The Book of Delights co-written and directed by Marcela Lordy is a loose adaptation of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s book Uma Aprendizagem ou o Livro dos Prazers. It tells the story of Lóri (Simone Spoladore) an elementary school teacher on a journey of self-discovery as she navigates her monotonous professional life and a series of sexual and romantic relationships. As the movie progresses Lóri develops a primarily pseudosexual relationship with an Argentinian philosopher called Ulisses (Javier Drolas) and it is this relationship that opens her eyes to new possibilities.
As Lóri and Ulisses’ relationship becomes more intimate, we start to unravel all of her layers. We learn that Lóri is dealing with intense personal trauma, the death of her mother, and fractured family relationships that make her closed off and stand offish to the world and people. Ulisses can see past this façade and encourages Lóri to be more compassionate with herself and let others in. Their relationship is transfixing and sexy and sets much of the tone for the movie, It is through this relationship that Lóri starts to rediscover herself.
Ultimately, what makes this movie work is Spoladore’s performance. She is sublime and the camera gravitates towards every frame she’s in, which is the majority of the movie. Spoladore’s performance is complemented by Lordy’s directorial touch. In particular, Lordy’s use of color really caught my attention. The scenes where Lordy uses fiery and passionate red hues coupled with cool darkness of the ocean at night time really drew me in. This movie does not do anything extraordinary but it does several things that will draw you in and make you keep watching.
Azor is a Franco-Argentinian-Swiss co-production co-written and directed by Andreas Fontana marking his feature film debut. From the first shot there is something disorienting about the film. We see a somewhat disoriented man, surrounded by foliage, looking straight into the camera and shortly after we see two young men being questioned by the police at gunpoint on streets. At the same time, we observe a Swiss couple in a nearby car that are startled by this image as they make their way to their hotel after just landing in Buenos Aires. One of the things that contributes to this sense of disorientation is that characters often switch between Spanish, French, and English in the same sentence. So, understanding the context in which this film takes place helps enhance your viewing experience.
The film takes place in Argentina during the late 1970s early 1980s, a period of social and political unrest in the country. This period would later become known as Guerra sucia, or Dirty War in English. During this era thousands of people were killed or disappeared. The majority of those that went missing were seen as a threat to the military junta. It is within this fraught context that Azor takes place. Told through a series of distinct chapters we are introduced to Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), a Swiss banker, and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) as they embark on a journey to discover what happened to De Wiel’s partner who goes by the name Keys.
As the film unfolds, things become more unsettling. The plot is a bit sparse but there is a general understanding that finding Keys is the throughline which guides everything that happens on screen. The feeling of unease I had while watching this was also due to the economical and superb score as well as the dimly lit shots of De Wiel in Keys’ apartment trying to piece together what happened to his partner. Sharing anymore more would spoil the delicate surprises the rest of this film has in store. This film is an impressive socio-political character study that never feels heavy handed. Fontana’s precision and subtlety kept me invested even when not much was going on. All these achievements are more impressive considering this is Fontana’s debut feature. Azor is a definite recommendation on my list and one of the best films I’ve seen in 2021.
Bye Bye Morons written, directed and starring Albert Duponte as Jean-Baptiste Cuchas is one of the weirdest and worst movies I’ve seen all year. On the surface, it had an interesting premise a woman, Suze Trappet, (Virginie Efira) dying with an autoimmune disease; a disgruntled employee – who was just fired from his job – and a blind man Serge Blin (Nicolas Marié) form an unlikely friendship while on the run from the cops and in search of Trappet’s long lost child. But beyond this unusual premise a lot of this movie just gets “lost in translation”.
The comedy of error and running gags throughout the movie do not translate well to non-Francophone speakers. Most of the gags were mispronunciation of French words and names that went way over my head given my limited proficiency with the French language. The subtitles also do not the jokes justice.
Beyond this basic premise and the pairing of three unlikely people nothing really happens. They basically run from the cops and make a few jokes that I did not understand. It is just one of the movies that is too specifically rooted in language for audiences that aren’t familiar with France and French culture. While this movie did well in the French box office I have a hard time seeing how it will find an audience elsewhere.
Writer-director Leyla Bouzid’s A Tale of Love and Desire follows the story of two college students Ahmed (Sami Outalbali) and Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor) on a journey of lust, love, and self-discovery. The movie picks up on the first day of where Ahmed and Farah attend a comparative literature class focusing on Arab and western literature. From this point on, Ahmed and Farah develop a friendship that guides us through the rest of the movie.
This movie completely hinges on Outalbali’s and Belhajamor performance and both actors do a fantastic job conveying the emotions and sexual tension both characters feel. We have Ahmed, the French-Algerian student that is struggling to come to terms with his identity. At times, he does not know if he feels more French or Algerian. His internal struggle makes him seem closed off, defensive, and high strung. Then we have Farah, a confident Tunisian immigrant who is adjusting to her new life in college pretty well.
The friendship these two characters develop starts with a discussion of what should be considered literature and what should not. As they read The Perfumed Garden by Nefzawi, a 15th century sex manual of sorts, they start to grow closer and the movie starts to explore what love and desire mean. Throughout this exploration the movie is never voyeuristic or overtly explicit; it is more contemplative about what love and desire evoke in each of us. In the end, this movie feels just like a “slice of life”. There is nothing too remarkable or profound about it but, instead, it makes you sit with your feelings and think about your own circumstances.
Writing with Fire is a “fly on the wall” documentary, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, about the women behind Khabar Lahariya, Waves of News in English, India’s only newspaper run entirely by women. This inside look into the women that run the Khabar Lahariya is much more than a story about journalism. It is also a story about social hierarchy, classism, familial relationships, democracy, personal risk, and a woman’s place in the work environment. If you are thinking this is a lot to cover in 94 minutes you are not mistaken. To provide context to their story and situate the viewers the directors use title cards throughout the documentary to try and tell the bigger story behind what we see on screen. At times, this framing device was distracting but it did not detract enough from my overall viewing experience.
Founded in 2002, in Utter Pradesh, a state in Northern India close to the border with Nepal, we are introduced to the Khabar Lahariya newspaper and the women behind the operation. During the documentary we become most acquainted with Meera Devi, the paper’s chief reporter and later bureau chief. It is through her eyes that we understand how the Khabar Lahariya expanded from a small operation to a paper that now attracts significant following online with over 150 million views on their Youtube channel. Meera emphasizes throughout that she believes in the power of journalism and that journalism is the essence of a democracy.
This story however is not just a glossy look into the power of journalism. Instead, it is a story of the personal risks associated with the profession. The women of the Khabar Lahariya along with the directors describe the risk associated with this profession in India. One reporter mentions that she is afraid about what her profession could mean to her family and that people question her professional integrity especially when unfavorable stories are published. We see these attacks on screen through comments on Khabar Lahariya Youtube channel that call the journalists names and insult their reporting. Thomas and Sushmit provide a bit more context to the personal risk associated with journalism when they use one of the final title cards for the movie to highlight that over 40 journalists have been killed during the last 20 years in India making it one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.
The documentary really excels when it is telling the story about the newspaper and its evolution over its 19 years of existence. The most interesting way the filmmakers capture this transition is the juxtaposition of print journalism and the shift to digital reporting. It was fascinating to see how the majority of the women at the Khabar Lahariya quickly adapted to this transition to digital and capitalized on the potential digital reporting had to allow them to reach a bigger audience and and increase their income. Smartphones became the vehicle through which the women at the Khabar Lahariya told stories that would have most likely have gone unreported if it weren’t for them.
There is nothing too innovative to see in this documentary stylistically. What sticks with you is the willingness of these journalists to go out there and capture these stories. Overall, this is mostly an inspirational piece of documentary filmmaking about the persistence of women who want to report on a story no matter the risks associated with it.
It is a funny thing how the past is a window into the present and the present is a window into the past. That was the overwhelming feeling I had after watching Attica. To backtrack, Attica recounts in painstaking detail the story behind the largest prison rebellion in US history which started on October 9th, 1971 in Attica, New York. But behind the rebellion this documentary tells a much bigger story. It tells us the story about a system that is meant to keep people down. Using historical footage, surveillance videos, audio recordings, and first person testimony, director Stanley Nelson Jr. expertly crafts a story about humanity. Nelson Jr. reminds us about the prisoners’ humanity and indicts a system that is meant to keep men in chains.
It is the testimony and first person account of former inmates that participated in the rebellion that bring this story to life. Former inmates systematically recount the racist administration network and brutalization they suffered behind the prison walls. Examples of this brutalization included beating inmates with lead pipes, feeding pork to Muslim inmates, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of an infirmary for treatment. In their own words, inmates recounted that they did not cease being human just because they broke the law, but they were treated in a way that made it seem as if they no longer had basic human rights or dignities. This narrative and tension is the throughline through the majority of the documentary. Nelson does not stray away from this recounting until the last quarter of the documentary where it culminates in a brutal, shocking, and infuriating last 30 minutes that documents the death of 33 inmates.
The ending of this story sounds too familiar with our present moment. Among inmates and prison guards 43 men died. Unsurprisingly zero convictions were given to the state police who were sent in by Governor Rockefeller to gain control of the prison. This is an important piece of historical filmmaking that documents our broken prisons system and the lack of humanity that is ascribed to prisoners. Ultimately, what made this documentary excel were former inmates’ willingness to share their stories in their own words and Nelson’s ability to craft a story that reminds us of our shared humanity to matter the circumstances.
Julia directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who were nominated for best documentary feature for RBG in 2019, chronicles the life of American icon and chef Julia Child. Much like RBG this is an extremely paint by numbers documentary that does not offer the audience anything new. In fact, I would suggest that the majority of audiences would be better off reading Julia Child’s wikipedia page, watching the 2009 Julie & Julia feature based on Julia’s life or reading her autobiography, which she co-authored with her nephew, called My Life in France. I am certain that all those alternatives will provide much better value for those that want to get to know Julia.
The biggest misstep is that everything we see in this documentary is surface-level and predictable. First, we get to know Julia before she became a culinary icon. Then we explore Julia’s role in the Office of Strategic Services during WWII. Next, the filmmakers discuss the time she spent in France, her subsequent success and love for food. Unfortunately, all these events are glossed over and there is no clear throughline that makes this documentary flow as a cohesive piece, nor did it keep me interested.
The more I watch documentaries and get to cover them for the website the more aware I am that I want something different. A simple summary, archival footage, and testimonies throughout the documentary often do not add anything new to stories. I unquestionably believe Julia’s story and stories like hers should be told. For example, In an interview about the film to The Wrap the directors mentioned how the pandemic had brought them closer to Julia. Perhaps focusing on more unconventional points like these or trying to tie Julia’s story to the present would have made a more compelling narrative.
How do you review or critique a documentary that has been publicly disavowed by its main subject? This was my biggest challenge when it comes to this review. As soon as I finished watching what I thought was an okay documentary I was alerted, by my editor, Taylor Baker, to this article on the LA Times in which Alanis Morissette decries Jagged as a story she did not agree to tell. Alanis states that she “was lulled into a false sense of security and their salacious agenda became apparent immediately upon my seeing the first cut of the film”.
As far as documentaries go this one is pretty standard. The documentary starts with an introduction from director Alison Klayman saying how making this feature was making her middle school dreams become a reality but she does not elaborate further on her connection to Alanis or her music. After this brief introduction, we are presented with a standard documentary montage that traces Alanis birth in Ottawa, Canada, her rise to fame, and explosion into stardom which coincided with the release of her third studio album Jagged Little Pill (JLP) in 1995. Sprinkled throughout we have testimony from high school friends, music producers, and band-mates reminiscing about their time together on tour and commemorating the 25th anniversary of the album’s release.
My biggest qualm with this documentary was how certain aspects of Alanis’ life and career were glossed over. During her on camera interviews, during several occasions, Alanis mentioned how the transition from Ottawa to Los Angeles and the challenges that came along with. What we see on screen seems to suggest that this move affected her deeply. Yet simultaneously what we’re seeing on camera does not go into a lot of detail. Alanis mentioned how she was pressured to lose weight, maintain a certain image, and she even references alleged statutory rape incidents when she was around 15. All these things are presented without much context and what we see on camera does not allow Alanis to fully explain her own story or how these incidents impacted her life and career. Another issue I had was the complete lack of detail paid to the impact Alanis had and continues to have on female artists in the music industry. Aside from 45 seconds where we see Taylor Swift and Beyoncé performing some of Alanis’ songs, her impact in the industry especially for female artists is almost entirely forgotten.
Documentaries are supposed to be personal but I have a hard time reconciling how this feature is supposed to work after being publicly disavowed by its main subject. All the statements I have read so far do not go into detail into how Alanis’ story diverges from what we see on screen. At the time this article was published no comment has been made by the film’s director or producers regarding these differences. In the end, I wish the doc had explored more than just JLP. I understand it’s supposed to be a commemoration of the 25th edition of the album but it could have been so much more nuanced and painted a fuller picture of what Alanis is all about. Most of all I support artists having a say on how their story is presented. I cautiously recommend that you watch this documentary and read supporting material to have a better understanding of the controversy surrounding the film.
Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over co-directed by Dave Wooley, making his feature directorial debut, and David Heilbroner immortalizes a legend, humanitarian, and artist we all know as Dionne Warwick. While there is nothing particularly innovative or different in this feature it still managed to capture the allure, talent, and heart of one Dionne. Punctuated with archival footage of Dionne, amateur nights at the Apollo theater, and “testimony” from the likes of Elton John, Snoop Dog, Alicia Keys, Gloria Estefan, Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Smokey Robinson one can start to understand the magnitude and impact this woman had in the music world and beyond.
While one can infer that influence Dionne has in American culture the movie does a poor job of contextualizing it for the audiences, especially those who are unfamiliar with her work. This is particularly true when the movie talks about her experiences in the racially segregated South. Likewise, the documentary also overlooked Dionne’s ability to read music, understand complex melodies, and how she did not fit into one box. Dionne always had this uncanny ability to navigate among soul music, R&B, and pop that I wish was further explored in the documentary.
Dionne is much more than raw talent. She’s pure skill, technique, and a person who is in full control of her voice. As a person and artist Dionne was always sure of herself which surely contributes to her continued success. This documentary is the perfect introduction for those looking to learn about Dionne Warwick but it definitely lacks that something extra for die hard fans or those who are already familiar with her story.