Saúl (Gael García Bernal) is a gay wrestler who performs for his local lucha libre matches. Wanting to evolve from his typical role as a El Topo, he develops the persona of Cassandro, a flamboyant “exótico” whose feminine energy taunts his more macho luchador opponents in the ring. Exóticos usually elicit boos from the audience and ultimately lose the match. But Cassandro wants to change that. As Saúl/Cassandro works with a new trainer on his skills, he grapples with his relationship with his in-the-closet boyfriend, his distant and homophobic father and his ailing mother.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams, Cassandro is based on the true story of wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, known as the Liberace of lucha libre. Gael García Bernal delivers one of the most spirited performances I’ve ever seen. He truly embodies this character, giving Saúl gravitas and Cassandro verve. The film conveys a strong message of acceptance and joy in individual expression. This one will be a crowd pleaser for sure.
Cassandro premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
“Cults are living creatures that feed on people’s anxieties. If you are too pure and sincere, you may end up in a place that is different from where you had set out to be in the first place.”
In the 1980s, Japan experienced an occult boom, an after effect of the Cold War and a result of the growing disenchantment in the country’s government. It was during this time that self-imposed guru Shoko Asahara transformed his yoga school into a doomsday cult: Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”). Hundreds of members followed Asahara’s every word and command. What started off as a quest for spiritual enlightenment took a deadly turn. After a disastrous run for local government, Asahara soon transformed AUM from a cult into a terrorist organization, one that would ultimately be involved in the deadly Tokyo subway sarin attack of 1995.
Directed by Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto, AUM: The Cult at the End of theWorld examines the complicated history of AUM and its leader Shoko Asahara. Interviews with former members, including a high ranking monk, loved ones who started a Victims Association and those affected by various sarin attacks, really drive home just how dangerous this cult was in its time. Cult documentaries have gained a following in recent years and anyone fascinated with mind control and cult mentality will find a lot to be horrified by in this film. Apparently AUM is a touchy subject in Japan and the directors made it their mission to handle with delicate topic with great care.
AUM: The Cult at the End of the World premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Actress and model Brooke Shields achieved a level of fame that is unparalleled today. From the late 1970s and through the 1980s, Shields was a recognized face on television, film and advertising. From adolescence she was considered one of the most beautiful girls in the world. Unfortunately, this lead to her becoming one of the most sexualized children in all of entertainment history. Shields garnered controversy with her ad campaign with Calvin Klein and provocative roles in films like Pretty Baby (1978) and Blue Lagoon (1980). Powerful men in the industry took advantage of Shields’ beauty, fame and passive nature. And behind Shields’ controversial success was her mom and manager Teri Shields, who believed that her child really special and that Brooke should be shared with the world.
Director Lana Wilson’s Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is an eye-opening documentary about Shields’ extraordinary life and the dangers minors face in the media. Produced by ABC News Studios, this doc will be released in two one-hour segments. The first hour is incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Although its clear there was backlash even then about Shields and how her mother was handling her career, it’s still shocking to see just how much these industries were allowed to get away with. It shines a much needed light on some hard truths. The second half explores Shields’ adult years including her two marriages, her battle with postpartum depression and how her career evolved over time. The biggest surprise is when Shields reveals that she was raped at the age of 20 by someone in the film industry (who goes unnamed).
Talking heads include Shields herself and her close friends including Laura Linney, Drew Barrymore and Judd Nelson. A one time watch at best.
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
This crowd pleaser will have viewers reaching for the tissues. Directed by Christopher Zalla, Radical is based on the true story of Sergio Juárez Correa, a teacher from Matamoros, Mexico who made a huge impact on the sixth grade students at Jose Urbina Elementary School. Eugenio Derbez stars as Sergio, a newcomer to the area who has a “radical” teaching methodology. When he takes over the sixth grade class of an impoverished school, he throws all the rules out the window. His unconventional methods spark the curiosity of kids who were otherwise expected to drop out of school within the next few years.
The movie spotlights three kids in particular. Nico is being groomed to become part of the local drug cartel. But he soon takes an interest in science, especially in boats, and hopes he can stay in school a bit longer to avoid a life of crime. Lupe is the oldest sibling of four and the expectation is that she help her parents with the care of her youngest. She is really interested in philosophy, especially the work of John Stuart Mill, but her intellectual journey puts her at odds with her family’s expectations. Sergio’s top student is Paloma, a bright young mind with an interest in aerospace engineering. She shows a lot of potential but is beholden to her responsibility as the sole caretaker of her sick father.
Eugenio Derbez really shines as the Sergio. He conveys a great sense of empathy and caring that demonstrates the impact a good teacher can have on students. The film as a whole really celebrates education. It also offers a sobering revelation that potential does not necessarily guarantee opportunity.
I could see Radical movie being the next CODA. However, given the limited appeal of foreign-language movies—Radical is in Spanish—I worry that not enough people will watch this terrific film. Radical is a bit on the longer side and could use some trimming. The ending is both awe-inspiring and heart-breaking. My hope is that this reaches a broader audience and that this will help the school get the resources it needs.
Radical premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Clara (Penelope Cruz) and Felice (Vincenzo Amato) move their family, including their three young kids, to a new apartment building. It’s the 1970s and the city of Rome is in flux. New construction attracts wealthy families and transient workers who live almost side by side. On the other side of the reeds outside the new apartment building, Adriana (Luana Giuliani), who now goes by the name Andrew, meets Sara (Penelope Nieto Conti), a young Romani girl. Sara accepts Andrew as a boy and they form a tender bond despite the social expectations that threaten to keep them apart. At home, Andrew’s family is falling apart. Felice cheats on Clara and beats her. He also refuses to accept Andrew’s identity as a boy. Clara escapes her tumultuous marriage by tapping into her inner child and connecting with her children through music and play. Throughout it all Andrew struggles to shed his identity as Adriana and be embraced as his true self.
Directed by Emanuele Crialese, L’Immensità is a heartfelt coming-of-age story that treats its subjects with great reverence and care. It’s as much a story about a preteen coming into his identity as it is about a grown woman’s struggle with adulting. There are a handful of musical numbers that, while not really necessary, add levity to the film. Cruz and Giuliani both deliver strong performances. The audience is given enough context about the characters’ situation and the social atmosphere of their given place and time while still maintaining an air of mystery.
L’Immensità is an autobiographical story about director Crialese’s own upbringing. When this film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Crialese revealed that he is a transgender man and that Adriana/Andrew’s story is his own. While I would have liked to have learned more about Andrew’s trans journey, I also appreciated the delicate handling of the matter. It’s an important part of the story but not the film’s main focus. L’Immensità reminded me a bit of Céline Sciamma’s film Tomboy (2011) which also explores gender identity in a similar way.
L’Immensità was screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.