Thursday, December 29, 2022


Some films allow you to escape your reality for a fleeting moment. Others confront you with reality in deeply relatable ways. The latter experience is what I felt while watching Lukas Dhont's gut-wrenching new film "Close", which unlocked a hidden memory and provided surprising new perspectives on myself and the past.

This poignant drama follows a pair of inseparable 13-year old boys named Leo and Remi, whose friendship transcends the typical bond. They spend virtually every waking and sleeping moment together, effectively forming an extended family (including a heartbreaking Emilie Dequenne as Remi's mother). As a new school year arrives, however, their innocent friendship becomes challenged by the burdens of socially acceptable masculinity. And when the two are so confronted, the psychological damage threatens to have irreparable repercussions.

Before the emotional damage unfolds, however, Dhont invites you into an idyllic world. Indeed, the evocative filmmaking instantly wins you over with the vibrant cinematography, pleasant music and the endearing friendship at its center. He truly captures a sense of blissful innocence with striking primary colors adorning bedroom walls and the overall vibrancy underpinning their playful friendship. 

But Dhont soon lays his cards on the table, cutting through the idealism of those opening scenes of imaginative games and frolicking in colorful fields. As the plot moves to the schoolyard, inquisitive classmates question the nature of their friendship, insinuating a romantic attachment. And though they firmly deny the assertion, it puts in motion a devastating breakdown of their close bond. 

The subsequent narrative stings with the familiarity of fragile masculinity, reminiscent of a similar experience I encountered during that formative transition into my teenage years. But even those who never endured such heartache will be moved by this simple, but powerful drama. Conveyed with remarkable depth of feeling by newcomers Eden Dhambrine and Gustav De Waele, there's a sincerity and tenderness in their friendship that should touch anyone's heart. And Dhont's sensitive direction and camerawork ensures that we don't miss any of the film's delicate gestures, from a head on a shoulder, to the tears streaming down a face. 

Throughout, the cinematic power of the closeup is once again made evident, as the inner turmoil of several characters is beautifully expressed in ways that recall Barry Jenkins' work with James Laxton. Though Close's narrative isn't nearly as ambitious, it serves as a thematic cousin to the seminal "Moonlight" in its characters' anxieties surrounding manhood. And as both films' protagonists glance back towards the audience in their closing shots, they implore us to question our own coming of age and the pure humanity we've lost along the way.

Monday, December 12, 2022

REVIEW: Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by then President of the United States Lyndon Johnson. Seen as a landmark legislation within the prevailing civil rights movement, it was the culmination of the effort of many groups advocating for equal access and representation at the polls. This federal law was hardly initiated at the national level, however, as it was borne out of the struggles in local communities like that in Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir's new documentary "Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power".

"Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power" zooms in on the eponymous Alabama county, as a starting point for a larger effort to ensure the voting rights of Black people. With a Black population of 80% yet 0 registered voters, it stood as a clear indication of the systemic inequality and injustice. Under threat of unemployment, discrimination and even death, Black citizens of Lowndes County were effectively disenfranchised. Through archival footage and interviews with those who lived through these dark times, "Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power" proceeds with an engaging examination of the pivotal actions taken to overhaul this unjust situation and chart a new course for Black power.

Indeed, the notion of "power" is at the forefront of the film, as it delves into the lack of power for Black people within various spheres of society such as education, employment, legal protection, voting rights. And furthermore, it explores the contentious meaning of Black power, through its revelations of the origins of the Black panther iconography and the subsequent party it spawned. Specifically, the film provides compelling insight into how the Lowndes Country Freedom Organization and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee rose to national prominence under a Black panther symbol before a later branching off of the comparatively militant Black panther party.

They always say you need to know where you come from to know where you're going. And viewers can certainly draw a throughline from the film's depiction of racist terror and anti-Black power rhetoric to the modern day Black Lives Matter movement. As such the excellent archival footage feels like it could've been shot today, despite the monochrome hue. And with the engaging and honest commentary (crucially including the White perspectives as well) accentuating the seamless editing, the storytelling is captivating.

In showing the rocky journey from sharecropping to holding elected office, "Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power" is a testament to the resilience of a people. But in its closing moments, it's also a sobering reminder of how history repeats itself in the ways that American society oppresses its Black citizens. We've come a long way from "Bloody Lowndes," but there's still some distance yet on the road to Black power.

REVIEW: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Who would've thought that one of the most profound films of the year would come from an animation-live action hybrid centered on a talking shell? If you'd told me that I'd be so deeply moved by a film with such a premise, I'd definitely give you a dubious look. But sometimes the best surprises come from the most unlikely sources, and so it is with Dean Fleischer Camp's wonderfully imaginative "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On".

Crafted in a mockumentary style, "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" follows the titular Marcel - a tiny shell - living largely with his grandmother in a suburban home. The pair live mostly alone, save for the occasional Airbnb guest. The latest such guest is a film director (played by Fleisher Camp himself), who becomes fascinated with Marcel's peculiar life. As he gets acquainted with the miniscule creature, he decides to record their interactions and share them online with the world. Marcel quickly gains a popular following, but the attention is unable to replace the affection of his long lost family. And so, Marcel and Fleisher Camp embark on a near impossible mission to find them and the human couple who took them away.

As Marcel's story unfolds, it quickly becomes clear that this film is hardly a frivolous family movie. There's certainly much humor involved in the central pair's comfortable banter and a plethora of genius visual concepts (a "bread room" for a "bedroom" for example). But as Marcel introduces himself and his world, the script instantly establishes genuine emotional stakes. Marcel's feelings of isolation and loss create an undercurrent of loneliness that permeates his interactions with Fleisher Camp. Indeed, the mockumentary style brilliantly allows for vulnerable confessions surrounding the events surrounding the loss of his family and his desire to be reacquainted with them.

That we should care so much about a talking shell is largely due to the remarkable voice performance from Jenny Slate as Marcel. Known for similarly deft work in animation across film and TV, Slate delivers perhaps her best voice acting yet, tapping into sincere emotions with a tinge of whimsy that never tips over to being cloying. And the impact of the performance is all the more impressive for the film's visual choices, as the camera rarely meets Marcel at eye level.

Indeed, the film is unmistakably set in a human's world, featuring glimpses of human characters throughout. And from that towering perspective, it further emphasizes the vast unknown that Marcel faces in the search for his family. When he eventually ventures outside, his existential crisis is palpable. Meanwhile, Marcel's connection to his ailing grandmother (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) also offers several touching moments.

Adorable, affecting and amazingly inventive, "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" is unlike any film I've seen this year (or any other year for that matter). Despite its unreal premise, it accomplishes cinema's long-touted attributes as an empathy machine. Companionship is a vital need in this big world, whether you're a 1-inch-tall shell or a grown human being.