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DOC NYC: Family in Transition

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Transgender people do not exist in a vacuum. Not only does the transition mean a painful rebirth for the individual but its also a harbinger of big change for the people in their lives. And when there is a spouse and children to contend to, how will this major life shift affect them?

The Israeli documentary Family in Transition tells the story of the Tsuk family living in a conservative Jewish community in the coastal city of Nahariya. Amit and his wife Galit have been married 20 years and known each other for 27. They’re incredibly close bond deepens when Amit reveals to Galit that he is a woman and wants to transition. Galit and their four children are supportive of Amit as he transitions. We follow their journey from Amit’s birthday party, to daughter Agam’s Bat Mitzvah to Galit and Amit’s ceremony as they renew their vows and remarry as women. It’s a two year process from Amit’s revelation, to the hormone treatment, to the gender reassignment surgery in Thailand and to the wedding vows. This is a portrait of a beautiful marriage and a close knit family supporting their own through a difficult time.

But the Tsuk family’s story doesn’t end here. Something shifts for Galit when she feels taken for granted and can’t find the emotional balance in her marriage with Amit that she craves. You can only give so much of yourself before you’re going to need to take something back. This is where life for the Amit and Galit takes a sharp and unexpected turn. Their journey begs the question, who do you want to be?

Family in Transition was directed by Ofir Trainin and premiered at this year’s DOC NYC. This fascinating documentary is not afraid to tackle some harsh truths about gender dynamics within the family sphere. The sudden shift in the Tsuk’s journey was surprising and revelatory. Going into it in more detail would spoil the film for those unfamiliar with the story. Trainin had this to say about the film in the official director’s statement:

“The main goal of Family in Transition is to expose a unique family that can teach us all how to accept the difference in one another. The Tsuk family breaks social conventions and helps change what we though we knew about gender, partiy, parenthood and transgender issues… By embracing the different, I hope we can work towards creating a world where transgender people can live a normal life and be accepted by their community.”

Family in Transition will open in Los Angeles on November 16th and in New York on November 23rd.

I encourage you to read transgender film critic Danielle Solzman’s excellent review of this film.

 

 

TIFF Review: The Man Who Feels No Pain

ManWhoFeelsNoPain

by Raquel Stecher

The Man Who Feels No Pain (Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota)

dir. Vasan Bala
starring: Abhimanyu Dassani, Radhika Madan

Congenital Insensitivity to Pain. Google it.

Surya feels no pain. Born with a rare condition, newborn Surya survives a chain-snatcher attack that leaves his mother dead and his father and grandfather injured. It’s up to the patriarchs in the family to protect Surya. Because he can’t feel pain, he has to wear goggles to protect his eyes (he won’t notice a foreign object scratching his cornea) and other safety gear. Obsessed with action movies, Surya uses what he’s learned to take on the bullies in school. He teams up with his best friend, Supri, a school girl raised by an abusive and alcoholic father. His biggest advantage in these fights is not being able to feel pain. However his greatest downfall is rapid dehydration which will make him “fall like a log.” Behind the back of his overprotective father, Surya’s grandfather teaches him how to stay hydrated and encourages him to train. Surya’s hero, Karate Man who famously defeats 100 opponents and is not hindered by having only one leg, drives Surya’s desire to fight the chain-snatcher gangs who took his mothers life. Years later Surya reunites with his childhood friend Supri who is now a highly skilled fighter. When Karate Man’s evil brother and his gang of street fighters threatens the community, Karate Man, Surya and Supri come together to take on these foes.

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“I feel like Rocky Balboa”

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The Man Who Feels No Pain is a hip action movie with kick-ass slow motion sequences, infectious music, and a lead actor who is posed for stardom. I appreciated the classic storytelling with the hero’s origin story, unusual birth, a strength that makes him stand out from the rest (his insensitivity to pain) and a weakness that threatens to bring him down (the danger of dehydration). It pays homage to 1960s-1970s action movies especially those starring Bruce Lee. The movie is filled with pop culture references and fun retro-style typography.

 “Since childhood Martial Arts movies have been great escape, I guess it’s similar all around the world. Everyone knows Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, not all have to love them but you know them. They have been our legends and the greatest stories wrapped in miles and miles of VHS tape. The quality of the image didn’t matter, the sound didn’t matter, the moment the Golden Harvest or the Shaw Brothers logo came on, we knew we were in for a spectacular ride.” – director Vasan Bala

This is star Abhimanyu Dassani’s screen debut and boy does this man have charisma. Actress Radhika Madan has great screen presence and is such a bad ass in this film. I would love to see more from her. In a film with a predominantly male cast, I appreciate that the female characters we do get to see are tough and hold their own, from Supri’s fearless mother to Surya’s street fighter.

I was really looking forward to watching The Man Who Feels No Pain and it did not disappoint. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I’m dying for a copy of that amazing soundtrack. The cinematography is stunning. Visually and stylistically this film is pure eye candy. There is much to enjoy with this movie and I hope people who love classic action movies will check this one out.

The Man Who Feels No Pain was part of the Midnight Madness series at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It won the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award voted by TIFF attendees.

TIFF Review: Belmonte

Belmonte_03.jpg

by Raquel Stecher

Belmonte
dir. Federico Veiroj
Starring Gonzalo Delgado

Review:

Belmonte is a man in crisis. A celebrated artist, he paints surreal images of naked men on oversize canvases. Belmonte sells his paintings to wealthy patrons but bemoans the commercialization of his work. When he’s not dealing with the art world he’s a single dad making an effort to have a meaningful relationship with his daughter Celeste (Olivia Molinaro Eijo). But his ex-wife is about to have a new child and when Belmonte asks her for more time with Celeste, she pushes back because she wants their daughter to be fully immersed in her own family life. The story follows Belmonte as he grapples with single parenthood and the art world. It also explores his relationship with women and the touch of madness that many great artists deal with.

Veiroj’ film is both a tender portrait of a single father trying to connect with his young daughter and a quirky portrait of a borderline tormented artist. I say borderline because he hasn’t gone off the depend but he begins his slow descent. I found the scenes with Belmonte and Celeste quite touching. I wish the film had spent more time exploring his artistic process but I did get a sense of how Belmonte functions in his given career and how artists must strike a balance between the creation which is key to their passion and the more commercial aspects of the business side of things (patrons, exhibits, catalogs, shmoozing, etc.). While the film makes sure to explore Belmonte’s sex life I felt that this really didn’t add anything to the story, except for some titillation, and could have been removed without affecting the overall movie.

This is the first Uruguayan film I’ve seen and I’d love to see more. I’d recommend Belmonte to anyone who has an appreciation for Latin American cinema, which inherently defies conformity. It’s an unconventional film that requires some patience and acceptance from the viewer.  I particularly loved the sweet father-daughter story which is truly the heart of this film.

I attended a press and industry screening of Belmonte at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

 

James Ivory on the making of Maurice (1987) and the appeal of Call Me By Your Name (2017) #TCMFF

At the TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF) I attended a special screening of Maurice (1987). Before the film, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz sat down with the film’s director James Ivory to discuss the movie and his career.

To period film enthusiasts like myself James Ivory is a well-known name. He was part of the Merchant-Ivory productions trio that included his late partner producer Ismail Merchant, the late screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and himself as director. This partnership gave birth to many wonderful films including A Room With a View (1985), Maurice (1987), Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993) and many others. These films set the standard because of their excellence in story telling and the meticulous attention to detail given to virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process. The last collaboration with all Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala was Le Divorce (2003). Merchant passed away shortly after the premiere of The White Countess (2005) and Jhabvala passed away in 2013.

 

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Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

 

As the surviving member of this trio, Ivory has recently found a new career as a screenwriter. He had contributed to screenplays on previous projects but Call Me By Your Name (2017), based on Andre Aciman’s acclaimed novel, was the first time he had ever written a script all on his own. At the age of 89, Ivory became the oldest nominee to win an Oscar which he did for best adapted screenplay. I read Ivory’s screenplay for CMBYN before attending TCMFF (you can read it for free online). It’s one of the best I’ve ever read and while Luca Guadagnino’s film for the most part stayed faithful to the script, some of the intimate moments in Ivory’s adaptation were altered for various reasons concerning the director and the film’s stars Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet. In discussion with Ben Mankiewicz, Ivory touched upon his disappointment that CMBYN did not contain nudity even though the script called for it. He said,

“I hate talking about the subject and at one point I was told not to by Sony Pictures because it would make people not go see the movie… There’s always been a lot of nudity in our [Merchant-Ivory] movies, male, female. We’ve never worried about that very much. I’ve always felt that in love scenes, when showing people in love or when they just made love or whn they’re about to make love to put sheets around them. I always thought [to include it] … I was told that would happen in this film. However the two guys [Hammer and Chalamet] had it in their contracts [not to]. Let me just say this English actors don’t care about that at all. Or French actors. They walk around naked all the time. It’s not true of American actors. There’s a kind of modesty.”

It’s hard not to compare CMBYN with Maurice. Both are romantic period pieces, one set in 1980s Italy and the other early 20th century England, that focus on gay characters. The outcomes for the two sets of couples are very different but many of the story elements are the same and both include references to ancient Greek and Roman literature and art. When Mankiewicz brought this up, Ivory disagreed. He thinks they are quite different except that they are both “unashamed presentations of gay love.”

The story of Maurice was ground breaking in that it was unashamed in its presentation of romances between men. Renowned author E.M. Forster wrote the novel in 1913 and 1914 and revisited it a few times over the decades. When he passed away in 1970, he left the manuscript behind with a note that read “publishable, but worth it?” It was indeed published the following year but considered a minor entry into his ouevre. In conversation, Ivory pointed out that Forster couldn’t have published it in his lifetime. He went on to say, “it would have been considered obscene. It was a story with what was considered criminal acts in England. Then laws in England were changed in the early ’60s. So it could be published. But by that time he was pretty old and he wasn’t thinking about it a lot. Various friends of his who had read it over the years told him not to [even though] they liked it.”

Upon the success of the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Forster’s A Room With a View, Ivory and his team received offers from studios for all sorts of projects. One of them was a treasure hunting adventure film set in the Caribbean and starring Tom Cruise. When that project fell through, Ivory revisited Forster’s work, reading and re-reading his various novels and stories. Ivory had read Maurice when it first came out but hadn’t thought of adapting it to film until he read it again a decade later. In the interview he said:

“I thought that Maurice was sort of the other side of the coin of A Room With a View. It was really the same kind of story. The same kind of people. Privileged, upper-middle class, educated, English people who were going to live a lie rather than really seek personal happiness, romantic happiness. They were prepared in A Room With a View and in Maurice to live some lie and pretend that they didn’t loved the person they really loved. I thought that was very relevant to today. A lot has changed since 1910 but people’s attitudes about living a lie had not always changed.”

Forsters executors at King’s College were hesitant that a film adaptation of Maurice wouldn’t pan out.  ccording to Ivory, they were mostly concerned that the novel didn’t have the prestige of Forster’s other work and that a movie might drag down his literary reputation. Eventually they relented. Screenwriter Jhabvala was otherwise occupied writing her novel Three Continents and also fairly uninterested in Maurice as a project. However she did contribute what Ivory calls “very good and highly useful dramatic suggestions” to the script Ivory worked on with Kit Hesketh-Harvey.

 

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James Wilby and Hugh Grant in Maurice (1987)

 

The film starred relative newcomers James Wilby as Maurice, Hugh Grant as Clive and Rupert Graves as Alec Scudder. Because it was difficult to get all the cast members at the same place at the same time there was little-to-no-time for rehearsals and script read throughs and barely enough time for the actors to get to know each other before shooting very intimate scenes. Mankiewicz asked Ivory what it was like to direct a love scene with two actors who had yet to develop chemistry with each other. Ivory’s response:

“It’s a bit like throwing a dog and a cat in a box together. You just have to see what’s going to happen. “

Maurice was well-received at the Venice Film Festival, where it received several prizes, played for several months at The Paris Theater in New York and was praised by critics. Maurice was ahead of its time in many respects but also came at the perfect time. Ivory pointed out that

“It came out at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was at its worst point. If you think that maybe because of that people would have backed off from it. But I think people didn’t dare to criticize it because of that very fact. This huge tragedy was going on. People who might have attacked it said it was not the time. Especially a film with a happy ending.”

 

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Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name (2017)

 

Fast forward thirty years later and Ivory’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) garners critical praise and a cult following. And that Academy Award for best adapted screenplay didn’t hurt either. About CMBYN’s appeal, Ivory shared,

“I’m stopped on the street all the time in New York. People recognize me. Maybe it’s my cane or something. They come up to me. Sometimes it will be much older couple, man and wife, and they go on and on about how they love the film. I’ve also noticed that with teenage girls who are just crazy about it, of course that’s Timothee Chalamet I know. They see it again and again and again. It’s just playing everywhere. It’s a love story between some attractive young people in the most beautiful place in the summer. Apart from it’s general tone as a film it’s just something that appeals to people. The same thing can be said A Room With a View. It’s the same kind of feel. A Room With a View had that same kind of audience reaction everywhere in the world.”

What’s next for James Ivory? For years he’s been trying to get funding for an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II without much success. Currently he’s working on a screenplay for Alexander Payne based on a story Ruth Jhabvala wrote for The New Yorker shortly before she died. It was optioned years ago by Payne and Fox Searchlight but only recently has it been revisited.

Read more of my TCMFF coverage over on my classic film blog Out of the Past.

The Young Karl Marx

The Young Karl Marx

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Station: 19th Century Political Biopic
Time Travel Destination: 1843-1848, Cologne, London, Manchester, Paris, Brussels, Ostend, etc.
Conductor: Raoul Peck

 

The Young Karl Marx

“In early 1843, Europe, ruled by absolute monarchs, wracked by crises, famine and recession, is on the verge of profound change.”

On the heels of his critically acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016), director Raoul Peck brings audiences something vastly different but still as potent in its political message. The Young Karl Marx (2017) tells the story of two German philosophers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, their friendship, trials and tribulations and the birth of Communism and Marx’s Communist Manifesto. August Diehl stars as Karl Marx, the headstrong and arrogant writer who is constantly getting in trouble for his radical ideas. Struggling to make ends meet for his growing family, Marx is battling the internal struggle of his passion for social justice and making a decent living. His partner is his equally headstrong wife, former socialite Jenny von Westphalen-Marx (Vicky Krieps), who gave up her comfortable life for the love of Marx and his ideas. They try to make a go of it in Paris but are soon exiled from France. In the meantime, another young philosopher Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), lives a conflicted life in Manchester, England. He works for his father, a successful mill owner and tyrant to his workers, and is constantly butting heads with him. Inspired by outspoken worker Mary Burns (Hannah Steele)’s protest of his father’s treatment of the mill workers, Engels seeks out justice. Marx and Engels meet and become fast friends. Over the next few years they fight for the proletariat and against the bourgeoisie. They know something big is about to happen and won’t let anything or anyone get in their way.

The Young Karl Marx

The Young Karl Marx

Peck’s biopic could have easily been called The Young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels because it focuses almost equally on both historic figures. However, it would have been a convoluted title and Marx is the one whom is best known to contemporary audiences. While you don’t have to be pro-communism to appreciate the political message of this film you do have to have some interest in liberal philosophy, political history and social justice. Even Peck within the confines of the movie, leaves room for doubt. In one scene Arnold Ruge (Hans-Uwe Bauer) warns Marx to not follow in Martin Luther’s footsteps, when Luther broke down Catholic dogma only to help usher in an equally intolerant religion. I thought this to be quite powerful.

I consider myself very liberal so I was fascinated by the story of these two important 19th century figures. If you enjoyed Elizabeth Gaskell’s social justice novel North & South (or its mini-series adaptation), about the working poor of mill town Manchester, England around the same time of Engels and Marx, you’ll want to see The Young Karl Marx. Especially if you have an interest in the political message of that story and want to explore it more deeply.

Written by Pascal Bonitzer and Raoul Peck, the original screenplay really hones in on a dark time in European history. I was especially impressed in the character portrayals of Marx and Engels. These are two figures caught in conflicting worlds. Marx is torn between stability and his passion. Engels is caught between his bourgeoisie upbringing and his desire to help the proletariat. Both Diehl as Marx and Konarske as Engels play their parts with great tenacity and attention to detail. I was particularly impressed how the filmmakers incorporated two strong female characters in what could have solely been a movie about two men. Actress Vicky Krieps, best known for her stand out performance in the Academy Award nominated Phantom Thread (2017), is a delight as Marx’s wife Jenny. Even when she hangs out in the background she makes her voice heard and everyone, especially Marx, respects her for it. Mary Burns, played by Hannah Steele, is feisty, brash and outspoken and Engels falls head over heels for her and rightly so. In the movie they marry but in real life Engels felt marriage was repressive construct of culture and they were lifelong romantic partners instead. In the film though you still get a sense that their union is anything but ordinary.

The Young Karl Marx felt as real as a biopic set in different parts of Europe could possibly be. Lots of on location shooting helps. Peck and his team filmed in France, Belgium and Germany. There is a keen attention to period detail and I always felt like I was thrust into the world of 1840s Europe and not a movie about 1840s Europe. But one thing that stands out about this film is that it’s trilingual. German, French and English are spoken interchangeably throughout the film depending on the location, circumstances and characters in the scene. This is truly European. I myself am trilingual (English, Spanish and Portuguese) with many family members in Europe who all speak more than one language. I love that Peck’s film embraces multiple languages instead of having one language pretend to be all three. The end result is an exercise in attention and comfort with subtitles that is truly worth the effort.

The film ends a month before Revolutions of 1848. It’s a time capsule of just a few years in Marx and Engels’ lives but an important one that helps us begin to understand what is to follow.

Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is a powerful, multi-lingual biopic that explores inequality and class struggles within the context of the lives of two influential philosophers. Highly recommended.

The Young Karl Marx debuted in New York and LA last week and a national roll out is to follow.

 

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