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‘Bird’ Review: Andrea Arnold Switches Up Her Playbook With a Warmhearted Fable Starring Barry Keoghan and Franz Rogowski

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‘Bird’ Review: Andrea Arnold Switches Up Her Playbook With a Warmhearted Fable Starring Barry Keoghan and Franz Rogowski

British auteur Andrea Arnold follows up her last feature, the poignant, non-verbal slice-of-farmyard-life that is the documentary Cow, with a new member of her cinematic menagerie: drama Bird, an uplifting competitor for Cannes’ Palme d’Or.

With mostly human characters and actual dialogue, in some ways this is taxonomically more like her gritty-as-asphalt, early social-realist work, especially Fish Tank and Oscar-winning short Wasp, which, like Bird, were shot in the southerly county of Kent, U.K., where Arnold grew up. But then suddenly, out of the milieu’s marshy semi-urban landscape of empty beer cans, cigarette butts, domestic abuse and despair, the film takes magical-realist flight and transforms into something unlike anything Arnold’s done before. Thanks to the director’s magisterial knack with actors (especially non-professionals such as terrific adolescent discovery Nykiya Adams, who, as the protagonist, is in nearly every frame of the film), the result is quite entrancing.

Bird

The Bottom Line

Flies high.

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Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Nykiya Adams, Jason Edward Buda, James Nelson Joyce, Barry Keoghan, Jasmine Jobson, Frankie Box, Franz Rogowski
Director/screenwriter: Andrea Arnold

1 hour 59 minutes

That said, at times this teeters on the brink of sentimentality, as if all that time Arnold has spent in the U.S. directing episodes of upscale television (Big Little Lies, Transparent, I Love Dick) has rubbed off and added a kind of American-indie-style slickness to the script — a tidy, over-workshopped tightness that the raw early films and American Honey mostly eschewed. But that may be exactly what some viewers will love about Bird. Given the presence of stars like Barry Keoghan and Franz Rogowski (both of them amping up the Barry Keoghan and Franz Rogowski-ness of it all to the max), this could be Arnold’s most commercial feature film.

Like nearly all of Arnold’s previous films, even Cow at a stretch, Bird takes pains to show all the beauty and the bloodshed, to borrow a phrase from Nan Goldin’s life, of working-class life. That means copping to the fact there is violence, addictive behavior and outright neglect within families, the sort of stuff middle-class folks primly call “bad parenting.” At the same time, “neglect” can also produce self-reliance and independence in children, who in this film are often seen running around the streets by themselves, playing unsupervised, older ones looking after younger ones, inventing their own games like “jump on the disused mattress in the front yard” and so on. All of it is exactly the sort of stuff kids got up to in the proverbial old days, the golden-hued mythical past that was also supposedly so much better than things are now.

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Twelve-year-old Bailey (Adams) certainly has a remarkable amount of freedom, maybe a little too much. She lives in a large, squatted building in Gravesend, a ramshackle property — festooned with graffiti and furnished with furniture that looks like it was salvaged from a dumpster — that houses quite a few people in apartments on each floor, many of them animal lovers like Bailey and her family. On the floor Bailey lives on, she shares a space with her dad Bug (Keoghan, having an absolute blast), an unemployed party animal whose latest get-rich-quick scheme is to harvest the hallucinogenic slime off an imported toad, called “the drug toad” throughout. Bailey’s slightly older half-brother Hunter (Jason Edward Buda), who was born when Bug himself was only 14, also lives there, although he spends a lot of time with his “gang” (really just a bunch of kids) and his girlfriend, Moon.

As the film opens, Bailey learns that Bug plans on marrying Kayleigh (Frankie Box), his latest squeeze whom he’s only been dating for three months. The wedding is set for this coming Saturday, and when Bailey refuses to wear or even try on the sequined, pink, leopard-skin patterned catsuit Kayleigh has picked out for her and her own daughter to wear as bridesmaids, there’s a noisy row between Bailey and Bug that gets a little physical.

Later on, we meet Bailey’s mother Peyton (Jasmine Jobson), who lives in another house across town that seems perpetually full of high 20somethings in the living room. Upstairs in Peyton’s bed, there’s a monstrous new boyfriend named Skate (James Nelson Joyce). Peyton’s kids, Bailey’s three younger siblings (it’s not clear who their dad is), fend for themselves as best they can. Subtly dropped hints in the dialogue suggest Bailey went to live with Bug at a young age, and feels unwanted by her mother. Guilt, anger, recrimination and hurtful words drift all around this family, like poplar tree fluff in June.

It’s a crowded extended community where everyone kind of knows each other and Hunter and his buddies dish out vigilante violence to people rumored to have hurt kids or their friends. But one day, a stranger arrives among them: Bird (Rogowski). Dressed in a swingy skirt and a complexly cabled thrift-shop sweater, the German-accented Bird has a fey, otherworldly quality about him. Like the seagulls and ravens that Bailey is drawn to and often films on her cellphone (clearly she’s a budding filmmaker), Bird is enigmatic, itinerant, restless and fundamentally other. After doing a charming, flappy dance around a field for Bailey’s camera, he flounces off to town to look for his parents in a tower block. Gradually, he and Bailey become friends — or as much as two wild creatures of different species can be friends.

Arnold starts dropping little hints early on that some supernatural or fantastical force is at work here, and it would spoil the movie to reveal too much. It all gets quite plot-heavy for an Arnold film. For example, nothing much at all happens in American Honey for massive stretches, which was charming and tedious in equal measures. This one has last-minute dashes to stop people leaving on trains, a melodramatic backstory reveal, and even visual-effects-generated surprises involving visits from yet more members of the animal kingdom. (Spoiler: It’s an adorable fox!) Indeed, throughout, there are shots of bees, butterflies, crows and all manner of urban beasties, underscoring the fecundity of the Kentish landscape: a compellingly primal mix of wild estuarine marshes with factories, beaches fringed with lurid amusement arcades and unattractive attractions, a sense of faded, sticky and sand-flecked splendor gone to seed.

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And yet, despite the palpable darkness in the corners of the story and the pervasive sense of melancholy, the film ends on a gloriously optimistic, cotton-candy-scented note of joy. Nearly the whole ensemble enjoys a line dance to “Cotton Eye Joe,” a needle drop almost as good as the opening electric-scooter ride sequence set to Fontaines DC’s punky, atonal song “Too Real.” As per usual, Arnold picks a killer soundtrack, and she loves to get her cast dancing.

Keoghan, of course, obliges, offering a little throwback to his end-reel naked romp in Saltburn. (A character can be heard at one point dissing that viral moment’s backing track, “Murder on the Dance Floor,” only for another character to confess he loves that song.) Rogowski, who threw a mean shape or two in such films as Disco Boy and Passages, also contributes a very physical performance, cavorting around Gravesend like a shy woodland faun or fowl. It’s enough to send an audience out feeling giddy and a smidge weepy in the best sort of way.

Movie Reviews

'Thalavan': A well-crafted investigative thriller with strong performances from Biju Menon, Asif Ali | Movie Review

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'Thalavan': A well-crafted investigative thriller with strong performances from Biju Menon, Asif Ali | Movie Review

‘Thalavan’, directed by Jis Joy and starring Biju Menon and Asif Ali, has hit theatres today, delivering an entertaining investigative thriller. Recently, Malayalam cinema has seen an influx of police-themed movies, raising the question of what ‘Thalavan’ has to offer. Biju Menon’s last release, ‘Thundu’, another police movie, received a lukewarm response at the box office, so audiences were curious about ‘Thalavan’. This film is well-crafted and contains enough substance to be considered a solid investigative story.

The story revolves around two police officers, Jayashankar (Biju Menon) and Karthik (Asif Ali), and how one becomes a suspect in a murder case. While the movie may not be excessively gripping, it certainly manages to capture your attention. From the outset, the film dives into the investigative phase, immediately hooking you to the story. There is also an ongoing ego clash between the two officers, though this subplot doesn’t significantly impact the main story.

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Atlas: Jennifer Lopez learns to trust AI in Netflix sci-fi thriller

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Atlas: Jennifer Lopez learns to trust AI in Netflix sci-fi thriller

2/5 stars

Mere months after Hollywood’s actors and writers reached an agreement with studios to protect their likenesses and creative output, it appears Netflix is already doubling down on its advocacy of artificial intelligence.

The streaming platform’s new science fiction thriller, Atlas, starring Jennifer Lopez and Simu Liu, might as well bear the tagline, “How I learned to stop worrying and love AI”.

It is set in a near future when Earth is at the mercy of the world’s first “AI terrorist”. Lopez’s jaded heroine must overcome her distrust of technology and put her life in the hands of a sentient machine to save the planet from Armageddon.

Humanity’s relationship with technology has been a fertile topic for sci-fi writers since the dawn of the genre, with the fear of artificial intelligence eclipsing our own at the heart of some of its best works, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix.

Atlas adopts a decidedly more positive stance, suggesting that humanity’s continued survival relies on achieving synergy between man and machine.

Directed by Brad Peyton, responsible for the forgettable Dwayne Johnson vehicles San Andreas and Rampage, Atlas takes its narrative cues most obviously from James Cameron’s 1986 classic Aliens.

As in that film, a female protagonist with prior experience of a non-human threat accompanies a squad of heavily armed marines on an off-world combat mission.

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Simu Liu as Harlan in a still from Atlas. Photo: Netflix

Rather than extraterrestrial xenomorphs, the antagonist is rogue android Harlan (Liu), who has vowed to stop humanity destroying the Earth by any means at his disposable. When the rest of the squad is wiped out upon arrival, it falls to Lopez’s data analyst Atlas Shepherd to take up arms herself.

Her survival relies upon forming a successful neural link with an AI-powered mech suit named Smith (voiced by Gregory James Cohan), something she is initially loath to do because of her innate distrust of technology – the result of a tragedy from her past.

Lopez has built a career playing mature, feisty women navigating a male-dominated world, and is absolutely in her element here.

Despite appearances from Sterling K. Brown and Mark Strong in supporting roles, it is Shepherd’s frosty banter with Smith that provides the film’s strongest relationship in an otherwise effects-heavy, overlong action thriller offering few surprises.

A still from Atlas. Photo: Netflix

One could argue that the film is allegorical, addressing society’s attitudes towards any number of marginalised demographics.

At a time when AI is becoming frighteningly ubiquitous in daily life, however, Atlas perhaps should be taken at face value, while its overwhelmingly positive stance is cause for genuine concern.

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Atlas is streaming on Netflix.

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‘The Village Next to Paradise’ Review: Somali Family Drama Doubles as a Potent Portrait of Life in the Shadow of War

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‘The Village Next to Paradise’ Review: Somali Family Drama Doubles as a Potent Portrait of Life in the Shadow of War

Mo Harawe’s debut feature The Village Next to Paradise is a haunting offering. The film, which premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section and is the first Somali film to ever screen on the Croisette, presents a compelling narrative of one family’s survival in a sleepy Somali town. But it’s the devastating backdrop against which their drama plays out that lingers long after the credits roll. 

The siren wails of drones soundtrack each scene of Harawe’s film, which opens with footage of a real-life report of a United States drone strike on Somalia. Since the U.S. began using drones in the East African country in the early 2000s, Somalis have suffered at the hands of an enveloping and ravenous counterterrorism operation. According to data from the New America foundation, there have been more than 300 documented uses of drones resulting in hundreds of known civilian deaths.

The Village Next to Paradise

The Bottom Line

Uneven but affecting.

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Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Ahmed Ali Farah, Ahmed Mohamud Saleban, Anab Ahmed Ibrahim
Director-screenwriter: Mo Harawe

2 hours 13 minutes

The fatal impact of contemporary warfare organizes life in Paradise village, a locale whose name seems more melancholic with time. Marmargade (Ahmed Ali Farah), a principal character in Harawe’s languorous film, makes money doing odd jobs, but one of his most lucrative gigs involves burying the dead. Some of the people for whom he finds a place in the sandy terrain died of natural causes, but many of them are victims of foreign airstrikes. When this business slows, Marmargade reluctantly smuggles a truck full of goods — the contents of which play a pivotal role later — to a nearby city. 

Because Marmargade knows the realities of living in a place shrouded by the shadow of death, he strives for a better life for his son Cigaal (Ahmed Mohamud Saleban), a buoyant kid who thinks nothing of the constant buzzing coming from the sky. When the local school cancels classes for the year because of chronic absenteeism among the teachers, Marmargade works to send Cigaal to a school in the city, where safety is more than an illusion. But Cigaal doesn’t want to leave his family, friends or his life in the village. When Marmargade proposes this new life to him, the child rejects the idea. 

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The main narrative of The Village Next to Paradise revolves around the conflicting desires within this makeshift family. Marmargade lives with his sister Araweelo (Anab Ahmed Ibrahim), a recently divorced woman who wants to build her own tailoring shop. The two have the kind of fractious relationship resulting from years of mistrust. She thinks her brother should be honest with Cigaal instead of trying to trick the young one into going to school. Marmargade wants his sister’s financial support more than her advice. After she refuses to lend him the money for tuition, Marmargade makes a series of decisions that threatens all their livelihoods. 

Harawe’s film contains many admirable elements. With its unhurried pacing and tender focus on a single family, The Village Next to Paradise recalls Gabriel Martins’ 2022 feature Mars One. And the way Harawe structures the film around a broader geopolitical conflict resembles the role the Chadian civil war played in Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s  2010 film A Screaming Man, which also premiered at Cannes. The cinematography (by Mostafa El Kashef) offers truly striking images that conjure up the ghostly atmosphere of this village without turning its people into caricatures for a Western gaze hungry for a particular kind of poverty porn. 

But The Village Next to Paradise is also hobbled in places by its meandering narrative and occasionally wooden performances from Harawe’s cast of local nonprofessional actors. The sharpness of Harawe’s vision is dulled by a story that takes one too many detours before settling into itself. Characters with dubious relevance are introduced and then dropped, while ones who come to play crucial roles don’t get an appropriate amount of screen time.

The film becomes more dynamic in its latter half, when Marmargade’s desperation leads him to questionable decisions that clash with Araweelo’s desires. Indeed, it’s also during these parts of the film that Harawe pulls the strongest performances from his actors, who otherwise struggle to shake off an understandable stiffness. 

Despite these flaws, Harawe’s film does have a real staying power. The Village Next to Paradise orients itself around a quiet optimism and surprising humor that mirror real life. There are moments throughout that serve as a reminder that even in places where death feels close, hope for tomorrow is still alive.

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