Examining an Artist’s Roots

When we look upon the works of gifted artists – regardless of the medium involved – we’re often tempted to wonder where the abilities that gave rise to them came from. To be sure, much of the credit obviously belongs to these creative types themselves, but still there are other influences that help to nudge their talents to the surface, inspirations that bring out their innate skills and enable them to flourish. Such is the intent underlying director Steven Spielberg’s coming of age story about an aspiring young filmmaker in the new less-than-veiled autobiographical offering, “The Fabelmans” (web site, trailer).

In 1952, a young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) attends his first movie, a screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” with his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). Mom and Dad are enthusiastic about the event, convinced that their son will thoroughly enjoy the experience. However, some of the film’s action-packed scenes are a bit overwhelming for the youngster, particularly one involving a violent train crash, leaving him somewhat unnerved. Sammy’s reaction prompts Mitzi and Burt to wonder if they had done the right thing taking him to the cinema. But, despite the boy’s unsettled response to the picture, there’s still something about what he saw that captivated him, especially when he asks for a toy train as a Hanukkah gift. What’s even more curious, though, is what occurs next, when Sammy deliberately crashes the train after setting it up.

Young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, center) attends his first movie, a screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), with his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams, right) and Burt (Paul Dano, left), in director Steven Spielberg’s latest, “The Fabelmans.” Photo by Merrie Weismiller Wallace, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, © 2022 by Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC.

Mitzi is mystified and intrigued by what happened, though given the uncanny similarity between Sammy’s staged toy train accident and what they together saw on the movie screen, she encourages him to re-create the crash once more, this time prompting Sammy to photograph it with Burt’s 8-mm camera. And Mom’s astounded by what she sees – a cinematic sequence created with a level of sophistication far beyond what most people would typically expect out of someone of such a tender young age.

Mitzi thus takes a strong interest in Sammy’s capabilities. As an artist herself – a gifted classical pianist – she would love nothing more than to see her son thrive at something for which he possesses a genuine talent. And, with his developing passion for the cinematic artform, she truly hopes he’ll pursue it with zeal. In addition to seeing his abilities blossom, the experience also provides her with an opportunity to live vicariously through him, having mostly abandoned her own artistic calling to live the life of a wife and mother, a choice that seems to carry more than its share of regrets.

As for Burt, he provides Sammy with the means to carry on with his filmmaking, though he sees his son’s ventures as a hobby more than a springboard to a future career path. Dad is ever the pragmatist, firmly believing that he and his children should pursue “realistic” undertakings that will enable them to become good providers. That’s even reflected in his own work as an electrical engineer, a vocation with a solid, rational, science-based foundation (and one with ample future growth potential at the time). But that no-nonsense outlook is often at odds with the artistic sensibilities of his wife and son, qualities Burt can’t fully appreciate, given that such pursuits don’t seem to possess the obvious tangible economic and professional payoffs of a serious career track.

It’s not that Burt is cold, hardnosed and inflexible; far from it. He’s warm, sensitive and loving, even if not terribly imaginative or impulsive. He’s willingly sacrificed such “frivolities” to create a nurturing environment for Mitzi, Sammy and his three daughters (Alina Brace, Birdie Borria, Sophia Kopera). That goes for the Fabelmans’ extended family, too, including both of the children’s grandmothers (Robin Bartlett, Jeannie Berlin) and Burt’s best friend and co-worker, a jovial soul whom the kids have come to know as their Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen). It’s the kind of environment that has enabled Sammy to grow and develop into his art, even if that’s not exactly what Burt had intended for him.

Aspiring teenage filmmaker Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) shows one of his creations in director Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical coming of age story, “The Fabelmans,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Merrie Weismiller Wallace, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, © 2022 by Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC.

As Sammy grows into adolescence, however, the relative peace and contentment of the family’s suburban New Jersey household is disrupted when Burt announces that he’s landed a better job in Phoenix, AZ. This revelation sparks a discordant note between Mr. and Mrs. Fabelman, especially when Mitzi learns that it’s unlikely Bennie will be joining them in Arizona. Burt explains that this is because his friend likely doesn’t possess the required skills to land a position at his new company. But why should that upset Mitzi so much? This is the first indication that there may be some deeply rooted trouble at home, a discovery that the now-teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) slowly begins piecing together, particularly when Bennie somehow miraculously manages to land a position at Dad’s new employer not long thereafter.

With the family relocated to the Grand Canyon State, they seek to settle in as readily as possible. Sammy continues with his filmmaking, growing ever more adept at his art. He has many friends who join him in his efforts, and he often includes his now-older sisters (Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Sophia Kopera) as featured players in his productions. That family connection proves important to him, too, especially with the growing tension within the household. The widening disconnection between his parents and his increasing suspicions about Mitzi and Bennie – a hunch confirmed when he captures them on film in a compromising moment – frequently leave conditions strained at home, especially in Sammy’s relationship with his mother.

Support for Sammy’s talents gets a big boost from a surprise visit by his Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a onetime lion tamer and film worker. Like Mitzi and Sammy, Boris has the artistic bent that runs through their family, and he fervently urges his grand-nephew to follow his calling, regardless of what others (like Burt) may feel. Boris is well aware that there are many who just don’t understand the nature of artistic sensibilities, and, for those who possess them, he advises that they simply ignore the oblivious viewpoints of others. Failing to go with one’s heart, he insists, will leave one feeling disappointed and unfulfilled, and he cites the example of Sammy’s Mom to illustrate that point.

Aspiring teenage filmmaker Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, left) receives zealous encouragement to follow his dream during a surprise visit from his Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, right) in Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans.” Photo by Merrie Weismiller Wallace, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, © 2022 by Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC.

Having been given his marching orders, Sammy looks to move ahead with his plans to become a filmmaker. But, just as those efforts get under way, there’s more upset in the household. Burt announces another new job opening, one that requires a relocation to Northern California. And, this time, Bennie won’t be coming along for the ride, a development that throws the future of Mitzi and Burt’s relationship into chaos.

With Sammy now in high school, his experiences in Northern California bring him to the brink of adulthood. In addition to having to cope with the trouble at home, he also has his first taste of dealing with issues like the impact of antisemitism and bullying. At the same time, however, he also has an opportunity to experience things the pleasantries of life, such as his first love, an unusual relationship between a young Jewish man and a quirky Jesus devotee (Chloe East).

As difficult as this phase of Sammy’s life proves to be, it nevertheless represents a culmination of an upbringing that laid the foundation for an aspiring auteur’s future, one in which a multitude of influences came together to help shape him, his mindset, his worldview and a repertoire of works waiting to be filmed. Sammy’s story depicts the impact that this combination of art, a love of cinema, family, religious and cultural heritage, and the need to follow one’s impulses had in making him who he has become as a fully realized individual – and how that fully realized individual would then go on to become the artist that he was destined to be. It provides us with an in-depth look at seeing exactly who Sammy Fabelman is and how he got to be that way, and that, in turn, enlightens us as to why his art would likely turn out as it did.

In that sense, then, given the parallels between this fictious character and the filmmaker who created him, it’s easy to say that this is as much a picture about Steven Spielberg as it is about Sammy Fabelman. The similarities in their stories are so in sync that it’s nearly impossible to see where one leaves off and the other begins, about the only real difference being in their names. This becomes especially apparent if one were to screen this movie in conjunction with director Susan Lacy’s excellent HBO documentary “Spielberg” (2017), which provides an in-depth look at the filmmaker’s personal and professional life. “The Fabelmans” is so precise in capturing this authenticity, in fact, that it incorporates big screen re-creations of home movies from Spielberg’s own upbringing. And, in light of the foregoing, these two films together shed significant light on how Spielberg’s film career developed and why it turned out as it did.

Husband and wife Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano, left; Michelle Williams, right) dine with Burt’s best friend and co-worker, Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen, back to camera), during one of many tense moments in director Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical coming of age story, “The Fabelmans,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Merrie Weismiller Wallace, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, © 2022 by Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC.

Even with the up-close insights provided here, though, one still might wonder why these particular experiences contributed to the shaping of Sammy Fabelman’s/Steven Spielberg’s life and career. However, there’s a significant clue provided in the film – Mitzi’s astute observation as she and her children are about to witness a potential calamity: the belief that “Everything happens for a reason.” While that statement might be seen by some as a piece of throwaway, warm fuzzy fluff, it rings true on so many levels, its deceptive simplicity revealing much about the nature of how reality functions. It’s a stepping stone statement that helps lead us to an understanding of the impact of our beliefs in the unfolding of our existence. If we indeed believe that everything happens for a reason, then nothing occurs by chance, that all of what we encounter has purpose, and the manifestation of those occurrences begins with us, the notion that maintains we materialize the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. By no means is it clear whether Sammy Fabelman or Steven Spielberg have heard of this school of thought. However, after seeing what each of them has accomplished, in both fictional and realistic contexts, it’s apparent that both are adept at understanding and making use of its principles.

In Sammy’s case, for instance, we see these concepts proficiently put to use in the films he creates. His inventive use of technology and techniques (often of a low-budget nature) in his “amateur” productions reveals a tremendous capacity for imagination, especially when it comes to maximizing impact with limited resources. He’s able to get the most out of what he has to work with simply by leaving his mind open to tapping into expansive beliefs that make such an outcome possible. Imagine what that can enable when a vast array of resources is available (oh, wait a minute – we’ve already seen that in many of Spielberg’s finished products).

Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), the supposed best friend of a married man, secretly has eyes for the wife of his pal in director Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical coming of age story, “The Fabelmans,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Merrie Weismiller Wallace, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, © 2022 by Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC.

In a parallel light, Sammy demonstrates a profound ability to draw to himself the circumstances he needs to come up with the stories he creates for his films. In many cases, his own life experiences provide him with a basis for the scripts he writes for his movies. Indeed, it’s often been said that we should draw upon our own experiences when we tell stories, as those are the ones with which we’re most familiar and that we can most readily translate into finished narratives. That’s something Sammy readily does here and that his real life alter-ego has been doing for decades, and it’s a skill most capably demonstrated in this latest offering of his. But this capability is not limited to cinema, either, as it is equally possible to employ this principle in writing the scripts of our lives.

Taking on a project as big as making a movie can truly be a daunting task, one that could be intimidating, if not scary. But that didn’t stop a young Sammy, even when some of the on-screen images he witnessed were somewhat frightening. He carried forward, overcoming those apprehensions and limitations, just as his real world counterpart has on numerous occasions (a topic the filmmaker discusses at length in the aforementioned documentary). That’s yet another principle that’s integral to the manifestation process, one that, if not overcome, could easily leave us stuck in place, never allowing us to achieve our objective.

And, of course, achieving that objective is the ultimate goal of this process. Many call this the pursuit of our destiny. Those skilled in the ways of manifestation often refer to this as value fulfillment, the practice of being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and the world around us. Given the passions of the protagonist here, it’s obvious that making movies – for his own sake and that of cinephiles at large, not to mention for the sake of the art itself – is Sammy’s true destiny, arguably even his value fulfillment. And, considering that Sammy is modeled after the creator who brought him to life, the same could just as easily be said of Mr. Spielberg. But, then, one need only look at his lengthy filmography as a writer, director and producer to see how that came to pass.

Jewish teenager Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, right) experiences his first love with an unlikely prospect, quirky Jesus devotee Monica Sherwood (Chloe East, left), in director Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans.” Photo by Merrie Weismiller Wallace, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, © 2022 by Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC.

“The Fabelmans” is, without a doubt, one of the best pictures about the love of moviemaking ever committed to film, easily in the same league as works like François Truffaut’s “Day for Night” (1973), Federico Fellini’s “8½” (1963), Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980), Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994), Guiseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), Peter Bogdanovich’s “Nickelodeon” (1976), Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992), Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013). But, even more than that, it’s also an homage to the joy and power of the larger creative process, the fundamental intent underlying the act of manifestation. This is thus an inspiring work for anyone who has a desire to express himself or herself through acts of creation, handily one of the great passions that truly makes life worth living – and existence worth experiencing.

What’s more, “The Fabelmans” is easily Spielberg’s most personal film, as well as one of his best efforts in recent years. Its polished storytelling and fine period piece production values are top notch, as are the performances of its excellent ensemble cast (especially Williams and an all-too-brief appearance by Hirsch, both considered Oscar nominee contenders). Its cinematic allusions to some of Spielberg’s other works is also a pleasantly clever and playful touch. As with many of Spielberg’s later films, though, this one, too, is a tad long in spots and occasionally somewhat episodic. Nevertheless, the film’s strengths allow this effort to shine as one of the best releases of 2022, as well as a strong contender as movie awards season plays out.

Speaking of awards season, “The Fabelmans” is already breaking out as one of the leading awards season contenders. The National Board of Review has bestowed three honors on it for best director, best breakthrough performance for Gabriel LaBelle and one of the year’s Top 10 Films. In the Golden Globe Award competition, the film has picked up five nominations, including best dramatic picture, best dramatic actress (Michelle Williams), best director, best screenplay and best score. But it’s in the Critics Choice Award contest where the movie has really scored big, capturing a whopping 11 nominations for best picture, actress (Williams), young performer (LaBelle), ensemble, director, original screenplay, cinematography, score and production design, along with two nominations for best supporting actor (Paul Dano and Judd Hirsch). Look for more to follow in the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the BAFTA Awards, as well as the Oscars. The film is playing theatrically and is available for limited streaming online.

To know someone, we can find out much by looking at what said person creates. And, to understand those creations, we can learn much by examining the roots that underlie them. In this film, those revelations unearth the origins not only of the fictitious Sammy Fabelman, but also of the man who brought him to life, Steven Spielberg. An assessment like this thus gives us a peek into the mind and motivations of one of the most talented and most prolific figures in the history of cinema. More than that, however, it also provides a view of the process that births creativity in tangible form, an ability we all inherently possess and can tap into if we so choose. It’s an opportunity capable of yielding tremendously magnificent outcomes, results capable of touching us all and changing the world at large. And, if there’s anyone who has contributed significantly in that way to the art of cinema, it’s Steven Spielberg, an achievement that may have never occurred had it not been for the Sammy Fabelman that resided within him. We owe them both hearty thanks for their contributions – and for helping to show the rest of us how we might do the same, no matter what milieu we choose to work in.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

New Movies for December

Join Good Media Network Movie Correspondent Brent Marchant and show host Frankie Picasso for six new movie reviews on the next edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing at a special day and time, Thursday December 29 at 1 pm ET, will also feature a few additional special announcements. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

What Makes a Family of Choice

Family has long been seen as an institution dictated almost exclusively by bloodline considerations. However, over time, this view has gradually shifted to one where family has become what we make of it. It’s a principle that has assumed many forms, too, based on an array of defining characteristics, some of which have deviated significantly from traditional models. But what’s most important behind this development has been the beneficial impact it has had on many individuals who simply didn’t feel as though they belonged with their blood relatives, regardless of how much they were pressured into trying to make such arrangements work. That’s the theme underlying a new fact-based story about one individual’s search for a new start that unexpectedly ends up providing him far more than what he was initially looking for, director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection” (web site, trailer).

Twenty-five-year-old Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) has been fending for himself since he was 16. As the gay son of Inez (Gabrielle Union), a hard-edged African-American single mother, Ellis was kicked out of the house over her disapproval of his “degenerate” lifestyle, one that she sternly believed ran afoul of her self-righteous religious beliefs. In that time, Ellis has been doing whatever it took to survive, bouncing from one situation to another (including some jail time) and making little personal progress along the way. He acknowledges that many of his friends have ended up dead or in prison, and he worries he might be headed for a similar fate. Indeed, as the film opens, he’s living in a homeless shelter in Trenton, NJ, with few hopeful prospects for the future. But, given how things have been going, he’s decided that it’s time to make a radical change: As a native New Yorker, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he enlists in the Marines, hoping that it will give him meaningful purpose and set him on a new path, one that offers promise and potential unlike anything he’s experienced since being thrown out onto the streets.

Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, center) has something to prove to himself and others after years of wandering aimlessly when he enlists in the Marines, as seen in director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Before leaving for boot camp, Ellis visits his mother to obtain his birth certificate to complete his enlistment. When she asks why he needs it, she laughs at his answer, convinced that there’s no way he’ll make it through basic training. She dismissively chides him, saying that he’ll easily be spotted for who he is, that he’s “gayer than two left shoes.” And, if all that weren’t insulting enough, as she hands the requested document to him, she says of it, “This is all I have left of the dream I held for you.” (Thanks, Mom.)

Despite his mother’s callous comments, Ellis is not deterred. He’s resolved to reach his goal, no matter what it takes. He’s also impelled to succeed by one of the homeless shelter’s residents, Shamus (Tyler Merritt), who says he hopes that Ellis won’t backslide and end up back in his company once again. And so, Inez’s disparaging remarks notwithstanding, he departs for his appointment with destiny.

But is the new recruit’s optimism enough to carry him through what lies ahead? Given the time frame in which this story is set – the ʼ00s – circumstances are different from what they are today. The LGBTQ+ community at large, for example, still faced its share of prejudice at the time, and that was an even greater challenge for those in the military, who were serving under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Also, it’s obvious from a number of small gestures that Ellis is a kind, compassionate, sensitive soul. Those undeniably admirable qualities are eminently noble, to be sure, but their compatibility with a culture often characterized by contrary attitudes and values could make fitting in difficult.

As Ellis steps off the bus that takes him to boot camp, his life changes in an instant. His initial indoctrination into his new world is characterized by rigidity, harsh discipline and intimidation. His drill instructor, Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), barks orders and questions at him upon his arrival, including asking him whether or not he had ever been a homosexual. Laws is innately skeptical about Ellis’s negative reply, slyly responding with a sinister smirk and stating definitively that he will break the new recruit. (Of course, as a Marine drill instructor, that’s his primary goal when it comes to training all newcomers, a tactic intended as a means to help build them back up, but one that could prove particularly challenging for someone like Ellis, given his character and sensibilities – and Laws’s apparent intent to be particularly hard on him.)

As training begins, Ellis experiences his share of difficulties. He encounters institutionalized homophobia. He’s the subject of bullying (and not just from Laws, but also from fellow recruits). He’s even the target of sabotage by others who’d like nothing more than to see him fail. And, on top of that, Inez refuses to answer any of his letters, despite his sincere efforts at reaching out to keep her informed of his progress.

As a gay Marine recruit, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, left) receives sound guidance for fitting in from a sympathetic drill instructor, Sgt. Rosales (Raúl Castillo, right), in director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection,” now playing theatrically and soon to be available for internet streaming. Photo courtesy of A24.

But, despite these difficulties, Ellis refuses to give up. He works harder when he needs to, in large part to earn the respect to which he believes he’s entitled. He also wins over allies, such as Sgt. Rosales (Raúl Castillo), one of Laws’s assistants, who takes a more sympathetic, more tailored approach in the guidance he provides to Ellis, both as a recruit and as a gay soldier. And, as training progresses, Ellis comes into his own. He even finds a way to remain true to his principles, such as his compassion in coming to the aid of others, like Ismail (Eman Esfandi), a Muslim recruit who’s often the target of unbridled prejudice and insensitive treatment from his fellow soldiers.

In a sense, Ellis becomes a role model of sorts for his peers, inspiring them to adopt new attitudes toward him and to what it means to be a Marine. When they see him being unfairly targeted, they begin coming to his defense, making sure he gets a fair shake and congratulating him on his individual victories, no matter how small. The treatment he receives begins to change, and unfettered acceptance comes more readily, even from those who were once critical and despite whatever issues he may have encountered previously. In turn, Ellis begins to look upon his experience in a new light, one in which he finds himself in a brotherhood where others have his back as much as he has theirs and where inherent differences no longer matter when it comes to supporting a colleague, including those from whom such conduct and consideration are least likely expected.

The bottom line in this is that Ellis finds the family he always longed for but never had, a development he hadn’t envisioned going in. But, for those who’ve had to endure such circumstances, a change like this is truly welcome and heartfelt, even (or, perhaps, especially) if it arises unexpectedly. It may not correct the slights of the past, but it can certainly provide a meaningful basis of support for the future, and that can ultimately prove invaluable. A family of choice may not be the same as one’s biological tribe, but it can be equally nurturing and supportive, and there’s much to be said for that.

Of course, none of this likely would have happened were it not for Ellis’s determination to succeed. Despite what the naysayers may have said, he believed he was capable of accomplishing this objective, and this is crucial, given that our beliefs form the basis of our reality, for better or worse. It’s unclear whether Ellis had ever heard of this school of thought, but he certainly made effective use of its principles and practices in the pursuit of his dream. When combining these concepts with his personal convictions, he was clearly setting himself up for success.

Despite his successful accomplishment in transforming himself into a Marine, one might wonder why he chose such a difficult path in reaching this point in his life. Why, for example, did he create nine arduous years of life on the streets leading up to his military experience? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to manifest something more productive and positive in the first place, especially since he was obviously capable of doing so, as evidenced by his boot camp experience? Perhaps, but maybe he needed to go through the ordeal of learning how to survive on his own under harsh conditions as a means to prepare himself for what he would have to endure when undergoing basic training. Similarly, perhaps he needed to experience the prejudice and homophobia he underwent with his mother and others to get him ready for what he would go through in a setting where such attitudes had become institutionalized. Indeed, sometimes we might not always understand what we’re manifesting and why, but, in hindsight, we frequently see that these “detours” serve valuable functions, providing us with the wherewithal to overcome the challenges we experience later.

Hard-nosed Marine drill instructor Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) promises to break new recruits who undergo basic training with him in director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Another benefit to come out of such ordeals is the opportunity to overcome our fears, apprehensions and limitations. This was true for Ellis both while on the streets and during his boot camp experience. They helped him develop a thicker skin in facing the challenges that confronted him. They helped him to think outside the box and to devise innovative solutions for addressing the issues in front of him. They also helped him galvanize himself in his beliefs, reinforcing them to help him implement them in the pursuit of his goals. Such efforts can yield tremendous, enviable results, as Ellis’s experience so clearly illustrates.

In order for Ellis to succeed in these efforts, though, he had to be himself – his true self, the one whose actions align with his innermost beliefs, those that reflect who he innately is. This called for him to retain the compassion and sensibilities that shaped his character, no matter how much those traits may have gone against the prototypical image of a Marine at that time. It also called for him to be forthright, honest and unapologetic about his sexuality as a proud gay man. To that end, it meant being up front with Inez whenever she, in her unrealistic false hope, raised the prospect of Ellis finding a nice girl and settling down as a stereotypical family man who would be a good husband and father and give her the grandchildren she so dearly wanted. He needed to make it clear that such developments would never occur, no matter how much she might wish for them. In short, he needed to stand up for himself and inform her of the fallacy behind the often-widely held notion in the African-American community that “there’s no such thing as a gay Black man.” He was living proof to the contrary, no matter how unbelievable and offensive she may have found it.

Ellis wasn’t alone in this pursuit, though; he had his family of choice to back him up in those times when he was challenged on these points, including those with his own mother. The brotherhood held firm, supporting one of their own when warranted. And knowing that he had these kindreds to have his back enabled him to stand even more unwaveringly in his own skin, a successful collaboration if there ever were one – and one that emerged out of a seemingly unlikely set of circumstances.

In short, Ellis’s Marine experience truly made him a man – but not the uber-macho prototype one typically expects when hearing this expression. Instead, it made him the man he was meant to be, the one who could stand tall in his convictions and live his life in line with his authentic self. Reaching that point may not have been easy, both during his time in the service and in the years leading up to it. But, in the end, he was able to embrace and act upon beliefs that made this possible through actions that spoke to living his personal truth. And what better manifestation could there possibly be to come out of circumstances, principles and practices like these?

Proud Marine Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, right) seeks to impress his often-disapproving mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union, left), that he can live up to his potential, despite her doubts, as seen in “The Inspection.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Finding one’s family may not always occur where one most likely expects it. But, even if those expectations aren’t fulfilled exactly, what difference does it make if the sought-after result ends up being what was hoped for to begin with? Writer-director Elegance Bratton’s fact-based saga does just that, driving home that message with its poignant, moving, heartfelt story. In several regards, “The Inspection” echoes groundbreaking themes first addressed in “Moonlight” (2016) and in Bratton’s debut documentary feature, “Pier Kids” (2019), though with different but nevertheless equal significance. The film’s superb Independent Spirit Award-nominated performances by Pope and Union, along with fine supporting portrayals turned in by other members of the excellent ensemble cast (most notably Woodbine and Castillo), truly give this picture its razor-sharp edge and its touching moments of genuine compassion, an unusual mix of elements to come out of the same story, to be sure. Admittedly, the production could probably have benefitted from a little more back story development and slightly brisker pacing in the first half-hour, but those are truly minor shortcomings in the greater scheme of things where this film is concerned. If this ISA candidate for best first feature is any indication of what we can expect in future works from this filmmaker, I can’t wait to see what else he comes up with.

“The Inspection” is making a splash in awards circles so far, too. In addition to its three Independent Spirit Award nominations, the film also captured a Golden Globe Award nomination for Jeremy Pope’s dramatic lead actor performance, as well as being named one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 Independent Films of 2022. The picture has an excellent chance of picking up more nominations in upcoming competitions, including possibly the Oscars. The film is currently available for streaming online.

We’d all like to hope that we can feel welcome and accepted for who we are in our families of birth, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way (and for reasons that may not always be entirely clear). Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we have to live out our lives in loneliness and solitude. We can forge the family we need and live perfectly happy and contented lives if we put our minds to it. By being our true selves, we can draw to us those whose sensibilities mesh with ours and who can innately tell that we belong together, even if such associations don’t conform to conventional models. In the end, it’s the people who matter to us (and to whom we matter) who deserve to be in our inner circle of kindred spirits. Indeed, why would we want to bother with those who can’t live up to that basic human courtesy? To be sure, family is what we make of it, and, when we put in the effort to see that through, we can surely create one that’s positively great.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

On Exceeding Ourselves


All too often, we set limits for ourselves that come to define us, sometimes in a far too restrictive way. But are we enduringly confined to such constraints, or can we surpass them and achieve more than we thought we’re capable of? The answer may surprise us, particularly when such revelations come about under conditions where the stakes are exceptionally high. Such is the case in the new fact-based historical drama, “Argentina, 1985” (web site, trailer).

With the military overthrow of President Isabel Perón in 1976, Argentina was plunged into a dark, nearly decade-long dictatorship in which right-wing authorities persecuted countless alleged opponents (mostly innocent civilians and their families) with kidnapping, torture, sanctioned murder and “disappearances.” These brutal practices, part of what was known as “the Dirty War,” went on virtually unchecked for years, leading much of Argentine society to perpetually live in fear. However, over time, with growing opposition, the ruling military junta began losing power and was eventually deposed in 1983 after its defeat in the Falklands War and the ascent of a new democratically elected president.

In the wake of this reign of terror, calls were raised to prosecute those responsible for the rampant, unbridled abuse. However, military courts refused to take on this task, leaving prosecution in the hands of civilian authorities, who were also hesitant to proceed. After all, just because the military autocrats were officially out of power with the collapse of their so-called “last junta,” that didn’t mean that their considerable influence had completely disappeared, clandestine though it may have been by that time. Which is why Argentine public prosecutors were generally reluctant to undertake cases against their former leaders – they didn’t want to experience the same fate as the mysteriously disappeared as a result of their litigious actions, despite widespread support for such trials.

To overcome this conundrum, officials of the new government decided to try a different approach – conducting a trial in Argentine civilian appeals court. The proceeding against the nine defendants was to be presided over by a panel of six judges, with the accused represented by a smug, supremely self-confident lead defender (Héctor Díaz). But finding a suitable public prosecutor was a bigger challenge, since most were unwilling to subject themselves to the potential dangers of taking on such a provocative case. So who would end up being the “lucky” choice?

Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín, left), lead prosecutor in the landmark Trial of the Juntas, confers with his chief associate, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani, right), as they prepare for court in the new fact-based historical drama, “Argentina, 1985,” now available for streaming online. Photo by Lina Etchecuri, courtesy of Amazon Studios, © Amazon Studios/La Unión de los Ríos/Kenya Films/Infinity Hill.

That responsibility fell to Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín), a longtime prosecutor who was reluctant to take on the task when approached by his boss (Gabriel Fernández). He was concerned about his personal safety, as well as that of his wife, Verónica (Gina Mastronicola), and his children, Silvia (Alejandra Flechner) and Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena). And, to complicate matters, he worried about criticism (and possible retribution) from both sides in this fight – from supporters of the accused, for taking on this controversial prosecution, and from friends and relatives of the victims, for having often turned a blind eye toward the junta’s atrocities (or, in some cases, even tacitly aiding and abetting the perpetrators) during the height of the Dirty War, prompting them to wonder how diligent he would be in pressing this case. He thus saw his involvement in the upcoming trial as a no-win situation and one possibly fraught with dire consequences.

Assembling a prosecutorial team proved problematic, too; most of his peers flat-out refused to assist him. Strassera consulted a trusted mentor (Norman Briski) for advice, but he mostly confirmed what the prosecutor already knew, despite the sincere, hopeful encouragement he offered. And, when Julio finally learned (ostensibly by accident) who would be aiding him, he discovered that his principal associate, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), had little experience in such matters. Despite the ample enthusiasm for seeking justice that Luis brought to the table – a quality that made him something of a pariah within his conservative circle of family and friends – that fervor inspired little confidence with Julio considering what they would be up against.

Nevertheless, even though Ocampo was still rather new to all this, he brought fresh approaches and inventive ideas on how to proceed. He put together an eager team of law students to gather evidence on a tight time frame, and they employed a variety of aggressive, innovative and persistent tactics to assemble the proof for their case, in significant detail and on time. Julio was duly impressed by what they accomplished, and their achievements did much to boost his morale. In a relatively short time, he changed his outlook as the prospects suddenly no longer looked as bleak as they once did.

When the case went to court in April 1985 in what would become known as the Trial of the Juntas, Strassera and his colleagues presented 709 claims to the tribunal, 280 of which were heard, involving 833 witnesses. It would turn out to be the first war crimes proceeding to be conducted since the Nüremberg Trials held in Germany after World War II and one of the largest-ever prosecutions of its kind.

The depth of material collected took the defense team somewhat by surprise; they hadn’t expected that the prosecution would be able to gather so much evidence, in such detail, from what they assumed would be inherently reluctant witnesses. (So much for assumptions.) But, even with such a battery of damning testimony and information, Julio and his colleagues could not rest on their laurels; they had to remain diligent in pressing their case. What’s more, they had to do so under increasingly intimidating conditions, such as less-than-subtle surveillance, death threats and bomb scares, as well as a number of explosive detonations successfully set off in government facilities.

If anything, however, these threats helped to steel the prosecutors’ resolve to carry on. That confidence was further bolstered by the detailed, explicit testimony of witnesses, such as Adriana Calvo de Laborde (Laura Paredes), who presented a heartbreaking account of her time in junta captivity. The savage treatment she and her newborn child experienced at the hands of authorities at the time was so severe and so perverse that it stunned even a public that was already all too familiar with the willful cruelty and unspeakable barbarity that went on. It did much not only to galvanize the indignation of those seeking justice, but also to change the minds of many who were sympathetic to the defendants, such as Luis’s staunchly conservative mother (Susana Pampín), a onetime-diehard critic of her son’s allegedly bleeding heart leanings.

Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín, center left) and Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani, center right), lead prosecutors in the epic war crimes proceeding known as the Trial of the Juntas, pose with their team of intrepid law students who assisted them in compiling extensive evidence against nine defendants accused of atrocities during “the Dirty War,” a story chronicled in the new fact-based historical drama, “Argentina, 1985.” Photo by Lina Etchecuri, courtesy of Amazon Studios, © Amazon Studios/La Unión de los Ríos/Kenya Films/Infinity Hill.

The Trial of the Juntas marked a significant turning point for the global human rights movement, as well as for promoting the development of democracy in Argentina. It may not have solved all of the nation’s problems, and it may not have made up for all of the painful losses experienced during the days of the junta. But it went a long way toward setting matters on a new path, and it was achieved by a group of determined, courageous individuals who didn’t think it could be done. There’s much to be said for that, and this film truly does justice to their story and the legacy it has established.

There are a number of significant takeaways from this story that have to do with more than just the particular circumstances associated with this landmark historic event. They relate to important principles applicable to a variety of situations, judicial and otherwise. And they can serve us well as long as we believe in their viability. That belief connection is important, because it impacts how successfully these principles pan out for us in the manifestation of the reality we experience. Whether or not the prosecutors in this case were aware of this school of thought is unclear, but they became beneficiaries of its principles as they carried out their work – and set an example for the rest of us to follow in any number of diverse ventures.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit in this is learning how to overcome one’s fears, even those that arise as a result of potentially dangerous conditions. As the film clearly illustrates early on, Strassera was obviously spooked about what he might face if he were to take on this case, both for himself and his family, as well as for those he would be asking to testify in this proceeding. Many of them had already experienced considerable pain, anguish and terror, and encouraging them to tell their stories would mean reliving it all over again, not to mention the possible retribution they could face from supporters of the accused for speaking out.

However, if justice were to be served, getting past those apprehensions was essential, even in the face of physical harm, damage to one’s reputation, and threats to loved ones and colleagues, dangers that many of those involved here had already experienced during the Dirty War. This meant mustering courageous convictions to see this through, believing in their power and potential for fostering their sought-after outcomes. And, amazingly, as their faith in these notions grew and fell into place, so, too, did the results they so dearly hoped for. That’s impressive, especially since they arose from something as unexpected as changes in their beliefs, intangible resources that may have been hard to quantify and fully appreciate but that nevertheless packed quite a powerful punch when put into place.

This, in itself, sheds significant light on another of those takeaways – the value of overcoming limitations and believing in what such measures can accomplish. As the discovery process for this proceeding began, Julio had huge doubts about whether the case could be successfully brought to pass. But, thanks to the innovative steps that Luis and his associates implemented, seemingly miraculous results emerged, outcomes that clearly defied expectations and provided the means needed by the prosecutors to effectively make their arguments in court. Indeed, as unrealistic as believing in miracles sometimes might be, doing so can nevertheless yield unexpectedly stupendous results.

Such realizations can carry tremendous benefits for those who experience them. When we become aware that we’re genuinely capable of attaining more than we thought we could, this understanding can significantly boost our confidence, self-esteem and sense of personal power. This becomes apparent in what both Julio and Luis experience over the course of the film. Luis is able to verify what he already knew about himself, an affirmation of his abilities and insights. But Julio is arguably an even greater beneficiary of this, as he comes to realize that he possesses skills he never knew he had, that he was indeed capable of rising above his own perceived limitations and achieve more than he ever thought he could. Now that’s empowerment.

Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín, left) and Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani, right), lead prosecutors in Argentina’s Trial of the Juntas, zealously argue their positions against a skilled team of defense attorneys in writer-director Santiago Mitre’s latest, “Argentina, 1985,” a strong awards season contender now available for streaming online. Photo by Lina Etchecuri, courtesy of Amazon Studios, © Amazon Studios/La Unión de los Ríos/Kenya Films/Infinity Hill.

Obviously, developing and possessing skills like these are important to those in professions like law, where putting them to use to achieve successful outcomes is crucial to their very reason for being. But these notions are just as important in myriad other contexts, both personally and professionally, as well as in the everyday conduct of our lives. These principles might not seem like takeaways to come out of a court proceeding, but the foundation underlying success in these undertakings is applicable to a host of activities that have nothing directly to do with the law. We can learn a lot from these examples – and we can achieve even more for ourselves when we put them into use in our own world. All we have to do is believe in the possibilities and then act on them.

Seeking justice is certainly a noble pursuit, especially when the transgressions calling for it have been particularly egregious. But it can also become a rather precarious endeavor when conducted under conditions that carry potentially serious consequences. Still, there’s always justice to be had, and its fulfillment is crucial to fostering reform, promoting healing and encouraging the emergence of a stable future, especially in a setting like the new Argentinian republic depicted in this film. Writer-director Santiago Mitre’s latest presents a thorough, capably told account of this courageous venture, with a solid screenplay and fine performances that effectively depict the dangers, ironies and nuances involved in this tightrope-like endeavor, as well as the personal impact on its principal figures. The film could stand a little tightening in spots, and some of the background music doesn’t always fit. But, in all, this is an engaging, attention-grabbing project that successfully avoids legal jargon and excessively detailed political considerations while revealing much about one of history’s most compelling judicial proceedings, one that, sadly, echoes the same sentiment to have come out of most such landmark events – “Never again.”

“Argentina, 1985” is one of those films that has flown beneath the radar thus far, receiving little fanfare and not attracting much attention among moviegoers, including avid cinephiles. However, with the onset of movie awards season, the picture is finally garnering the recognition it so genuinely deserves. It’s been named a nominee in the best foreign language category of the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions. In addition, the National Board of Review has selected it as one of 2022’s Top 5 International Films and as the winner of the organization’s Freedom of Expression Award. Also, the film was recently named to the short list of candidates for the Academy Award for best international film. Not bad for a film that not many have heard of. The picture is currently available for streaming online.

When we go beyond our perceived limitations, we may feel surprised and perhaps even a little unnerved. Finding ourselves in such uncharted territory may make us uncomfortable given its newness and unfamiliarity. At the same time, though, it also offers us proof of capabilities that can take us in dramatically new and uplifting directions. It may even act as a trigger for introducing us to parts of our being that we never knew existed, opening an array of new doors and new opportunities for us. And, with those channels now available to us, there’s no telling what we can achieve. The people of Argentina are no doubt pleased with what Julio, Luis and their team made possible for their country through the emergence of their newfound expertise and empowerment. And the citizens of the world should be thankful for the example they set, enabling all of us to see what’s possible when we put our minds to pursuing – and attaining – goals that ultimately benefit all of humanity.

Case closed.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Reclaiming One’s Power

When we feel like we’ve lost something, we often wonder if we’ll ever get it back. Those who innately see the glass as half full generally have the requisite optimism needed to reclaim it. But those whose worldview is less enthusiastic frequently treat their loss as permanent and irretrievable. But need things be that way? Are such black and white outlooks fixed and unalterable? When we consider that those attitudes are rooted in our beliefs – perspectives that are eminently changeable – it quickly becomes apparent that we’re not hopelessly reconciled to an irreversible fate, a scenario that an aging creative discovers for herself in the quirky but insightful new Filipino comedy, “Leonor Will Never Die” (web site, trailer).

Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) has fallen on hard times. As a onetime-groundbreaking figure in the Filipino movie industry, Leonor made quite a name for herself as the creator of cheesy but immensely popular action adventure films in the 1970s and ʼ80s. However, in the ensuing years, she’s had her share of issues, including encroaching old age, worsening memory loss, mounting unpaid bills and the pain associated with the untimely death of her son, Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon), a tragedy from which she’s never fully recovered. Ronwaldo’s passing was especially difficult for her, given that he was her favorite, a preference that often hurt the feelings of her other son, Rudi (Bong Cabrera), a somewhat inept, directionless but kindly middle-aged soul. Rudi’s quiet despair over this is often exacerbated by Leonor’s lack of appreciation for his concern for her well-being, an attitude that she sees as needlessly clingy and overprotective, leaving her somewhat concerned and frequently annoyed. And all of this is made worse when Ronwaldo’s ghost periodically shows up for unexpected visits, reminding Leonor of his absence and Rudi of his mother’s favoritism.

Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco), once a mover and shaker in the Filipino movie industry, has fallen on hard times with age, but she looks to take back her power in the quirky but insightful new comedy, “Leonor Will Never Die.” Photo by Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films.

Leonor needs a spark to get her out of her rut, and that opportunity comes while perusing the newspaper one day. She spots an ad putting out a call for movie scripts, and it gives her an idea. She remembers an unfinished screenplay that she had begun working on years ago, a project that she believes might have production potential if she were to complete it. So she hauls it out of mothballs and sets back to work on it in earnest. She’s so eager, in fact, that it’s the first undertaking that’s given her any joy in ages.

Leonor’s script for “The Return of the Kwago” tells the story of a working class action hero named Ronwaldo (sound familiar?) (Rocky Salumbides) seeking to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of local thugs. He also seeks to rescue a damsel in distress, Isabella (Rea Molina), the reluctant girlfriend of a mob boss who has her squarely under his thumb. For the benefit of viewers, images from this work in progress come to life in the film, essentially creating a movie within a movie, one distinguished from the main narrative by cinematography and other production elements typical of pictures in this genre. While the trite plot of “Kwago” exudes all of the clichés typically found in campy romps like this, working on the project nevertheless fills Leonor with an unbridled sense of enthusiasm, as evidenced by the fervor she exhibits while banging away on the keys of her typewriter. But, despite everything going along so well, events suddenly take an unexpected turn.

While taking a break from her work, as Leonor strolls outside her apartment building, a television set falls from an upstairs open window and hits her on the head, putting her in a coma. Rudi and Leonor’s ex-husband, Valentin (Alan Bautista), diligently attend to her hospital care, aided by an enigmatic physician (Tami Monsod) who clearly has eyes for Rudi. Ronwaldo’s ghost pays periodic visits as well, offering insights and suggestions. But Leonor’s condition remains unchanged – at least to those looking after her. In her own world, however, Leonor has begun leading a full and active life – as a character in the thick of her own unfolding screenplay.

Leonor’s participation in this inner world scenario fulfills several functions. For starters, it helps her work out the plot of the remaining portion of the story. But there’s more to it than that. It also provides her with an opportunity to address the unresolved issues of her life, such as her relationship with Rudi, her lingering grief for Ronwaldo and learning how to take back her sense of personal power. It becomes an experience where she gets a chance to rewrite the script of her life – and to have things turn out the way she wants them to for once. And, when the “Kwago” experience becomes intertwined with the everyday life she had come to know so well, things become especially interesting. Leonor’s experience thus sets an example for the rest of us, one in which we have an opportunity to write the scripts of our own lives.

Two brothers – one living (Bong Cabrera, right), one deceased (Anthony Falcon, left) – meet up for periodic visits to share valuable insights in writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s delightful, multi-layered debut feature, “Leonor Will Never Die.” Photo by Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films.

The key to writing (or rewriting) the scripts of our lives rests with the beliefs that provide the foundation for them. In a sense, think of this as being akin to the story or the narrative that underlies a screenplay. Without this, there would be no script to work with. And this all unfolds thanks to employing these intangible resources for manifesting the reality we experience. Whether or not Leonor has ever heard of this concept is up for debate, but, given the experience she’s now undergoing in her consciousness, she has a chance to put its principles into practice and to witness what they can yield.

Leonor’s coma experience is valuable in a highly significant way: Because she’s actively setting the direction of the manner in which events arise and play out, and because she’s now definitively aware that this is happening, she’s able to see how we’re the authors of our own stories and what makes them up. And the effect of this is quite empowering. In fact, in Leonor’s case, it’s enabled her to take back the power she once wielded but has been without in recent years. It also allows her to mend fences that have fallen into disrepair over time. That can be truly revitalizing for someone who’s been feeling otherwise for a long while.

The lucidity that comes with the territory here also enables Leonor to steer the course of her story in the direction in which she wants it to go. This, too, likely proves rejuvenating, especially after years to the contrary. Instead of feeling like the victim of random, capricious chance, Leonor feels like she has become the master of her destiny, able to cause things to turn out the way she would like to see them unfold. That’s quite a fulfilling feeling, one that most of us would probably like to experience.

But the beauty of that is that we can experience it for ourselves. Once we’re aware that we’re the captains of our own ships, we can steer them in whatever direction we’d like. That can be quite satisfying, particularly among those of us who feel we have lost our power and witnessed our lives deteriorate in ways that leave us feeling out of sorts, out of luck and without hope for a better future.

In Leonor’s case, this can help to renew her outlook going forward. Whether that feeling is expressed through waking consciousness or entirely in the recesses of her mind, it doesn’t really matter. It’s an opportunity for the essence of her being to feel satisfied, fulfilled and empowered. And, in the end, isn’t that what really matters most? We should all be so fortunate to have the wherewithal to recognize and live out such a state of mind, and Leonor sets an inspiring example for us to follow.

Mobsters with nefarious agendas have their sights set on working class hero Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), the star of a cheesy action adventure flick whose script is being written by an aging movie icon, in the quirky, hilarious new comedy, “Leonor Will Never Die.” Photo by Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films.

Of course, in circumstances like these, some might be concerned that the lines between reality and fantasy can become all too easily blurred, making it difficult to distinguish where one leaves off and the other begins. This can be especially true for creative types (particularly writers). Concerns about ambiguity and distinction can easily arise. Indeed, can someone become so absorbed in the manifestation of a creative undertaking that perspective becomes lost? And what does this mean for those who care (and worry) about the artist?

Ultimately, however, one could argue, do such distinctions really matter? Isn’t one’s sense of happiness and fulfillment really what’s most important in the long run? And does it truly matter where such outcomes materialize? Is the realm of our consciousness any less valid than the paradigm of physical existence? This is a point that often rattles my cage when characters in sci-fi and similar stories prattle on and on about what’s “real” and what’s not. Isn’t reality a relative matter, one in which beliefs and consciousness determine what arises and wherein venue considerations are secondary, if even relevant at all?

Some might find such a notion troubling, as it potentially undermines one’s sense of certainty when it comes to the nature of existence – that it must innately possess certain qualities (such as physicality) when it comes to its intrinsic nature. At the same time, though, embracing the idea that personal satisfaction is what each of us makes of it, regardless of comparatively mundane considerations like locale, can be quite liberating, opening up an array of vistas for conscious exploration and creation where the only limiting factor is our own beliefs – and where we can manifest for ourselves whatever we will in the pursuit of our own contentment. Talk about empowerment!

Leonor’s choices (and the beliefs she embraces in their fulfillment) may not be the same ones many of us would make. Being at the helm of a tacky shoot-em-up may not be our idea of what gives us satisfaction. However, if it makes her feel contented and accomplished – and if doing so helps her resolve issues that she’s been unable to reconcile otherwise – who are we to argue or judge? More power to her in her endeavor. May we all be so inclined. And may Leonor never die.

Damsel in distress Isabella (Rea Molina), the reluctant girlfriend of a notorious mob boss, seeks the help of a working class action hero to help her escape the clutches of her domineering partner, as seen in the charming new Filipino comedy, “Leonor Will Never Die.” Photo by Carlos Mauricio, courtesy of Music Box Films.

Writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s multiple-layered debut feature is an absolute delight, one that tells a hilarious yet perceptive tale, a challenging narrative combination to pull off as successfully as it is here. It’s an accomplishment comparable to what was achieved in such other 2022 releases as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Strawberry Mansion,” taking heady topics and making them entertaining. The story-within-a-story is deftly handled, with its respective parallel tracks skillfully woven and serving as great mirrors of one another. And, as these two parallel yet intertwined stories play out, a curious mix of synchronicities, kooky laugh-out-loud moments and metaphysical insights into the nature of existence all begin to emerge (sometimes simultaneously), providing viewers with much to both ponder and chuckle over. The “Kwago” sequences are especially noteworthy. Leonor’s emerging action adventure project is reminiscent of films frequently made in the Philippines in the 1970s, with elements similar to those also found in classic martial arts and Blaxploitation pictures of the era. These segments present a campy yet lovingly reverential homage to those films, capably and intentionally mimicking them in terms of their clichéd camera work, trite dialogue and sloppy technical aspects (like out-of-sync vocal dubbing). Admittedly, the film begins to drag a little in the home stretch, but, as a very deserving Independent Spirit Award nominee for best international film, this is must-see viewing for those who appreciate unexpectedly profound subject matter served up with a healthy slathering of unrepentant kitsch. The film is currently available for streaming online.

Many of us dislike change. But, as daunting as that prospect can be, it pales in comparison to other even less palatable circumstances, like despair, hopelessness and depression. Yet it’s mind boggling how many of us will readily saddle ourselves with such conditions, believing them to be inherently permanent and, puzzlingly, preferable. Indeed, it’s astounding how anyone could simply roll over and accept what’s seemingly handed to us without question. But, as Leonor’s remarkable odyssey illustrates, that’s far from the truth, as long as we’re willing to make the effort to invoke change for ourselves, starting with the beliefs that bring our existence into being. With that knowledge in hand, we can follow Leonor’s lead, reclaim our personal power and rewrite the script of our life. And what a story that would make!

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.