokes brings with it the prospect of receiving a substantial government compensation if a farmer is mauled by a tiger while tilling his field.

When matters reach a head, Bhagole (Lawrence Francis), an old man, and his wife Prabhata (Prabhata) fall back on their dreams and memories. They retreat into a world of myths, fantasies and religious faith. They cling to their deep love for each other and their empathy for others who face contempt and mistreatment from forces that control their fate.

Such is their lot that escape from the hell-hole is impossible. But Bhagole and his son Saharsh (Sorabh Jaiswar), each in his own way, do not sink into a dehumanized state. Life is hard. Warding off despondency isn’t easy but the two men look for happiness in little things – these hinge mostly on Saharsh’s daughters – that remind them of their humanity.

In one telling sequence, Bhagole and his younger granddaughter Chatkila walk around the village vegetable market. They cannot afford to buy anything. Cut to Chatkila feigning to cook for the family. Dry leaves stand in for chicken legs. Bhagole plays along. That is all that the old man can do.

Bhagole’s own dreams stem from his relationship with his wife and the village’s intrinsic faith in Lord Vishnu – who appears in a stage play that punctuates the film – and the lotus that sprang forth from his belly, signifying the beginning of all creation. Saharsh seeks solace in remembrances of his dead wife, whose appearances in his visions deliver the only dashes of colour to a bleak life.

When the film opens, we see Bhagole and his family returning from the city to their village empty-handed. Saharsh, the audience learns, did find a job in the city only to be left in the lurch by a deceitful contractor.

Saharsh is a docile man. He bears witness in stony silence to the injustice perpetrated at the brick factory where he now works. Not that he is bereft of emotions. In an early scene, an elderly village woman wishes Saharsh had more gumption. Later, his father insists that being soft-hearted is no weakness. It is your strength, he says to his son.

Another villager, a farmer who is palpably older and more weather-beaten than Bhagole, laments to Saharsh that he is unable to locate his farm. He asks: Do you know the way to my land? Saharsh has no answer. He gives the ‘lost’ farmer some money and then goes to the village’s sole liquor shop and buys himself a bottle of a local brew.

In The Belly Of A Tiger juxtaposes hopeless resignation and striking human resilience, a conjunction heightened by a gently evocative background score provided by In the Mood for Love composer Shigeru Umebayashi. The farmers-turned-factory workers – one of them is a woman who is pregnant with her third child – have to keep going in the face of inhuman conditions and low remunerations.

The mingling that the film seeks between the mundane and the mythological may seem a touch tricky at first flush. How can anything, even faith in the Almighty, promise liberation when one is faced with a system that revels in perpetuating poverty and exploiting the disadvantaged in order to register profits?

Bhagole and Saharsh’s dreams and beliefs can at best be a window that opens out into a space where the harsh realities of life are obscured. To its credit, In The Belly Of A Tiger does not suggest otherwise. What it does is hold up the faith that the marginalized have in the power of the divine, something they accept as unquestionable, as a contrast to the shocking insensitivity of the powerful.

In the face of perpetual penury, the central characters in In The Belly Of A Tiger imagine what life could have been and could be. But the film does nothing to suggest that dreams can actually change anything at all in the real world. There are no saviours here, only false gods. Jatla finds a compellingly innovative idiom to convey the essence of that truism.


Francis Lawrence, Sorabh Jaiswar, Poonam Tiwari


Jatla Siddartha

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Berlinale 2024: Lena Dunham Goes on a Trip to Poland in ‘Treasure’ |

Berlinale 2024: Lena Dunham Goes on a Trip to Poland in ‘Treasure’

by Alex Billington
February 18, 2024

There’s yet another interesting set of twin films in 2024 – two films that are remarkably similar in so many ways even though they’re entirely independent, unrelated productions. The first film premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in January titled A Real Pain, written, directed by, and starring Jesse Eisenberg, and it won the Screenwriting Award at that festival (here’s my full review). The second film is premiering now at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival in February titled Treasure, directed by German filmmaker Julia von Heinz, and starring actors Stephen Fry & Lena Dunham as father & daughter. Both films involve Americans traveling to Poland, flying into Warsaw, from where they embark upon a “heritage” road trip tour around Poland to find an old home where someone they know once lived in many years ago before fleeing Poland. Both also feature annoying characters, jokes about tourists visiting Poland, and trips to a Jewish graveyard as well as a Nazi concentration camp. They’re both so similar it’s hard to not talk about both, even though this review is supposed to be about Treasure, I must compare them as stories about similar themes.

Treasure is based on a true story, based on an actual trip a woman and her dad took, and their experiences traveling to Poland just after the Iron Curtain came down. A Real Pain, however, is not based on a true story but it is inspired by Jesse Eisenberg’s own family and his experiences. His film is kind of the opposite – the making of his film became his real version of going back to Poland, as the house they go to and film at is the actual house his grandmother lived in years ago. In Treasure, the story’s core is about a man who actually went to and survived Auschwitz, and while he doesn’t want to dig up the past, his daughter does and so she takes him to Poland to see where his life was spent during that (harrowing) time. Both films have a more pensive, quiet, humble character trying to understand Poland’s past, next to a more annoying, loud, brash character who seems both interested in and uninterested in Poland’s past. It’s a complex dynamic – A Real Pain handles it better, especially because Kieran Culkin’s character is actually endearing, whereas Stephen Fry’s character is just plain annoying & grating, despite the attempt to make him a lovable old Polish chap.

While I’m not Jewish and do not have a Holocaust connection like the people in these films, I do have Polish roots and I do feel a connection to Poland. Nonetheless, my connection to these films is limited because I do not have a desire to explore Poland on a heritage tour or to find a connection to the Jewish Poland that existed pre-World War II. It is an important story to tell, of course, and it is an intriguing topic to consider regarding their grief and pain and connection to a horrible past, however it is something that I presumed to have already been addressed in the nearly 80 years since WWII ended and the camps were liberated. Why are there two new films about this exact same story appearing in 2024? Both were in production before the Palestine-Israel events in 2023. Eisenberg’s film, between them, attempts to address this heavier theme in a more intelligent way by connecting the pains of modern descendants of Jewish Poles, with the extreme pain and sadness of their past. There is an incredible speech that Eisenberg’s character David gives in that film at a dinner that delves right into this exact topic, whereas there is a never a coherent moment of reflection like this in Treasure. It never properly examines and contends with these compelling generational differences.

Perhaps one of the key reasons why Eisenberg’s film A Real Pain stands out is that it is much more personal story, authentically told as the filmmaker’s own real story with his own emotions and feelings and concerns expressed through the characters and the filmmaking choices. Treasure, on the other hand, is not Julia von Heinz’s own story, she is a director telling a story that comes from another person. And while she does her best to competently bring this story to the screen, capturing the emotions and feelings of her characters, the authenticity doesn’t shine through, it feels much more performative and obvious than Eisenberg’s creation. This is most evident in the four lead characters (two from each film), and how different they are to watch in each film, despite so many similarities. The biggest difference is, of course, Stephen Fry’s Edek, who is an actual Jewish Pole that survived the Holocaust, making his return to Poland that much more emotionally wrought. However, Fry is a British actor, who had to learn Polish and put on a heavy accent to perform this role. While his Polish is impressive, the performance feels slightly off, and not as wholesome as necessary.

As much as I must compare these two films for being so similar, they do each have different commentary to offer viewers. Treasure is much more about the pain of stepping into the past, and how hard it is for one to do that; all the while the next generation feels like the only way they can fully understand their family is to step into the past. Does she come to understand her father better after this trip? The film didn’t convince me of this, but perhaps in real life she did. A Real Pain is much more about how these modern generation 30-somethings feel about that past, and how they may have not survived the Holocaust but also have their own unique pains and struggles today as well. My biggest complaint with both films is how poorly they represent Polish people. In A Real Pain, they only ever interact with Polish people once or twice, for barely a minute or two. In Treasure, many of the Polish people they interact with come across as sketchy, sneaky, or oddly problematic people. While it may have been a nuanced observation in the true story it’s based on, it comes across as condescending in this film, as if no Poles post-WWII (except for a lobby boy who helps translate and their taxi driver) are good people. Having visited Poland multiple times, I can say this is just not true.

Alex’s Berlinale 2024 Rating: 6 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd – @firstshowing


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