FROM THE ASHES (Saudi Arabia) ***1/2

Directed by Khaled Fahad


Films set in a girl’s school have always been more than interesting fodder.  And even more so for this film that is from Saudi Arabia.  Peter Weir broke into the film industry with PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK about a disappearance during a school outing while Maggie Smith won the Best Actress Oscar for THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE as a teacher in an all-girls school.

From the ashes is a metaphor related to the mythological phoenix.  In the film with the title that borrows from the metaphor, a seemingly normal school day ends in unthinkable disaster when a mysterious fire breaks out in the school basement. Chaos, panic, and confusion prevail among students and teachers.

At the film’s start, the words inform the audience that the film is based on true events but incidents are fictionalized to enhance the storytelling process.  This becomes apparent as the film unfolds as the incidents that unfold are humorous and terribly entertaining.  The audience sees very entertaining teachers as well as students.  The disciplinary mistress at the start of the school day goes around the assembly checking nails and makeup while picking out offenders to report to the principal’s office.  The schoolgirls are also rebelliously funny making side remarks constantly.  One incident involved the disciplinary mistress confiscating gum from a student who had hidden the gum in her socks.  As the girls turn to walk away, one girl pulls out another stick of gum from her bra and pops the gum into her mouth while the teacher, her back to the students puts the gum she has confiscated into her own mouth.  But the film soon turns to a more serious tone as fire breaks out and arson is suspected.  The film also plays like a whodunit.  Who locked Amira in the storeroom that caused her death during the fire?  And who caused the fire?  Amira’s mother accuses the principal of the daughter’s death and the principal takes it upon herself to do the investigation.  Suspects like Amira’s classmate enemies are discovered and the hunt goes on in this quite interesting film

Director Fahad devotes equal time to the personalities of the teachers and the students.  Samira, always the ‘best student’ each week is picked upon and bullied.  The principal is always busy with her court case, and her appointed stand-in dislikes taking over her responsibilities when she is away.  Will the fire bring everyone together?  The script emphasizes women’s rights as it opens a discussion on how far a female should cover her body - up to the wrist.  Are women inferior to men or is the reason that men can be easily tempted?  The film goes on to show that what occurs in this all-female school is not much different than what would occur in an all-boys school and females have all the trials, tribulations and challenges like any other male.

FROM THE ASHES is a surprisingly entertaining Saudi Arabian film under the radar that deserves a look from its both entertaining and social standpoint,

FROM THE ASHES is a Netflix original movie from Saudi Arabian and opens for streaming on Thursday, January 18th, Thursday.  The film is billed as a drama and a thriller but it also plays as an entertaining comedy.



Directed by Wang Yu-Lin


Despite the part French title, there is nothing French about this film.

From the award-winning Taiwanese director Wang Yu-Lin (SEVEN DAYS IN HEAVEN), arrives what the film’s poster calls a provocative boundary-pushing erotic drama.  Whether the last adjective can be applied is arguable as this film bears quite many resemblances with fellow Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, especially sharing common traits with Tsai’s hit VIVE L’AMOUR.

The similarities include the fact that both films deal with sex, both have characters who ride a motorcycle and both films share a French title.  The feel of both films is also similar, the way the incidents unfold, in a cinema-verite manner, which perhaps accounts for the films’ French titles.  In IN THE MORNING OF LA PETITE MORT, there is a scene in which an older Filipino woman comes and lies beside Matsui, the male protagonist, caressing his side tenderly, but he’s not interested and does not reciprocate.  In VIVE L’MOUR an identical scene occurs when one male lies besides and caresses a sleeping other male.

Because Tsai’s film came out first, I would not call Wang’s film boundary-pushing. Both films are thankfully quite entertaining and engrossing, despite their artistic slant making both films a bit of a slow burn.

IN THE MORNING OF LA PETITE MORT follows Matsui (Yusuke Fukuchi), a homeless food delivery driver by motorbike, who spends his days and nights traveling from destination to destination without any place to find true solace.  He temporarily houses himself in an abandoned building, often very cold at night,  Longing to make a connection, he becomes infatuated with a beautiful young prostitute Ching (Wang Yun-Chih).  On Matsui’s day off, he summons his courage to enlist Ching’s sex services.  It is shown while Ching is never intimate with any of her other clients, who are mostly elderly and unattractive, she is quite intimate, allowing kissing with Matsui, showing that she is attracted to him.  But her sudden disappearance drags him deeper into depression.  Disheartened, Matsui rejects the warmth and compassion of Helen (Huei-Ling Jan), a middle-aged Filipino cleaner, who is constantly harassed by Wang (Jieh-Wen King), the security guard inside her apartment complex.

IN THE MORNING OF LA PETITE MORT explores the fleeting relationships of four individuals driven by unfulfilled desires and emotionally detached from the cruel world that surrounds them.  Director Wang paints a grim view of life with little chance of hope or parts that would improve the individual’s lives.  His characters are stuck in the rut of mundane daily routines, and the need to be loved.  The depressing film arrives in the depressing month of January when all the festivities are over and winter sets in.  To Wang’s credit, despite the slow pace of his film, his characters are sympathetic and the audience can sympathize if not care for each individual one

Like Tsai’s VIVE L’AMOUR, the characters in the film are those living on the fringes ofthe city mostly rejecting trying to etch out some meaning in their lives.

IN THE MORNING OF LA PETITE MORT opened on VOD & DIGITAL  on January 19th, 2023.


THE KITCHEN (UK 2023) ***

Directed by Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya.


Yet another film about stealing and possessing land.  Films like THE KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, AS BESTAS (THE BEASTS), and the upcoming films, LOS COLONOS (THE SETTLERS) and THE PROMISED LAND all share this common trait.  In the new Netflix British dystopian futuristic film, social housing has been sold, one estate at a time to wealthy developers and those in the housing are forced to evacuate.  Of course, many do not.

In a dystopian future in London in the 2040s, where all social housing has been eliminated, one of the only ones left is THE KITCHEN.  The audience is introduced to this estate in the morning through the radio DJ host who broadcasts over the estate.  He is Lord Kitchener (Ian Wright) who broadcasts both sly remarks and upbeat music over the waves. The film contains a wicked R&B soundtrack.  The film slowly descends into the two subjects a man and a boy. Izi (Kane Robinson) and Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman) fight to navigate the world as residents of The Kitchen - a community that refuses to abandon their homes.  Izi meets Benji at Kenji’s mother’s funeral, he works in the funeral home, which he dislikes.  (Izi appears to dislike everything.)  Izi used to date Genji’s mother; Benji figures that his real father would be at his mum’s funeral.  So the bonding could well be a father/son relationship.  It is revealed later on in the film through Benji’s words to Izzi that this is so.  “My mother told me that my father worked at the funeral home ‘Life After Life’ and lived in THE KITCHEN.”  He goes on to add that she told him that he never loved her but could love him.  The film’s display of these relationships however is often distracted by the loud surroundings of the film’s futuristic setting

The future of the film looks not much different from the present -with lots of noisy people, electronics and loud music.  There is 3D imagery and usage in the public washrooms and government drones that constantly hovering around the buildings.  In contrast, the residents of THE KITCHEN use banging of pots and pans from their buildings to warn others of police raids.

The year 2044 is not that far off from the present of 2024 - around 20 years,  For this reason, many of the scenes showing the old London estate THE KITCHEN look like the present London flat estates.

The film eventually morphs into a film about the relationship between Izi and Benji with the social commentary on land taking a step back.  Essentially, it becomes a story of two lonely souls who finally have found a reason to make sense of all the trouble surrounding their lives.

THE KITCHEN had its world premiere at the 67th BFI London Film Festival on October 15, 2023, with generally favourable reviews.   It was released in select cinemas in the United Kingdom on 12 January 2024 before its streaming debut by Netflix on 19 January 2024.  It opens for streaming in North America as well on the 19th.


MEMORY (USA/Chile/Mexico 2023) ***½

Directed by Michel Franco


MEMORY begins with an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in which individuals share their experiences.  It feels like a documentary on AA as the testimonies sound real and gut-wrenching.  (Real AA members were used in the scene.)  This is until the audience sees Jessica Chastain who plays Sylvia in the meeting, Sylvia who has succeeded for more than 13 years without having a drink.  However, the audience learns that this individual has other problems.  She locks the door and is over-conservative in her safety.  The reason is soon made clear as she was sexually abused when she was in high school.  She comes as what one would call ‘damaged goods’.   This is the story of Sylvia who meets another man who falls in the same category of ‘damaged goods’.  He is Saul, a man suffering from dementia.

Sylvia is a social worker who leads a simple and structured life. This is blown open when Saul follows her home from their high school reunion. Their surprise encounter will profoundly impact both of them as they open the door to the past.

One must give credit to director Franco for his keenly observed and meticulously executed scenes.  These help the audience both identify and sympathize with the characters.  One is the beginning segment where Saul follows Sylvia back from the High School Reunion party.  Sylvia leaves the party when Saul moves to sit beside her at the table and to her consternation, she sees him following her back  The scene on the subway platform is impressive.  The audience sees her looking at him while he looks away and him looking at her when she looks away.  The scene is so much like what happens in real life when one tries to observe without being observed.  The other is a sensitive scene where the two are in the living room watching a movie.  When Sylvia returns to the living room, she asks him what has happened in the movie.  He replies that he can rewind the movie.  Sylvia realizes he has dementia while he remarks that he never can watch a movie because of it.

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain both deliver nuanced and credible performances.  They are key to the movie and they indeed make the movie.

MEMORY plays like a very depressing version of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  The film has a January opening as it would be difficult to watch such a depressing film during December the festive season.  On the other hand, in January in depressing winter, many would avoid more depression by watching a depressing film.  There can never be a good time to watch a depressing film, but if one wants to go against the flow, the well-crafted MEMORY is a challenging, demanding and satisfying watch, a case where one has to work for one’s entertainment that comes as satisfaction rather than joy or laughter.  But be not mistaken that the film is scattered with a few jokes, some laugh-out-loud funny.

Memory premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival on 8 September 2023 and had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. on 10 September 2023.  The film was scheduled for a limited theatrical release in the United States on December 22, 2023, and opens in theatres in Toronto on January 15th.


MOJA & VESNA (Australia/Slovenia 2022) ****

Direct by Sara Kovacic


In 1996, French director. Jacques Dillon broke new ground with his gut-wrenching film of how a 4-year-old coped with her mother’s sudden death in PONETTE. This January, two films feature young girls coping with death  One is MOJA & VESNA, reviewed here and the other is Mexico’s entry for the Oscars, TOTEM, already shortlisted.

In MOJA & MO+VESNA, the young 10-year-old girl tries to mend her fractured family (elder sister and father) following the sudden death of the mother (not shown but detailed later on in the film) in this extremely delicate and devastating drama from down under. The family is Slovenian and the film is an Australian Slovenian co-production,   The film has already won not only numerous awards from international film festivals but surely will win one’s heart as well.

Ten-year-old Moja (Loti Kovacic) lives with her grief-stricken Slovenian father, Milos (Gergor Bakovic) and pregnant twenty-year-old sister, Vesna (Mackenzie Mazur) in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.  Unable to accept the reality of her mother’s sudden passing, Moja instead focuses on preparing for the baby while Vesna struggles to take responsibility as an expecting parent.  Mona treats her sister more like a mother.   Despite the growing strain in their relationship, Moja pushes on, hoping in vain that Vesna will eventually fill the "mother-shaped   She leads them to believe that Vesna is her mum.

As expected from the story laid out in the synopsis, the subject is heart-breaking stuff and director Kovacic knows how to pull and stretch those heartstrings she does from start to finish.

The film hangs on and features a "revelatory" performance by Loti Kovacic, playing Moja and hailed as "one of the best Australian features in recent memory" (FilmInk).  The young actress demonstrates the innocence and maturity of a young child forced into immediate adulthood by dire circumstances.  If this performance does not move you, nothing will.

The film often shows Mona as the most mature and the one most able to deal with her mother’s death.  There is one moving scene in which Vesna questions Mona on what she would do in a certain situation and when she gives the most obvious and appropriate answer, Vesna replies that Mona does not understand the question or understand her,

Director Kovacic alternates between steady cam and handheld camera, the latter more effective, as there is less distraction from the jittery framing.  She loves to film scenes from a well-staged setup.  One of the best and most intimate scenes is the one at the dinner table where the father recalls a past memory, a very funny one that gets the whole family (and the audience) laughing when Vesna got a swollen face from a sickness when she was 4.

MOJA & VESNA, nominated for a Generation Kplus Crystal Bear and the GWFF Best First Feature Award at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival, is the debut feature from writer/director Sara Kern who adapted the film from her award-winning short Vesna Goodbye.  The film makes its North American premiere on SVOD service Indiepix Unlimited on January 19, 2024.


MY LONELINESS HAS WINGS (Mi Soldad Tiens Alas) (Caged Wings) (Spain 2023) ***

Directed by Mario Casas


From Spain, this Netflix original movie premieres this week on Netflix in North America though it opened in theatres in Spain last year.  It is an energetic enough youth drama involving Dan and his relationships with his girl, his grandmother, and his father.  the film is the directorial debut of Mario Casas who casts his brother Oscar in the lead role.  The film loses steam quite fast, limited by the material, though certain parts of the film show promise for the young director.

The film opens with a smash and grad in the middle of the night in the city of Barcelona, sirens blaring as the trio of thieves get away on a bike.  They sell their wars and end up in a club, getting wasted while flirting around with the locals.  The film then focuses on Dan (Oscar Casas, the handsome lead), a young man with a talent for art, especially street art graffiti.  Dan dreams of going to Berlin to start a new life from scratch. His day-to-day life is spent between parties and alcohol with his two friends, Reno, another energetic youth and Vio, a beautiful girl.   The romance between Vo and Dan is hinted at, though they remain good friends. Drama eventually rears its head and Dan has to figure out his life in this coming-of-age story with a different twist.  Not too and a film button too good either,

MY LONELINESS HAS WINGS (Mi Soldad Tiens Alas) is available for streaming on Netflix on January 19th.


THE TEACHERS’ LOUNGE (Das Leherzimmer)(Germany 2023) ***** Top10

Directed by İlker Çatak


Germany’s entry for Best International Feature for the upcoming Oscars in 2024 that made the shortlist, THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE is a riveting and compelling drama set in a school in which all hell breaks loose after systematic racism rears its ugly head.  THE TEACHER'S LOUNGE is where most of the drama takes place.  

The film follows a newly hired 6th grade teacher, an enthusiastic Carla hired to teach gym and mathematics.  She gains the respect of her class initially and everything appears to go well until a series of thefts occur at the school (hints of THE WINSLOW BOY) and one of her students is suspected (with hints of covert racism). 

Carla is outraged and decides to get to the bottom of the matter on her own.  But her sleuthing finds her up against outraged parents, opinionated colleagues and aggressive students, causing everyone to turn against her.   Adding to the suspense are the film’s stabbing music and a backdrop of endless hallways that Carla traverses looking for an answer.   In the midst of it all, are the adults trying to solve the problem by finding a viable solution using all their adult experience and education.  The school principal herself has a doctorate and at one point in the film tells her staff: “Let me use my experience to solve the problem.”  She also resorts to a democratic vote as to what action should be taken.  A cautionary tale evoking raw emotions!


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