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Review: The Kindness of Strangers Is a Half-Sketched Portrait of Criss-Crossing Lives

The film’s repetitive and lifeless dialogue robs otherwise charismatic performers of distinguishing characteristics.

1.5

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The Kindness of Strangers
Photo: Entertainment One

The opening night film at this year’s Berlinale, The Kindness of Strangers, seems to be writer-director Lone Scherfig’s attempt to synthesize the style and tone of her 2001 breakout film, the Dogme 95 comedy Italian for Beginners, with that of her more recent work, namely such polished melodramas as An Education and Their Finest. But The Kindness of Strangers is less artful composite than awkward amalgam—a film undecided about whether it’s aiming to pluck heartstrings or elicit laughs, and which ends up doing little of either.

Like Italian for Beginners, The Kindness of Strangers parallels the stories of multiple characters, who share certain spaces—in this case, a hospital, a church, and a Russian restaurant—and whose paths eventually converge. But instead of small-town Denmark, all of these individuals find themselves stumbling in and out of each other’s stories in Manhattan. The film bounces back and forth between the lives of Clara (Zoe Kazan), a young mother who just escaped an abusive husband with her young sons in the dead of night; Alice (Andrea Riseborough), an inveterate do-gooder who works as a nurse, the head of a soup kitchen, and a support group leader; Marc (Tahar Rahim), an ex-convict who just took over management of a local restaurant; and Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), who can’t hold a job because he’s literally bad at everything. All of them, but especially the perpetually desperate Clara, will eventually find some kind of help from the others, but especially the perpetually self-abnegating Alice.

This kind of parallelism was one of the strengths of Italian for Beginners, which treated its small-minded, provincial characters with a hefty dose of irony but was ultimately humanistic in its celebration of communal life. Here, there’s precious little irony on display. Certainly, the film dares not risk making either Clara’s plight nor Alice’s charitability ridiculous. But other characters are sometimes mocked, though the humor is more silly than ironic. For one, the otherwise normally functioning Jeff is so bad at his commercial laundry job that he confuses a Maltese dog for a white sheet—a joke that, in retrospect, feels weird given the traumatic direction Jeff’s life goes in, as he loses his job and nearly dies of hypothermia.

Visually, too, The Kindness of Strangers is an unsuccessful hybrid of the loose, craftlike assemblage of Italian for Beginners and the cleaner Hollywood mode Scherfig has been working in of late. A neat, cleanly photographed sequence of Clara’s youngest son, Jude (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), silently contemplating icicles in the church’s garden makes for an awkward bedmate with other exterior shots that are frequently, inexplicably, out of focus. And the film’s brief, pointed scenes, with their purposely modest scale and structure, don’t effectively convey the big emotions the story tries to evoke.

In addition to its tonal about-faces, the repetitive and lifeless dialogue of the screenplay also robs otherwise charismatic performers like Kazan and Jones of distinguishing characteristics. We sit through many scenes in which a teary-eyed Clara, visibly upset but in unbroken, declarative sentences, explains why she left her husband. The effect is that the film often sounds like a table read, its characters and major arcs feeling half-sketched. The film’s utterly unconvincing central romance climaxes with the limp line: “I like this place…and I like you.”

Perhaps the conceit here is that the film is about “ordinary” people experiencing various kinds of personal misfortune, and thus their speech should be direct and unpretentious.
But The Kindness of Strangers lacks the observed detail that might have lent its characters life and believability. And that also applies to the scenarios that Scherfig constructs, as they’re defined by a curious lack of specificity. In this world drawn by the dictates of dramatic convenience, civil suits can send people to prison, 12-hour shifts are an aberration in the life of an American nurse, and instead of delivering concrete diagnoses, doctors inform you that “your son’s not dead, there’s a chance he’ll still pull through” and leave it at that.

One of the few well-defined pockets of Scherfig’s version of New York City is Alice’s support group, Forgiveness, which Marc and his lawyer, John Peter (Jay Baruchel), attend together. Like so many aspects of The Kindness of Strangers, the specifics of this support group are left vague; it appears the group is more interested in griping about others than fostering any real sense of forgiveness, and Alice herself can be rather castigating for a support group leader. But the neurotic characters who gather at the support group can be funny, and are distinguishable by nuances of speech and behavior. One wishes Scherfig had applied her ability to lucidly manage these hectic, multi-voiced interactions elsewhere in the film as well.

Cast: Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Caleb Landry Jones, Bill Nighy, Jay Baruchel Director: Lone Scherfig Screenwriter: Lone Scherfig Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: End of the Century Tells a Sexy and Haunted Riddle of a Romance

The film is at its most intense, and sexiest, when it’s also at its most unknowable.

3

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End of the Century
Photo: New Directors/New Films

A triptych of snapshots, two real and one possibly imagined, from the lives of two gay men, writer-director Lucio Castro’s End of the Century is at its most intense, and sexiest, when it’s also at its most unknowable. More precisely, up to the moment that one of these men, Ocho (Juan Barberini), remains unknown to himself, withering in uncertainty, Castro’s feature-length directorial debut is a profound and casually artful expression of the lengths to which people go in order to not have to embody their desires.

The film begins at a literal remove from Ocho, capturing the fortyish man as he walks through the octagonal streets of Barcelona. By day, he drinks in the city, and by night, he checks Grindr before jacking off. Right away there’s a hint of José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia in both Castro’s blocking of the handsome and scruffy Ocho and the ineffable weight that emerges from the way he looks at the world, as if the man were willing it to look back at him.

And yet, unlike the tormented artist at the center of Guerín’s film, Ocho is a sensualist who seems resistant to emotional nourishment. That isn’t immediately understood, and isn’t obvious from Ocho’s botched meet-cute with the adorable Javi (Ramon Pujol) at a local beach—a scene that ends with Javi curiously annoyed and Ocho frustrated by his own lack of follow-through. But they get a second chance, after Ocho catches a glimpse of Javi on the street and invites him up to his apartment—and after small talk pregnant with desire, the men have sex with a passion that doesn’t faze Ocho but seems to leave Javi haunted.

Javi’s look would seem to contain multitudes, an impression that’s confirmed after he and Ocho reunite that evening, drinking and eating on the rooftop of Ocho’s building and alternately speaking about their lives. Ocho, who’s Argentinian, is visiting from New York, on the rebound after a 20-year relationship that came to an unexpected end, and Javi is married to another man and living in Berlin. There are multiple worlds between them. And yet, there’s an ease to the way they present themselves to each other that feels very much like the initial stirrings of love. It’s something that Ocho seems to sense, and is possibly why he tells Javi that it feels as if they’ve met before. To which Javi responds, “We have met before.”

If this moment is as discombobulating to Ocho as it is to us, we’ll never know, as Castro radically cuts from the scene before any emotion can register on the man’s face. It’s here that End of the Century seemingly reboots itself, capturing Ocho going through the same motions as he went through at the start of the film, walking through the streets of Barcelona before arriving at the apartment of a friend, Sonia (Mía Maestro). And it’s here, sitting across Ocho and through words filled with quiet anguish, that Sonia speaks of her life in ways that come, like so many other moments in the film, to reverberate with Ocho and Javi’s rooftop musings.

Who is this version of Ocho who’s now with a woman? Who is Sonia’s ex, Eli, and was he really in love with Ocho at one point? And who exactly is this woman who talks, and sometimes sings, of her heartache as if she knows that it might kill her? The film doesn’t answer these and seemingly countless other questions, delighting in our uncertainty over its mysteries until suddenly it all seems to fall into place when Ocho meets Sonia’s boyfriend: Javi. End of the Century’s masterstroke isn’t so much this reveal—which is impossible to expect, given that Castro puts little effort into making Barberini look 20 years younger—but how the filmmaker tasks the viewer with stitching together the story of two men’s lives from how their conversations echo each other across a vast expanse of time.

Castro has a gift for elision. The Ocho of old, who pukes after receiving a blowjob from a stranger, is a long way from the Ocho of new, who doesn’t bat an eye when Javi asks him if he has a condom and Ocho responds, “I’m on PrEP.” But if Ocho’s response to his ostensibly first sexual encounter with a man registers as shame, it’s understood to be something else entirely as soon as he pulls David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration from Sonia’s bookshelf. A bit too on the nose, perhaps, but there’s a quiet beauty to the moment where Javi finds the book, after Ocho has left him for the first time, and opens to a bookmarked page. In this moment, he understands Ocho through Wojnarowicz’s words and, suddenly, we comprehend why Javi appears so tormented throughout the film’s first section.

The story of so many gay men’s coming out is similar, so it’s perhaps inevitable that Ocho and Javi’s conversations about who they are and who they want to be not only mirrors Wojnarowicz’s writing, but also Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. The nonlinear quality of End of the Century, then, could be seen as Castro’s way of putting some distance between Haigh’s film and his own, which similarly resides in a realm somewhere between fantasy and reality.

But if Weekend progressively inches toward the real, End of the Century embraces only fantasy in the end, offering up in its final section a vision of what Ocho and Javi’s lives may have been like if Ocho hadn’t at one point in time pledged allegiance to Wojnarowicz’s pursuit of “perpetual freedom.” It’s a jarring endnote to an initially mysterious film, as the philosophical inquisitiveness of the first two parts is replaced by an indulgence of fiction as wish-fulfillment. (It would be understatement to say that the moment doesn’t hold a candle to the allegorical plunge of Tropical Malady’s second half, where the desire of two men for each other is elevated to the level of myth but without it losing its present-tense veracity.) Whether or not we’ve been dropped into a projection of Ocho’s imagination is almost beside the point, as End of the Century leaves us with the not-so-ambiguous impression that Castro believes that a gay man’s path toward happiness is only possible through the performance of domesticity.

Cast: Juan Barberini, Ramon Pujol, Mía Maestro Director: Lucio Castro Screenwriter: Lucio Castro Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Working Woman Is Powerful Testimony to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Michal Aviad’s film forcefully brings home a reality that many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

3.5

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Working Woman
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

The general outline of director Michael Aviad’s Working Woman will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the discussions provoked by Me Too—and familiar to most women professionals, for that matter. An industrious, white-collar working mother finds herself the target of her superior’s unwanted and violating sexual advances, and despite her attempts to vocalize her discomfort, both his relative power and her precarious economic situation stand in the way of her making a clean break. But—and in this way, Aviad’s film isn’t unlike Dan Reed’s Leaving NeverlandWorking Woman is able to forcefully bring home a reality many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

The film captures the unspoken pressures that keep sexual harassment victims silent and force them into situations where it seems almost impossible to say “no” with enough authority to make the harasser stop. Liron Ben-Shlush plays Orna, a young Israeli mother who gets a job working as a personal assistant to Tel Aviv real estate magnate Benny (Menasche Noy). Orna’s husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), runs a fledging restaurant, and their family comes to rely on her income as Ofer’s dream project struggles through its unprofitable first few months. As Benny’s assistant, Orna finds something like a calling: Intelligent and personable, she proves particularly adept at finding buyers for Benny’s under-construction high-rise on Rishon Beach.

It becomes painfully difficult to tell whether Benny’s praise of Orna’s sales acumen is genuine, as he uses his approbation to engineer situations in which, alone with her and unobserved, he can test and violate the professional boundary between them. His harassment of her starts with small comments: In an early scene, he uses a prospective buyer’s orthodoxy and wealth as an excuse to instruct Orna to put her hair down and wear a skirt (“conservative but chic”) to their meeting. The film grows increasingly tense and unsettling as these ambiguous comments—which you can see Orna trying to rationalize as mere professional advice—escalate to full-on assaults. Benny, performatively contrite after the first forced kissed, grows increasingly brazen, ignoring Orna’s obvious indications that she’s uncomfortable with his advances.

Orna’s experiences at work, of course, have an impact on her personal and home life. Her relationship with Ofer is both affectionate and mutually supportive, but Ofer’s support has limits determined by the same sort of toxic masculinity that produces the Bennys of the world: Ofer is unable to view Orna’s work situation outside of the framework of his own concerns, whether it be the restaurant or his supposed rights to her body. Emotionally and financially, Orna is increasingly painted into a corner, and most of this distress goes unspoken; one of the film’s points, of course, is that in such situations there’s no one to turn to.

This means that much of what the film has to communicate, especially for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew, is delivered through Ben-Shlush’s gestures and expressions rather than in dialogue. The actress signifies her character’s dubious acquiescence and repressed revulsion in a gamut of forced smiles and hesitant body language, but Orna never feels like a one-note character—a victim only. Her workplace is a source of pride as well as a threatening space. One can understand her getting caught up in the thrill of making a difficult sell and forgetting that celebration drinks with Benny might be a bad idea. After all, shouldn’t she be able to?

Aviad concentrates us on the physical and psychological details of harassment largely through such communicative performances and precise blocking. There isn’t excessive commentary in the film’s editing: At a crowded birthday party at Benny’s, we notice in subtly composed long shot the way Benny takes her by the hand to introduce her to other attendees (in actuality, we suspect, to separate her from her husband), and doesn’t let go. There’s no close-up of their hands, or on Orna’s face, but we can almost see her squirming on the inside, and can’t help but notice that Benny is refusing to cease physical contact with her.

Working Woman thus becomes a deeply and intentionally unsettling film. Like Benny, the tension creeps up on the viewer, and the stress ratchets up as Orna is forced into more and more impossible circumstances. Many professional women will probably not need Aviad’s film as proxy to relate to that kind of stress, but for those of us who haven’t directly experienced a Benny, the film is a powerful testimony.

Cast: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen Director: Michal Aviad Screenwriter: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad Distributor: Zeitgeist Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.

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Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.

Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t often been allowed to channel in her previous work.

In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a “kitchen dancer.”

Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?

Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communities—they resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.

Diane’s well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?

Because some people just are. She’s a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.

Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?

It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasn’t written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s not able to break free of it.

How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?

Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.

There’s a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.

We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?

Sometimes she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” kind of thing.

Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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