Search This Blog

Tuesday 26 December 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon, Film (USA 2023), written by Eric Roth and director Martin Scorsese, 9.5* out of 10

Killers of the Flower Moon (to be seen on Apple+ or at a cinema near you) is a classic Martin Scorsese epic in an unusual Mid-Western setting with outstanding performances from veteran actors Leonardo di Caprio and Robert de Niro as well as from newcomer Lily Gladstone. One of the best films of 2023 and a must-see.

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo di Caprio) returns to the United States after serving as a cook in the US Army in Europe during World War I. He turns up asking for a job at the cattle ranch of his uncle William "King" Hale (Robert de Niro) in Osage County, Oklahoma, where his brother Byron Burkhart (Scott Shephard) also works. Hale is the centre of the local community. A deputy sheriff and a long-time friend, benefactor, and advisor highly respectful of the Osage Indians living on their reservation. He speaks their language fluently, is respectful of their culture and a staunch friend to their leaders. Or so, at least, it seems.

Many of the Osage Indians have become rich as the Federal Government has given them ownership of the petrol below their grounds. Any extraction of oil by novice adventurers or canny oil barons can only proceed if "headrights" are paid to the Indian owners of the ground above. The Osage are torn between their valued age-old traditions and the trappings of their new riches: automobiles, fashionable Western clothes and, of course, alcohol and other drugs.

Among the Osage is Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) who lives with her mother and her sisters. Like all the other Osage, they are considered by law incompetent to handle their own riches and have a white local guardian appointed for this purpose. She has to go and see their guardian regularly to obtain spending money.

 Hale suggests to Ernest, who has taken a job as a driver by day with a side-line of gang robbery by night, to take Mollie as his wife. After a brief romance, Ernest and Mollie get married in an Indian-Catholic ceremony and start a family. But a mix of oil, money, greed, envy, and racism ensures that Ernest, Mollie, and their children and, with them, many members of the Osage nation will not live happily ever after.

Killers of the Flower Moon touches on many subjects of burning actuality: deception, greed, money and political power, identity, spirituality, respect for nature, identity, and supremacist ideas. It also reminds us of an important historical period in the History of the United States when the Federal Government recognized its duty to investigate crimes that would be covered up and whitewashed if left to each state. Uncovering the crimes against the Osage led to the creation of a fully-fledged Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover's leadership.

Director and co-writer Martin Scorsese brings this epic tale of the American West, based on true events to life by eliciting outstanding performances from veteran character actors di Caprio and de Niro as well as from newcomer Gladstone. Each one of their characters is well written and manages to be both highly contradictory to the point of paradox and utterly believable at the same time.  None more so than di Caprio as Ernest Burkhart, who is immensely greedy, highly reckless, somewhat dumb, yet loving, complex and deep. With their help, Scorsese tells an epic tale in his inimitable style. Understated, quiet, slow, yet constantly threatening dialogue is punctuated by short sharp bursts of appropriately brutal violence. 

Familiar and surprising at once, the result is in the best Scorsese tradition and beyond. It is one of the best films of 2023 and a must-see.  

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Sandflakes (גרגירי חול), Film, Israel 2023, written by Gitit Kabiri, directed by Yahel Kabiri, 7.5* out of 10


Containing autobiographical elements and created by a mother-son team, "Sandflakes" is a low-key coming-of-age drama. Playing in a small town in Israel's periphery it manages to be watchable and uplifting with a universal appeal. It received a particularly warm welcome from the public at the Vienna Jewish Film Festival earlier this year. Warmly recommended.

David (Yossi Marshek), is a teenage boy living with his mother Iris (Shani Cohen) and younger brother in a small town in the South of Israel. David's mother has separated from her husband and is suffering from a severe illness. Wheelchair-bound, she is determined to live her life as independently as possible and has developed a hard shell. David is frustrated as he must often act as her carer and take responsibility for his younger brother. 
To cope with his hormonally heightened frustrations, David has turned to writing poetic fictional short stories in an internet forum of aspiring teenage authors. This provides him an outlet and a forum where he receives recognition from his writing peers who are impressed by his creativity and talent. 

The other youths in the group who mainly live in metropolitan Tel Aviv are intrigued by the creativity and poetic truth of his stories and want to know more about him and his life. Believing that his small-time life will make others in the forum look down upon him and his writings, he invents a false identity for himself. Suddenly the means of escape which let him cope with the difficulties of his situation becomes an additional source of pressure: keeping up appearances online becomes increasingly complicated and stressful.

"Sandflakes" is the result of a mother-son-cooperation, written by Gitit Kabiri and directed by her son Yahel Kabiri, who is completing his studies at film school; it contains autobiographical as well as fictional elements. Within a competent cast, Shani Cohen stands out as Iris possibly also because she had the best-written character to work with. Lucy Aharish as Iris' friend Vered also deserves a special mention. 

Despite its rather bleak setting in a peripheral small town in Israel's southern desert and the difficult circumstances of David's life, the story manages to be uplifting. Without sugar-coating it provides a watchable and moving riposte to French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's "L'enfer c'est les autres" (hell is other people): it is through acquaintances and friendships and the meaningful encounters with other people that we can cope with the frustrations in our lives. The strength and originality of this film are that it observes this in a low-key if not entirely unsentimental manner. Warmly recommended.     

Tuesday 1 August 2023

The Monkey House, Film ,Israel 2023, written and directed by Avi Nesher, 8* out of 10

Avi Nesher's intelligent, warm, and tangled comedy takes its characters and its audience seriously. Very enjoyable and warmly recommended.

Young Margo Mai (Suzanna Pappian) has outstayed her welcome as a permanent couch-surfer at her sister and brother-in-law's home. She has to at least demonstrate a willingness to earn a living and look for more appropriate lodgings.

While her real interest is gaining access to the trendiest clubs in town, she decides to apply for the advertised job of assistant with the spectacularly successless left-wing Israeli author Amitai Kariv (Adir Miller), for which she is eminently unqualified. Modern literature is decidedly not her passion, so she reckons there is no chance she will be hired.

Kariv lives in an inherited and somewhat dilapidated property that contains in its gardens the Monkey House of the film's title. The Monkey House stands empty, but the erstwhile menagerie it contained may just remind one of the characters making up Israel's literary scene. 

Kariv would like to belatedly conquer the heart of the recently widowed Tamar (Shani Cohen) whom he has always desired without daring to make a move on her. But then, an apparent lucky break, gives him some confidence to feel worthy of her romantic attention after all: a young Israeli PhD student studying at a US university informs him that she intends to make Kariv the subject of her PhD thesis. She will publish a literary biography. Finally, it seems Kariv standing on the Israeli literary scene is about to receive the longed-for boost. 

His being subject of the thesis is indeed why Kariv placed the advert for an assistant to help provide the PhD student with requisite information about his life and work, which Mai has responded to. Add into this mix Amir (Ala Dakka), an internationally known documentary filmmaker, living in Italy. For good reason, Amir has ambivalent feelings about his Israeliness as he returns in search of a subject for a new documentary film. 

These and other characters bring along their overt and hidden agendas that move the plot forward - and as Sir Walter Scott aptly put it in rhyme: "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive".

Avi Nesher has written and directed a highly, observant comedy/drama/whodunnit playing in the bonfire of vanities that is the business of literature and film. Intellectual aspirations, love, envy, and credulity collide in a most entertaining way. While he makes fun of his characters' foibles, Nesher manages to make us feel sympathy for them, too. The setting of the Monkey House has an Italo-Israeli feel about it, but the story it tells has universal relevance and appeal.

Nesher has also managed to assemble an excellently cast ensemble of actors led by the excellent Adir Miller, Shani Cohen and Ala Dakka. The talented Suzanna Pappian shines with her energetic performance.   
An intelligent, warm, and tangled comedy which takes its characters and its audience seriously. Very enjoyable and warmly recommended.