Chicago ‘18 Review: ‘Birds of Passage’ is a Crime Drama of Epically Beautiful Proportions

If you’ve seen one crime film, you feel like you’ve seen them all. Men with guns and more money than they know what to do with shoot each other over drugs, all while (poorly) trying to protect their families. It’s a story we’ve heard time and time again, and one that serves as the structure for Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s latest film, Birds of Passage. However, Birds of Passage seeks to change this perception of the crime film. Using the perspective of an indigenous group in Colombia, rather than the typical cartel hotshots, we see the effects of the drug wars on a culture, their traditions, and their way of life. This unique lens creates more sympathy, pain, and heartbreak than typically seen in the genre.


This epic tale follows a family over twenty years, as ambitious Rapayet (José Acosta) becomes involved in the American drug trade. Rapayet is part of the Wayuu, an indigenous group that lives in the northernmost part of Colombia. As part of tradition, Rapayet must acquire a hefty dowry to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes). To acquire the dowry, he turns to selling weed to Peace Corps volunteers. In a rather on-the-nose, yet poignant moment, a white Peace Corps volunteer yells, “Long live capitalism!” to Rapayet and his partner, Moises. Capitalism will prevail, no matter the cost. As what started as a means to a dowry because a full-fledged business, Rapayet and his family begin to lose sight of Wayuu way. Zaida’s mother and village matriarch, Úrsula (Carmina Martínez), tries to keep them on the right path, but even her eyes are clouded by the opportunities provided by capitalism.

Continue reading “Chicago ‘18 Review: ‘Birds of Passage’ is a Crime Drama of Epically Beautiful Proportions”

BFI London Film Festival ’18 Review: ‘Rafiki’ is a Beautiful Study of Dual Identity

Rafiki is a film that will go down in history. Wanuri Kahiu, in creating a Kenyan film unafraid to portray lesbian sexuality, not only succeeded in winning over the international festival circuit, but also faced down a tough legal battle in her home country. Victorious, Kahiu was permitted to show the film for one week in Kenya (where homosexuality is illegal) so that Rafiki may qualify for Oscar submission — a week that was undoubtedly revolutionary for the Kenyan lesbian community.

mv5bzdzmodblmmmtngjmnc00ndawltg3mjktoti0ztq5nzy0zte3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjg2nzuzmde-_v1_.jpg

Subversive in its very existence, Rafiki’s profound impact is twofold: as a love story, the film crafts a study of forbidden lesbian intimacy unlike any other. Never voyeuristic, Kahiu’s camera traces the bodies of her characters as they touch, following the movements of hands upon skin with breathtaking detail. The absence of what we would typically consider as nudity only strengthens the clandestine, almost wistful nature of Kena and Ziki’s relationship — we are outsiders to their unique bond, and their bodies are not ours to consume. Rather, it is their affection for each other that we witness, and what a beautiful affection it is. The pair is endlessly supportive of each other regardless of the circumstance. When Kena explains her wish to become a nurse, Ziki pushes her —why not a doctor? Kena doesn’t think she’ll get the grades, but Ziki believes in her fully. There is no selfishness between them, and in this sense, they function almost like a friendship, as reflected in the title: “Rafiki” means “Friend” in Swahili.  Continue reading “BFI London Film Festival ’18 Review: ‘Rafiki’ is a Beautiful Study of Dual Identity”

‘Private Life’ is a Display of a Series of Inevitable Heartbreaks

I have always thought that adulthood would be about meeting someone, getting married, and eventually having some kids. It is the story that you hear time and time again throughout your life from countless other adults. But, they fail to mention the downsides that come with this dream scenario. What if it doesn’t work out? What if it doesn’t pay off? What if all that was done in vain? These are all the questions answered in Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, a film containing a series of unfortunate events, of heartbreaking stories, of floating hope.

private-life-sundance

My first encounter with Jenkins was around 2013 or so. I used to have a habit of watching every film nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. At that time, I wanted to go through all the films in the 2000s. When I got to the 2007 Best Actress lineup, I was stuck on Laura Linney in The Savages, and really the entire film itself. Dysfunctional family is a recurring theme in Jenkins’ work. She constructs a traditional family (husband and wife in Private Life, brother and sister in The Savages) then dissects each member of that family into a story with love and humor in the most unravelling manner.

Continue reading “‘Private Life’ is a Display of a Series of Inevitable Heartbreaks”

Film Festival Cologne ‘18 Review: ‘Thunder Road’

Jim Cumming follows a lot of people on Twitter. In fact, as I’m writing this, about twenty-two thousand of them. I am not one of them, but a good friend of mine is, who decided to visit me over the course of the Film Festival Cologne. He told me about a very short, likeable social media interaction with Cummings and his interest in the now fully-fledged feature film Thunder Road after seeing its short film prototype of the same name – a brilliant one-take tour de force. Sure, I had heard about the film’s buzz from Sundance, but the consideration to actually go see it after spotting it on the festival lineup, came only by then. American independent filmmaking is tough, but Cummings found his own way to spread the word by actively sending out screeners and interacting with people. It’s likely a lot of work, but it paid off. And it did not pay off for a letdown – from a cinematic standpoint, Thunder Road is an impeccably crafted standout of recent American independent film.

Continue reading “Film Festival Cologne ‘18 Review: ‘Thunder Road’”

NYFF ’18 Review: Even When Personal to a Fault, ‘Roma’ is Cuarón’s Masterpiece—and the Best Movie of the Year

If you notice one thing about Roma, it will likely be its size. It’s a big, big, big movie, with landscapes that extend out into infinity, scenes that seem to last forever, and emotions so wide and deep they could swallow you whole like a well. It makes sweeping political commentary, shows births and deaths and poverty and heartbreak, focuses on the vastness of the ocean and the sky. Its camera likes to slowly sweep left and right, constantly looking outward and upward.

Through all this big-screen grandeur, it would be so easy for Roma to drown itself in itself—and in less skilled hands, it may have done just that. But with Alfonso Cuarón at the helm, creating the most personal work of his entire career, Roma is as sharply focused and intimate as it is grand, and it never for an instant loses sight of the woman at its center.

44320-Roma_-_Alfonso_Cuaron__Film_Still_
Yalitza Aparicio in ‘Roma’ © Netflix

That woman is Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), a young, indigenous Mexican maid to an upper-middle-class family living in Mexico City in 1970, a time of state-sponsored violence against political dissidents. Cleo is thoughtful and deliberate, always tending to the needs of her employers, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and their four children. But she is also keenly aware of her own needs and limitations, even as the line between work and life becomes more and more blurred.

Language creates an almost helpful boundary—Cleo speaks Spanish in Sofia’s home, but slips back into her native Mixtec with her friends and fellow maid Adela (Nancy García) in their little apartment above the garage. She and Adela find joy in each other’s company and do all the sorts of things young women do together—race through the city streets to get lunch, go to movies with their boyfriends, and exercise and gossip by candlelight every night so as not to waste electricity and disturb Sofia’s mother, Teresa (Verónica García). Even when surrounded by sequences of high drama, these small scenes of tender normalcy are some of the film’s most mesmerizing. Continue reading “NYFF ’18 Review: Even When Personal to a Fault, ‘Roma’ is Cuarón’s Masterpiece—and the Best Movie of the Year”

Chicago ‘18 Review: Get Lost in the Violence and Music of ‘Vox Lux’

Is there anything more satisfying than a catchy pop tune you can’t get out of your head? A tune that pounds its way into the crevices of your brain and infiltrates your every thought? Many times these songs enter our consciousness with little regard to who wrote, who sung it, and how it came to be a hit. But, Brady Corbet’s film, Vox Lux, forces the audience to confront the sinister undertones of pop and its relationship to the spectacle of violence.

Vox Lux is presented in two parts that are defined by two violent tragedies that affect the life of pop star Celeste, played by both Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman. These violent tragedies occur when Celeste is 13 and 31. The first act of violence defines Celeste and shapes her career, her persona, her entire life. The second less directly impacts her, but is still a reflection of her career. Giving much more away would ruin the experience. This is a film best viewed with almost zero expectations or knowledge going in. Let the surprises, twists, and turns wash over you like a bubble-gum-sweet summer ballad that you find yourself mindlessly repeating on your commute home.

A7R1391

Continue reading “Chicago ‘18 Review: Get Lost in the Violence and Music of ‘Vox Lux’”

NYFF ’18 Review: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a Wild, Witty, and Hollow Patchwork

Tim Blake Nelson in 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' © Annapurna

Gather ‘round, folks, because the Coen Brothers have another tale to tell—six tales, in fact. With their anthology project The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the pair revisit some well-tread ground—death, greed, and comedy in the Old West—through a series of storybook vignettes that are just as violent (and twice as witty) as any Grimm fairytale. None of the film’s individual chapters achieve anything the directors haven’t already given us in spades, but the pieces come together to form an intriguing, if somewhat hollow, collection, resembling more of a patchwork quilt from a forgotten civilization than a feature-length Hollywood film.

Tim Blake Nelson in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ © Annapurna

Continue reading “NYFF ’18 Review: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a Wild, Witty, and Hollow Patchwork”