THE AVIARY (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Chris Cullari & Jennifer Raite
Films on cults have always made intriguing entertainment. From films like Michael Bay’s 2005 THE ISLAND to Ari Aster’s 2019 MIDSOMMAR, films on cults have ranged from adventure to horror to escape. Even this year’s Academy Award winning director Jane Campion has directed a cult movie, the 1999 HOLY SMOKE that starred Kate Winslet whose parents hire Harvey Keitel to de-program her from the cult and bring her back to Australia from India. Of all the cult films, HOLY SMOKE is one of the best and most inventive, with Campion once again proving her worth. The film’s first 10 minutes when the mother travels to India to bring back (unsuccessfully) her daughter only to be carried by stretcher to her Qantas airline after suffering from curry food poisoning and discovering the horror of stoop-down toilets, her only expression when getting on the plane is: “Thank God, this is Qantas”
THE AVIARY plays as a psychological thriller, quite different from the films mentioned.
THE AVIARY tells the tale of two females, Jillian (Malin Akerman) and Blair (Lorenzo Izzo) who try to escape from the clutches of their cult that is named Skylight. It is a twisted journey through a desert with them trying to find their destination with hardly any water or food (two protein bars and an apple) left for their journey. The women join forces to escape in hopes of real freedom. Consumed by fear and paranoia, they cannot shake the feeling that they are being followed by the cult's leader, Seth (Chris Messina), a man as seductive as he is controlling. The more distance the pair gains from the cult, the more Seth holds control of their minds. With supplies dwindling and their senses failing, Jillian and Blair are faced with a horrifying question: how do you run from an enemy who lives inside your head? Jillian has nightmares of his appearance whilst Blair imagines Jillian becoming Seth, to the point that she does not trust her.
There is not much seen of Messina who only appears in Jillian’s nightmares. Seth seems able to do nasty things with his female cult followers, with Jillian falling for his charms and having a ‘special’ relationship with him. Messina is a great actor, as witnessed in I CARE A LOT where he plays smooth talking lawyer. One wishes there would be more seen of him in this picture than at the end. The audience learns through Jillian’s tales about how nasty this man is, but the audience never see him in his nasty action.
There is not much information given on how the two escaped from Skylight with more of the film focused on the relationship of the pair and their paranoia. It can be quite humorous to see how paranoia affects the two though the directors keep their film on dead serious mode with little humour. THE AVIARY achieves the strange feat of being so unintentionally funny even though the fact does not alter the film’s serious message.
THE AVIARY opens in theatres mainly in the U.S. but is also available on Digital, and On Demand April 29, 2022.
BAD ROADS (Ukraine 2020) ***
Directed by Natalya Vorozhbit
With all the current news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, BAD ROADS arrives with much interest, the film being the country’s official 2022 Academy Award submission for the Best International Feature, though it did not make the short list.
BAD ROADS was originally presented on stage at the Royal Court Theatre in London and adapted by writer/director Natalya Vorozhbit. BAD ROADS presents four tension-packed vignettes, each built around a dangerous encounter on the byways of Eastern Ukraine, with a particular sensitivity to the vulnerability of women during wartime.
The first and most intriguing concerns a man alleging to be a schoolmaster is accosted by the military at a checkpoint. He is drunk but detained for such a time that he sobers up, tension rising when he is unable to provide his identity papers. The next sees two teenagers wait for their soldier boyfriends in a dilapidated town square. One ends up with her granny going to a shelter. There, in the gloom and dark, a journalist is held captive and gets brutally assaulted. This is followed by a young woman apologizing to an elderly couple for running over their chickens. The vignettes flow to the next one using thin threads such as the schoolmaster mentioning rescuing a girl in a ditch before the camera moves on to the girls at the bus shelter. The four simple stories are set against the backdrop of the Donbass roads during wartime, loomed by disorientation, paranoia, and terror. The common theme of each vignette is the toxic repertoire the subjects have with each other. They are always fighting or arguing, insulting each other with much distrust and intolerance. It is a very bleak Ukraine that is projected on screen.
BAD ROADS is so-called because the film is set along the roads of Donbas, Ukraine during the war. There are no safe spaces and no one can make sense of just what is going on. Even as they are trapped in the chaos, some manage to wield authority over others. This is what happens at the end of each story. But in this world, where tomorrow may never come, not everyone is defenseless and miserable - and even the most innocent victims may have their turn at taking charge.
BAD ROADS is part of Film Movement’s UKRAINIAN FILM COLLECTION, a collection of new, critically acclaimed Ukrainian films, all of which depict the experience of Ukrainians in the Donbas - the contested Eastern region occupied by Russian-backed separatist militants that served as a pretext to the current crisis. For all screenings, the company is donating 10% of gross ticket sales to the Ukraine Crisis Fund administered by Americares. Americares is a BBB-accredited charity, currently providing rush emergency support for Ukraine, delivering medicine, medical supplies and emergency funding to support families and people affected by the Ukraine crisis.
Also to note is that additional upcoming films in the UKRAINIAN FILM COLLECTION include Sergei Loznitsa’s acclaimed dark comedy, DONBASS, which opens at New York City’s IFC Center on April 8, the Sundance Award-winning documentary THE EARTH IS BLUE AS AN ORANGE (4/22) and REFLECTION, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s powerful wartime drama (5/6)
EIFFEL (France 2021) **
Directed by Martin Bourboulon
As the title implies, EIFFEL is about the construction of the Eiffel Tower (le tour Eiffel), the monumental structure in the heart of Paris that attracts countless tourists daily, all year round. It purports to tell of the story of its construction in the 1890’s but adds up a towering mess of a period historical piece.
It is beyond doubt that EIFFEL, directed by first time director Martin Bourboulon is a handsomely mounted period piece. Everything looks image perfect from the costumes, props, architecture, vehicles, horse carriages and hazy atmosphere. Unfortunately, the story of Eiffel played by Romain Duris is rather a personal piece of his romance with Adrienne Bourges (Emma Mackey) overshadowing the building of the Eiffel Tower. There is a scene at the end of the movie when the opening of the tower is celebrated by Gustave Eiffel himself with political officials. The camera pans to a glance made by Emma as she looks as Gustave with the impression that she is the one totally responsible for the Eiffel Tower and without her, it would not have been built. In a way, as the film shows, she has influence over him as he is totally enamoured by her, and that she has convinced her husband to go easy on Gustave so that he can build his Masterpiece. But she does not deserve this much credit.
The construction and design of such a towering landmark is understandably an extremely difficult task. The film shows one disaster during its construction with flooding occurring and another with workers not getting paid enough. Yet these issues are never properly addressed. Despite the construction problems, the audience soon sees the completed tower as if the problems had not occurred. The workers also go straight back to work after Gustave’s ‘silly’ talk of going back to work with more pay. In one segment Gustave changes all the bolts to rivets saying that this way, the construction cannot be changed. True, but not many of the audience would know the difference between a rivet and a bolt. The film assumes one knows the difference and fails to explain the difference that a rivet is soldered and fixed and unlike a bolt cannot be ‘unbolted’ by unscrewing it. Gustave is also seen with a full beard in one scene and almost clean shaven in the next. This discontinuity occurs many times and is disorienting. Are there two different time-lines or is continuity just ignored? If it is the former, the non-chronological order of the segments is not made clear. Another problem is the age difference of the actors playing the lovers. In real life Duris is 22 years older than Mackey and the difference shows in the film. His lover looks as young as Armande Boulanger, the actress playing Gustave’s daughter, Clair.
EIFFEL lacks the audience anticipation factor. There is nothing interesting and the incidents just unfold one after another. The political, financial and architectural problems of building the tower are largely ignored and assumed solved with little difficulty. The film gives the false impression that a single man influenced by his lover can construct the Eiffel Tower all by himself without any team of designers, engineers and skilled labour. And all the problems can be solved without difficulty for the reason that the film demands a happy Hollywood ending.
It is a pity that EIFEL ends up quite the dud of a movie as the film looks stunning production-wise, just as the Eiffel Tower stands in Paris to this day.
THE LADY OF HEAVEN (UK 2021) **
Directed by Eli King
THE LADY OF HEAVEN is the nickname given to Lady Fatima, as in the religion of Islam. She is commonly known as al-Zahra, born to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and Khadijah. Fatima occupies a similar position in Islam that Mary, mother of Jesus, occupies in Christianity. was regarded by Muhammad as the outstanding woman of all time and the dearest person to him. Fatima is often viewed as an ultimate archetype for Muslim women and an example of compassion, generosity, and enduring suffering. Her name remains a popular choice throughout the Muslim world. It is through that Muhammad's family line has survived to this date. The film THE LADY OF HEAVEN is a film about Lady Fatima.
THE LADY OF HEAVEN follows an Iraqi child, whose mother is killed in the war-torn country, in the city of Mosul, as he finds himself in a new home with his grandmother who narrates the story of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad. The historical drama THE LADY OF HEAVEN weaves themes of suffering and patience from the 7th century Islamic story with ISIS in the 21st century when Islamic terrorism begins. The two stories are intercut, one set in the past and the other in the present. This modern-day boy, living in chaos, learns about the painful journey of Lady Fatima.
The film’s battle scenes are thankfully done the old way without computer generated images. The battle scene thus looks epic. The action is heightened through the use of slow motion, which further highlights the action. The director does not skimp on the flowing blood.
For a film that touts peace - the film begins with the claim the the film supports living in a peaceful world with no acts of violence - THE LADY OF HEAVEN is quite violent. After the claim, there are scenes of a boy witnessing the horror of his mother shot in the head, just as Jihadists raid Mosul. Another scene later on has an arrow hitting right through the victim’s eye.
The past story moves slower than the present story, which is the more interesting. The former often done with lots of slow motion looks pretentious, trying too hard.
As expected, this long awaited film garnered extreme emotional reactions from much of the Arab world prior to release. It has been reported that in the streets of Iraq, film posters printed from local printer shops and the digitally released trailer were on full display to an excited national community. Cars stopped on the highway to pay tribute to posters hung on the billboards and men and women marched on the streets, playing the trailer on portable devices, telling the beautiful story of Fatima.
Despite honourable intentions, THE LADY IN HEAVEN tries too hard with many scenes looking too pretentious. The film is riddled with cliches and there is nothing unexpected in the film or twists in the story. The film runs too long at 2 hours and 20 minutes and the audience sees too much violence in both stories, with the Jihadists always on the war part in order to gain power and authority.
MY LITTLE ONE (Desert) (Switzerland 2019) ***
Directed by Frédéric Choffat and Julie Gilbert
In films when foreigners arrive in another land, they do weird things whilst they themselves are deemed weird. In MY LITTLE ONE. Alex and Bernardo, who are summoned to the Arizona desert by Jade, a woman they both loved but haven’t seen in 10 years. The opening scene where they meet each other in the Arizona desert seating French should invoke enough curiosity. The desert is captured on camera in all its barren intensity and stark landscape by Pietro Zuercher’s camera.
Directors Choffat and Gilbert have worked together before in THE REAL LIFE IS ELSEWHERE and MANGROVE. The male and female team make a good balance at the look of this story involving two male friends who have a relationship with a woman. The film does not take the woman nor man/s side in the matter. Each gender is equally responsible.
The most entertaining feature of the film is the treatment of the native Navajo tribe of the desert. Director Choffat spent his early years in the Moroccan desert and Gilbert, daughter of an ethnologist, spent much of her childhood in connection with different native groups in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. Treatment of the Navajo is smart and funny. The Navajo actors are nothing short of superb, stealing the scene from the European counterparts. Ruby Matenko who plays the little one of the film title is a real find. Her dialogue makes her a precocious child.
It does not take a genius to guess the reason Alex and Bernardo are summed to the desert by their lover. Jade is very sick and is dying. She needs one of them, as any one of them could be the father to look after the little one. This reason is revealed to the audience at mid-point in the film, and unfortunately the film struggles to maintain its interest so carefully constructed after that. Even the child actor Matenko, trying now to look as a child needing sympathy lacks the spark she displayed initially as the smart-talking kid.
The two men and Jade argue with the predictable drama expected with this relationship theme. But it is the filmmakers' decision to film in the native Navajo land and the hiring of the Navajo people that makes the film stand out. Despite a few minor flaws, MY LITTLE ONE is still worth a look.
The film has already made its market debut in Hong Kong’s Filmart and was released in Swiss Theatres. The film was an Official Selection of the following festivals: Five Lakes Film Festival Germany, Miami Film Festival, International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, and B3 Biennal of the Moving Image.
MY LITTLE ONE opens on SVOD ((Vimeo, Amazon US, Amazon Canada and Tubi with additional platforms to follow) on April 26, 2022.