Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Two Popes: A Review


Their Holinesses Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are at polar ends of the theological spectrum. Judging from The Two Popes, it is clear that the production favors one side, so much so that it is less an exploration of these two different men at a crossroads of Catholic Church history and more a case for the canonization of one, the demonization of the other.

Essentially a two-man show (unsurprisingly), The Two Popes chronicles the election of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) to succeed the late Pope John Paul II. Now as Pope Benedict XVI, he faces a wealth of issues within and without the Holy See.

There is a most reluctant member of the College of Cardinals waiting in the wings: Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce). He's the antithesis of Benedict: while His Holiness is chilly, intellectual and aloof, Jorge is a soccer-loving man of the people. He also loved in the carnal sense, as The Two Popes give us extended flashbacks to his youth in Buenos Aires, where as a young Bergoglio (Juan Minujin) he came close to marrying Esther (Maria Ucedo) before God intervened.

Bergoglio, who came close to being elected instead of Ratzinger, wants to retire, but Benedict has a surprise for him: he won't accept Bergoglio's retirement because it is Benedict who wants to quit! As these two old men talk and discuss the impact of Benedict contemplating resigning the Papacy, Bergoglio must confront his own past during the Argentinian so-called "Dirty War". Bergoglio tried to keep a balance between working with the military dictatorship and his calling to the Faith, but was not successful at it. These two lions in winter absolve each other of their sins: Bergoglio of his ineffective dealings with dictators, Benedict of knowingly keeping sexually abusive priests in positions of influence.

At last, Benedict retires and now-Pope Francis comes forth to bring his (or maybe His) Divine Light to the world.

The Two Popes' Review | Hollywood ReporterAs I am not Catholic I have no stake or interest in the theological struggles within Catholicism. I judge a film based on what is presented, but in this case, I do wonder whether Anthony McCarten's screenplay (adapting his play The Pope) ever even tried to be evenhanded. The Two Popes is so clearly & nakedly besotted and passionately in love with Bergoglio and his liberal theology that it turns almost pornographic in its idolatry of Francis.

We see this from the beginning, where Bergoglio's almost excessive humility beggars belief. Despite having been elected Pontifex Maximus, successor to St. Peter, God's Representative on Earth, Pope Francis still insists on trying to book his own flight. I can believe that a man can be humble enough to decline elaborate garb upon being made Head of the Catholic Church. I'm not quite prepared to think said Head of the Catholic Church is so thoroughly clueless and guileless that he was not aware the Holy Father had a summer residence.

Yet The Two Popes continues this worship of Pope Francis and his worldview: his passion for eliminating income inequality and saving the environment. The film celebrates this Francis: a simple man of the people who is devoted to both St. Lorenzo and the St. Lorenzo soccer team, who cheerily whistles Dancing Queen before entering the Conclave.

The Two Popes review - a thrilling, delicate balance of drama and ...
As a side note, the Francis who has made clear there will be no support for female ordination, abortion or same-sex marriages in a Catholic Church is not so much as even hinted at.

It is a stark contrast to The Two Popes portrayal of Ratzinger, a man thoroughly unaware of who Abba is and appears to think Dancing Queen is a hymn about the Virgin Mary. We see Bergoglio cheering on Argentina during soccer matches, while Benedict comments he does not get the appeal of soccer at all. His Holiness prefers to watch Kommisar Rex, a German show about a crime-solving dog. We see Pope Benedict playing the piano and noting he played in the same studio as The Beatles. When Bergoglio mentions Eleanor Rigby in response, Benedict remarks he does not know who she is. If one judged Benedict and Francis on the film alone, one would leave with the impression that while Bergoglio is a fun-loving, tango-dancing yet almost insanely humble to almost pure figure, Benedict is suffering from dementia at best, downright bonkers at worst.

The Two Popes thinks it is showing an equal exploration of two men of the same faith whose theology led them to radically different conclusions, but the deck is so clearly stacked in Bergoglio's favor one would be forgiven in thinking he, not McCarten, wrote the screenplay. Even in their theological debates, which should be a true battle of wits, the script never gave Benedict anything close to even a semi-coherent answer to Bergoglio's sympathetic and rational brand of liberation theology.

Netflix's The Two Popes review: The Godd coupleCompassionate Marxism, perhaps? Communism with a Catholic Face?

Again, what either Benedict or Francis believe is the Church's own business. It is the film's refusal to give one side even a modicum of a chance that I find troubling.

Another aspect I found a problem was the extended Buenos Aires sequences (as a side note, the fact that Ratzinger himself lived through a dictatorship as a child during the Nazi era is given the most cursory and obscure of mentions). Bergoglio can only shake his head when a fellow Argentine football fan calls Benedict "a Nazi", but does not bother to defend Benedict, a sharp contrast to how The Two Popes works to bring nuance to Bergoglio's troubled relationship with the Argentinian military dictatorship to where it veers dangerously close to being an apologia for Francis.

Yet I digress.

The extended flashbacks drown the film to near tedium, though through no fault of the actors. Instead, director Fernando Meirelles indulges in long black-and-white sequences and in scenes that might have run shorter or included in dialogue. These scenes bloat the film to a little over two hours and frankly made it feel even longer. The shaky-cam that aims for an intruder-style method also pushes the film down. It becomes an irritant more than anything.

The Two Popes to be fair is well-acted. Pryce and Hopkins play the parts exactly as written: humble, loving Francis and tottering Benedict. They do bring a few moments of levity when the script allows them a chance to play these men as actual humans: neither the saintly Bergoglio or clueless Ratzinger. It's in those moments of shared humanity when we see Pryce and Hopkins really excel. Minujin as the younger Bergoglio does well too, his mix of compassion and doubt and fear blending well. It is a pity though that Minujin's version was given more attention than perhaps he should have been.

The Two Popes struck me as unfair to Benedict XVI and too sympathetic to Francis. What could have been an exploration of these two men, united and divided by faith, instead was Francis-worship gone bonkers. In his efforts at humanity, Benedict remarks on his quip, "A German joke. It doesn't have to be funny". Perhaps, but The Two Popes was not as funny or insightful as it thinks either.

The Two Popes: 'Vatican buddy movie' is Hollywood fiction, say ...
Pope Francis: Born 1936
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: Born 1927


Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Who Will Write Our History: A Review

Who Will Write Our History” Screening – Women In FilmWHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY

History, it is said, is written by the victors. Who Will Write Our History, the documentary/feature film, reminds us that memories of the past are not one-sided. The story chronicled in Who Will Write Our History, based on historian Samuel Kassow's book, is an important, necessary and heartbreaking one. Its only genuine limitation as told in Who Will Write Our History is on its struggle to balance documentary with docudrama.

As the Nazi regime swarmed into Poland, a group of Jewish historians, intellectuals, writers and even a rabbi, led by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, knew that they were witnessing an important moment in time. They also knew that if the Jewish people were wiped out of existence and memory, only the official Nazi history would remain, a false narrative that would wipe out the Jewish people in more ways than one. If the Nazis were defeated, would people outside Poland or the Warsaw Ghetto really believe the horrors inflicted upon the population?

Ringelblum spearheaded the written histories of the community in a clandestine operation that was to become the Oyneg Shabes Archives (Oyneg Shabes translating as "Joys of the Sabbath"). Here, the various chroniclers would not just record the atrocities the Nazis committed, but also their own memories, histories, reflections and daily life under Occupation. Everything was saved: official announcements, artwork, photographs, literature, all that spoke of both what was occurring and the creativity around them.

Finally, the Nazis decided to start expelling Jews from the ghetto they created and later destroyed Warsaw after crushing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. With no time left and to save the history they had worked to preserve, Ringelblum and others with the Oyneg Shabes Archives hid them in three places. Out of the sixty-odd contributors, only three lived to see the end of the war. The survivors helped in the rediscovery of the Archives, preserving their history for future generations.

Review: 'Who Will Write Our History' Is A Tale Of Survival : NPRWho Will Write Our History is a deeply moving film, a clear reminder that wars are fought on many fronts. Dr. Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archives were forward-thinking in the awareness that in times of war, civilians are also impacted. While there is logic in noting down the deaths, cruelty and barbarity of the occupying Nazi regime, perhaps some not involved would ask why playbills announcing concerts, drawing or a chronicle of one man's day would be of any use.

Who Will Write Our History makes the case that the individual's own experience is history, that there was still life within the walls of the Ghetto. We got history from the perspective of those living through it. More importantly, the Oyneg Shabes Archive contributors knew that witnesses would fade but the written word endures. These objects, these collected memories, would speak to the future as well as the present. They would deny and denounce the lies the Nazi regime spread. They would also bear witness that behind every word was an individual, a living person who was being wiped out of existence and time.

Who Will Write Our History - Trailer - YouTube
The film envelops you in its grim tale, one of shame, of horror, of tragedy. Some of the information we learn is shocking, such as that the conditions within the Ghetto were so dire that a loaf of bread costs the equivalent of $60 today, and that the soup kitchen may have done more harm than good due to its lack of resources. Listening to the chronicle of one man's day, we see just how wicked man can be towards his fellow man.

The main flaw, if I can call it that, in Who Will Write Our History is that at times it seems more interested in being a feature film about the Oyneg Shabes Archives and less a documentary film on the Oyneg Shabes Archives. It is not a surprise that there are reenactments, but at times Who Will Write Our History gets bogged down by its desire to be bigger than a straightforward documentary. Take the chronicle of one man's day sequence. Here, the documentary goes past reenactments to being almost a short film of this particular story than about the Archives themselves. Director Roberta Grossman veers dangerously close to forgetting Who Will Write Our History is a documentary with reenactments and not a feature film with some archival footage. 

While this does not take away from the important story Who Will Write Our History tells, it does weaken the film due to an almost schizophrenic point as to what it is or wants to be: documentary or feature.

"Let the witness be our writing", Rachel Auerbach, one of the survivors and about the only woman in Oyneg Shabes wrote. Who Will Write Our History is a powerful reminder that there are many ways to resist, and that the pen can be just as powerful as the sword.


Monday, April 6, 2020

Endings, Beginnings: A Review


Modern romance is so perplexing, so puzzling. There's love, lust, sex and emotional entanglements, sometimes all at once. Endings, Beginnings looks at one woman at the top of a love triangle in one tumultuous year. While a bit too artsy for my tastes, Endings, Beginnings has a central performance from one of our finest actresses that makes it worth a viewer's time.

As 2018 rolls into 2019, artist Daphne (Shailene Woodley) is at major crossroads. She's just ended her longtime relationship with her boyfriend Adrian, has left her job unexpectedly (the reasons emerging through the course of the film) and is living in her sister Billie's (Lindsay Sloan) pool-house (which may be causing more strain in Billie's marriage). Daphne manages to find limited employment at her friend Ingrid's (Kyra Sedgwick) art shop and struggles in the relationship with her mother (Wendie Malick).

At Billie's New Year's Party, Daphne meets two wildly different men. There's Frank (Sebastian Stan), a very casual and cool customer. Then there's Jack (Jamie Dornan), a softer, more intellectual figure. She is drawn to both and both are drawn to her: Frank being the "suffer buddy" and Jack the sensible, sensitive shoulder. Daphne struggles between them, the struggle harder when she learns they are friends. As far as I can make out, she starts a romance with Jack and an affair with Frank: with the former there is sex and love, with the latter sex and excitement.
Reality eventually hits Daphne when she finds herself pregnant. She does not know who the father is, having had sex with each of them on consecutive nights. After some thought and words of wisdom from Ingrid about how she will have someone to love her despite Jack and Frank, she opts to keep her baby.

Jack is distraught at the news of her tryst, and Frank eventually reappears with a new girl and dubious about the responsibilities of fatherhood. However, Daphne will carry on as she has grown as an adult: finding peace with her mother, support from her also-pregnant sister and the hope that she can be the mother she knows she can be.

Under normal circumstances, one would be aghast at the idea that Daphne would have sex with two different men on back-to-back nights, her bouncing about raising eyebrows. It is to director/co-writer Drake Doremus (writing with Jardine Libaire) that this does not come across as tawdry but as a mix of desire and confusion. In a certain way, Daphne's choice is as old as time itself: the struggle between the free-spirited man (Frank) and the sensible, sensitive one (Jack).

I suppose it complicates matters when a woman has to choose between Christian Grey and the Winter Soldier, but I digress.

Endings, Beginnings paints a very sympathetic portrait of Daphne, who genuinely cannot decide between someone who offers her passion & excitement and someone who offers her stability & devotion. Granted, from the looks of it they both offered great sex and maybe I'm being flippant here but good sex can make even bad relationships hard to break.

What really elevates Endings, Beginnings is the central performance of Shailene Woodley as Daphne. Apart from the unfortunate Divergent franchise that floundered and withered few filmmakers have been able to capitalize on Woodley's extraordinary talent. Doremus has, focusing on her extremely expressive face. It is extraordinary how Woodley can convey so much with just a quick facial change, the myriad of emotions her character goes through with just an expression or forced smile. Woodley makes Daphne a full-formed figure: one who cares for her niece, makes awful mistakes, learns to accept and forgive others and herself, and most importantly grows up.

I've never thought much of Dornan or Stan as actors and Endings, Beginnings does not shift my view much in that department. Dornan's limitations are that he would struggle with an American accent and is remarkably expressionless. He's very handsome, true, but Dornan is not a particularly good actor. Endings, Beginnings probably is his best work because it uses his weaknesses (Irish accent, almost monotone manner) as strengths to play Jack. Stan's too-cool-for-school Frank was not a hard role to play but to his credit he too did a serviceable job.

It was the women who fared best. Along with Woodley you had small but strong performances by Maleck and Sedgwick as the mother and mentor respectively. It's a wonder why Maleck is not given more dramatic parts to play and why Sedwick just isn't a bigger star than her talent would inspire.

Endings, Beginnings has some issues for me. There were too many shots of people in profile and a lot of times when people would sit quietly while their dialogue was running. Other times we would get flashbacks that took a while to piece together. I put this down to the artsy nature of the film which again doesn't go over well with me personally. I also thought the sex scenes went a bit further than I would have thought necessary. However, with an interesting story and an exceptional central performance from Shailene Woodley, on the whole I found Endings, Beginnings worth seeing.


Friday, April 3, 2020

The Kingmaker: A Review


"Perception is real, and the truth is not," observes former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker, a documentary about her life and career. While that statement is true, it probably is not in the way Madame Marcos thinks. In turns hilarious and horrifying, The Kingmaker is a combination The Tigress in Winter and Lady Macbeth's Revenge.

Director Lauren Greenfield has unfettered access to Mrs. Marcos, who at then-85 is still a striking-looking though heavyset woman with her jet-black perfectly coiffed hair, elegant gowns and sensible though surprisingly not extravagant shoes. She talks freely about her life and as she remembers things; in her world all she really wanted to do was be a mother to her nation. Freely handing out cash to anyone who asks, her benevolence extends to giving her family to the Filipino people. Her only son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. has the goal of being Vice President (in the Philippines, President and Vice President are elected separately), and her daughters, nephews and grandchildren are also government officials.

Mrs. Marcos benevolence included being a de facto roving ambassador for peace, able to charm such figures as Chairman Mao (whom she claims not only kissed her hand but credited her personally with starting to end the Cold War). She also found such figures as Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein quite generous and kind, perplexed as to how anyone would think them bad figures.

As she continues with her reminiscences, such as how just before fleeing she had to put "diamonds in diapers" (really her grandchild's diaper bag), we also see her working to help Bongbong return the Philippines to the Golden Age...that age being the Marcos' extended rule, one sadly being remembered by the next generation with the same rose-tinted lenses the Marcoses use. However, The Kingmaker also interviews the various victims of the Marcos regime, who would disagree with Madame's assertion that "beauty is the extravagance of love".

Film: CCP to Bring Back “The Kingmaker” by Award-Winning Filmmaker ...Victims tells their own memories, which differ sharply from Mrs. Marcos. There's another political dynasty: the family of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, the Marcos political rival killed when he returned. There are various Filipinos who were tortured during the Martial Law period. The most curious are the residents of Calauit Island, who had first been expelled by the Marcos regime to create an animal sanctuary and who returned when the regime fell. They now endure the surviving giraffes and zebras, who serve as an informal emblem of the Marcos Era: inbred, unhealthy and making wrack and ruin for the community.

While Bongbong fell short of winning the Vice Presidential race, the election of President Rodrigo Dutarte bodes well for the ambitious unofficial Filipino monarchy. Duterte got help from the Marcoses, and coincidentally President Dutarte allowed Ferdinand Marcos' burial in the Heroes Cemetery, a longtime wish for the family.

Will the now-90 year old Madame return to Malacanang Palace? Only time and her indomitable yet shady will can tell. 

It is a curious thing that while many documentaries and history books focus on the male dictators, few look at the women behind them. The Kingmaker makes a powerful case that behind her extravagance and 3,000 pairs of shoes Madame Marcos is a formidable, shrewd political creature, selfish and self-centered, interested less in being "Mother of the Nation" and more "Mother of a Dynasty". Her only real equivalent would be another famous or infamous First Lady: Argentina's Eva Peron, who like Imelda gained power outside her husband, President/Dictator Juan. The Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker has outdone Evita in terms of power, and corruption, and greed, ambition and evil.

At least Evita had no children.

The Kingmaker reminds me of General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait in its cinema verite portrait of a megalomaniac who come across as both buffoonish and malevolent. We see a woman who is comical in her sometimes bizarre actions. One particularly oddball moment is when we go to her pool, where large photographs of various world leaders she's worked with are set up. Picking up one from Russia, she inadvertently causes the others behind it to tumble and crash. Despite the fallen pictures and audible glass-shattering, Madame Marcos continues on, undisturbed to perhaps unaware of what exactly she's done. Greenfield shows the poor servant having to clean up the mess his mistress made, another unintentionally symbolic moment.

She's an unreliable narrator': Lauren Greenfield on her Imelda ...Late in the film, there's a Freudian slip when she gives an informal press conference about her family's political ambitions. "I was only eight years old when I became orphan," she starts, "and when you lose your money...your mother, you lose everything". Who among us hasn't confused "money" with "mother"?

It is clear that Mrs. Marcos at best remembers things the way she wants to remember them versus remembering the way it actually was. "Before, during my time, there were no beggars," Mrs. Marcos states with a straight face (or at least what I think is a straight face, the camera focused on the beggars than on her). "I had a place for them," she immediately follows, the sinister suggestions of such a statement lost on Madame.

Over and over, The Kingmaker portrays a woman who was and is clearly a powerful force, from her devotion to the Lenin-like mummified corpse of "Marcos" (she always refers to her husband by his surname) to her disappointment that at 50, her son Bongbong is still not President when "Marcos" was at 47. Greenfield, however, does not merely make Imelda Marcos the figure of ridicule she already has become thanks to her almost boorish tastes. Instead, we see her slowly evolve from a figure of fun to a dark figure, a Lady Macbeth with a more lavish wardrobe.

Other interviews counter Imelda's own memories. Sometimes some are surprisingly tawdry, such as a secret recording of President Marcos' tryst with one of his many mistresses, an American model with the curious name of Dovie Beams. Hearing the President sharing intimate moments with his mistress and coo "I will kiss you" while they giggle raises eyebrows, though the statement from a government official's widow that Imelda used the tape as blackmail to further her own ravenous greed would not.

The various victims counteract her tales of a benevolent ruling family; this is one of the most gripping and heartbreaking segments in The Kingmaker, as interviewee after interviewee recounts his or her survival from physical torture and sexual molestation, a counterweight against the grandiose nature of the Marcos family. Even the lone and underfunded gamekeeper states clearly that contrary to Imelda's claims she never visited Calauit Island after her return from exile.

The Kingmaker stuns you with the sights of adoring Marcos supporters, the lavish celebrations of the Marcos dynastic plans and on how Imelda Marcos in particular is either manipulative and crafty or delusional if not downright bonkers.

Weird, amusing and alarming, The Kingmaker shows that when it comes to Imelda Marcos, the shoes of a potential dictatoress definitely fit.


Thursday, April 2, 2020

Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life. A Review Watch Every Act of Life | Prime Video

As of this writing, over 46,000 people have died from the coronavirus or Covid-19. Among those is playwright Terrence McNally. The documentary Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life (also known as Every Act of Life) covers his life, career and activism. While it is a good primer for one looking to learn more about McNally, it is geared more for those who already know who he is.

 McNally always wanted to be a writer, but did not know what kind of writer. Leaving his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas for Columbia University and the bright lights of New York City, here he could indulge not just his artistic aspirations but his homosexual desires. He found himself the lover to playwright Edward Albee and tutor to John Steinbeck's sons. With such a wealth of inspiration, it is not long before he starts writing for the theater.

While his first play And Things That Go Bump in the Night bombs big time, he soon starts crafting plays specifically for favorite actors such as James Coco and Doris Roberts. Still his talent clashes with his drinking, until Angela Lansbury steps in. Giving up the booze, he finds his first real success with Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune.  He continues to write, primarily but not exclusively on gay themes, and expands his repertoire to musicals such as The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Full Monty. He also finds peace and love: the former through Indian theology and the latter through his eventual life partner Tom Kirdahy.

The death of one of his past lovers, actor Robert Drivas, from AIDS spurs greater activism against the disease. As he comes to the closing of his life, he can reflect on his life and works both theatrical and personal.

Every Act of Life' Review | Hollywood ReporterAgain, while Every Act of Life makes for a good overview of McNally's theatrical output, those not acquainted with his work will find little to make them explore said output. Take for the example the controversy over Corpus Christi, a play late in his career that recasts Jesus Christ as a gay man. There was scandal and outrage over this, but Every Act of Life barely touches on it. As far as I remember I don't think McNally was even asked about the controversy surrounding Corpus Christi, let alone as to why he opted to take a figure many hold to be God in human form and play with the sexuality of said figure.

Was it done to mock Christ or Christianity? Was it done to be allegory? Was there any motive or motivation? Every Act of Life does not answer that.

Every Act of Life also does not give non-McNally acquainted people a reason to flock to his plays. What exactly makes Andre's Mother so important? Same for Frankie and Johnnie? The latter is surprising given that it revolves around a heterosexual romance, apparently a rare play where homosexuality or the gay life was not involved. Most of his plays, if Every Act of Life is understood, is about the gay world, which is fine but are the plays actually good?

Global Peace Film Festival opens with bio-doc Every Act of Life ...
Tyne Daly, another McNally acolyte, reads a monologue from his play A Perfect Ganesh (I'm assuming as the Hindu god Ganesha) and to be perfectly frank it sounds like gibberish. The monologue goes on about how "I" is the ant in the picnic basket and the hand that squashes it. I heard it and asked myself, "What kind of rubbish is this?"

I was, however, intrigued by The Rink, his first collaboration with composer John Kander and Kander's usual partner Fred Ebb. A musical about a mother and daughter running a skating rink starring Chita Rivera and LIZA!? 

We do get bits of information about McNally's private life (who would have figured he'd have a genuine love affair with a woman, fellow playwright Wendy Wasserstein) and the actors interviewed for Every Act of Life clearly have a great deal of affection and respect for him. It's no surprise: from Nathan Lane and Christine Baranski to F. Murray Abraham, Rita Moreno and Patrick Wilson, McNally had a knack for writing plays specifically for them.

Other parts though are a bit opaque. "Until I went to India I had always experienced life as the conflict between regret for the past and and sort of a dread of the future". I figure that means he found inner peace in Hinduism, but that is not explored or even brought up again.

You do leave Every Act of Life liking McNally, who comes across as slightly self-effacing and pleasant, passionate, creative and loyal. It's a credit to him as a playwright that his loyalty was returned tenfold. However, unless you know a bit about him prior to the film, you will feel you missed at least a couple of scenes form his Every Act of Life.     


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Honeyland: A Review


Honeyland made history at the Academy Awards as the first film to be nominated for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Film (formerly Best Foreign-Language Film). While it lost both categories to American Factory and Parasite respectively, Honeyland is a deep, rich if perhaps languid film. It is an extraordinary, exceptional film that is true-to-life and curiously symbolic of man's struggle balancing himself to the delicacy of the natural world.

Co-directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stevanov, Honeyland at first appears to be a chronicle of Haditze Muratova, a Turkish woman living in North Macedonia with her mother Nazife. Haditze scrapes out a living by raising wild honeybees and selling the honey in far-off Skopje. It's far from a glamorous life but Haditze appears content, even with her at times difficult elderly mother.

Then comes another Turkish family, the Sams, with their cattle and boisterous children. Setting up camp near her home, Haditze at first, albeit a bit reluctantly, welcomes the company, even bonding with some of the children. The Sam family patriarch Hussein takes an interest in the beekeeping business as another money-making venture to feed his large family. Haditze offers her advise and experience, chief among them to take just half of the honey and leave the other half for the bees.

Whether out of greed, need or good old-fashioned machismo Hussein ignores her advice and opts to go full-production, dragging his sons into his impromptu business. Only one of his sons, tween Gazme, seems to openly disagree with his father (sometimes vulgarly) and sides with Haditze. For his troubles, Gazme gets constantly berated by his father, forever threatened with not getting food and a few whacks.

At first, Hussein's ideas seem to bear fruit with larger production and more profits, but inevitably Haditze's warnings prove correct. The honey is quickly depleted, and his bees soon start going after hers, killing them. Her efforts to find new breeding grounds for the surviving bees is for naught as Hussein goes after them too to keep the dwindling money flowing, causing more damage. Ultimately, the bees are gone, the cattle is decimated, and while the Sams are free to leave they in turn left nothing but desolation for Haditze, who endures her own painful losses but still carries on into an uncertain future.

The Complicated, Triumphant Woman at the Heart of the Film ...There are many elements to make make Honeyland such an exceptional film. First, there is no commentary or voiceovers or interviews: what we see is what is presented, as if we were literal bees observing the strange interactions of these humans. This "you-are-there" style allows us to see how, slowly, something that was beneficial to man and beast ended up being destroyed.

Second, there is a fantastic structure to Honeyland. It's almost as if the film is more cinematic than true documentary: you have a heroine (Haditze), something of a villain or dare I say parasite (Hussein Sam and the Sam family), the youth who under better guidance would have followed Haditze's respectful way with nature (Gazme) and the wrack and ruin left by others on those who had a good thing going. It may not be pure allegory in that it happened, but we can see how Honeyland makes its quiet case for how thoughtlessness and arrogance can destroy that which should not have.

Third, Honeyland, again in a quiet manner, serves as a case study in how man could live in harmony with nature but his inability to think or learn from the wisdom of elders make a mess of things. Haditze took only what she needed and knew the bees needed for themselves to produce. She willingly shared her wisdom with Hussein, but either out of a need to feed his large family or out of a need to make a fortune he thought he knew better. Worse, he proved inept at all elements of beekeeping and made life miserable for everyone around him. He dragged his children into things they were not able to do, wrecked Haditze's business, and stubbornly refused to admit error.

Honeyland [2019]: 'Sundance' Review – An Exceptional and ...
When she berates him for not having heard her warning to let the bees keep half of the honey and causing his bees to go after hers, he insists the reason her bees died were not a result of his actions but of something else, such as the weather. You sense that the filmmakers were saying more than what was being shown: that we are too quick to destroy what was mutually beneficial to humanity and the animal kingdom for the temporary reward of money.

Visually, Honeyland is arresting in the sometimes perilous sights of Haditze climbing high into the mountains to get her bees. There is also surprising relate ability to Haditze or even Hussein in their lives: the struggles to care for the elderly and the children respectively. From Nazife's declaration to her daughter "I'm not dying. I'm just making your life a misery" to Gazme's surprisingly sharp tongue and Hussein's insistence that he did no harm, we see the common humanity to people whose lives are so radically different.

Honeyland, I found, was a tragedy, a sad but necessary document that breaks your heart and reaches your mind. Apart from a somewhat slow pace in the beginning that makes one wonder if this is going anywhere until it does, Honeyland is a fascinating and important story from which to learn from.       


Monday, March 30, 2020

Cleopatra (1912): A Review


The lurid tale of Cleopatra VII, the last Egyptian pharaoh, with stories of decadent sex and true love, has attracted storytellers for centuries. Shakespeare and Shaw have tackled our exotic temptress, and cinema has found her mix of eroticism and romance irresistible. At least five biopics on our serpent of the Nile have been made. There's the famous 1917 lost film of Cleopatra starring the original Vamp, Theda Bara. There's the celebrated 1934 Cecil B. DeMille epic with Claudette Colbert as our seductive monarch. Then there's the notorious Elizabeth Taylor-starring 1963 Cleopatra, a film so massive and scandalous that it nearly brought down Twentieth Century-Fox and caused Taylor to be condemned by the Vatican as "an erotic vagrant".

Before all those, however, was a sadly now-forgotten film treatment, the very first Cleopatra biopic and a major step forward in cinema. The 1912 Cleopatra still holds up, with some strong acting and visuals that still have some impressive elements.

Less a feature film and more a series of tableaux and title cards that propel the story forward, this Cleopatra is essentially a love triangle between Cleopatra (producer Helen Gardner), a devoted and lovestruck fisherman/slave Pharon (billed as "Mr. Howard") and Roman general Marc Antony ("Mr. Sindelar). First loving Pharon, Cleopatra gives him ten days of passion before he must die, but at the last minute her handmaiden Iras (Miss Sindelar) saves him. For the rest of the film, Pharon observes and more than once saves Cleopatra as she is wooed by, loses and regains Marc Antony, culminating in him sneaking into her tomb disguised as a priest to give her the asps hidden in the fruit basket.

Cleopatra (1912) - YouTubeHelen Gardner is a pioneer in cinema: she not only starred in and produced Cleopatra, but also cast her own acting company and even did her own lavish costumes for her character. Her performance was a blend of the theatrical and the natural. At times she and the rest of the cast had that almost-pantomime manner, with a lot of arm thrusting to suggest emotions run amok.

Other times though, Gardner seemed subdued and contemplative. It's a credit to her as an actress that she did not come across as over-the-top, something that can't quite be said for the rest of the cast.

Again, to be fair this style of acting was the norm at the dawn of cinema, so we should look at it with less contemporary eyes. The performances were on the whole solid and respectable, but clearly Gardner was the best of the group.

Director Charles L. Gaskill also filmed some quite impressive scenes. As I said, Cleopatra is really more a series of tableaux, where we have one shot that captures a particular scene and the actors all either act or stand still. However, we do see slow steps forward in terms of narrative and use of camera. I can remember only one set of close-ups, when we have a surprisingly inventive take on the Battle of Actium, but the cutting between Cleopatra's reactions on her "ship" and Antony's reactions on his "ship" shows that Gaskill and Gardner were slowly finding ways to tell a story differently than they would on the stage.

Another excellent moment is when Cleopatra presents herself to Marc Antony. First, her actual entrance, complete with veils, is still impressive. Second, we clearly see Pharon come too, but it is not made a big moment. In fact, it balances between subtle and obvious, a sign that again these filmmakers were learning.

Cleopatra (1912) | A Cinema HistoryCleopatra also benefits from the use of color in the film. The scenes at Cleopatra's court and Egypt in general are always tinted with various colors: red, blue and green. Curiously, those involving Antony or any of the Romans are almost always in regular black-and-white. To my mind, Gaskill and Gardner are suggesting a lavish, decadent and exotic world filled with blazing colors while that of the Roman Empire is mostly drab. Granted, this may be my own interpretation but for me it works.

Perhaps the weakest element of Cleopatra is the title card dialogue. There's something almost comic about the rather overblown text that appears. When Cleopatra makes her "indecent proposal" to our frisky fisherman, she "says" via the title card, "If I let you live--and love me--ten days, will you swear then to destroy yourself?" As she contemplates suicide to join her true love, Cleopatra states, "To lie in the silent grave by your dear side, Antony, is life! This wakefulness is a thousand deaths!"

Cleopatra is filled with such grandiose statements. No one gets away without an exclamation point to punctuate his/her dialogue in the 105 title cards. Even Pharon gets in on the act, when after taking an arrow meant for his Queen he declares, "I love the woman you love so well--that I'd give my life--for the man--she loves!"

Talk about over-the-top. I'm instantly reminded of the "I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!" bit from Singin' in the Rain.

If there is one thing that I might find fault with Cleopatra, oddly it is with a contemporary element. This version had a score by Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida. Sometimes their music was excellent: a blending of the foreign and familiar (the film opens with African-inspired music). Other times it seemed downright oddball. I think at one point I heard bagpipes (at the scene where Cleopatra appears to Marc Antony). More than once essentially specially-written pop songs were played. Perhaps I'm more traditional in my tastes of silent film music, and while I don't object to vocalizing, why am I hearing actual love songs?

On the whole though, this Cleopatra should not be forgotten. I think it is a sign that cinema was slowly shifting away from the theatrical and finding a more natural manner. Good acting and an engaging story makes the original Cleopatra a film that tells its own story well and shows how cinema started to become what it is now.