VIFF2022: ‘Holy Spider’ Review

Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider is a masterfully crafted valuable film detailing the violent nature of the patriarchy.

Courtesy of Wild Bunch

8/10

It’s important to know as much about the world that we inhabit. We’ve convinced ourselves through years of being force-fed individualism that we should only care about what happens to us individually. It’s a culture that you find a lot of in the United States and some of the Western World. Why care about what happens in countries that you have nothing to do with? The answer is really simple. We are one collective of human beings and attacks on others should be met with solidarity because when the time comes who will be there to help us? At the moment, Iran is going through a social revolution after the murder of 16-year-old, Masa Amini. Denmark’s official submission for Best International Feature at the 96th Academy Awards, Holy Spider, is not based on these recent events but it offers a different lens at the violence caused by the patriarchy. I was already interested in this film since I make it a mission to watch as many submissions for this category as I can. Well, it’s safe to say that I have watched one of my favorite movies of this year.

Directed by Ali Abbasi (Border, Shelley) and written by Abbasi along with Afshin Kamran Bahrami. The film stars Zar Amir-Ebrahimi (The Survivors, Tehran Taboo), Mehdi Bajestani (These are the Things You Don’t Know), Arash Ashtiani (Only Sound Remains, The Tunnel), Forouzan Jamshidnejad (Miltra), and Sina Parvaneh (The Interpreter, Nocturnes). The film has been picking up a notable amount of steam since its premiere at Cannes where Amir-Ebrahimi took home the Best Actress award. The film received walkouts over the graphic nature of its sexual violence. One would think that this is a Lars Von Trier film after hearing about such acts. Yet the graphic nature is just as important as the tame parts of the film. You must not look away from the reality of the world Holy Spider is in.

The film follows a journalist who is trying to uncover the truth about Saeed Hanaei nicknamed the “Spider Killer” who is responsible for the murders of sex workers during the early 2000s. The acts happen inside Mashhad, the second most populated city in Iran. Throughout the film, we follow both perspectives of Rahimi and Hanaei as the thriller continues to uncover the truth behind the serial killer’s despicable actions. An important commentary on society that makes sure that its audience doesn’t look away.

Ali Abbasi’s film is one of the best I’ve seen this year. It’s woven together by a plot that you can’t look away from. The film’s tight visual language creates a tense atmosphere that the picture follows until the closing credits. It is Zar Amir-Ebrahimi and Mehdi Bajestani’s performances that stand out from the rest, providing some of the best actings this year alone. Hanaei’s motives are laid out and the corruption of the system is on full display. Yet the film reminds us that violent and oppressive governments will always work in their own interests. Holy Spider provides the necessary mirror to its intended audience and points it towards them to dissect how people like Hanaei can be bred in the underbelly of their society.

Watch Holy Spider during its continued festival run.

‘The Woman King’ Review

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic historical drama shines bright with fierce direction and stellar performances.

CREDIT: Sony Pictures

7.5/10

The days of epic historical dramas have truly come and gone. From early Hollywood classics like Ben-Hur to contemporary epics like the Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a genre that used to dominate the cultural zeitgeist and the box office prominently. Consumer patterns started to switch past it when the age of the superhero movie began to take shape, and a once-grand successful genre became rare on the silver screen. Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel even though a masterfully crafted film, bombed at the box office causing us to evaluate whether historical epics will ever be successful in this modern landscape of Hollywood. Maybe it’s the oversaturation of Western and Northern European-focused historical films that have turned off audiences. That’s where Gina Prince-Bythewood’s newest film, The Woman King, comes into play and reinvigorates a once dominating genre.

The Woman King’s script is written by Dana Stevens from contributions via the story by Stevens and Maria Bello. The film stars Viola Davis (Fences, Widows), Thuso Mbedu (The Underground Railroad), Lashana Lynch (No Time To Die, Captain Marvel), Sheila Atim (Bruised, The Underground Railroad), and John Boyega (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Force Awakens, Attack the Block). Gina Prince-Bythewood directs the film after her Netflix superhero film, The Old Guard. The Woman King made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and has since been playing in cinemas worldwide. The film is well on its way to making its 50 million dollar budget back at the box office at the moment.

The Woman King concentrates on the Agojie, an all-woman warrior unit responsible for protecting The Dahomey Kingdom in West Africa during the 17th to 19th centuries. The Dahomey Kingdom is led by King Ghezo (John Boyega) in 1823 who is looking to expand his kingdom but is met with challenges by The Oyo Empire and their roles in The African Slave Trade with the Portuguese as described within the film. Nanisca (Viola Davis), the general of the Agojie and responsible for training the next generations of warriors as impending war looms over them. The Agojie takes in a young woman who refuses to marry abusive men picked by her father, with who Nanisca may have a close history. The plot revolves around the historical atmosphere of this incoming war, honor, love, and the sacrifices women must make to satisfy power dynamics.

Wrapped in its fierce direction, stellar cinematography, and monumental performances, The Woman King, is a grand achievement from Gina Prince-Blythewood and her extraordinary team. Viola Davis steals the show with one of her best performances along with her counterparts Thosu Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, and John Boyega. The atmosphere and locale of The Kingdom of Dahomey are one of exquisite production design, sets, and rich costuming that is bound for Academy Award consideration. It is from the get-go that you are invested in this story and I found myself falling more in love with the aura of Prince-Blythewood’s picture. It feels like the epic it deserves to be with the help of some of the best-looking fight sequences I have seen this year. The Woman King is brutal jaw-dropping cinema that cements itself as one of the best films of this year. I eagerly anticipate the many nominations that will follow this marvelous piece of art. Polly Morgan’s cinematography paired with one of the best scores of the year by Terence Blanchard creates an environment like no other.

The film meanders a bit during its second act, but it recuperates with a masterful and emotional third act. There are not a lot of things to fault the film for other than its pace. It’s a film worthy of your trip to the nearest cinema to watch. I hope for nothing but success for this film once awards season starts to ramp up!

TRIBECA22: ‘An Act of Worship’ Review

An Act of Worship is an important documentary examining the treatment of Muslims in the United States.

Courtesy of Capital K Pictures

6.5/10

Documentaries are an important part of cinema. Sadly they never get their just dues and sometimes get largely ignored at festivals. As someone who has worked on a documentary, the extensive work that is done on them is incredibly respectable. Documentary filmmaking is just as important as narrative films and when it comes to film festivals I make it a priority to watch some documentaries. At Sundance, I watched some great documentaries like Tantura, A House Made of Splinters, and The Territory. Alas, I was approached to watch this documentary film that highlights the past 30 years of Muslim American lives in the United States.

Anyone who does not see the world with rose-colored glasses can easily see that the past thirty years in the US have seen a massive increase in Islamaphobia. Islam is the second-largest religion in the world. Yet in the United States, the lives of Muslim Americans are constantly under attack and used as political targets. The main goal of Nausheen Dadabhoy’s An Act of Worship is to examine the past 30 years through its various subjects and express the need for change. The film uses archival footage and interviews with various family/friends of the people included in the documentary.

The film is far from being perfect and that is okay because that should not be its main priority. The film excels at expressing its message through its execution by using some emotionally raw interviews. Learning about each person in this film was one of the best parts of this film whether it was about the women who were running for office or the various people who are still separated from their families. I found the examination of three big eras pre-9/11, post-9/11, and Trump’s presidency. Ultimately, the film is held back by its uneven pacing which makes the narrative drag throughout the runtime. The last two acts of the film are where it lacks and eventually fell apart before it recuperated in the last fifteen minutes.

Ultimately, even with its lackluster pacing, the film is still important to watch and that is why I recommend it. As someone who is not Muslim, I connected to the parts of the film where they discuss being separated from their families in other countries. I also gravitated a lot toward the discussion of cultural differences between the generations in the family. The idea of belonging to several identities is important to me so when the film touches on that I was pulled back in. The message of the film is more important than its execution. It’s pieces of art like this that remind us of the various steps that we need to take in making our country a better place for everyone. Whenever this makes its way out to the public or if you can catch a screening I highly recommend giving this a shot.

Watch An Act of Worship at the Tribeca Film Festival by visiting their website and buying a ticket for its remaining screenings.

TRIBECA22: ‘Family Dinner’ Review

Peter Hengl’s eerie horror thriller is a mix of predictability and promise inside of its tense narrative.

Courtesy of WTFilms

7/10

Continuing with my Tribeca Film Festival coverage this year, we will talk about my first Midnight Film experience. I usually cannot stay up to the ungodly hours of midnight films because I get too tired to stay awake past 11 PM. Well, this time I did not have to stay up but I could watch some of the midnight selections at this year’s festival. The topic of body positivity is important to me and whatever that means to those who deal with various insecurities with their bodies. I am not the socially acceptable thin white body that is shown on the internet and media that we consume. So when someone decides to touch upon this subject and discuss the various themes of feeling comfortable in one’s skin. Thus, I watched my second film of the festival, Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner.

In the film, we follow the journey of Simone or how her family calls her “Simi” played by Nina Katlein who plans to spend the Easter holiday with her Aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger). Claudia lives with her partner Stefan (Michael Pink) and her son Fillip (Alexander Sladek). Everything looks like it’s normal until Simi starts to notice unusual behavior by her cousin Fillip. After helping her aunt find Fillip the hesitant aunt allows Simi to stay until Easter Sunday. Claudia takes her insecure niece under her wing as she starves her to help her lose weight. Written and directed by Peter Hengl in his feature film debut.  What follows is a journey of nightmare-fueled family dinner for the ages. 

Peter Hengl’s script is not the easiest to get behind with its uneven pacing and predictability. That’s not to say that all of the writing is flat, the characters of Claudia and Simi are fantastic while Fillip and Stefan feel one-dimensional. That’s not to say that there is nothing in this film that works because Peter Hengl’s direction is fluid as he patiently travels to the conclusion of his film. The visual language and sound design of the film are exquisitely crafted to help the atmosphere of the picture. Family Dinner is coated in a beautiful minimal muted color palette that helps bring out the horror elements of the film. The contrast and highlights help provide the feeling of unease while its oddly calming score helps the audience come down from the tension. The film fails at forming a cohesive narrative with a lackluster first half and an entertaining second half. Ultimately, the film’s themes hold the film together making it worth watching along with its good performances. I am interested to see where Peter Hengl’s career goes and would love to sit down and watch another film of his. Even with its problems, Family Dinner was entertaining and I would recommend everyone watch it when they get the chance. I can see this finding life on a service like Shudder where the horror fanbase can really help boost its visibility.

Watch Family Dinner at the Tribeca Film Festival by visiting their website and buying a ticket for its remaining screenings.

TRIBECA22: ‘The Visitor’ Review

Martin Boulocq crafts a vastly interesting and powerful look at a man at crossroads with himself, his family, and the changing landscape of his country.

Courtesy of FiGa Films

8/10

It is always a great honor to participate as part of the press for a film festival. As you have seen we have been on quite the kick covering Sundance early in the year and wrapping up our coverage of the 38th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Well, from June 8th to the 19th we are covering Tribeca Film Festival. Of course, I am honored and very happy to be able to check out all these films that are playing virtually. Now, let’s get into the first film that I had the chance to watch, and stay tuned for all the coverage to come from Tribeca on the site!

If you know me you know that I love international cinema, so when I was contacted to look at Martin Boulocq’s The Visitor it was a no-brainer that I was going to watch this film. The picture is director Martin Boulocq’s fourth feature, written by him and Rodrigo Hasbún. The film’s exquisite cinematography is crafted by Germán Nocella. The movie stars newcomer Enrique Aráoz, César Troncoso (The Pope’s Toilet), Mirella Pascual (Whisky), Svet Ailyn Mena, Romel Vargas, and Teresa Gutiérrez. In The Visitor, we follow the journey of ex-convict Humberto (Enrique Aráoz) who returns home after finishing his jail sentence. Humberto returns home and tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter but is met with hostility and resistance by his father-in-law who runs a major evangelical church in his town. The Visitor examines the environment of Bolivia that is under influence by the evangelical church’s presence of neocolonial practices.

Martin Boulocq crafts the film with power and excellence from a superb script. Enrique Aráoz’s commanding performance arrests the viewer’s attention and provides a stellar execution of his role of Humberto. The film is masterfully crafted through its precise visual language through the fluid use of wide and close-up shots that allow for scenes to breathe. The thematic characteristics of the film provide interesting commentary on the rising power of evangelicalism and the way it preys on the hearts of vulnerable people. The film does not stop there as it closely examines familial dynamics and the class divide in Bolivia. The thematic language is examined with a decisive approach that allows the film to flow well and present its message clearly. The film is a bit rocky with its pace where the first half does not work as much as the second, but it makes it up with a patient third act. However, even with its problems the film is powerful and is one to look out for if it ever makes its way out to the public. This is definitely a high recommendation, especially for those who are interested in the growing landscape of Latin America and its social climate.

Watch The Visitor at the Tribeca Film Festival by visiting their website and buying a ticket for its remaining screenings.