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This Week's Film Reviews ( Jan 21, 2022)

08 Jan 2022

A HERO (Iran 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

A minor hit at Cannes this year (the film won the Cannes Grand Prix) but not as good as his previous films, Iranian director (who so far has two of his films winning the Oscar for Best International Film) returns with another suspense unfolding drama worthy of the best  of Hitchcock.  Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is a calligrapher who was imprisoned when he could not repay a mounting debt.  While Rahim is on a two-day release from his medium-security penitentiary, his girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoust) presents him with a golden opportunity that will secure his release.  Once he becomes a so-called free man, Rahim is flanked by his family — including a vulnerable son from a previous marriage. Whatever the theme of his films, Farhadi plays on the anticipation of his audience, a style that is now characteristic of this talented filmmaker.  A HERO unfolds occasionally like VERTIGO where the truth is finally exposed at the end and where nothing is what it seems.  Farhadi depicts his hero as a human being complete with human failing like a bad temper and desperation.

 

LAST OF THE RIGHT WHALES (Canada 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Nadine Pequeneza

 

THE LAST OF THE RIGHT WHALES is as environmentalist and conservationist as such films go and succeeds in making its point.  The doc contains many authentic and rare segments that miraculously are captured on film to make it insightful, relevant and compelling.

Before watching this doc, audiences should be aware what right whales are.  Right whales are different from normal whales.

There are north and south right whales.  The doc looks at the northern ones.  North Atlantic right whales are dying faster than they can reproduce.  With just over 330 remaining, these great whales rarely die of natural causes. Instead they are run over by ships or suffer lethal injuries from fishing gear. If humans do not stop killing them, in 20 years they could be extinct.

Right whales were a preferred target for whalers because of their docile nature, their slow surface-skimming feeding behaviours, their tendency to stay close to the coast, and their high blubber content (which makes them float when they are killed, and which produced high yields of whale oil).  Today, the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world, and both species are protected in the United States by the Endangered Species Act.  The North Atlantic right whale has a single surviving breeding population in the western North Atlantic, and is classed as critically endangered, with a total population best estimate of 411 individuals remaining alive as of 2017.  The film mentions the fact repeatedly.  The North Pacific right whale population is classed overall as endangered and has two surviving populations, eastern and western, with the western Pacific population much larger at an estimated 1147 individuals in 2016. The eastern North Pacific population has fewer than 50 individuals remaining, and this population is considered critically endangered.  The doc is dedicated to all the right whales that died recently.

The doc follows a group of people that is a wildlife photographer, a marine biologist, a whale rescuer, and a crab fisherman who are united in their cause to save the North Atlantic right whale.  The three are inspirational in the way they have put so much for the right whale.

One of the film’s most difficult to watch segments involves the pain and suffering of one right whale going through trying  to untangle itself from the ropes left over from fishing lines.   The rope is caught through its mouth and runs through its body and tangles its tail.  The whale is filmed splashing up and down trying to untangle itself.  The marine workers do their best to try to aid the whale but it is also a dangerous task.  It is mentioned that they manage to untangle most of the rope but not all of it and the whale has to live with the discomfort and injury.  Besides the danger of rope, the other main danger is collision of the whales with huge sea vessels.  There are shots of injuries sustained by such collisions.

LAST OF THE RIGHT WHALES opens in Canadian theatres on January 23, 2022

Trailer: 

MARIONETTE (Netherlands/Luxembourg/UK 2019) 

Directed by Elbert van Strein

 (Review embargoed till Jan 17th)

MARIONETTE begins as a mystery with an unknown man setting fire to himself at the top of a building.  He is later known to be the man with the messy hand. The person is revisited later on in the film, the scene piquing the audience’s curiosity.

The new European mystery thriller MARIONETTE tells the story of Marianne Winter, a doctor child psychologist who arrives from upper New York to take up her new post in Scotland.   Why would anyone want to leave the beautiful Upper state New York to work in damp and miserable old Scotland?  Because I like the rain, answers Dr. Winter when she is asked by a fellow doctor who shows her around upon her arrival.

Arriving at a new place of work or new country is stressful in itself but Marianne Winter seeks to find a new universe after an old one has closed in on her.  A freak accident has left her husbandless and a widow and she wants to fort and lead a new life.  The audience sees her with two child patients under her care, a girl and then a boy.  Both are quizzed and keep to themselves.  But the boy, Manny is the more troubling one.  When finally deciding to break the silence , he tells her that it is because of him that she is then in Scotland.  This 10-year old claims that he can control her future, as the tote of the film MARIONETTE implies. This makes her think as she has been wondering the ‘what-if’ questions, if they had taken a different road or started their journey a bit later that the car accident would not have happened.  Marianne seeks Manny’s past medical records but is unable to secure any, as she is informed that the last doctor dealing with Manny was ‘mad’ and that she should treat the boy anew.

MARIONETTE is a well paced mystery with flashbacks and incidents revealed and explained without much confusion while always invoking the audience’s curiosity.  “Why are you always drawing accidents?”  Marianne asks the boy.  When she visits the boy at his home, he has a drawing that he refuses to show Marianne, who forceshimt show it, revealing a pig head shooting himself.  And there is the drawing with the bottom writing of Kieran drowning.  When Marianne goes to meet Keiran at the dock, he does not show up.

Director van Strien clearly has a fascination for Scotland.  The rainy and cold weather are beautifully shot.  The locals speak with their gorgeous Scots accent and the county is also beautiful.

Van Strein’s film is well paced, building accelerating into a climax when everything is explained.  Though all has appeared to have been figured it all out in the end, there is an ambiguity that exists that makes the film even more mysterious.

Definitely worth a look, MARIONETTE that was made in 2019 is finally available January 21 on VOD and Digital.

Trailer:  

ONE SHOT (UK 2021) **1/2

French Title: SOUS LE FEU ENNEMI (Under Enemy Fire)

Directed by James Nunn

 

An elite squad of Navy SEALs on a covert mission to transport a prisoner off of a CIA black site island prison are trapped when insurgents attack while trying to rescue the same prisoner.  Zoe Anderson (Ashley Green) is the woman who accompanies the SEALs with the paperwork and who appear to have the information that the prisoner is a terrorist who knows the location of a bomb that is about to go off in D.C.  The SEALs are led by Jake Harris (British actor Scott Adkins putting on an American accent).

Though every character speaks with an American accent and that the theme is American, ONE SHOT is a British production, shot entirely in an area north of London.  It is interesting to note than in American action films, the bad guys often than not, speak with English accents.  In this British production, the bad guys speak French or English with a French accent. ONE SHOT the movie is shot entirely at "Bentwaters Park" in Suffolk (UK).  Royal Air Force Bentwaters or more simply RAF Bentwaters, now known as Bentwaters Parks", is a former Royal Air Force station about 80 miles (130 km) northeast of London.

Performance-wise, the actors who can speak with a French accent, shout and make ugly faces seem to have gotten the part.  The most famous actor in the cast Ryan Phillippe seems to be having a field day with his dialogue.  At one point, he puts the flame of his lighter close to the eye of a terrorist and asks him:  Ever read the Bible?  It says ``an eye for an eye.” as he tries to extract information from him.  The segment too where the terrorists convince a fellow member that his suicide bombing stunt is all worth it is also quite funny - hilarious in he way the premise is taken so seriously.

The dialogue is occasionally bad, the writers assuming that the audience is ignorant.  In one scene, the female analyst, when told that she does not approve of the torture methods replies: “When tortured you get to hear whatever the tortured thinks you want to hear… bad intel.  You can get more information from a plate of hot food and a pack of cigarettes.”  The reply: “You sound less like an analyst than a field operative.”  This implies that the entire audience could be field operatives with that age old understanding everyone has , already about the effects of torture.  In one scene the SEALs have Mansour, accompanied by Zoe.  There is a shouting match argument.  A soldier: “Give Mansour up.  If not, they will kill us all.”  Zoe: “No, I have to bring him back alive.”  Mansour (lying): “I am innocent”  The same banter goes on, hilariously with no decision made as to what to do.   And here is more:  The bad guys have this lesson summarized in one line: “Listen and obey even if you have to die!”

ONE SHOT is the kind of cheesy action thriller that, like most cheesy films, is so watchable because of the fact.  It means that ONE SHOT is not necessarily a good movie, but an easy film to watch, especially when getting a good giggle from its flaws.

Trailer: 

SALT IN MY SOUL (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Will Battersby

 

If you want a good cry and feel good film at the same time SALT IN MY SOUL will do the trick.  

Mallory suffers from Cystic fibrosis.   (CF) is a genetic disorder that affects mostly the lungs, but also the pancreas, liver, kidneys, and intestine.  Long-term issues include difficulty breathing and coughing up mucus as a result of frequent lung infections.   

Based on the posthumously published bestselling memoir of the same name, this documentary takes one inside the mind of a young woman, Mallory (playing herself in the  film) who tries to live a full life while dying. Mallory Smith was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of three. In her twenty five-year battle with the deadly disease, she carved out a life that most of us don’t come close to. Using Mallory’s posthumously published 2500-page secret diaries, hundreds of hours of newly discovered footage, and audio recordings, the film offers Mallory as the narrator of her own extraordinary chronicle.

The emotional film follows Mallory’s life quite closely - made even more emotional with the red person playing herself.   There is archive footage showing her to be looking really fit and normal, tall and  athletic doing swims and athletics. Mallory also has the typical boyfriend, trying to lead the typical normal.

It is sad to see photos of Mallory in hospital when she contracted a severe infection causing her to be hospitalized for weeks, close to death.  With dedicated nurses on her side and a very diligent Thai doctor who tries everything, she miraculously survives, just before entering Stanford University.  The film centers on a medical trial that turns out so successful that she stayed out of the hospital for 16 months.

Mallory burns bright.  Her friend says on camera that she wishes Mallory would not burn so bright as brighter lights burn out faster.  Mallory was diligent, never wasted time and lived her life to the fullest.

The film offers some important lessons for audiences.  One is the importance of keeping a journal.  It is from Mallory’s journal that her life can be inspirational to many.  Another lesson is good heartedness.  Mallory was always smiling and had immense positivity in her dealings.  Yet every decision Mallory makes has a life or death implication.  But she does not want this to show in her dealing with others.  Mallory wants to give something back to life and to be able to make a difference in her life.

The film is also quite technical in terms of medical terminology.  But there is a lot to learn about c.f. like c.f. patients cannot be close to each other as they can infect each other.

It is also touching to see Mallory fall in love.  With a guy called Jack who she had met at a party.  A musical interlude is inserted at this point, pointing to optimism.  

SALT IN MY SOUL may not win the Best Documentary award but this is one film that is made with heart and perhaps the most inspirational documentary to be seen this year.

Trailer: 

ZEROS AND ONES (USA/UK/Germany/Italy 2021) *

Directed by Abel Ferrara

 

Abel Ferrara made his name as a director in the film industry with BAD LIEUTENANT.  He has not had a hit for a while.  The prologue of his latest film ZEROS AND ONES has actor Ethan Hawke offering praise for his director Ferrara and what an honour it is for him to be working with this director.  Hawke talks briefly about Ferarra’s vision and craft before revealing that he plays two roles in the film - of two brothers on opposite sides of the law; one given the task of preventing a terrorist attack and the other a terrorist in prison.

So, Ethan Hawke (TRAINING DAY, GATTACA and director Abel Ferrara join forces for this gritty, tense political-thriller set on one deadly night in Rome.  Called to the city to stop an imminent terrorist bombing, soldier J.J. (Hawke) desperately seeks news of his imprisoned rebel brother, Justin (also Hawke), who holds knowledge that could thwart the attack.  Navigating the capital's darkened streets, J.J. races to a series of ominous encounters, hoping to keep the Vatican from being blown to bits.

After Hawke’s introduction of the film, the first 20 minutes is a muddled mess with the camera following J.J around Rome in the darkness of night.  The lighting is poor as if anything can be deciphered and there are mumblings of dialogue that would surely test the patience of any viewer, less a fan of Ferrara.  It is at this 20 minute point, that one realizes this is not the typical terrorist action thriller, but a pondering atmospheric piece, making little sense that comes from the mind of a  disgruntled director.

There is much dialogue (script is written by Ferrara) that has Hawke ranting and raving about truth and justice and evil - not that it makes any sense.  Hawke looks and sounds like a deranged character, which is a good description of J.J. -  a deranged soldier.  He also scores coke from some lesbians making out.

There is one scene where J.J., Hawke’s character is forced (though he does not seem to need much coercing) to have sex with a beautiful lady in bed and shot on camera by the enemy.  As the scene progresses, the shot dissolves into saturated colours of red and yellow before a coloured test pattern can be seen filling up the screen.  What is this?  A masterpiece or piece of shit?  The answer is quite obvious.

There are a whole lot of sayings about God and the fate of man and the relationship - all from the pen of Ferrara that makes little sense.   Not to mention the abrupt and odd ending, which of course, makes no sense at all

Kudos to anyone who is able to sit through this one in one complete viewing without having to take a sanity break.  Awful, boring, incoherent and blurry, ZEROS AND ONE is a pure zero.  No wonder the film had to begin with Hawke’s introduction summarized as: “Please see this film.  I am in it.”

Trailer: 

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This Week's Film Reviews ( Jan 28, 2022)

08 Jan 2022

FILM REVIEWS:

 

BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER (UK 2021) 

Directed by Thomas Hamilton

 (Review embargoed till Jan 24)

 Trailer: 

 

 

PARALLEL MOTHERS (Spain 2021) ***1/2
Directed by Pedro Almodovar


Pedro Almodóvar’s new drama on motherhood and family PARALLEL MOTHERS  (Madres paralelas), centres on two two single mothers, whose lives intertwine after they meet at a Madrid hospital, delivering their baby daughters.  It is a story that takes unexpected twists and turns that would not be revealed in this review as the twists are an essential part of the film’s entertainment.

Janis (Penelope Cruz) is a talented and in-demand fashion photographer.  After a shoot with a forensic anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde),  Janis asks if he can help open a mass grave containing the body of her great-grandfather, among the 100,000 citizens who went “missing” during the Spanish Civil War and the brutal Francoist dictatorship.  The two begin an affair and – at almost 40 – Janis is delighted to find out she is pregnant.   The other mother is a much younger Ana (Milena Smit) who is more of an adolescent, traumatized by her situation. 

Ana brings up her baby daughter on her own without the support of her stage actress mother who abandons her in Madrid to tour with her theatre group.  Ana and Janis become good friends and a relationship develops between the two women.  But there is more at stake with their relationship.  Janis breaks it up with Arturo, as he is married with a wife who is suffering from cancer.  While all this is going on, the mass grave excavation is approved and the graves are dug up.

There is more politics in this film compared to other Almodovar films.  After Franco’s death, a new Spanish democracy saw writer/director Pedro Almodóvar begin to flourish with ’80s films like Pepi, Luci, Bom, Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  Gay Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar has a superb body of respected works.  While making a film every two years, Almodovar is still working at his prime without a sub-standard film in his dossier.  PARALLEL MOTHERS is Almodovar’s latest film, a film about motherhood, and one that proves the director is still in top form.

Almodovar makes his audience think throughout the movie.  In one scene, Janis wears a red blouse and goes to open the door, visited by her man, the father of the baby.  When the door opens, the scene shows her in a different outfit which prompts the audience to think what is actually going on.  It is soon revealed that the scene is identical but taking place a year earlier when the man visited her before the baby arrived  The scene is immediately shifted to the present wen she is again wearing the red blouse.

As in all of Almodovar films, there is plenty of colour - bright Spanish colours.  In the scene where Janis hangs out her clothing to dry, one can see the multiple colours of the cloth pegs that she uses.  She, of course, is dressed in bright red, bringing more colour to the scene.

One staring flaw of the film is the film’s lack of connection between the two stories - the mass graves excavation and the tale of two mothers.  The common thread of Janis’ male lover is not convincing enough.

Still, PARALLEL MOTHERS is Almodovar at his best with Cruz delivering a top notch performance with his other regular actresses like my favourite, Rossy de Palma, looking gorgeous as ever, playing Janis’ over-supportive best friend who comically will do anything for her though Janis keeps refusing her help.

TRAILER: 

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This Week's Film Reviews ( Jan 14, 20212)

27 Dec 2021

FILM REVIEWS:

 

BRAZEN (USA 2022) **
Directed by Monika Mitchell


BRAZEN is clearly a female movie that has gone so over-the-top that silly is no longer a word that can accurately be used to describe it.  It is entertaining in a way to watch how everything so serious in the film has gone brazenly haywire.  

Trying to hard to be smart, BRAZEN the film opens with the main character, Grace (Alyssa Milano), a murder mystery writer reading from her latest book called ‘Brazen Virtue’ (whatever that might mean, but which becomes clear while watching the film) which is actually the title of the book written in real life by Nora Roberts from which the script and film is based on.  

Grace gets a distress call from her sister, Kathleen and she visits her (Emilie Ullerup) only to find her not the sister that she thought her to be.  Kathleen wants to win custody of her son, Kevin from her separated husband (David Lewis), who is a rich asshole lawyer.  This lawyer has done bad things in the past which Kathleen intends to use in court to win custody of her son.  But apparently Kathleen is no saint either, a drug user who has just come clean.  If all this sounds pulp fiction cheesy, the script gets cheesier especially with Kathleen and others performing as various dominatrixes on  sex fantasy website.  

When her sister is killed and her double life as a webcam performer is revealed, Grace ignores the warnings of a cool-headed detective and gets involved in the case.

The number of coincidences in the story throws logic right out the window.  The detective is a good looking Ed (Sam Page) who just happens to Iive next door to her sister.  They go on a  first date.  Romance develops.  As predictable as these stories go, Grace is so good a murder mystery writer, she is supposed to bring great insight and perspective (besides being female) to the murder case.  Ed’s boss, who also happens to be female, hires her as a consultant.  As it goes, but no surprise here, Grace has all the correct answers to solve the case.  More coincidences - asshole husband lawyer happens to also watch camcorder porn on the same site, which is called Fantasy Inc or some cheesy name like that.

The story includes a few well written supporting characters including Ed’s funny detective partner, Ben (Malachi Weir).  The camera loves to zoom in on his face whenever he gives an un-approving look, whenever Ed sleeps with Grace while on the case.

The story at least provides a large number of suspects, so that it becomes more difficult to guess who the killer is.

Yes, and to add to the top of the silliness, the heroine is saved at the end of the film by the last minute predictable appearance of the male charter that saves the female here - something that goes totally against the entire grain of the film’s strong female theme.  (Grace dons a dominatrix costume totally with latex and whip and faces the killer file on a webcam).

BRAZEN is not without entertainment value, though not in a good way.

 Trailer: 

 

THE CONTRAST (USA 2020) **

Directed by Sean Dude and Presley Parras

 

THE CONTRAST, the film originates from the play of the same name, The Contrast, written in 1787 by Royall Tyler.  The Contrast is an American play in the tradition of the English Restoration comedies of the seventeenth century; it takes its cue from Sheridan's The School for Scandal, a British comedy of manners that had revived that tradition a decade before. Royall uses the form to satirize Americans who follow British fashions and indulge in 'British vices'.  Thus, the play is often concerned with portraying the contrast between European and American culture, and hence its name.

The Contrast is reputed to be the first comedy written by an American citizen that was professionally produced.   Modernized, there are no horse and carriages but motor vehicles, though no characters are seen with any cell phones.  All the initial characters are kept intact.

At a quaint Bed & Breakfast, Maria (Joy Villa) is about to marry her longtime beau – the smooth talking, hipster Dimple (Lee Donaghue) , when her Maid-of-Honor’s brother, Colonel Henry Manly (Jermaine Hollman), stops by to help set up.  Fate introduces them, and they connect instantly, like old friends long separated.   After a touching rehearsal dinner at which Dimple shows glimmers of his formerly caring self, Maria confesses her doubts to her father, (Lane E. Nichols) who manages to put her mind at ease.   As the wedding hour approaches, truths are revealed, chaos ensues, and Maria must decide between the obligation to her family and the quickening desires of her heart.

Though basically a romantic comedy, one can see the strength of its material that overcomes the pitfalls of the typical romantic comedy.  The characters are strong and well performed by the apt cast.

The bed and breakfast seen in the film’s opening scene is a stunning lodge, proudly owned by and run by Mr. Wignell (Chip Carrriere).  The car journey to the lodge is shown with all its countryside grandeur who makes America look confederate, historical and agricultural all at the same time.  It also takes the stage bound play into the open so that audiences will forget the stage origins of the material.  The arrival of a bridge and groom is met by a rude, lazy and carefree employee, Frank (Frank D’Alessandro) who is forced to work there by the owner’s wife.  He annoys the groom, Dimple, a cad and a dandy to no end.  These two characters provide the needed humour and lifts the material over the glum romance and setting.  Donaghue is a real blast playing the villainous clown, yet charming enough that one can see able to seduce and fool two women at the same time.

But the film’s downfall is its rooting in Harlequin type romance and a love at first sight mentality.  The audience is supposed to believe that Maria will give up everything, even on her wedding day to believe Henry that he has fallen in love with her, upon just meeting her.  This fact really stretches credibility.

 Trailer: 

 

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA: TRANSFORMANIA (USA 2022) ***
Directed by Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska

 

Sony Pictures appears to have the knack of making big bucks with their sequels, unlike Warner Brothers who have been reported to have lost $100 million for THE MATRIX: RESURRECTIONS.  Sony has reworked SPIDER-MAN to death including animated versions and HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA: TRANSFORMANIA, the 4th installment is reported to be the last of the franchise.  And with reason.  The script is clearly not only short of fresh ideas but desperate in doing anything to provide for laughs.  Even Adam Sandler has bowed out of voicing Dracula, the main character in the film, the honours now gone to Brian Hull.

Drac, as he is called, short for Dracula (Hull) and the Pack are back in this final installment, if one can remember the monster pack.  Drac is in trouble with his most terrifying task yet.  The series running joke, of a father (Drac) wanting the best including the best man (or monster) for his daughter is again used in the story.  Now, the daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is married to a human, Johnny (Andy Samberg) who Drac clearly and outwardly dislikes.  And with reason.  Johnny is a human and a bumbling and annoying one.  Though with good intentions of pleasing his father-in-law, his antics always end in disaster.  This is witnessed at the start of the film during the hotel’s 125th Anniversary when all Johnny's planned celebration acts turn haywire in catastrophe.  Drac is supposed to make a huge announcement of retiring and hence leaving the hotel to Mavis and yes, Johnny.  But Mavis, with her huge ears overhearing her father, tells Johnny who screws it up by confronting his father-in-law who now has second thoughts.  He lies of a Monster Real Estate rule that prevents the hotel from being passed down to a human.  So, Johnny in order to please Drac and Mavis uses Van Helsing’s (Jim Gaffigan) mysterious invention, the 'Monsterification Ray’.  The gadget goes haywire, Drac and his monster pals are all transformed into humans while Johnny (Andy Samberg) becomes a monster!

In their new mismatched bodies, Drac, stripped of his powers, and an exuberant Johnny, loving life as a monster, must team up and race across the globe to find a cure before it’s too late, and before they drive each other crazy.  So, with help from Mavis (Selena Gomez) and the not-so-funny this time around human Drac Pack, the heat is on to find a way to switch themselves back before their transformations become permanent.

The film at least features solid voice characterizations of Kathryn Hahn (Ericka), Steve Buscemi (Wayne), Molly Shannon (Wanda), David Spade (Griffin the Invisible Man), Keegan-Michael Key (Murray), Fran Drescher (Eunice), Brad Abrell (Frank), and Asher Blinkoff (Dennis). 

The directors move their film at a fast pace so that one can hardly notice the many jokes that fall flat.  The animation is ok and many of these contain humour derived from the earlier HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA films.

The film has been sold by Sony to Amazon Prime due to Covid and premieres exclusively on Prime Video globally January 14, 2022.

Trailer: 

 

 

THE LAST THING MARY SAW (USA 2021) **

Directed by Eoardo Vitaletti

 


THE LAST THING MARY SAW, a very appropriate title for a horror movie, begins in Southold, New York, 1843. Young Mary (Stefanie Scott from INSIDIOUS 3), blood (shown as a thick black fluid) trickling from behind the blindfold tied around her eyes, is interrogated by the police about the events surrounding her grandmother’s (Judith Roberts) death.  What unfolds are the events leading to and then continuing from the interrogation.   

It is revealed that Mary, raised in a repressively religious household, has obtained happiness in the arms of Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman, Orphan), the home’s maid.  A lesbian relationship in the 1800’s spells trouble and lots of it.  Her family, who believe they are seeing, speaking, and acting on God’s behalf, view the girls’ relationship as religiously wrong and an abomination, to be dealt with as severely as possible.  Eleanor and Mary still carry on their sexual acts in secret, but someone seen as always watching, or listening - the fact not made really clear in the film.  In fact, there are lots of things that are vague in the film.  It seems that director Vitaletti loves to confuse his audience resulting in a muddled and frustrating and too slow burn of a movie.  The wages of perceived sin threaten to become death.  The tension is heightened by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger (Rory Culkin, brother of HOME ALONE Macaulay) and the revelation of greater forces at work.

Besides the film’s confusion, it hardly makes sense that the incidents unfold in non-linear time.  THE LAST THING MARY SAW appears to be the killing of the family matriarch but it is unclear whether the matriarch is also responsible for the many deaths.  There are some laughable segments two of which stand out, but which are treated by the director with all dead seriousness.  There is the punishment the family loves to indict, especially on the maid.  They should just fire her but do not do so.  Instead, they make her kneel on uncooked rice.  It does not appear to be too painful but I have not attempted to disprove the fact.  Then there is the poor male help who is also tortured by the family.  Warning to others that this is not a nice family to be employed with.  Apparently this male is not given sufficient food to eat, and has resorted to doing anything, and thus bribed with bread by Mary to allow them to do their nasties in secret.  A secret intruder also enters the story causing disruption to the family, a sort of reverse HOME ALONE.

The only thing going is the great period and chilling atmosphere of dread that is prevalent in the film, the film often having the feel of Richard Eggers 2015 THE WITCH.  But more effort should be put into developing a more coherent storyline.  And what is wrong with telling stories in a film in a straight forward and chronological order?

THE LAST THING MARY SAW premiered August 2021 at the Fantasia International Film Festival and was bought by Shudder,  and streaming on the 20th of January 2022.

 

PRESIDENT (USA/Zimbabwe/Norway/Denmark 2021) 

Directed by Camilla Neilsson

 

Review embargoed Jan 7th

Trailer: 

THE RUNNER (USA 2022) **
Directed Boy Harsher

 

 

This is a shorter review for a shorter film that lasts only 38 minutes and premieres on Shudder, the horror streaming service.  Though early in 2022, THE RUNNER is as weird as it gets. likely the weirdest film of 2022 so far despite the fact that January is still not yet over.  Weird does not necessarily mean that the film is good and it does to mean that it is bad either.  For this reason, the film has been awarded three stars, so one can make up one’s own mind.

THE RUNNER follows a strange woman as she travels to a secluded, rural town where her violent compulsions are slowly revealed.  The story intertwines with band Boy Harsher (credited here for the filmmaking) performing on a public access channel.  Boy Harsher is not male but a female.  The music scores the strange woman's descent deeper into the unknown. 

The film opens with this strange woman running in the woods covered with blood.  She tries to stop a car to escape from what she is running from.  But is she the victim?  Maybe she is not.  The film reveals the story as the film progresses.  

But the film is quite confusing making it quite frustrating for the audience.  The woman stops a car but she is shown driving the car later.  What happened to the driver who picked the woman up?  When I was little, my father used to take me to lots of movies that made an impact on me.  When a film like this happens, he would dismiss it with the words: “No head, no tail!”  This phrase can accurately be used to describe THE RUNNER.

Yet THE RUNNER is quite captivating.  Despite the film being confusing a hell, Boy Harsher’s music is trippy and catchy and it meets the mood and atmosphere of his film.  But thank God the film is only 38 minutes in length. 

THE RUNNER premieres Sunday, January 16 on Shudder.

 

 

THE WHALER BOY (Poland/Belgium 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Philipp Yuryev

 

THE WHALER BOY tells the coming-of-age journey of 15-year-old Leshka (Vladimir Onokhov) who lives in an isolated village on the Bering Strait.  The Bering Strait is the strait between the Pacific and Arctic oceans, separating the Chukchi Peninsula of the Russian Far East from the Seward Peninsula of Alaska.  Like most men where he lives, he is a whale hunter.  He lives with his blind and old grandfather who focuses on his dying days.  When the internet arrives in the village, Leshka becomes infatuated with a webcam model from America - so far away and yet almost close enough to see across the waters of the Strait.  Maturing sexually in the male-dominated whaling community, Leshka's encounter with this mysterious woman awakens in him a desire to find love outside of the confines of his tiny world.  He becomes determined to meet her in real life, setting forth on a dangerous adventure in the second half of the movie after a fight with his best buddy and stealing a boat.

Upon consideration, Leshka can be seen as a kind of uneducated, uninformed loser who has nothing much to offer in life.  He is not schooled, and falls in love with an internet porn star called Hollysweet who  might not actually exist, as his friend tells him that she could be an image that thousands of others on the internet probably also jerk off to.

Two things make this coming-of-age film stand out.  One is the isolated and unfamiliar yet fascinating setting of the village on the Bering strait, authentically shot by directors of photography Mikhail Khursevich and Yakov Mironichev.  The second is the simplicity in which the effective story unfolds.

There is a segment with the whalers out harpooning whales - a sight that will ensure much disgust among environmentalists.  I admit it was a difficult scene to watch.

The humour is both simple and effective.  Leshka masturbates to the recurring sounds of his grandfather’s cleaning of the cooking pots with the steel wool.   He uses a translating talking pen in order to communicate with the webcam girl while on the internet as he speaks only Russian, only to have the pen break down and make repetitive phrases.  The film is shot in Russian and English.  The film’s best and most effective moments depicting the lifestyle of Leshka has him riding on a motorbike with his pal or wrestling him in the water, while swimming.  The happiness of such segments are interrupted with a slow villager’s death.  He was shot by border patrol by accident as he was crossing the Straight.  The act prompts Leshka to follow suit.

Lehska now attempts to foresee his dream come true by crossing to America and finding Detroit City where he believes the girl lives.  Director Yuryev shows that this comes with a price of hardship and perseverance.

THE WHALER BOY captured the Venice Days Director’s Award at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Star Director’s Award at El Gouna and Best New Film at the 2021 Beijing Film Festival.

  The film premiers in select theatres where permitted, and via Virtual Cinemas VOD and Digital on January 14th, 2022.

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This Week's Film Reviews ( Jan 1, 2022)

25 Dec 2021


UN TRIOMPHE (THE BIG HIT) (France 2020) ***

Directed by Emmanuel Courcol

As unlikely as the film’s series of events could have taken place in real life, it did, and the film clearly touts the fact at the start that the film is based untrue events (apres one historic vraie).

Etienne (Kad Merad), an often out of work but endearing actor, runs a theatre workshop in a prison, where he brings  together an unlikely troupe of prisoners to stage Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot (En Attendant Godot).  When he is allowed to take the colourful band of convicts on a tour outside of prison, Etienne finally has the chance to thrive.  Each date is a new success and a unique relationship grows between this ad hoc group of  actors and their director.  But soon comes the final performance in Paris. The question is whether their last night together will be the biggest hit of them all? 

At first glance, the story might seem intriguing with convicts doing Beckett.  But it could be a flop and a bore.  But director Courcol is able to observe the best and occasionally faults of human behaviour and human nature to craft his otherwise observational piece - of both the convicts and Etienne.

Etienne initially is carried away with the notion of convicts performing in a Paris theatre.  Etienne goes all out to get approval from the prison authorities and also to round up a group of 5 actors, out of 500 or so.  The five are extremely lucky, they are told, as they have been selected out of 500 and they get to leave prison and perform as if they were free.  But mostly, they get to experience the euphoria of performing on stage.  Many of the convicts arrange for their loved ones to come to watch them perform, including Etienne, who invites his estranged daughter to attend.  She does not show up, reciprocating her father’s actions as he was not always there for her.  When Etienne rebukes her for not showing up at the theatre, she retorts; “You never even asked once how I did in my exams.”  Actor Merhad (BIENVENUE  CHEZ LE CH’TIS and César Award Winner for DON’T WORRY, I’M FINE) display both the enthusiasm and frustration of working in a prison theatre.

Director Courcol humanizes the story.  He relies on how the emotions of the prisoners are similar to the theme of the play.  In EN ATTENDANT GODOT, the characters in the absurdist play are always waiting for Godot who never shows up.  The prisoners themselves share the same fate.  They are always waiting - waiting for meals, waiting to be put back to their cells, waiting for visiting time and waiting to finally get out of prison.  So they can relate, as Etienne observes.  It is also marvellous to see one of them, who has never read and has a bit of a speech impediment, recite the wondrous lines of Beckett.

The only trouble with the film is director Courcol trying too hard and it shows.  The last portion where Etienne takes to the stage to praise his actors is over the top, with the entire audience approving and giving him a standing ovation.  Too eager to please, Courcol’s timely observational piece on corrections ends up a minor feel-good movie.

The temptation of the convicts to make an escape is obviously there, as it is so easy with so few guards and with the play going on.  Not to provide any spoilers, the problem is not overlooked in the film.

The film is based on true events that took place in Sweden with the big performance taking place in Gothenburg

Trailer: 

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Top 10 Films of 2021

22 Dec 2021

TOP 10 FILMS OF 2021

 

The end of the year arrives with the best 10 lists for everything.  As for films, it is always the same each year.  For the first 11 months of the year - nada.  Almost nothing good is screened and come December, a host of excellent, inventive and entertaining films arrive.  The movie industry has been more than resilient after the Pandemic and this year sees a better crop of films than recent years.

 

My best 10 films are listed below (in order).

 

TOP 10:

 

WEST SIDE STORY (USA 2021)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 Robert Wise classic proves that the director has all the chops to enter the original.  All the Sondheim songs and Robbins choreography are intact and slightly modified but the fights are real and not dance fights thus giving he film a raw intensity and urgency lacked in the original.  Rachel Zegler as the new Maria and Rita Moreno are fantastic!

 

 

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (USA 2021
Directed by Joel Cohen

William Shakespeare’s MACBETH is given the Joel Coen treatment.  Shot in black and white with an elaborate stage with real items for props and geometric architectural shapes, this version has a German impressionist look complementing the stage fate of MacBet as foreseen by the three witches at the start of he film.  Magnificent performances by Joel’s wife Frances McDormand as any MacBeth and Denzel Washington as the guilty MacBeth add to the film’s pleasure.

 

BELFAST (UK 2021)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Director Kenneth Branagh returns to his roots in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the awful times of riots when the protestants in his street are burning up the houses and building of the Catholics.  Caught in the crossfire is a protestant family were the father wants to leave the city for a better ad safer place while the mum wants to stay.  “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin’ “ is the dog of the day, taken form HIGH NOON, written by Dimitri Tiomkin.  Branagh plays tribute to the oldies like CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, HIGH NOON, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERT VALANCE to add to the wonderful nostalgia.

 

 

TITANE (France 2021)
Directed by Julia Ducournau


TITANE, which means Titanium in English is a 2021 body horror film written and directed by Julia Ducournau.    Agathe Rousselle in her amazing feature film debut stars as Alexia, a woman who, after being injured in a car accident as a child, has a titanium (TITANE) plate fitted into her head.   The film follows Alexia’s crazy life to the final reel where she finally finds self redemption and peace amidst all the f***ed-up s*** that is going on around the world.

TITANE can best be described as crazy f***ed-up s***, but yes, in a good way.  It is not surprising that Ducournau became the second female director to win the Palme d'Or, the festival's top award.

 

ALICE (Australia/France/UK 2019) 

Directed by Josephine Mackerras

ALICE is a man-hating film and with reason.  ALICE is  an Australian-French-British co-production.  Australian writer/director Josephine Mackerras shoots her first feature in Paris, France and it is one wallop of a debut.  Alice, a happy and perfect wife and mother has her life turned upside down when she discovers her husband is living a secret life.   Alice is served with an eviction order and her husband disappears.  Visiting the bank manager (Christophe Favre), she learns that her husband has stolen all her money and defaulted on the apartment payments.  He is nowhere to be contacted and does not return Alice’s calls.  Alice finds out what happened.  Francois had spent all her money (that she inherited from her father) on his addiction - escorts. Director Mackerras teaches that domestic abuse can take different forms. (The film cost less than $1 million to make. )

 

THE PIT (Latvia 2020)
Directed by Dace Pace

THE PIT co-written by the director herself with Monta Gāgane and Pēteris Rozītis,  follows an apparently disturbed ten-year-old boy called Markuss (Damirs Onackis), who must adapt to starting a new life in the Latvian countryside with his strict grandmother (Dace Eversa).  After Emīlija (Luize Birkenberga), a neighbour's daughter, makes some contemptuous remarks about Markuss's father, he decides to trick her and, after a long chase, manages to make her fall into a pit.  The girl’s dog sniffs her out, thus saving her life but not before the whole village learns about the boy.  THE PIT is one of the best psychological horror coming-of-age films seen and not surprisingly is the country, Latvia’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards. 


 

 

 

POWER OF THE DOG (Australia 2021)
Directed by Jane Campion

Jane Campion (THE PIANO, HOLY SMOKE) returns in the director’s chair after a long absence with another masterwork, a period Aussie western with magnificent cinematography (the mountains having the image of a dog) and performances.  The film examines the prejudice of man and the peculiarities of individuals.  But it is mastery of director Campion’s storytelling that gives this mesmerizing film her distinct mark, making it worth a second look for points and images that one might have missed,

 

 

THE LAST DUEL (UK/USA 2021) 

Directed by Ridley Scott

Two enemy jousting played incredibly by Matt Damon and Adam Driver.  The events leading to this battle fo two previous friend is told be several of the film’s characters, each giving different details of the story.  rather than having the feel of repetition, director Ridley more than piques the audience’s curiosity as to what really happened.  The film ends with a brutal last duel in which the villain gets his due.  A brilliant period piece in every way.

 

 

HOUSE OF GUCCI (UK/USA 2021)
Direct day Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott again, this time with a totally different film setting.  The film traces the downfall and assassination of Gucci (played by Adam Driver) as devise by his rejected wife played by Lady Gaga.   This is the most outrageous of all of Scott’s films with all the actors especially Al Pacino and Jared Leto hamming up their ridiculous Italian accents.  Forget authenticity, just enjoy the fun!

 

Honourable mention:

 

THE SOUVENIR 2

RIDERS OF JUSTICE

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This Week's Film Reviews ( Jan 7, 2022)

22 Dec 2021

THE 355 (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Simon Kinberg


The 355 is the code name of a female secret agent that comes up near the end of the film entitled THE 355.   THE 355 is the upcoming American action spy film directed by Simon Kinberg (DARK PHOENIX), with a screenplay by Theresa Rebeck and Kinberg, from a story by Rebeck.   As the film stars Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Fan Bingbing, five of the world’s most beautiful actresses, it is a female wet dream in the same spirit of the James Bond films.

Actress Chastain proposed the idea of this female-led spy film in May 2018 and the finished film is finally here.  As expected, it is a cheesy piece of work so expect major cheesiness and no-brain entertainment, and a good time can be had.

It is a tough bet to determine who is the most beautiful of the five actresses but my favourite is Penelope Cruz.  The main agent is a wild card CIA agent, ‘Mace’ Brown played by Chastain.  The other four include:

Lupita Nyong'o as Khadijah, a former MI6 ally and cutting-edge computer specialist;

Diane Kruger as Marie Schmidt, a rival German BND agent;

Penélope Cruz as Graciela, a skilled Colombian DNI agent and psychologist, thinly non-agent and

Fan Bingbing as Lin Mi Sheng, a mysterious Chinese MSS agent tracking the team's every move.

The male characters however, are mere pawns in the female spy game or a villain.  The males include:

Sebastian Stan as Nick, a CIA agent and Mace's colleague;

Édgar Ramírez as Luis, a DNI agent;

Emilio Insolera as Hacker

Jason Wong as Stevens

The aim of the agents is to recover a top-secret weapon. 

The film is a stylish set of action pieces put together to form the story.  There is a stylish deliberate breaking of the 180 degree rule.

The 180-degree rule is a cinematography rule concerning the space between two actors within a frame. Imagine an invisible line, or axis, passes through the two actors. Under the 180-degree rule, the camera can move anywhere on its side, but it should not pass over the axis. Keeping the camera on one side of the 180-degree line makes sure the actors keep the same left/right relationship with one another. Scenes filmed this way look orderly and can be easily followed.  A camera breaks the 180-degree rule if it crosses the imaginary line. By breaking the 180-degree rule, the camera captures a shot called a reverse angle. Reverse angles are disorientating for viewers. While a reverse angle can add dramatic impact in some circumstances, it can often distract viewers and undermine the scene.

In THE 355, d.p. Tim Maurice-Jones breaks the rule in the one scene with two men talking with Penelope Cruz.   One figures the scene to showcase a little flair and also to serve as a metaphor that men can not fully be trusted.

As in all the high budget spy films, it is shot in various exotic locations around the world including London, Paris and Morocco.  The 355  should not disappoint spy fans.

Trailer: 

 

AMERICAN SIEGE (USA 2021) **

Directed by Edward Drake


AMERICAN SIEGE has Bruce Willis in a title role though his character, a major one  in the story, does not appear throughout the film but only when it matters.  Willis plays a small Georgian town sheriff, a sort-of loser who just takes orders from the town mayor and has lost his respect for himself.  “You are a waste of space…” says Charles Toutledge (Timothy V. Murphy) the mayor who has something to hide.

The film’s synopsis goes like this:  Washed-up Sheriff Ben Watts (Bruce Willis) guards the secrets of the wealthy residents of a small Georgia town.  When three outlaws take a prominent town doctor hostage in search of a missing woman, Sheriff Watts is called in to handle the situation before the FBI arrives.  In a race against time, mayor Charles Routledge (Timothy V. Murph) pressures Sheriff Watts to launch an assault on the hostage-takers and to eliminate all witnesses.  When the Sheriff realizes he may be a pawn in a larger scheme, he must carve a bloody warpath to expose the truth behind the town’s dark secrets.

Willis dons a 10-gallon cowboy hat which he takes off when in shame.

For an action film, the only action set pieces involve shooting with little hand-to-hand combat.  There is more story in the script that is written by Drake but the story contains too many characters, which is quite difficult to follow at the beginning.  There is also Charles’ son, the missing woman’s sister and brother, the wealthy doctor keeping a secret and the FBI guys.

AMERICAN SIEGE is a minor Bruce Willis action flick and minor entertainment at that.

Trailer: 

 

ARCTIC DRIFT (USA/Germany/UK 2021) ****

Directed by Ashley Morris

 

The Arctic has always fascinated the human race.  The film ARCTIC DRIFT opens with a chilling scene of blowing snow on a completely white icy landscape.  The scene is followed by other disastrous climatic disasters around the world with a voiceover informing the audience that no part of the world would be able to escape climate change.

Like a company with a mission and an ambitious scientist with a goal, the mission of the film is stated and what is to be accomplished anyhow is to be laid out bare to the audience as well.  It is clear that ARCTIC NORTH means business and that it intends to accomplish what appears to be an almost impossible mission.

ARCTIC DRIFT is a 90-minute documentary put together by Fremantle International to tell the story of Mosaic, the biggest Arctic climate research expedition.  (The film is assembled from the new espied of the long-running PBS series NOVA.)  The aim is to spend a year beginning on September 21st, 2019 to study and better understand the Arctic - before it is too late and hopefully to discover what needs to be done to save the planet.  The mega-expedition consists of hundreds of scientists (from 37 different countries) and sets the course to the Arctic on the icebreaker Polarstern, planning to spend an entire year in the Arctic to study what is causing these rapid changes.

Needless to say, there are stunning and unforgettable shots captured on film.  One is the hungry white polar bears that roam close to the set up camp, obviously looking for food.  The aerial shots of the several ice stations called Met City, Ocean City etc. , each set up for specific purposes are also something to behold.  But it is the extreme cold of -40C that can only be imagined.  I, myself, have experienced such temperatures while in Labrador City one winter.  It is quite the experience and one, one can never forget.  One segment has the polar bears arriving causing the workers to move away from danger.  At the same time, the bears are checking out the cables around the ice stations, causing anger for themselves.

The doc unfolds in days of the expedition, like Day 1, day 5, day 9 etc.  Then the beginning of Arctic winter begins.  It is 4 months of 24-hour darkness.

There is also the hidden world under the frozen ice.  There are shots of the flurry of activity that occur beneath.  Marvellous too is the documentation of how all the equipment and scientific instruments are set up during the expedition.  One such equipment can collect water at the bottom of the Arctic ocean floor two miles or so beneath.

It is clear that there is much, much more footage than what has been ‘summarized’ in this documentary.  One hopes that perhaps a series of this expedition be televised on Amazon Prime so that more can appreciate the handwork and dedication of the expedition.

ARCTIC DRIFT premiers today at Amazon Prime video and makes absolutely compulsive viewing.

AWARE: GLIMPSES OF CONSCIOUSNESS (Germany 2021) ***

Directed by Frauke Sandig and Eric Black

 

Consciousness, at its simplest, is sentience or awareness of internal and external existence.   As implied, awareness is something not easily quantified or defined and thus the film’s quest of providing answers to the question of ‘the meaning of life’ proves a formidable if not impossible one.  The doc, which has won awards during its festival run is at times confusing and aimless but effort also counts in the film’s favour.

Despite millennia of analyses, definitions, explanations and debates by philosophers and scientists, consciousness remains puzzling and controversial, being "at once the most familiar and [also the] most mysterious aspect of our lives”.   Perhaps the only widely agreed notion about the topic is the intuition that consciousness exists. Opinions differ about what exactly needs to be studied and explained as consciousness, and hence the film’s difficulty arises. Sometimes, it is synonymous with the mind, and at other times, an aspect of mind. In the past, it was one's "inner life", the world of introspection, of private thought, imagination and volition.  Today, it often includes any kind of cognition, experience, feeling or perception.  In one sequence the film even proposes awareness in plants as the study of a tree pea plant appears to learn or be conscious of its surroundings despite some untruths of its surroundings.

The film begins by attempting to answer the questions: What is consciousness? How is it we are aware we are aware? How can our feelings, subjective experience, emerge from 1.4 kg of gray matter (i.e. the brain)?  Why are we not just “brilliant robots”? What happens when we die? After centuries of silence there has been an explosion of “new science” into consciousness, cutting a window into a realm previously tightly held by philosophy, religion and ‘New Age’ dogma.

AWARE follows six researchers (which one assumes have credibility after being chosen by the film’s directors) approaching consciousness –all from radically different perspectives; through Eastern meditation, with high-tech brain research, by methodically exploring inner space through psychedelic substances and by investigating the consciousness of plants.  I really personally am not convinced by this plant segment.  The researcher here has confessed to doing magic mushrooms on the beach while making ‘discoveries’.  Scientists are coming to new insights, some of which have been integral to Indigenous knowledge for millenia.

Christof Koch, possibly the world’s most renowned neuroscientist, head of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, with a staff of 300 scientists, ‘observatories’ with banks of electron-microscopes the size of telescopes and a multi-billion-dollar budget, has startled his colleagues: He has come to openly question whether material science can find the origins of consciousness and has begun to ask if consciousness could be in all things, the fundamental essence of the universe?

             Then moving on, off to Nepal.  After dwelling in a monastery in Nepal for the last 40 years, Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, himself a former molecular biologist, maintains, you cannot approach consciousness from the outside. But from the inside, through meditation, one realizes, “There is something at the depth of consciousness that is ‘pure awareness. You cannot get deeper than that.”

AWARE is a slow burn of an informative documentary that requires some patience and an open mind to appreciate, though one might not agree that everything the subjects profess is true.

Trailer: 

 

BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES (Japan 2020) ****
Directed by Junta Yamaguchi

 

Directed by Junta Yamaguchi and performed by the members of the Kyoto-based Europe Kikaku theatre group, BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES is a time warp sci-fi film that is easily the best and most entertaining film of the Reel Asian Film Festival this year, where it premiered in Toronto. 

A cafe owner Kato closes up shop on an ordinary night only to be interrupted by a voice from the TV when he enters his apartment that is above his cafe that turns out to be his own voice, two minutes in the future.   Kato downstairs in the shop tells Kato upstairs that he is looking into 2 minutes in the future.  This comes about because of a two-minute delay between the monitor upstairs and the video system downstairs.  Kato runs down to find that this is true.  Downstairs, he calls to himself upstairs on the TV thus confirming what has happened to be true.  As Kato investigates the strange occurrence, the night and time itself start to unravel.  Kato’s friends and colleagues get enveloped into his time warp, and the results are hilarious, calamitous and existential.   

With the future being affected, a time paradox could occur that could be disastrous.  So the climax of the film sees the arrival of two bumbling time travel police from the time and space bureau who attempt to correct all the past incidents and make everyone involved forget what had occurred by drinking some potion.

To add to the sci-fi high jinx, there is a romance added and a robbery that will take place, all of which can either be foreseen or perhaps prevented.

The film from start to finish is done in just one act though there are a few black out scenes as the action takes place at night.  A few cuts in the entire hour and 10 minutes running time is still quite an accomplished feat.  But here, one can see the stage origins of the film.

The script is brilliantly written with tension mounting towards a riveting climax.  With long takes, simple locations, and finely tuned performances, this film clearly shows that minor masterpieces can be made on a shoestring budget but it needs a good story, script and thought.

DELICATE STATE (USA 2020) **

Directed by Paula Rhodes

 

The first 10 or so minutes of a film’s start can very often be used to determine how the rest of the film would turn out.  James Bond films, for example, begin with a super charged action sequence.  In DELICATE STATE, the film begins with total darkness - nada.  And the lens cover is shown with a voiceover saying that the cover of the lens was left on.  The Voiceover goes on to state that the image is blurry and the segment ends with a  shot of the couple’s cat.  The next scene is the bedroom where the woman discovers the camera before their love making and asks it to be shut off.  This is clearly a re-enactment and director Rhodes is not fooling anyone.  Many films can be described as smart and funny.  DELICATE STATE can be described as the complete opposite, as if filmed by a little kid just given a new toy video camera.

The publicity material mentions the famous storming of U.S. Capitol Hill on January 6th, 20121, just a year ago when democracy was threatened.  Things went back to normal.  The film’s publicity material poses the scenario:  But what if that were not the outcome? What if things went… the other way?  The material claims that it blurs the line between truth and fiction, building to a startling climax and a conclusion that holds a hope-tinged mirror of accountability up to us all.  It should be noted that the Capitol Hill siege occurred on jan 6th 2021, and this film is a 2020 production that competed before the incident.  There is no mention of any President by name in the film.

Shot over the course of their actual pregnancy with the leads doubling as a two-person crew, Paula (Paula Rhodes, RESIDENT EVIL) and Charlie (Charlie Bodin) document their impending parenthood during a time of extreme political division.  Their heads remain in the sand about the greater world around them until it ends their privileged life.

The film is ever so self indulgent.  Rhodes films herself in different outfits as the bathroom door opens and shuts like a curtain.  Charlies not only cracks silly jokes but laughs at his own jokes.  They talk to their cat, behave as if they do not want to be filmed.

Director Rhodes has lots of opinion on the nationwide protests, political conventions and uprising and lockdowns including childbirth which she conveys to her audience through a video journal her characters Paula and Charlie make for their yet to be born baby.

The film gets better in the second half when it starts to exert more maturity in Rhodes filming and when the nation faces a crisis- the one made up by Rhodes of the ‘what if’ the storming of Capitol Hill went the other way.  She should have included her views and included scams of the dreaded former President Trump, noticeably missing in the film, as he had lots to do with the situation.

The best thing about the movie are the famous quotations that appear at the film’s closing credits, the most notable one being from Mother Teresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

  DELICATE STATE is available on demand January 4, 2022. The feature recently premiered at Dances with Films where it received the Audience Choice Award.

Trailer: 

 

 

FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS (Canada 2020) ***
Directed by Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen.

Word of caution that the film title carries the word ‘vicious’.  Vicious is the very word to describe the horror fest FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS as the film contains more than a fair share of vicious violence, the most vicious of all the scenes involving taking a steel hammer and bashing down b each knee, then the shoulder and then the head of the victim.

The film opens with Romina (Lora Burke), an overworked nurse and single mother, who returns home from her late shift on Halloween night to find a maniac , Chris (Nick Smyth) hiding out with a bruised and beaten hostage (Colin Paradine).  When an unexpected wave of violent intruders descends upon her home, the trio realize the only way out of the situation is to work together and fight for their survival.   The premise gives the filmmakers lots of opportunity for vicious and violent fights, many of these intending for more than 5-10 minutes at a time.  The film editing is nothing short of superb in terms of continuity and graphic violence and those who love their entertainment with lots of blood will be delighted for sure.  To the directors credit the fight action set-pieces are very well executed, shown as in Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN how difficult it is to kill another human being with a gun.  Of course the fact is sort-of overdone in this film.

The story seems to love to offer explanations 20 minutes or so after an incident.  The connection between Chris, the hostage and Romina is not explained till the film’s 20 minute mark though it is not made clear why the two are in her house.  Again the connection between the house invaders and the three in the house is explained only 20 minutes after the home invasion occurs. 

The film is a Canadian production shot in the province of Ontario though the setting is not made clear.  It is clearly not a British film, though a few actors have a slight British accent and the main heavy has the typical British shorthair gangster look.  But the driver side is on the left and the Brits do not celebrate trick or treating.

Most of the action takes place within the confines of a house.  The kitchen is small and cramped and it is well choreographed fighting that takes place in the confined areas.  The filmmaker makes good use of a vacant house to create the sets for the film.

Set during halloween night, it is a clear noticeable observation that no trick or treating by kids occur during the extended home invasion and fights.  It is only after everything is over that the doorbell rings and a girl is out by the front door for a ‘trick or treat’.  This flaw could be corrected if the film is not set during Halloween as the season has little to do with the film’s story.

FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS is an original Shudder film and opens January the 6th.  Vicious pleasure!

 

Trailer: 

SEE FOR ME (Canada 2021) ***

Directed by Randall Okita

 

Blind victims have always been a favourite subject in suspense films.  Audrey Hepburn was pursued by Alan Arkin in Terence Young’s WAIT UNTIL DARK.   Mia Farrow was a similar helpless blind victim in SEE NO EVIL aka BLIND TERROR.   SEE FOR ME is an updated blind damsel in distress update with an app called SEE FOR me, also the title of the film.

SEE FOR ME stars Skyler Davenport as Sophie, a visually impaired teenager who is house sitting for a wealthy client when three criminals break into the house to rob it.  Quite different from  WAIT UNTIL DARK and Richard Fleischer’s SEE NO EVIL, Sophie is not that helpless.  She has learnt how to cope with her disability but not always in a good way.  She takes advantage of people feeling sorry for her.  Her mother fusses for her, but she wants her independence.  Ever since her ski accident, Sophie has been bitter with life.

The SEE FOR ME app works quite simply and is easy to understand for the audience.  Sophie’s only defense is a smartphone app called See for Me which connects her to Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a gamer who has to use the app to see Sophie's surroundings and guide her actions.

When the film opens the audience sees Sophie travelling to a remote mansion, a huge residence whose owner is paying her, very well, to house sit, or more accurately to look after the cat.  She uses the app to have her boyfriend look around the house, when she discovers a cellar full of vintage wine.  Googling the price of one bottle, she steals it, while lying to her boyfriend that she had put the bottle back.  When three house invaders arrive to rob the safe of cash - the reason there is much cash in the safe is satisfactorily explained, they discover the presence of Sophie.  Sophie had already dialed 9-1-1 and the police were already on their way.  Sophie makes a deal with the crooks to get a share of the loot if she plays the game and gets rid of the cops.  However, the investigating officer turns out to be too nosy and enters the house, only to be shot dead by one of the crooks.  And the plot thickens, not to give any more spoilers, but director Okita always keeps inserting more plot points to keep the film from going ‘blah’.

Also updated in this film is the female role.  The female is now more resourceful and not as helpless as in the older films.  But by making Sophie dishonest. the audience would be less sympathetic to her cause and not every audience would like to see her escape with part of the cash.

SEE FOR ME had its public premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.  It is an OK thriller, mildly entertaining but it does not provide more thrills and suspense than WAIT UNTIL DARK or SEE NO EVIL.  SEE FOR ME has a limited theatrical opening on January 7th and is available VOD/digital on the 11th.

 

 

JUNE AGAIN (Australia 2019) ***1/2
Directed by J.J. Winlove


There have been a few excellent films dealing with the difficult topic of Alzheimer’s and dementia.   One is the recent THE FATHER with Anthony Hopkins and the other, a little seem lesbian film DEUX (THE TWO OF US) in which a senior rescues her lover suffering from dementia from her nursing home.  In the smart and funny JUNE AGAIN, June (Noni Hazelhurst) has what her daughter calls a ‘break from dementia’.  A sort-of miracle occurs when June, suffering from dementia resulting from a stroke and living in a home, suddenly recovers and remembers everything.  The doctor says that this is temporary and it is best she stays in the facility.  June escapes in a cab and returns to her family.  As it turns out, everything has gone wrong since the 5 years June has been ‘away’ due to memory loss.  Her daughter is divorced, her son fails from architecture school and the family business has gone to bits.  It would have been better than June had not gained back her memory.  Be that as it may, June sums up all her strength to put all the pieces back together again.  The premise is a fresh look at dementia and a rather brilliant one at that - very smart and funny.

The actress Noni Hazelhurst, famous in Australia, but relatively unknown outside Australia delivers an absolutely stunning performance in the title role of June, making the film smart that it is.  Hazelhurst is able to invoke both hilarity and sadness in any moment.

One complaint is that the film gets manipulative at the end but one can forgive J.J. Winlove for the incredibly compelling and entertaining first half of the film.  Winlove (born in New Zealand) has made a few films, unseen in North America in the past and definitely one whose work should be noticed.

Directors have used different methods to have the audience feel the problems associated with dementia.  In THE FATHER, director Florian Zeller used different actors to play Anthony Hopkins' daughters to disorientate the audience as Hopkins forgets what his daughters look like.  In JUNE AGAIN, director Winlove uses jump edits.  One scene has June talking to someone and in the next moment the person is no longer there as the film is edited to cut out the time in between.  In yet another scene, June is looking at ornaments and in the next, the ornaments are put up on the wall.

Director Winlove’s film never misses on the details.  The family’s wallpaper business is shown with all the intimacies of its manufacturing process.  

The film scores high marks in political correctness.  The film has a strong female presence and a positive LGBT slant as well.

Noni Hazelhurst gets my vote for the Best Performance by an actress in a leading role for the year in my TFCA (Toronto Film Critics Association) ballot, but she might not win as this is likely to be a little seen film.

The film opens on VOD/digital on January 7, 2022.  This is the best feel-good comedy about serious dementia.

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WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED (UK 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Kier-La Janisse

Witchcraft is the only religion Britain has ever given to the world, says one interviewee in this hour documentary.

WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED is touted as the first feature-length documentary on the history of folk horror, exploring the phenomenon from its beginnings in a trilogy of films – Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) – through its proliferation on British television in the 1970s and its culturally specific manifestations in American, Asian, Australian and European horror, to the genre’s revival over the last decade.   It has a running time of slightly over 3 hours but it is an exhaustive and comprehensive documentary that has gone on to win accolades wherever it has been shown.  Horror fans should be delighted.

The film includes an original score by Jim Williams (A Field in England) and special animated sequences featuring collage art by filmmaker Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg).

The film begins with its first chapter entitled ‘The Unholy Trinity’,  the three standing for the films WITCHFINDER, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW and THE WICKER MAN.  Director Jmisse and editors provide quite a lot of clips from these films that at the time stood to counteract the typical period horror provided by the British Hammer films.  The directors are interviewed and provide insightful information.  BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW was based on  11-year old cold murdered Mary Bell who at the time stood for the epitome of evil, as well as a real witch hunter played by Vincent Price roamed the time of the civil war in Britain.  These three films are British giving this American production a real British look.

The second chapter is equally informative.  Three folklore horror films are brought to light, EYES OF THE DEVIL, THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER and PSYCHOMANIA.

The last hour showcases more international horror folklore films including the U.S and the continent.

While exploring the key cinematic signposts of folk horror – touching on over 200 films, television plays and episodes as well as early inspirational literature – the film also examines the rise of paganism in the late 1960s, the prominence of the witch-figure in connection with second wave feminism, the ecological movement of the 1970s, the genre’s emphasis on landscape and psychogeography, and American manifestations of folk horror from Mariners’ tales and early colonial history to Southern Gothic and backwoods horror. Finally, the film navigates through the muddy politics of folk nostalgia. The term ‘folk horror’ is a loaded one, and WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED explores the many ways that we alternately celebrate, conceal and manipulate our own histories in an attempt to find spiritual resonance in our surroundings.

Over 50 interviewees appear in the film, including Piers Haggard (director, Blood on Satan’s Claw), Lawrence Gordon Clark (director, A Ghost Story for Christmas series), Jeremy Dyson (co-founder, The League of Gentlemen), Alice Lowe (director, Prevenge), Robert Eggers (director, The Witch), Jonathan Rigby (author, American Gothic), Adam Scovell (author, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange), Andy Paciorek (founder, Folk Horror Revival), Howard David Ingham (author, We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror), Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Author, 1000 Women in Horror), Kat Ellinger (Editor, Diabolique Magazine), Maisha Wester (Author, African American Gothic) and many more, as well as archival interviews with Robin Hardy (director, The Wicker Man) and Anthony Shaffer (writer, The Wicker Man).

Despite its running time of 3 hours, the dozens and dozens of old horror clips, put together are enough to keep one's interest to to make a list of to- rent or buy unseen horror gems.

There are many ways to view this fascinating and insightful documentary.  The film hits Blu-ray on December 7, 2021, both as a stand-alone disc, and as part of the 15-disc box set ‘All the Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror’ from Severin Films.  It also streams on the horror streaming service, SHUDDER as a Shudder Exclusive, premiering Monday, January 10.


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This Week's (Christmas Movies) Film Reviews ( Dec 17, 2021)

05 Dec 2021
 Three sequel duds SPIDER-MAN:NO WAY HOME, THE KING'S MAN and THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS make their way through Christmas.  The solid Danish entry MARGRETE QUEEN OF THE NORTH will likley be little seen while Maggie Gyllenhaal's THE LOST DAUGHTER with Olivia Coleman stans out as the best entry.
 

FILM REVIEWS:

 

FLEE (Denmark/Sweden/Norway/France/USA/UK 2020) ****
Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen


FLEE begins the song played on the soundtrack ‘Take on Me’.  ‘Take on Me’, a popular song that everyone should have heard of, is a Norwegian song by the group a-ha. appropriate for this Scandinavian film, co-produced by Norway, Sweden and Denmark and set in Denmark.  FLEE is an ambitious animated feature executive produced by Pakistani/Brit star Riz Ahmed and GAMES OF THRONES  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, about a family in Kabul, Afghanistan fleeing for safety.

FLEE covers multiple issues, meticulously blended together.  There is the coming-of-age story of Amin as he grows up gay, coming out of the closet,  gay persecution in Afghanistan, refugee trafficking, settling in a foreign country and family loyalty.  There is much information and insight for the audience to pick up, making the film quite a compelling watch.  

The film begins with an (animated) interview between a filmmaker and the grown up Amin.  It is clear that Amin has not told his story before to anyone, not even the man he is living with.  Amin’s life story is more than an interesting one.  It is one that needs to be told, one that matters and one that needs to expel the demons residing in Amin’s soul.  The interview is taken in parts, as if the whole is too much for anyone to bear.  It begins with Amin as a boy and ends with the present.

The film traces Amin’s life from the time he was 4-years old, running around in his sister’s dress and then growing up fantasizing on Jean-Claude Van Damme, getting into an abusive gay relationship before settling down with another and coming to terms with his homosexuality and now life in Denmark after fleeing to Russia and Sweden.  It is a long and gruesome journey.  The audience gets to experience what Amin and his family went through in order to flee the country which includes a track in the dead of winter, walking miles in the cold ice and snow in the forest without warm enough clothes and being confined in a cargo container, any of them huddled together while the ship rocked in the sea, causing many to get sick in the crate.

Not many know about the prosecution of the people in Afghanistan before 9/11.  The Mujahideen had overthrown the monarchy and taken over the country.  Dissidents deemed a threat, that included 3000 people as well as Amin’s father were taken to prison and many killed.  Young men were forced to join the army.  Amin’s brother ran to escape.  The film includes archive non-animated footage of the Mujahideen in power igniting the people to fight.

FLEE premiered at Sundance in January this year and was screened at TIFF 2021 when I first saw the film.  It was supposed to premiere at Cannes last year.    Mixing archive footage, animation and interviews of Amin, the main character, animated style, FLEE, a heartbreaking film about a family’s survival breaks ground in storytelling making the film an ideal candidate for Best Animated Feature of the year.  FLEE opens December the 17th.

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A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN (USA 2021) **

Directed by Denzel Washington

 

This Christmas season sees several stars directing their own movies.  George Clooney, though he has directed many times before has THE TENDER BAR opening in January and Kenneth Branagh (he has directed several times as well) has his already acclaimed BELFAST out in theatres.  Actor Denzel Washington directs for the first time a tender and sweet true story of a boy and his deceased father.

A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN is the American drama film directed by Denzel Washington and starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams, written by Virgil Williams, and is based on the memoir A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor by Dana Canedy.

Based on a true story, the film centres not on Jordan or the son but on the senior New York Times editor, Dana Canedy.  This is not surprising since the script is based on her novel.  The story begins with her meeting Sergeant Charles Monroe King while at her father’s.  A romance develops as slow as director Washington’s film.   It is a reluctant romance.  She is told and believes that: “Men are a luxury, not a necessity.”.  When Dana first converses with him, she finds that he is very quiet.  “I only speak when I have something to say, “ is his reality.   The audience sees her son being bullied at school before she reads to him the journal that his father wrote to him.   It is a simple story that Washington decides to tell in a hell of a confusing non-linear chronological order for no apparent reason but to keep the audience guessing at what is going on.  It is revealed that while King is deployed in Iraq, he had kept a journal of love and advice for his infant son, Jordan (Jalon Christian) at the insistence of his wife, Dana (Chanté Adams). Sharing this journal with her son, his fiancée, Dana Canedy reflects on her unlikely yet powerful romantic relationship with King.  The film’s one best scene has the couple arguing fiercely over the telephone.  Dana wants his present, as King had promised, to be by her side during childbirth, but he cannot as he is deployed in war, and he has already seen many of his men killed.  The power of the scene lies in the fact that both Dana and King are correct and there is no avenue of change to the situation.

There is nothing exceptional in A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN - a rather ‘blah’ melodrama safe for the fact that it is directed by Denzel Washington.

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THE KING’S MAN (USA/UK 2021) **
Directed by Vince Vaughn

 

The period action spy film THE KING'S MAN directed by Matthew Vaughn from a screenplay by Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek and a story by Vaughn is definitely out of steam and a tiresome attempt at revitalizing the spirit and fun of the first two KINGSMEN films, which are based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.   The film serves as a prequel to 2014's Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2017's Kingsman: The Golden Circle.  The best of the lot is the 2017 sequel.  Nothing can beat a film which featured a really hilarious Elton John trying to fight his way through the villains along with the Kingsmen.  Elton made that movie and it is almost possible to top that!

It is not that this latest sequel runs short of stars.  The film features an ensemble cast that includes Ralph Fiennes (who also serves as one of the film's executive producers), Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, and Charles Dance.  Dance has a cameo at the start as Kitchener while most of the others have extended roles.  One can hardly understand the reasoning behind employing famous actors when they can be hardly recognizable onscreen.  The good-looking Matthew Goode is hardly recognizable under his beard and Rhys Ifans hams it up too much as Rasputin again under facial hair, the mad, fighting monk.

The plot is a loose collection of stories concerning history's worst tyrants and criminal masterminds as they gather to plot a war to wipe out millions.  One man, Orlando Oxford (Fiennes) and his son, Archie Reid (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) must race against time to stop them.

The part where Archie single handedly retraces a beret document amidst battle are from all sides is a ridiculous take of the WWI movie, 1917.

Because this prequel is a period piece, it is no wonder that this film has a different feel compared to the first two KINGSMEN films.  In fact, one wonders what it has to do with the first two films anyway, until the revelation is made known right at the very end of the film.  Much of the humour is gone, though the choreographed fight sequences are intact.

The film is nothing more that a collection of action sequences that do not blend at all well as a whole in a story that hardly makes sense.  The fact is made worse when the central character of the sequence is often left for dead.  For example, after an intended sequence when Archie retrieves the secret document and saves a fellow soldier in the process, he is unexpectedly and suddenly killed off.  The same goes for a number of other characters - no more spoilers to be revealed.  But credit must be given to the entertaining mountain goat segment.

There is a short surprise with a new villain introduced at the end of the film after a quarter of the closing credits, though it does not take a genius (I guessed correctly, anyway to guess the man’s identity.

After Elton’s John’s sequel to THE KINGSMEN, one would have expected more from this entry especially after the disappointing James Bond feature NO TIME TO DIE.  But no such luck.

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LICORICE PIZZA (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

 

This year sees two directors showcasing their eccentric films that have their stamp from start to finish. Whether these films make the 10 list of 2021 best films of the year is immaterial.  THE FRENCH DISPATCH is Anderson’s film where he does best just as LICORICE PIZZA is Paul Thomas Anderson doing what he does best.  Those who know these directors will enjoy these films more than others.

The temperament of LICORICE PIZZA can best be summed up by one line uttered by Sean Penn to the girl.  Out of the blue he says: “Don’t ask me about Kuala Lumpur!”  This line comes from nowhere, and there is no reference in any other part of the film about the capital of Malaysia.  Anderson’s film and dialogue can be so erratic that it can be all over the place, many with no significance to the plot or to any other part of the film.  But this is Anderson.  And much the the segment of raining frogs in his breakout film MAGNOLIA, one has to either love his eccentricities or hate them.  Anderson, calms down occasionally, creating minor masterpieces like THERE WILL BE BLOOD, PHANTOM THREAD and PUNCH DRUNK LOVE.  I have to confess that I am one of the few that did not like MAGNOLIA

LICORICE PIZZA is a period romantic comedy blended with the coming-of-age theme — Anderson style.

The film is set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 when 15-year-old Gary Valentine prepares for his high school picture day as the film opens.  This is Anderson’s and one wonders how much transpiring in the film is biographical.   Gary asks out 25-year-old Alana Kane, a photographer's assistant.   She later meets with him for dinner. Later she chaperones him to New York, where Valentine attends auditions and appears in a variety show hosted with other cast members from a film he was in including Lucy Doolittle.  The film takes off in many directions that involve incidents that allow Gary to grow up and eventually realize his affection for Alana.

There is an extended sub-plot involving the gas shortage and Jon Peters' (Bradley Cooper) waterbed.wards.  Peters had a thing with Barbra Streisand.  Anderson shows how crazy Peters is.  Two other weird characters appear in the film.  One is Jack Holden (obviously based on real life actor William Holden) played with gusto by Sean Penn and a crazed film director, Rex Blau played by singer Tom Waits.  Why Anderson changed William’s name to Jack but kept Jon Peters' name is characteristic of Anderson.

It is characteristic of its director, all over the place with segments that look stunning on the screen that make no sense in the narrative.  As in many of his films, there is a (delightful) cameo of Maya Rudolph, Anderson’s wife.  But the film is based Andersons experiences and also stories told to him by friend, Gary Goetzman.  Anderson claims that the films FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and AMERICAN GRAFFITI influenced the making of this film.

LICORICE PIZZA was already released in the United States in select theatres on November 26, 2021, and will be released widely on December 25.

Trailer: 

THE LOST DAUGHTER (USA 2021) ****
Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

 

THE LOST DAUGHTER is very much a female film, written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal based on a novel by a female, Elena Ferrante, with three principal female directors and stunningly shot with a Greek backdrop by female d.p. Hélène Louvart.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Writer/director Gyllenhaal and main lead, Academy Award Winner Olivia Coleman have done wonders with this film, providing intriguing insight on womanhood, dispensing many preconceived notions many (both male and female, but especially male) have etched in their brains.

If one wants to say that nothing much occurs in this 2 hour examination on womanhood, this is not true.  There is more than meets the eye, to read between the images from the looks, nuances and bodily language of all the characters in the story.

The film opens with the lead character, Leda, played by Coleman arriving on a Greek holiday and met by a porter/caretaker (Ed Harris).  Leda is British, from Yorkshire but working at Harvard in the United States.  Leda is in Greece, beautifully shot, enjoying a much needed vacation, but her vacation is interrupted by memories of her past.  These memories appear in flashbacks but in a different way, thanks to director Gyllenhaal’s skill.  The two time frames of the present and Leda’s part occur with the same urgency,  but it is not the past that has affected the present but the two that are progressing hand in hand, as if the past might be affected by the present.

One key scene in the film has the young Leda and her boyfriend meeting a local couple with a man who has left his family for another woman.  The woman tells Leda that that is all that makes sense in her life, her love and living with the man. 

The film contains many metaphors.  One more impressionable one is Leda lifting from a bowl of fruit what is seemingly a good fruit but turning it around reveals a rotten part.  A disgusting cockroach also appears on her bed when she is sleeping one night.  When Leda is told that she did the right thing not to move her spot on the beach at the request of the obnoxious American family, she is told that the reason is that they are bad people.  Leda soon learns the reason for the remark. When she refuses to move, one of the members of the American family calls her a cunt and another remarks that it takes her no effort to move.  Leda also quietly steals the child’s doll.  But she befriends Nina, who apologizes to her later for her family’s bad  after the incident.

Coleman is in almost every scene in the film.  Coleman proves to be an amazing screen presence and one cannot take one’s eyes off her, whether she is floating in her swimming costume in the sea or lying politely to the American family.

THE LOST DAUGHTER is a Netflix original film with a limited theatrical run beginning December the 17th at the Bell Lightbox.

Trailer: 

 

MARGRETE QUEEN OF THE NORTH

(Denmark/Sweden/Norway/Iceland/Poland/Czech 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Charlotte Sieling

 

This new historical Scandinavian epic, co-written and directed by Charlotte Sieling, is set in the year 1402.  Queen Margrete (Trine Dyrholm) has achieved what no man has managed before.   She has gathered Denmark, Norway and Sweden into a peace-oriented union, which she single-handedly rules through her young, adopted son, Erik.   The union is beset by enemies, however, and Margrete is therefore planning a marriage between Erik and an English princess.   An alliance with England should secure the union's status as an emerging European power but a breathtaking conspiracy is under way that can tear Margrete and all she believes in apart.

Not many outside Scandinavia might be familiar with Queen Margaret.  But she is one who should be known the world over.  This new Danish entry sheds light on the queen and provides a history of 1940’s Scandinavia.

Margaret I was ruler of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (which included Finland) from the late 1380s until her death, and the founder of the Kalmar Union that joined the Scandinavian kingdoms together for over a century, as the film points out in the first 15 minutes.   She is also deemed as dangerous.  At a big celebration, she is brought news that her real son is alive.  It is rumoured that she had killed her real son for fear of him rising to power.  At this time, the audience is put to wonder the real character of the queen whether she is evil or good.

At the celebrations, a man claiming to be Margrete’s son, the true heir to the throne and rightful King appears.  If this is true, then Queen Margrete stands to lose it all.  The question is whether the man is the true King.

The answer to that question  thought to be revealed right after the hour and quarter mark of the film, the answer that will not be revealed in this review.  But then what is perceived might not be true.Nevertheless, the queen is shaken and has to make rightful decisions fast.

The film is royal drama at its best.  The film covers a number of issues.

One is the dilemma faced by the queen.  If she executes the stranger claiming to be King, she faces questions of tyranny.  If she does not, she faces losing all that she has worked and fought for.  And the question is also whether he is really her son.  The courtroom scene as the queen tries and questions the man is pure cinematic courtroom drama at its best.

Another issue is the royal dysfunctional family.  The adopted son and then King have no power and he fights with Queen Margrete in making decisions.

The film shows the extreme trials that come with the possessing of royal power.  Queen Margret faces a lot of torment.  One wonders if it is all worth it.  At the same time, one can respect the lady for all she has accomplished and her intelligent reserve.

MARGRETE, QUEEN OF THE NORTH opens on VOD and digital December the 21st.

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THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Lana Wachowski

 

The first solo effort of Lana Wachowski who used to be part of the Washowski Sisters who were formerly the Washowski Brothers returns audiences to the Matrix success story with the latest sequel (the fourth) of the famous and most popular MATRIX franchise.  The very popular notion of whether human beings are in actuality in a game designed by some video games programmer or whether human beings have total control of their free will is something that have fascinated fans of the franchise and again toyed with.  This is not that much difference considering that many religions are controlled by believers that God’s will controls all.  Director Wachowski and and her co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksander Hemon keep the spirit of the MATRIX films intact, so fans should not be disappointed despite the fact that the film is overlong, messy, occasionally incoherent and unoriginal in delivery.  In fact, this sequel should do better than any of the other sequels  and remakes (THE KING’S MAN, SPIDER-MAN:NO WAY HOME, CYRANO, WEST SIDE STORY, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH) opening this Christmas season.

The hardly coherent plot involves once again, the hero of the story, Thomas Andersson (Keanu Reeves) a video game designer who has created the famous Matrix video game.  He has survived a suicide attempt at jumping off a tall building and again appear to try to repeat the feat, though he will fly off like Superman.  The villain of the piece turns out to be his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris).  Thomas also meets a woman with two kids, the woman turning out to be Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who he must rescue back to save the world.  Morpheus returns in the story played by Laurence Fisburne and by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a younger version to offer quotable lines like “Nothing comforts anxiety like al little nostalgia”.

The action scenes are well executed with the Martial-arts-like fights again carried out in slow motion/normal speed choreography that the original film popularized.  There is again Reeves on a motorbike looking occasionally like John Wick.  But his long leather coats would remind audiences that this is a MATRIX auctioneer.

The best thing about this movie is the elaborate and stunning promotion done at the multi cinema complex Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto on Canada’s premier of the film.  The entire Scotiabank was lit up with a brilliant green light show (as seen in the MATRIX films) with multiple auditoriums simultaneously screening the same film.  This reviewer was fortunate to have viewed the film in IMAX.  Keanu Reeves was present to introduce the film, saying how his career had changed after accepting the role in the first MATRIX franchise.

So the magic question again whether humans are in a video game or not is left unanswered.  It does not really matter whether the question is answered so long as the notion continues to cast its spell on people to keep them coming to the future MATRIX films.  THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is currently playing.

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NIGHTMARE ALLEY (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

An ambitious carny, Stanton Carlyle (Bradley Cooper) with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who is even more dangerous than he is in this story of deceit and human cunning set in a circus/carnival setting.

It all begins with the broke Stanton boarding a bus to its end, looking for food and lodging.  Hired by the circus, he does odd jobs before finding his true calling as a con-artist.  He seduces two of the female circus folk before breaking away from the circus with the second, and meets his match in his third female fling, a femme fatale proving to be his downfall.  If this sounds like film noir, it is with Stanton smoking half the time just like any detective in a private-eye film noir.

Del Toro clearly shows in his horror-noir that the greatest human monstrosities lie not in the circus freaks on display but in the inner capabilities of man (or woman).  De Toro invests screen time and effort in revealing the evil that is hidden in almost every creature in the story including the last character, Stanton’s new circus manager (played by Tim Blake Nelson) who outwardly shows a change of heart, but more for evil than for Stanton’s good.  Stanton himself is a lying son-of-a-bitch, justifying his cheating on Moly (Rooney Mara) by claiming that it is all part of his new scam.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY, a lengthy 2 and a half hours takes it time to unfold.  But there is much to appreciate in terms of the creation of atmosphere and mood and performances in the meantime.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is based on the novel by William Lindsay, a realistic horror story filled with grit and irony.  Mexican Guillermo del Toro (he co-wrote the film with Kim Morgan) whose best film in his career PAN’S LABYRINTH hardly seems to be the director to delve into this horror noir as Del Toro’s mark is often unexpected graphic violence like the slashing of the cheek of the villain and the smashing  of a broken bottle on a poacher’s face in that movie.  But del Toro surprises in this new film adaptation aided immensely by his production designer (Tamara Deverell) and cinematographer (Dan Laustsen).  The beginning hazy, bright sequence in the house is so well-shot that one can hardly tell through the haze what is happening - the mystery is supposed to enhance the anticipation of the audience.

Del Toro has assembled an impressive cast that includes an unrecognizable Richard Jenkins, with whom he worked within THE SHAPE OF WATER as Stanton’s mean victim.  With a respected high reputation, he has managed to draw heavyweights like Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Willem Dafore and the excellent Toni Collette and David Strathairn all delivering excellent performances.  

The original NIGHTMARE ALLEY (which I have not seen, this senior film critic being not senior enough, for once) is reputed to be an excellent film with Tyrone Power directed by Edmund Goulding.  I am looking out for it to appear on TCM (Turner Classic Movies Network).

Trailer: 

 

THE PIT (Latvia 2020) ***** Top 10

Directed by Dace Pace

 

If THE PIT sounds like a perfect title involving trapped victims in a dark and deep hole, it is, and the title has been used various times in several horror films of the same name.  The latest film to use the title THE PIT, however is a grim and terrifying coming-of-age boy who traps his pretty girl playmate into the pit and could very well result in the girl’s death.

THE PIT co-written by the director herself with Monta Gāgane and Pēteris Rozītis,  based on a series of true stories published by Jana Egle follows an apparently disturbed ten-year-old boy called Markuss (Damirs Onackis), who must adapt to starting a new life in the Latvian countryside with his strict grandmother (Dace Eversa).  After Emīlija (Luize Birkenberga), a neighbour's daughter, makes some contemptuous remarks about Markuss's father, he decides to trick her and, after a long chase, manages to make her fall into a pit.  The girl’s dog sniffs her out, thus saving her life but not before the whole village learns about the boy.  Markuss is looked down upon for the incident and beaten up by the girl’s brother and other classmates.  Rumours have a way of surfacing in a closely knit society and Markuss and his grandmother are looked upon with suspicion by everyone.

It does not help that Markuss lives with his grandmother’s family consisting of his grandfather and his wife-beating son, who also bullies Markuss.  Markuss has no peace at school or at home.  The film looks at several world important issues through the life of the boy - like bullying, growing up, childhood romance and human cruelty.  But amidst all the boy’s troubles director Pace shows that there is a glimmer of hope, and it is this glimmer that brightens up her project into a dramatic and incredible moving film.

The cruel lesson of Markuss leaving the girl in the pit has severe repercussions throughout the village, and the only person who seems to understand the child and his fears is an old sailor who lives alone in a modest house.  The lonely sailor suffers from diabetes and has a mysterious past.

The film shows that there are no bad people, even though bad acts may have been committed.  They are just misunderstood people.

There is always one thing in a plot that will win an audience to the director’s cause.  It was used effectively in VA VIE ON COURGETTE (MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI).  It concerns a plot point involving turning the enemy into a friend.

THE PIT is one of the best psychological horror coming-of-age films seen and not surprisingly is the country, Latvia’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards.  Latvia is a small country with a little known film industry.  Here is the film putting Latvia on the filmmaking map.  And it is one of the Best International Features (next to France’s TITANE) to emerge this year.

 Trailer: 

 

RED ROCKET (USA) ***1/2

Directed by Sean Baker

 

Christmas time comes with an awful aftertaste of a host of feel-good movies.  RED ROCKET which gets close to a Christmas opening is the opposite.  Director Sean Baker’s (his last hit being the excellent THE FLORIDA PROJECT) new film is a feel-bad movie where bad things happen to its protagonist, a sad sack loser known as Mikey who despite his many failures in his past still has high hopes.  It is observed that the misfortunes are mostly a result of his own doing.  Director Baker achieves the near impossible, making a ‘sort-of’ charming feel bad movie about a loser.

RED ROCKET is a darkly funny yet poignant comedy starring Simon Rex as Mikey, an ex-porn, now totally washed up star delivering a magnetic performance who returns from celebrated L.A.  to the Texas hometown that barely tolerates him.   His claim to fame is winning the equivalent of the Academy Award in the porn industry.  He has hardly any money in his pocket and shows up on the porch of his ex-wife and mother-in-law.  Always the hustler, Mikey pours on the charm to move in with his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and no-nonsense mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss, a Texan discovered by Baker outside a Porta Potty who delivers the film’s singular best performance).  Although promising to pay rent, Mikey soon finds out that his resume of 2,000 adult films will not land him a job with town employers.  So he begins moving weed for a local queen pin (Judy Hill).  But when Mikey meets 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna
Son) at a donut shop, he sees her as his ticket back to stardom.   

The film centres on Mikey who is in almost every scene in the movie.  He is at least comical.  Baker uses the fact to make this basically despicable character likable. Mikey is also not too bright a person who cracks stale jokes and utters stale lines like “See you later, alligator”.  Relative newcomer Simon Rex delivers a remarkable performance, inciting both one’s disgust and sympathy.

Director Bake paints a dismal picture of Mikey’s hometown with run down houses and half empty shops.  The most colourful thing about the donut shop is the display of the colourful donuts.

  As the film progresses, one wishes Mikey the success he so desperately craves for despite his bad behaviour that constantly leads him to trouble.  RED ROCKET might not be everyone’s pick of a film to watch at Christmas (mine is to see THE SOUND OF MUSIC again on the big screen), but the film definitely deserves a watch!

RED ROCKET, an official selection at Cannes opens on December the 17th.




 Trailer: 

 

 

THE SCARY OF THE SIXTY-FIRST (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Dasha Nekrasova

 

After two mismatched roommates discover that their new Upper East Side apartment once belonged to the late pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, the pair find themselves compelled to uncover—and relive—the murky secrets of their domicile.

The film has a simple premise of basically two young girls moving into a seemingly haunted apartment that used to be used by well-known sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The Epstein part for the story enhances an audience’s fascination for the film.  Jeffrey Edward Epstein who died in his jail cell in August 10, 2019 was an American financier and convicted sex offender.  Epstein, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City, began his professional life by teaching at the Dalton School in Manhattan, despite lacking a college degree.  After his dismissal from the school, he entered the banking and finance sector, working at Bear Stearns in various roles; he eventually started his own firm. Epstein developed an elite social circle and procured many women and children; he and some of his associates then sexually abused them.

The film is directed and co-written by Dasha Nekrasova who stars in the film as ‘the girl’ with other writer Madeline Quinn who has the title role of Noelle in the film.  Why Noelle?  The film is set during the advent season, though not much of Christmas comes into the film, except the odd carol that can be heard.  But the film uses the subject of Epstein to full use with overhead shots of his mansion on his private island.

The film hints, at several stages of erotic lesbian sex.  At the film start, Addie (Betsy Brown) asks Noelle if she can sleep in the same bed with her on the first night at the apartment they just procured.  (Noelle says no).  When ‘the girl’ enters the apartment, their dialogue and looks between her and Noelle hints that a she sex kiss might just occur at any moment.  The girl-on-girl sex begins at the half way mark and is quite intense.  Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

A hint of the horror to come occurs the first night when one of them sleeps.  She experiences someone else with her, and she cannot speak, feeling like her hands are tied and some kind of oil smeared over her.

There is one quite disgusting masturbation scene in which ‘the girl’ does the nasties with an image of Prince Andrew.  Daring nonetheless, but this is royal nastiness that will put the film down several notches by audience tolerance standards.

Director Nekrasova makes no compromise in her depiction of the horror that comes.  And she really knows how to dish the horror out.

A horror film during the festive season makes a nice break from the feel-good Christmas films.  Films of this genre like THE SILENT PARTNER and BLACK CHRISTMAS ended up (Canadian) Christmas classics.

THE SCARY OF THE SIXTY-FIRST opens on VOD/digital on December the 17th.  Worth a look!

Trailer: 

SCHEMES IN ANTIQUES (China 2021) **
Directed by Derek Kwok (Chi-Kin Kwok)

 

SCHEMES IN ANTIQUES is an action archeological adventure Kong Kong style about the search for an antique known as the Buddha’s head that is worth a lot of money in the antiques market.  There is a history involving Buddha’s head and the whereabouts of it can only be guessed at best.  As in the typical Hong Kong action movie, as director Kwok is from Hong Kong, SCHEMES IN ANTIQUES is all over the place, but this one has less fight action scenes but with more distractions such as how to tell a fake from a genuine antique.  But this is the kind of action flicks Chinese are used to, so despite its flaws, the film already came up number one at China’s weekend box-office when it opened.  It is also the highest ranked in gross weekend revenue.

The film stars a number of very popular young actors and actresses unknown to North America but these youngsters contribute to the young target audience of the film.

Adapted from Ma Boyong's novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a series of adventures that occurred when the descendants of the five veins made a wish to find out the truth about the Buddha head of Wu Zetian Mingtang in the Tang Dynasty

There are two types of characters, the voiceover says at the start of the film regarding antiques, cheaters and fool victims.  It then goes to say that there is yet another type, members of The Plum Blossom 5.  The hero of this adventure on lost treasures happens to possess all three qualities.

Despite his (now-disgraced) family’s famed expertise on ancient relics, Xu Yuan (Lei Jia Yun) makes a simple living as the owner of an electronics shop.  But after stumbling upon a mystery surrounding an ancient stolen relic, he embarks on a dangerous journey to restore his family’s tarnished reputation.

This hero is not the typical Harrison Ford Indiana Jones but a total drunk who appears to be always disheveled with no redeeming qualities.  In real life, this actor looks more dashing.  What were the filmmakers thinking of when they decided on such  hero?  A Jackie Chan type?  It does not really work and the result is a confused hero who does not appear to be focussed in his goal.

Director Kwok places flashbacks in odd points in the film, implying that he must have done it to prevent loose ends from having no explanations.  His film is all over the place.  Kwok also switches focus from the protagonist to a supporting character for no reason, this disorientating his audience.

SCHEMES IN ANTIQUES, from Well Go USA Entertainment, opens in theatres in North America  December the 17th. for Asian fans.  The film has already  grossed $25 million worldwide.

Trailer: 

SING 2 (USA 2021) ***1/2
Directed by Garth Jennings

 

What is Christmas without an animated feature for the family?  SING 2 (the sequel to the successful 2016 SING) delivers.

The grand opening of SING 2, says it all with regards to what to expect.  And in a good way.  An animated female elephant wanders through a forest and falls into a hole.  The rabbit hole turns out to lead to an alternative universe of colourful song and dance with all kinds of creatures, an assortment of dancing and crooning animals, vegetation and what not.  The ‘camera’ pulls back to reveal a spirited audience singing and dancing in their seats. It is a local production of ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey).  Mr. Moon watches a talent scout and when he sees her leaving after the first half, goes after her as she is leaving the theatre.

Cornering the scout for an honest answer, he is told by Suki, the scout: “You are not good enough.  You will never make it in the big league.”   In order to realize and follow his dreams, he has to go all put in his effort, and that he does.  The film is about his triumph over all odds with his troupe of actors who believe in him.  Of course, he is up against insurmountable odds that includes the villain of the piece, voiced by Bobby Carnnivale as Mr. Crystal, who is the rich and famous guy who controls the future of contestants, whether they succeed rot, in “American’s got Talent” style.  The film's funniest moment is in the segment when he constantly presses the buzzer indicating a rejection for a performance audition pretty much parading “America’s Got Talent”.  Those who never watch he series will still get the humour  

The film does not contain many original songs but director Jennings has (probably calculated) picked up some many fine classics that include “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Higher Love” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that should send audiences into heavenly nostalgia.  But U2 performed the film's original song "Your Song Saved My Life". 

Director Jennings should be given credit as well as his casting director for assembling a most impressive list of musical stars like Bono who plays a recluse lion and  Pharrell Williams as an elephant ice-cream truck vendor.

SING 2 has only got a 64% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing the review, but it definitely deserves better.  SING 2 is hilarious, thanks to the director’s brilliant sense of humour and the feature that stresses that it requires hard work and perseverance in order to be successful in show business.  The main lead Matthew McConaughey can attest to his fact as he gave his all to win the title role in the 1996 film A TIME TO KILL.

SING 2 is directed by Garth Jennings.  For those unfamiliar with the name, he is a talented British actor, director and producer known for the hits SING, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and SON OF RAMBO.  One can always expect solid entertainment from Mr. Jennings.

Trailer: 

 

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (USA 2021) **
Directed by Jon Watts

 

Marvel’s super action hero SPIDER-MAN is arguably the most popular of all the Marvel superheroes.  It is hardly possible to recall the total number of Spider-man remakes and sequels that also include an animated entry.  There are no fewer than three actors who have played Spider-man and all three appear in this film, for the reason of the opening of a portal allowing the three to appear together, coming from alternative universes.  If this sounds silly, it is.  In fact the whole new sequel is total silliness.  And the silliness is far from funny or amusing.  This entry is an expensive and boring dud that lasts a lengthy 48 minutes.

SPIDER-MAN 2021 is the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), and the 27th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  The film is directed by Jon Watts, written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. 

The film opens with Spider-man’s secret identity revealed to everyone.  Spider-man is branded ‘spider-menace’ as he has killed a person.  It is as if the entire world is so stupid that they do not recall Spider-man doing all the hundreds of heroic deeds that will more than make up for the unfortunate accident.  As a result, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help make his identity as Spider-Man a secret again with magic. This leads to the multiverse breaking open and allows supervillains from alternate realities to enter Parker's universe.

NO WAY HOME also explores the concept of the multiverse and ties the MCU to past Spider-Man film series, with numerous actors reprising their roles from the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb-directed Spider-Man films.

The cast at the start of the film and the publicist make a request prior to the film’s press screening that no plot points be revealed in the film's review.  It should be noted that it is incredibly difficult to review a film without mentioning a few plot points.  One will be mentioned, as the film’s credits mention two other stars, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield playing alternate Spider-mans.  Three Spider-mans appear together and they fight the villain monsters.  It is neat to see the 3 Spider-mans working together, giving smart talk in the process.

Of all the monsters that appear, Otto Octavius aka Doctor Octopus (played by Alfred  Molina) is the most entertaining to watch, he with his ridiculous looking tentacles, and him wearing dark super-cool shades looking a bit Korean in the process.

But this Spider-man entry is mostly super special effects that move along at such a breakneck speed that one can hardly distinguish what is going on, resulting in a complete mess of a blockbuster.  The story also flies as fast as Spider-man swings from one building to another.  One wonders the reason Spider-man swings this fast, as he never did in the earlier film.  There is little human story in the process.  The previous films had more of Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and her boyfriend, “Happy” (Jon Favreau) but this one film has them do nothing much.   Parker’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is seen here, him being the most annoying character in the last and this Spider-man.  SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME is too long, running at 148 minutes.  I have never been so bored in an action super hero film.

Trailer: 

 

THE TENDER BAR (USA 2021) ***1/2

Directed by George Clooney

 

THE TENDER BAR is an adaptation of the 2005 memoir and best selling book of the same name by J. R. Moehringer, and recounts Moehringer's life growing up in Long Island.

When the film opens, the audience sees J.R. as a boy (Daniel Ranieri) with his mother (Lily Rabe) who has to move herself and her son to her grandfather’s (Christopher Lloyd) as she is desperately short of funds.  It is a full house at grandpa’s with other family members living there as well.  But full of hope, especially for J.R.  - she hopes that he woud get a place at Harvard ideally graduating as a lawyer.  J.R. succeeds in getting accepted at Harvard, though ending up in journalism.  The film stresses that journalism is a profession just as noble if not more respected than being a lawyer.

It is bit disorienting at the start when the audience suddenly sees a young man(Tye Sheridan) on a train on his way to Harvard.  Who is this man and what has he got to do with the story?  It is soon revealed that this young man is J.R. as director Clooney intercuts segments of the past and the present, with his film moving along in non-chronological order.  Directors have a fondness of this tactic, though the reason is never known.  At one point in the film, there is a young J.R. as a boy arguing with the man J.R. 

THE TENDER BAR refers to the bar, in actuality called ‘the Dickens Bar’ as it contains a library of books by Charles Dickens.  It could also stand for the bar as in the law profession, though this is more unlikely.  The bar where the young J.R. hangs out is owned by his Uncle Charlie (Affleck) who also support the boy through college both financially and mentally.  Charles is the brother of J.R. ’s father, who never keeps his promises to his son and is also a wife beater.  As most sone pine over not having a father and J.R has an absent one, he has high hopes or his dad, despite all his faults.  The last straw is drawn who J.R. sees his father beating up his latest win.   And calls the cops.  J.R. has also witnessed is father beating up Uncle Charlie.

In the midst of all the family troubles, J.R. finds romance with a fellow college mate.

Clooney, an actor himself expectedly elicits superior performances from his cast especially young Tye Sheridan whom plays the lead.  Ben Affleck is excellent too, toning his performance down a little to let Sheridan shine in the title role.  Christopher Lloyd, best known for BACK TO THE FUTURE, hams it up as the cussing grandfather.  But Daniel Ranieri who plays the young J.R. is superb and steals the show.

Despite all of the family troubles, J.R. learns and grows up in this simple but effectively told coming-of-age story.  Clooney believes in the strength of his material and never resorts to cheap dramatic theatrics, which is the main reason this understand drama works.

THE TENDER BAR has a limited theatrical release on December 17, 2021, by Amazon Studios, following to the wide expansion on December 22, 2021, prior to streaming on Prime Video on January 7, 2022.

 Trailer: 

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (USA 2021) ****

Directed by Joel Cohen

The first film written and directed by brother Joel Cohen going solo (it is reported that Ethan does not want to be making films any more), and starring his wife, 2-time Oscar Winner Frances McDormand, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, which is the film title of the William Shakespearean play also known as MacBeth is a sprawling Shakespearean just short of Masterpiece, that should delight both Bard fans and cineastes.  It is a back and white feat for the eyes, complete with solid acting from its two principal leads. Oscar Winners McDormand and Denzel Washington excel.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH examines the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake.  A brave Scottish general named Macbeth (Washington, immediately recognizable from his voice despite his beard) receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in a brutal and violently shot scene, and takes the Scottish throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia.  Forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion, he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler.  The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of madness and death.

The best thing about the film is both its cinematography by d.p. Bruno Delbonnel (DARKEST HOUR and THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS) and production set design (set design by Stefan Dechant).   The black and white cinematography together with the weird looking geometry of the sets give the film a German impressionist look.  Shot almost entirely on sound sets, the exterior sets look claustrophobic reflecting the web of guilt that King MacBeth has trapped himself into - a sort of nightmare that the king cannot ever escape from.  The frequent use of screeching crows also enhances the nightmarish effect.  The effect is aided by the film’s haunting score composed by Carter Burwell.  Deserving of mentions is Mary Zophres’ costume design in which the stitches of the garments can be seen clearly.  Critics often complain when film adaptation is stage bound.  The only exception appears to be Shakespearean plays where filmed one-man solo acts are also praised.  In this film, the total stage effect works to the film 's advantage.

Over the course of many centuries, the play has attracted some of the most renowned actors to the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the film thus attracting these two magnificent Oscar Winners.  The two will be up for Oscar nominations again for acting, undoubtedly.

Roman Polanski’s MACBETH is also one of the best adaptations of the Bard’s tragedies and these two are highly ranked as the BEST Shakespearean films on screen.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is scheduled for a limited theatrical release on December 25, 2021 prior to streaming on Apple TV+ on January 14, 2022.  Highly Recommended!

Trailer: 

TRY HARDER! (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Debbie Lum

 

At Lowell High School, the top public high school in San Francisco, the seniors are stressed out.  As they prepare for the emotionally draining college application process, students are keenly aware of the intense competition for the few open spots in their dream colleges.  The elite colleges include M.I.T., Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and a few other famous but lesser prestigious.   It would be insightful, if one is not familiar with these colleges, where they are situated in the United States.  They actually all cluster around the same location.

  At Lowell - where cool kids are nerds, nearly everyone has an amazing talent, and most of the student body is Asian American - the things that usually make a person stand out can feel commonplace.  The film follows selected seniors as they face the pressure of applying to elite colleges. 

A personal note (slightly related to the film’ subject):  This reviewer is Asian and also faced tremendous pressure to enter a University.  The pressure was on myself as my parents (who never went) hardly pressured me.  But in Singapore, there is only one major University, so it is either get in or no degree education.  I was smart enough to be accepted into the Engineering Program at the University of Singapore even though I never really knew what I was doing at the time, and later finding out I hated Engineering.  Film is my passion but there was no film studies or film industry at the time.   But I still managed to graduate with a Honours and ended up able to move to Canada as Canada needed Electrical Engineers.   I worked two years in a tech job I hated before getting a post at a private college teaching.  This reviewer loved teaching (as it is like performing in a  play or film) and got really good in engineering.  I still teach, but Business (as I got an MBA) but film is still my passion.  Enough about me!  So many people can relate to the doc in one way or another.  If every Asian North American views this film, TRY HARDER! will be an instant hit.

With humour and heart, director Debbie Lum captures the reality of the American college application process and the intersection of class, race, and educational opportunity as young adults navigate a quintessential rite of passage.  These students apply to as many as 20 different Universities, thus increasing their pressure on acceptance.  This is the real world.  In the recent Olivia Wilde’s BOOKSMART, students that party all the time still got into their dream colleges.  This might be true if one is white, as TRY HARDER! hints at, at the end of the film.

Though the film seems all over the place, jumping from one senior student to the other, director Lum also reveals the background of the seniors whose parents also push them so hard.  A Taiwanese also attempts to sway the college admission reps with gifts.

TRY HARDER! won the grand jury prize for Best Documentary at Sundance and premiered in Toronto at the Reel Asian Film Festival.  It is a timely topic, especially for Asians and has been selected for a prestigious Christmas opening.

WRITING WITH FIRE (India 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas

 

In a cluttered news landscape dominated by men, emerges India's only newspaper run by Dalit women. Chief Reporter Meera and her journalists break traditions, redefining what it means to be powerful.

Over 40 journalists have been killed since 2015 making India one of the deadliest countries to practice journalism in.  WRITING WITH FIRE tells their story and from the feminine point of view.  The female protagonist in this insightful documentary is Meera Devi, the bureau chief of Khabar Lahariya, one of the only all female journalist outlets in Uttar Pradesh.  The film’s main setting is the state of Uttar Predesh. Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in northern India with over 200 million inhabitants, as well as the most populous country subdivision in the world.   

I am not one fond of films about journalists, having seen too many films in this genre site THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY.  However, WRITING WITH FIRE makes that rare documentary about journalists fêting for their rights.  (One really hilarious satire on women journalists is the upcoming film by Bruno Dumont called FRANCE, which I admit, I loved desire many flaws).  WRITING WITH FIRE follows journalist Meera Devi and the audience sees her at various stages of her work and daily family routines.  She studies journalism ands a Master’s. Unlike may women, she goes out and work.  While her husband complains that she should stay at hoe, Devi accomplishes remarkable work in journalism.  She digitalizes the company to be current with the future of journalism. 

There is a certain heroism and respect that one can feel for the protagonist.  She is at a grave disadvantage not only being a female but born the lowest caste of society the Davnits that are termed ‘untouchables’.  But she uses the disadvantage to her advantage, also helping other oppressed minorities in the process.

One discussion point in the film is the question asked what freedom means to women.  One of the interviewed subjects claim the irony that the country is called ‘Mother India’.  ‘Neither are we a democracy and neither are we free,” she claims.

There is an unforgettable moment in a scene that shows he reported by a beach in Sri Lanka.  Perhaps being the ocean for the first time, she marvels and speaks to the camera t how one can eel the waves.  Sri Lanka has been considered by some to be the original Garden of Eden in the Bible.

One of the best segments has Meera travelling riding on the back by bike to interview the villagers working for the mafia that had illegally opened the mines, and abusing their workers.  The mine has destroyed roads, ad the bike has to travel around muddy water puddles on dirt roads.

WRITING WITH FIRE ends on an upbeat note with Meera heading Khabar Lahariya a bureau chief and one of the other workers in the film headed with the task of expanding the journal throughout northern India.  This proves that nothing is impossible even with much disadvantage to the goal at hand. 

WRITING WITH FIRE is an inspirational documentary on journalism and low-caste women’s right that shows an India that is ripe for change.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi2449130265?playlistId=tt13630174&ref_=tt_ov_vi

 

 

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This Week's Film Reviews ( Dec 3, 2021)

21 Nov 2021

THE ADVENT CALENDAR (La Calendrier) (Belgium/France 2021) ***

Directed by Patrick Ridremont

 

From Belgium comes this deliciously wicked Christmas treat that is as downright nasty in its premise.  THE ADVENT CALENDAR promises a surprise treat or trick very day in December from the 1st.  The film unfolds in days as the protagonist a paraplegic, Eva is presented with this gift from her friend, Sophia visiting from Germany during Christmas.

Helpless disabled damsels in distress appear to be favourites in the horror genre.  Audrey Hepburn and Mia Farrow were blind characters stalked by killers in WAIT UNTIL DARK and BLIND TERROR.   The distressed damsel in THE ADVENT CALENDAR is a beautiful ex-dancer wheelchair bound.  Her killer in this case is not so straightforward.   A blind victim can run away from her attacker but a paraplegic cannot.

Eva (Eugénie Derouand), is an ex-dancer, is now using a wheelchair, unable to walk, as she is introduced in the film’s first scene as she swims and has to be put in her wheelchair after the swim.  A male swimmer hits on her, only to be taken aback after he discovers his prized date-to-be to be a paraplegic.    Eva replies with a snide remark indicating that she is independent and strong enough to accept her fate and that she can be nasty if she wants.  When her friend Sophie (Honorine Magnier gives her an old wooden antique advent calendar that she stole from a vendor at the Munich market in Germany before Christmas. (It is a magnificent ornament that I would have no qualms purchasing myself.)  Sophie explains the German instructions that come with the gift. 

There are three rules that must be followed or “I will kill you!” follows the warning.  The first rule is that if you eat one candy, you must eat them all.  The second rule: “Respect all rules until you open the last door”  and the third: is that “ if you dump the calendar then….”

Eva realizes each window contains a surprise that triggers repercussions in real life.  Some of them are good, but most of them are bad, really bad.   

The first date is a date that Sophie arranges for date with herself and Eva and his friends.  The date turns out to be a disgusting, tactless womanizer who makes sexual advances towards Eva.  “You did not resist when I started,” he says to which Eva replies to the asshole that paraplegics cannot feel waist down.  He gets what is coming - an awful death.

Now Eva will have to choose between getting rid of the calendar or walking again – even if it causes death and destruction to everyone she holds dear around her.

The story contains three very evil human beings who seem to be put down on the planet to torment Eva.  Her boss is unsympathetic to Eva’s disability, degrading and calling her a half woman.  Her father’s nurse sells her father’s house and puts him in a  home.  And there is Boris the asshole date.

Director Ridremont adds to the horror with a palette of colours, darkness and things that go bump in the dark.  In one splendid cry scene, Eva wakes up in a hospital with a crazy patient besides her, now knowing how she got there.

The Shudder original French (Belgium) horror fantasy THE ADVENT CALENDAR opens exclusively on Thursday, December 2nd.   Combining Faustian themes and allusions with European folklore and tense, chilling terror, the Shudder Original film provides some highly unusual holiday season horror.

 

Trailer: 

 

BENEDETTA (France/Netherlands 2021) **
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

Premiering at Cannes this year, BENEDETTA is the much awaited film from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven after the immense success of his precious film ELLE, the film that should have won Isabelle Huppert the Oscar for Best Actress.

BENEDETTA is the name of the promiscuous nun that finally ascended to the privileged role of Mother Superior.   The film is loosely based on the 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown.  It is ‘supposed’ to be a biographical drama film of the novice nun in the 17th century who joins an Italian convent and has a lesbian love affair with another nun.  BENEDETTA reminds one immediately of Verhoeven’s earlier piece with Jennifer Jason Leigh FLESH ND BLOOD, a historical drama set in the 1500’s for its graphic sex scenes and violence.  The violence in BENEDETTA includes a  almost unwatchable torture scene.

The events of the movie occur during the 17th century.  The main character is Benedetta Carlini, who is an Italian nun in the abbey of a convent in Tuscany.  She was considered to be mystical and venerated by her religious entourage, and finally Benedetta was arrested and judged for sapphism.

There are lots of nudity and lots of girl-on-girl sexuality.  Though biographical, Verhoeven’s film does not feel like one.  The film comes across more like soft porn made by a dirty old man than a film that explores freedom and the dangers of religious fanatics.

The only almost saving grace of the film comes from Charlotte Rampling, who plays the ousted Mother Superior.  Her character is confused and confusing and Rampling is superb at playing characters of this nature.

The film opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox December the 3rd.

Trailer: 

BETRAYED  (Norway 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Eirik Svensson

 

BETRAYED, a Norwegian film based on true events, follows the Jewish Braude family's experiences when the Jews are arrested and deported from the camp Berg, on the ship Donau and down to the extermination in the concentration camp in Auschwitz.   Though the topic of Jews and the holocaust is a frequent recurring theme in films, this is one rare one that reveals the Norwegian post of view.  Apparently no Jew can escape the grasp of Hitler during WWII.

The film begins with German planes flying cars the Oslo fjord and announcements made to Norway not to resist the German military.  Before one can say Geronimo, the Germans have taken over Noways, arresting and rounding up a major part of its population - the Jews.  The film narrows down to a briefing in a police station where the police are told to round up and arrest the News and that they are performing a civic and respected duty.  Ironically, it is mentioned that the work should be done fast so that they can celebrate Christmas in time..  The film shows how fast evil spreads and what one must do to prevent the spread or to resist and fight.  The film flashes back in time to this briefing and moves forward with more horrid events as the Jews are transported by ship to concentration camps.

The film has a very personal feel as it centres on a boxer, Charles.  The film introduces him in a tough boxing match as the main character.  He narrowly beats his Swedish opponent before celebrating with drinks with his brother and friends.  The audience is introduced to Charles’ family when he returns home to his strict Jewish family when he has to explain to mother the reason he and his brother were late.

His family are Jewish and proud of their race, which they call being Jewish and not a religion.  At one point in the film when Charles says he is more Norwegian than Jewish, he gets a tight slap across the face from an angry father, who then admonishes him loudly not to forget his roots.

The hours of the Holocaust is not shown in graphic terms but in the psychological and mental terms.  No one can disclaim the tension and mental stress each and every Jew went through, not knowing what has happened to one’s family, even whether they are dead or alive.  As they say, not knowing is worse than knowing the worse outcome.  Director Svensson

effectively captures the fear, dread and menace of the period through the eyes of Charles Bruade resulting in a handsomely mounted and deeply emotional film.  This film, because of its more personal nature, might be longer remembered for its details than Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST.

The closing credits inform the audience of the whereabouts or deaths of each member of the family and their associates.   The ending serves to remind one of the evils that man is capable of as well as the heroism of a select few.

 

 

BRIAN WILSON: LONG PROMISED ROAD (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Brent Wilson



The Beach Boys are one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful bands of all time, selling over 100 million records worldwide.  The group's original lineup consisted of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine. Distinguished by their vocal harmonies, adolescent-oriented themes, and musical ingenuity, they became one of the most influential acts of the rock era.  Their most famous song ‘Good Vibrations’ has been heard the world over, countless times.  Briam Wilson is the group’s one time leader and chief composer.  The band had their last reunion in a 2012 performance.  Not all the original members are around, one having drowned.

Brian Wilson is touted by friends and associates as a very talented musician.  Which biopic would ethane friends and associates tout their talent?   When asked about the creativity process during an interview, the now aged and white haired Brian Wilson explains: It starts from impulses from the brain, then goes through the fingers to the piano and then to the speakers.  If this sounds all too amusing, Wilson’s face looks as if the man was dead serious.  

But in truth, called a genius for his novel approaches to pop composition, extraordinary musical aptitude, and mastery of recording techniques, he is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and significant songwriters of the 20th century. His work is distinguished for its vocal harmonies, complex orchestrations, and introspective or ingenuous themes.  Wilson is also known for his past singing style, in which he sang high without engaging in falsetto, and for his lifelong struggles with mental illness.

There are a few fine moments in the film where the audience sees Brian and the Beach Boys at work, recording and on stage.  Brian is also revealed as a human with faults, typically falling into the same trap as many famous musicians.  He succumbed to gluttony, alcohol and substance abuse.  At one point, he claims on camera  that he weighs 311 lbs.  But he had a coach bring his weight down to a manageable one.  

Brian is known for doing bad interviews.  The film was originally conceived as a straightforward documentary in which Brent interviewed Brian in a room, but this failed, as Brian was unwilling to talk in this format. It was then suggested that the interviews be conducted by Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine, who had previously written articles about Wilson and had been planning to ghostwrite Wilson's second memoir, I Am Brian Wilson. One of Fine's recent articles about Wilson was written from discussions the two had while driving around Los Angeles together. A similar format was adopted for the film, with over 70 hours of footage shot across three weekends.

Brian Wilson is still active as a musician.  “Brian Wilson At My Piano: His Classic Hits”  reimagined for Solo Piano can be bought online.  The film’s soundtrack contains never before released material including the catchy song “Right Where I Belong”.

         BRIAN WILSON: LONG PROMISED ROAD is a relatively ok biopic documentary about a musician that is only relatively famous.  Not many would remember him unless one is a Beach Boys fan or in the music industry.  As such, missing this doc would mean not missing much.

Trailer: 

 

DEATH OF A TELEMARKETER (USA 2020) **
Directed by Khaled Ridgeway

 

DEATH OF A TELEMARKETER is low budget comedy that follows a smooth-talking telemarketer, Kasey Miller (Lamorne Morris) who finds himself at the mercy of the man he tried to swindle.   Like its protagonist, the film seems to have little to offer, but it delivers the package very attractively with lots of smooth-talk, funny lines and quirky hilarious characters.  The film is a good sell and not a bad comedy either.  But it suffers once it gets serious towards the end.

Just as a telemarketer needs to grab his target’s attention at the start, director Ridgeway does the same with a uppity opening in his film complete with sassy song with lyrics like “ I got what you need, bring the lock and I will get the key… They don’t make them like me no more…one thing for sure.”  Then the words titling the opening segment: “A wonderful fucking day in the Valley”.  The audience is then introduced to Kasey Miller working his so called ‘magic’ in his cubicle, scoring a sale followed by hip thrusting movements.  OK .- audience attention is successful.  One trouble that many films abut trickers fall into is the audience dislike for their main slimy protagonists.  If Kasey turns out a bit annoying, Morris portrays him with lots of zest, reminding one of a younger Eddie Murphy, eager to show off his talent.  Director Ridgeway makes him sympathetic by being sincere, like buying an engagement ring for his soon fiancé, yet forgetting to make dinner reservations at the correct time.

In the story, Kasey (Lamorne Morris) is in a close sales contest with newbie employee, Barry (Woody McClain), and must score a big sale by midnight or he will lose the largest commission to date.  Kasey is a smart talking telemarketer who not only smart talks to his potential clients for what is termed life’s 3 essentials (phone, able and internet) but also his girlfriend (Alisha Wainwright) who knows Kasey already all too well and is fed up with his lies. Out of desperation, Kasey waits until everyone leaves the office and finds the Do Not all list. He thinks he’s found the perfect mark, but instead finds himself held hostage and at the mercy of Asa (Jackie Earle Haley), the man he tried to swindle. Now Kasey must pass Asa’s twisted test on ethics if he wants to live to sell another day.

Haley plays Asa seriously - Asa being the only non-funny role.  Haley (first seen as a kid in Peter Yates’ BREAKING AWAY) always plays bad guys and replays a nasty one in they film as the karma that comes to bite Kasey in the ass.  Asa appears int the one third mark of the movie, when the film takes a more serious turn.  Another cold actor, Haley Joel Osment (the one nominated for an Academy Award in THE SIXTH SENSE) plays Asa’s not-too bright son.

The film is filled with many other characters providing solid laughs.  Kasey’s competition is Barry who is equally funny. “They can’t see my smile.  But they can feel it!” he says of his clients.  Even the security guard is funny, practicing self help exercises.  Kasey’s Asian co-worker is the funniest.

But once the film starts to deal with its message part, the drama fails.  Every time a dramatic point is reached, the effect is drowned by comical remarks.  This is a pity as actor Morris tries very hard and is funny.  The film should have been marketed and re-done as all comedy.

DEATH OF A TELEMARKETER opens in theatres and VOD December 3, 2021.  It is good for a good laugh.

Trailer: 

THE END OF US (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner

 

As the title implies THE END OF US is a break-up comedy (rather than a romantic comedy) about a couple undergoing a breakup they decided upon just before the Pandemic hit the world.

Nick Boal (Ben Colemand) and Leah Russo (Ali Viagiano) are a couple who live together with a relationship problem.  The male is not working, apparently trying to polish his career but in reality is scrounging off his girlfriend who pays for everything including the rent and groceries.  To be fair Ben applies for auditions, but often never shows up.  He has a few hours working his bartending job.  Ben does water the plants with a hose.  Leah’s friends do not like Nick and are happy to hear the news of the impending break-up.  As film of this nature go….. boring tedium and predictable plot….. they have difficulty breaking up and again…. ho-hum, cliches…. have sex one evening after too many drinks.  Will they stay together and come back as a couple or will they try to make other disastrous dates?  This is a question that is finally answered in the last scene.  Whether they do or not has very little to do with what happens in the rest of the story.  Neither would many of the audience care.

Written and directed by Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner, the couple face similar problems as the couple do in the Pandemic.  One is too cautious and the other is not.  Ben goes out with friends and comes back ready to infect her, Leah complains.  When Leah actually plays around with another date during Covid, Ben freaks out.  Ben and Leah argue about mask wearing;  obeying chief medical officer’s guidelines in California and other typical Covid stuff that every audience member has recently also gone through.  All this makes watching rather uninteresting.  Who wants to watch a repeat of the tedium everyone went through in the horrid lockdown past year?

At one point in the film one of them remarks: “We both have been exposed; we should get tested.”  Which couple has not come to the same point in time during Covid?

The film unfolds with the days of the Pandemic like Day 1, Day 2 , day 3 and so on…. One can see how the Pandemic hit the world anyhow hopelessly hopeful the couple and the world were that the Pandemic will not last.

There are some sweet and funny moments.  When Ben moves out, Ben discovers that no one will take him in.  The fact that Leah feels sorry for him shows the strength of the relationship in the past, which makes for good relationship insight.  It is also funny to look back at the pandemic and see the silly things that everyone did to curb the spread, that did not work - like wearing masks in public.

THE END OF US is a comedy centred on a white couple.  To be politically and racially correct, there are  black and minority characters, though they are mainly in the lesser important roles.  But at these times, one is a bit tired of watching inter-racial couples, put into the script just for the purpose of being racially correct

Despite a few funny and sweet moments, THE END OF US reminds the audience of times that either they either wish to forget or might be amused at.

THE END OF US opens In Select Theatres December 3, 2021 and Available on Digital and On Demand.

, Trailer: 

 

THE HAND OF GOD (È stata la mano di Dio)(Italy 2021) ****
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

 

THE HAND OF GOD is a phrase used by Argentine footballer Diego Maradona to describe a goal that he scored during the Argentina vs England quarter finals match of the 1986 FIFA World Cup.  The goal took place on 22 June 1986, at the Estadio Azteca (Aztec Stadium) in Mexico City. Under association football rules, Maradona should have received a yellow card for using his hand and the goal disallowed.  However, as the referees did not have a clear view of the play and video assistant referee technology did not exist, the goal was allowed, thus winning Argentina the match.  THE HAND OF GOD is also a phrase that also be used to refer to intervention by the deity as in fate.   In the film, the young hero, Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) attends a football match in which his idol Maradona is playing thus escaping death if he stayed at home.  During the match at his home, there was a carbon monoxide leak killing his parents.

In the movie, the audience sees Fabie’s father, Savrio (Toni Servillo) reading in the living room while his mother, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) is knitting.  It is a slow paced scene as the father yawns and nods off, while his mother does the same as her head falls on his shoulder.  It is a sweet, somewhat romantic scene, but it is soon revealed that it is the carbon monoxide that is knocking both of them off.  Mother dies in the living room while the father is in hospital.  It is a very quiet and pensive segment, quite uncharacteristic of the usually flamboyant director Sorrentino, known for his lavish party segments in THE GREAT BEAUTY, his most famous film.

THE HAND OF GOD is a coming-of-age story of Fabietto, who comes to learn and cope with loss, death, sex and other growing up issues.  Fabietto is Sorrentino as a kid and the film is autobiographical of the director.  In one scene, Fabietto says he wants to be a film director.  This is not the first time an Italian director made an autobiographical film of himself.  Federico Fellini made the minor masterpiece AMARCORD (I REMEMBER) which won him the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1973.  AMARCORD is a semi-autobiographical tale about Titta, an adolescent boy growing up among an eccentric cast of characters in the village of Borgo San Giuliano in 1930’s fascist Italy.

If THE HAND OF GOD is inferior to AMARCORD, director Sorrention pays kudos to the Master, Fellini.  In one early scene, Fabie’s elder brother (Marlon Joubert) auditions for a Fellini film.  He is rejected, when he is told, humorously, that he was turned down as his face was too conventional.  There are similarities between the two films.  One is the haunting score, but one  which again cannot rival Nino Rota’s in AMARCORD.  In both films, the young protagonist enjoys sex in weird ways.  In the HAND OF GOD, Fabie is told by by baroness to brush her slit, which follows a sex act while in AMARCORD, the teen buries his face in the huge blossom of the voluptuous sweet shop lady.

THE HAND OF GOD shows Sorrentino is more sombre and controlled mode.  THE HAND OF GOD is an excellent semi-autobiographical piece by its director and a tribute to the strange world of filmmaking while paying homage to Fellini’s AMARCORD.

THE HAND OF GOD has a limited release theatrically before opening on Netflix December the 15th.

Trailer: 

LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS (USA 2020) *

Directed by Emma Jean Sutherland


Killer clowns, bad Santa’s and now a killer Santa in the form of a horned demon.  Killer clowns are more creepy than funny and Bad Santa’s except for Robert de Niro playing funny can also be quite the drag.  But no comedy has hit the seasonal low as LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS.

Written by Michael Zara and directed by Emma Jean Sutherland, LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS is a spoof of Christmas genre films and the spirit of whatever Christmas programs that can be seen on TV during the Advent season.  The film finally gets a release through Digital/VOD but it is, according to imdb, a TV movie, and a very bad one at that.

Holly Frost (Karen Knox) returns to her hometown to make a Christmas special before her promotion to a television anchorwoman, but first she must face Satan Claus and horrible childhood memories of him.

It all began with Holly s a spoilt kid during Christmas.  At the time, she  parents and a sister.  But not for long!  When Holly cannot get what she wants for Christmas, because her father had just lost his job and her mother fractured her hand and cannot continue her ice sculpting job, Holly is frustrated.  “All I want is for my parents to go away.”  Before you can say be careful what you wish for, Holly misspells Santa and writes this wish as a letter Satan Class instead.  The demon answers Holly’s wish and her parents are killed.

The special effects include a silly mailbox, the one where Holly drops the letter to Santa (Satan), emitting dust as if the letter had disintegrated.  The other is the demon or Satan that appears complete with horns and bad skin.

The mix of horror and Christmas does not work at all.  The sight of disfigured bodies and bloodied bodies amidst the festive season is odd.  And when the audience sees Holly attempting to bring the Christmas spirit back to town  by writing to Santa for help, one can only gasp at how desperate the script has gotten.

This horrid Christmas entry deserves one star for sheer ghastliness .  The filmmakers all get big lumps of coal this Christmas for this one.

 Trailer: 

LOVE IT WAS NOT (Austria/Israel 2020) ****

Directed by Maya Sarfaty

 

LOVE IT WAS NOT is a l’amour fou, a tragic love story between a Jewish prisoner, Helena Citron and her Nazi captor, Franz Wunsch.   It is not a film about love conquering all.   Flamboyant and full of life, Helena Citron is taken to Auschwitz as a young woman, and soon finds unlikely solace under the tutelage of Franz Wunsch, a high-ranking SS officer who falls in love with her and her magnetic singing voice.  Risking a certain execution if caught, their forbidden relationship went on until her miraculous liberation.   No details of the relationship is revealed, just that they held hands and met in secret and kissed.  The question arises whether they had had sex.  The tables are turned when a letter arrives from Wunsch's wife, thirty years later, begging Helena to testify on Wunsch's behalf, she's faced with an impossible decision: will she help the man who brutalized so many lives, but saved hers, along with some of the people closest to her?   

Director Sarfaty has made one of the most controversial love stories in history.  Her film is made even more chilling, when she has both Franz and Helena on camera talking as interviewees.  Both are now deceased.  Both speak of their romance, more with Franz.  The story unfolds, thankfully in chronological order with the film ending when the war ends and the consequences of their love have to be dealt with.  Combining archive newsreel footage and interviews, director Sarfaty also resorts to cut-outs, often with figures of Helena and Franz pasted on backgrounds of photos and with some effects like simulated falling snow on the images.  The resulting images are as stunning as they are creepy, reflecting the weird relationship of prisoner and captor.  The climax of the film -  Franz’s trial with Helena testifying is done with cardboard cut-out figures that move across the black and white background of the courtroom with a voiceover explaining what had gone on.

The surviving Helena and her sister, Roza tell stories in the concentration camp of unimaginable horrors - including gassing of a young girl and her baby brother.  Their escape story when the war ends is equally harrowing, as the sisters run for their safety and pass out in a barn for God knows how long, Rosa bleeding and weak from a high fever.

The film is steadfast in condemning Franz as a Nazi criminal who can never be forgiven for his deeds.  From the very start, the audience hears of his two natures - warm to Helena but cruel at the same time with no qualms at beating up the male prisoners.  After the war when he writes to Helena still professing his love for her, his letters are intercepted by a relative who condemns him adding the fact that Jews are prohibited from associating from Nazi criminals.  If Franz is to relive the fact that he allowed Helena’s sisters two children to be gassed in Auschwitz, the relative says that he should rather die than endure.  Franz is obviously a dangerous man.  Helena goes on to say that she is afraid of him - afraid that he will keep looking for her.

LOVE IT WAS NOT is one of the grimmest and most disturbing documentaries on the holocaust as it deals with forbidden love between a Nazi and a Jewish prisoner.  This is a case of doomed love, from the very start and a very compelling watch from start to end.

Trailer: 

SINGLE ALL THE WAY (USA 2021) ***1/2
Directed by Michael Mayer

 

It was not so long ago, maybe when I was a teen, 30 or so years back when a new gay film would cover a new but relevant and important gay issue.  There was a film that was first to deal with coming out, first to cover A.I.D.s, first to be explicitly shot in a bathhouse, first to deal with finding a sex partner but no place to ‘do it’ and conversion therapy.  Slowly but surely, it became tougher and toucher to come u p with a gay film with new ideas.  SINGLE ALL THE WAY, a Netflix original gay film takes the gay film to the present, where gay is accepted and celbrated.  SINGLE ALL THE WAY does not cover new issues, as these issues are all old and accepted by today’s world, and thank God for that.  Even conversion therapy is now outlawed.

But the film is first and most welcome gay holiday romantic comedy film distributed by Netflix.

Peter visits his family for the holidays, bringing his best friend Nick who pretends to be his boyfriend. He learns that his mother, Carole, has arranged a blind date between Peter and her spinning instructor James.  Nick immediately upon arriving, decides to tell the truth that he is not the boyfriend as he does not want to lie to Peter’s family for 10 days.  You are the worst fake boyfriend I know.” remarks Peter.  When Peter gawks at his mother’s blind date set-up, all mother can say is: “You don’t trust me?”   Christmas is with Christmas Carole and Saint Nick.

Nick and Peter deliver good chemistry.  Even their characters work well.  Nick is a handyman who can fix anything while Peter can only fix poinsettias.   When Peter’s father asks Nick where a gay person has learnt to all all the handiwork, he remake that he learns a lot from HGTV.  “Is that porn? the dad asks.  “A bit,” is Nick’s hilarious reply that all gay men can appreciate.

The film benefits also from the excellent casting of Peter’s family.  It is the hilarious script with a laugh-out loud line per minute and the camp performances that make this movie.  Trust me, I never laughed so much in a romantic comedy before.  The only complaint is the script going sappy occasionally.

Michael Mayer directs and with aplomb and  style.   And Mayer comes with the highest credentials.  In 2007, Mayer won his first Tony Award for his direction of the musical adaptation of Spring Awakening (2006), which also won the award for Best Musical.  He was nominated for the 2002 Tony for his direction of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which he then directed on London's West End. Mayer also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical for both Spring Awakening and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

SINGLE ALL THE WAY is true and true a gay film, made by and for gay people, particularly males.  The dialogue that comes out from the mouth of the characters are exactly what would be heard at a gay party.  Straights might find all the dialogue a bit too much - being too gay, too camp, too irrelevant but only too real.  The words often come but a mile a minute and thankfully, so do the holes which are prime for re-use when one goes to the next gay party.

Don’t expect SINGLE ALL THE WAY to be a festive masterpiece.  But it is a funny totally entertaining gay and camp film the film is so jolly and gay.

 

THE SOUVENIR PART 2 (UK 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Joanna Hogg

 

THE SOUVENIR PART 2, the sequel is a continuation of the much applauded first film by writer/director Joanna Hogg, who provides not only more of the same but a maturity in her treatment of her subject as well as in her main character and life itself.   

In the first film, Joanna Hogg wrote the script based on her real-life experiences while attending film school in London in the early '80s.   Academy Award Winning actress Tilda Swinton and Hogg have been friends since they were ten years old, and Hogg cast Swinton’s daughter in the title role of Julie  Swinton plays Julie’s dominant mother in both films.  Honor Swinton Byrne, a non-professional actress, is seen by Hogg as a reflection of herself.  In that film, she creates a film school project while balancing a toxic relationship with an older man.

THE SOUVENIR PART 2 is an autobiographical film within an autobiographical film.  Part 2 shows the aftermath of her tumultuous relationship.  Julie begins to untangle her fraught love for him in making her graduation film, sorting fact from his elaborately constructed fiction.

A fair portion of the film goes into both the preparation of her graduation film (that is untitled).  Hogg’s film shows the complication of filmmaking experienced by a newcomer to filmmaking including all the problems such as finance and conflicts of the different crew working on the film.  Director Richard Ayoade (SUBMARINE, his breakout film) plays an opinionated Patrick who is never afraid to voice his opinions on Julie’s work.  The others in the crew appear satisfied and trusting of Julie’s instincts except for her D.P. who remains frustrated at having to change the time of the scene from night to day.  “It would help to know what is going on,” he cries.  This, as everyone knows, is a common complaint as only the director has his or her vision clear at the time.  The frequent outbursts make the film both more dramatic and realistic.  While all this is going on, Julie has a sexual fling with a handsome young actor Jim (Charlie Heaton).  It is as if Julie has learnt from his previous relationship and also practised some wrong moves.  No relationship comes about from this sexual encounter, which is very erotically filmed by Hogg.  In another scene set in a pub, Julie makes advances towards another man, only to discover that he is gay, waiting to meet up with his boyfriend.  Julie finally confesses to her psychiatrist that she misses having a relationship to share intimacies with someone she describes as a controlled risk taker.  Her talk makes the movie a marvel, showing the filmmaker’s maturity through her lead character.

PART 2 is very well paced with a musical interlude to brighten up the story, complete with images of nature.

THE SOUVENIR PART 2 was clearly overlooked this year for Cannes’ Official Film Selection.  But no loss here, as the film will be available to be seen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on December 3.

Trailer: 

 

THIS GAME’S CALLED MURDER (USA 2020) **
Directed by Adam Sherman

 

From the film’s title, one might expect a sophisticated murder mystery involving parlour games played by perhaps clever dinner guests.  But the first few minutes of the film show otherwise.  A well endowed male in drag is being bloody murdered by bright red stilettos by Mr. Wallendorf (Ron Perlman from HELLBOY who favours these kinds of outrageous roles).  Director Sherman aims at trashy kitsch and there are heaps of trash littered throughout his film.  If a trashy film is what one is looking for, then look no more.  This film is it.  The story contains  characters who are mostly trashy; the story is total trash; the colour of the production sets, costumes and props are all of the same.

The plot is relatively so simple that one can consider that there is close to none.   The plot involves the relationships  of the dysfunctional Wallendorf family.  The audience learns that Mr. Wallendorf is all so freaked out regarding the recent disappearance of his daughter Jennifer(Vanessa Marano).   He employs his two spies to find her whereabouts.  They come up with some good results, but Mr. Wallendorf is so fucked up, he only hears what he has to hear.  In the meantime, his wife has lost a whole lot of Ramen noodles, after the truck is hijacked by a gang of crazy female thieves.   The daughter posts her whereabouts on the internet, so she should be easily found.  However, they do not follow the positions as they assume that she is doing this to mislead people on her whereabouts  But then they also later think that she thinks that people are thinking this reasoning and she is actually at the place of her postings.

Among the outrageous set-pieces the audience is ‘treated’ to are;

- the elaborate manufacture of ramen in a noodle factory

- a viscous wrestling match, fight-club style between one of the female thieves and a Hulk Hogan type opponent

- a colourful setup bar called Annabell’s where things happen

Despite the nonsense director Sherman puts out on screen, the best is the father and daughter confrontation after he notices that she has returned home unannounced.  And she has dried puke all over herself that her father sees.  “Don’t call me pumpkin!” yells the daughter at the father, who deliberately keeps calling her pumpkin to annoy her.  When asked for an explanation, she says that she is not going to give him any as he would not understand it anyway.

Not everything in Sherman’s film works.  The robbery and other antics by the female gang come across as too forced.  They are not funny or amusing and merely annoying and boring.  The daughter also gets one one’s nerves too soon.  She survives on champagne and her red stilettos.   Her boyfriend who has quite the body does not seem to mind that she has lipstick smeared all over her face and the accompanying dried puke.

See THIS GAME’S CALLED MURDER only if so bored that you can risk not being more bored by pure trashiness.

 Trailer: 

 

TWAS THE NIGHT (USA 2021) **1/2

Directed by The Ro Bros.

 

TWAS THE NIGHT is a family Christmas dinner gathering complicated by the fact that the hosting recently engaged couple is trying to hide a supposedly dead body from their respective parents.  This sounds like quite a lame premise for a movie, but The Ros Bros. who directed this comedy and wrote the script have hired a cast that try their damned best to make this darn thing work.  And the lead actors Nicole Pringle and Steven Perez are quite funny.  So, for the undemanding viewer, watching this sort of TV movie is relaxing and untaxing.  To the Brothers’ credit, there are a few laugh-out laughs to make watching the film worth the time.

Life is lovely for Holly (Pringle) and Nick (Perez). They just got engaged, their careers are growing, and are preparing their new home to have over their soon-to-be in-laws for the first time.   Stressed with the holiday decorations and only a short time before the parents arrive, Holly accepts help from a nearby man in a Santa suit to put the final touches on their holiday décor.   As he perfects the final adornment, a misfortunate accident sends him flying off a ladder, rendering him unconscious. Frantic and focused on making good first impressions, Holly and Nick resort to the only choice they see as reasonable – hide the body in the bathroom and invite the in-laws in.

The script stays ahead of the audience most of the time.  When the film opens, Holly is stamped a ‘Santa Hater’.  The reason is revealed only later in the film.  The couple live in a house, but nothing says whether they are married or not, till 20 minutes into the film when a cashier asks Nick how his girlfriend is.  Nicole is black but both her parents are white.  Nothing is said about this, so one assumes that they are Nicole’s adoptive parents.  Nick’s mother is black and father is white.

When the parents finally find the body of Santa Claus. Nicole’s mother offers her this advice in what is the film’s funniest line: “You cannot invite any Santa Claus from the mall to your home for milk and cookies!” to which the father replies: “You two are grounded.”

There are a few corny lines like the one said by Santa before being knocked off the ladder: “You can only be happy as the people next to you.”.  And there are more similar ones: “People only respect you as much as you respect yourself!”  It appears that the Ro. Bros are self-help gurus besides being filmmakers.

TWAS THE NIGHT opens in select theatres and on demand December the 3rd.  No need to rush to see this one.

 Trailer: 

 

 

WOLF (Ireland/Poland 2021) *

Directed by Nathalie Biancheri

 

Jacob (George MacKay, best known from his breakout film 1917) has species dysphoria and believes he is a wolf trapped inside the body of a teenager.   There is no explanation how he came to be in this state.  The audience is as baffled as his concerned parents. 

Jacob is sent to “the zoo,” a clinic specializing in the condition, operated under the watchful eye of Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine).  Nicknamed “the zookeeper,” the controversial and cruel practitioner — who could make Narcissus himself blush — enacts extreme “curative” therapies, expecting nothing short of toadying behaviour and swift reform from his pet subjects.   Other animal parents include Rufus the German shepherd (Fionn O’Shea), Judith the parrot (Lola Petticrew), Ivan the duck (Senan Jennings), Jeremy the squirrel (Darragh Shannon), Louise the horse (Elsa Fionuir), Annalisa the panda (Karise Yansen), and Ola the spider (Amy Macken), Wolf sends up a cacophony of alarms and excursions.   

WOLF is the silliest serious drama of the festival and is a total waste of time.   At least the similar film, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 THE LOBSTER where  humans decide which animal they will be, took the concept in stride and ended up being very entertaining and insightful.  The film is supposed to be a powerful reflection on self-determination and belonging in societies that dictate behaviour but the film never amounts to anything.  MacKay howls through his role while the veteran actor Paddy Considine delivers a Nazi-type character performance for his role in the cardboard zookeeper.  WOLF is howlingly awful!

Trailer: 

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This Week's Film Reviews ( Dec 10, 2021)

20 Nov 2021

The film of the week is Steven Spielberg's long anticpated remake of the 1961 classic WEST SIDE STORY.  Spielberg is in top form here.  WEST SIDE STORY 2021 and the upcoming THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH are the two best films of the year.

 

FILM REVIEWS:

 

AGNES (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Mickey Reece

 

As the adage goes: God works in mysterious ways.  And more so in movies.  The last few weeks saw three god related films, BENEDETTA about a frivolous nun and the God intervention Italian THE HAND OF GOD.  AGNES, a demon possession film set in a convent is an even stranger one.  AGNES opens near Christmas but is not one’s average family Christmas movie.

The film starts with the unthinkable.  Mother Superior (Mary Buss) gathers the nuns for a birthday dinner at their Carmelite convent.  But at the party, Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) goes wildly out of control, hurling foul-mouthed words while tea cups levitate in the air.  This is similar to the possession of Regan the child re-set in a convent this time.  Once again a rookie priest and an experienced one, both of whom have problems of their own are sent to do the casting out of the demon.  This is a priest-in-waiting (Jake Horowitz) and his disillusioned mentor (Ben Hall).  Mother Superior takes an instant dislike to the young rookie, thinking him a temptation to the young nuns.  Unlike THE EXORCIST their methods backfire, leaving a wake of terror and trauma.   Included is a nose bitten off scene during the first exorcism attempt which should delight fans who love their horror with lots of blood.

If one wonders about the accuracy of the film, it should be noted that Reece co-wrote the script with a Catholic expert, John Selvidge who has collaborated with Reece in the past.

If one is unfamiliar with the film’s director, Oklahoma-based Reece has made 25 features in just over a decade.  AGNES is the third in a loose trilogy
of women-centric psychological melodramas, including Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart and Climate of the Hunter).   A side plot involves another nun, Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn), a friend of Agnes, who is apprehensive of what is going on.  She is forced, nonetheless, to care for Agnes.  “You don’t have the luxury to be scared,” scolds Mother Superior.

As much as possession films are mostly dead serious, director Reece injects much of his tongue-in-cheek humour into his entry.  Take the following line used for exorcism: “You might fool men, but God will not be mocked.  Go to hell, you cocksucker!’”  Or the possessed nun asking the priests to touch her wee-wee.

Ben Hall and Mary Buss spice up the show with their tongue-in-cheek performances, playing characters that are constantly ill at ease with each other and connoting bantering.

Director Reece balances the horror and humour in his brand of filmmaking that is seldom seen.  AGNES is no classic, but it is good for a few laughs in what might be more comedy than horror delivered.

AGNES opens at the Carlton Cinemas in Toronto and is also available December 10 to rent or buy on the Apple TV app/iTunes and other VOD platforms.

Trailer: 

 

 

BEING THE RICARDOS (USA 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

 

BEING THE RICARDOS is the tumultuous story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz who became household celebrities with their hit TV show I LOVE LUCY.  Writer/director Sorkin intercuts the drama with real people who have worked with the Ricardos to talk about their show and about the couple.   The semi documentary semi non documentary blamed works well to enhance the story’s credibility.

“Lucy I’m Home!”  These are three words almost every household in America are familiar with - the words of Desi Arnaz to Lucille Ball, when he comes home from work.  But at the start of this film, Lucy (Nicole Kidman) replies: “Where have you been all this time, you Cuban dimwit.”  The film promises a lot to come including a never before known or seen Desi (Javier Bardem) and Lucy, and the controversy that comes with the announcement by newscaster Walter Winshell that Lucille Ball is a communist.

BEING THE RICARDOS is the highly anticipated Amazon Original Movie premiering on December 21.  It has theatrical release on December the 10th.  Directed by Aaron Sorkin, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are threatened by shocking personal accusations, a political smear and cultural taboos in Being the Ricardos. A revealing glimpse of the couple’s complex romantic and professional relationship, the film takes audiences into the writers’ room, onto the soundstage and behind closed doors with Ball and Arnaz during one critical production week of their ground-breaking sitcom I Love Lucy.

Academy Award Winner Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are two of the best actors around and are the ideal choice to play the titular couple.  The question is whether the Academy will give these two Oscar nods for their performances.  Bardem and Kidman both deliver stellar acts but this year the competition is really tough in a year where superior films abound.

The film covers a few things few know about Lucille Ball.  The film talks about her wanting to be a serious actress, maybe starring in ALL ABOUT EVE.  But in reality, her films never did well.  Her YOURS, MINE AND OURS with Henry Fonda turned out a non-funny comedy and her musical with her in the lead in MAME was a disastrous flop.  But her I LOVE LUCY and THE LUCY SHOW were huge successes that I had watched religiously as a kid.  In America, when the show was televised Monday, the shops were empty, as everyone stayed home to watch, there being no recording means to tape the show at the time. 

Fans of Lucy might be disappointed by the fact that this is a drama and not a comedy on the couple’s life.  Director Sorkin, known to make films on controversial subjects (best known for penning THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but a director as well - MOLLY’S GAME) undertakes the difficult task of balancing the drama and comedy to keep fans at least comfortable.  Sorkin stages a solid climax (not to be revealed in the review) that proves that the power couple is more intelligent and talented than the couple they portray in the series.

Trailer: 

THE BOATHOUSE (Canada 2020) **
Directed by Hannah Cheeseman

 

One wonders the reason many directors keep the audience in the dark with the plot before revealing plot points to them.  It can be extremely frustrating as can be witnessed in THE BOATHOUSE.  What is the relationship between Tom and Anne?  It is left ambiguous till half way through the film.  At first thought, Anne could have been Tom’s eldest daughter.  Nothing is said except the facts that she is at THE BOATHOUSE with Tom and his son and daughter.  When Anne and Tom engage in sex, it becomes apparent that the assumption that they are father and daughter are wrong.  And what is the relationship between Tom’s wife Alisha and Anne?  Again it is revealed after half the film has passed that Alisha is Anne’s piano teacher and mentor for her music studies at the University.

The film begins with a doctor concerned about Anne’s mental health.  Anne is sleeping badly, sleepwalking and having passing out spells.  The reason given is the car accident, but one is never sure as there is no flashback on any car accident and the accident supposedly never happened.  And again an ambiguity and loose end is the reason the doctor believes it to be so.

Director Cheeseman provides a good dark and moody atmosphere in what is a psychological horror with lots of character study but her slow plodding requires patience while waiting for things to happen.

Despite the calculated pacing of what turns out to be a sexual psychological thriller, the result is total frustration at having to guess what is happening throughout the entire film.  The director and writer thinks this makes up a good mystery and perhaps heightened suspense.  Whether it does, could very well be. but an extremely frustrating slow burn.  The film feels like an over pretentious form of the old 1970’s film ONCE YOU KISS A STRANGER where Carol Lynley played the disturbed sexual fling, with again the familiar theme of film classics like Clint Eastwood’s PLAY MISTY FOR ME and Adrian Lyne’s FATAL ATTRACTION.

THE BOATHOUSE has a one night screening on December the 13th and opens VOD/Digital on the 14th.

Trailer: 

 

 

 

DEATH VALLEY (Canada 2021) **

Directed by Matthew Ninaber

 (embargoed till Monday)

Director Matthew Ninaber’s latest film is a Shudder original horror film, his PSYCHO GOREMAN, a kiddies horror film also picked up by Shudder.  PSYCHO GOREMAN was not impressive primarily for the reason that it is a kids and not adults oriented film.  That said, DEATH VALLY is not that impressive either as an adult horror film.  The trouble is that what transpires on screen is nothing new, and has been seen time and again in one horror film or another.  The monster puts the monster in a war setting, but nothing fresh really comes out of it.  Director Ninaber does double duty playing the monster, not that anyone can recognize him, unless he looks that ugly.

The premise follows mercenaries or soldiers with nothing to lose.  They are hired to rescue a bioengineer, a female, imprisoned in a cold war bunker. Upon entering the ominous facility, they find themselves in a fight for their lives when they come under attack from an unknown and deadly creature.  The creature is apparently some alien frozen in the ice waiting to spawn with humans - a rip-off creature from the classic film THE THING and its remake by John Carpenter.

The film also stars the director’s brother Jeremy Ninaber (ESCAPE THE DARK), Ethan Mitchell (ESCAPE THE DARK) and Kristen Kaster (IF I SHOULD DIE).

When a secret experiment goes horribly wrong, bioengineer Dr. Chloe (Kaster) becomes trapped inside a secret underground facility.  This is what happens in the beginning scene at the film's start.  With only 24 hours before a fatal decontamination protocol destroys the entire laboratory, Chloe deploys an emergency distress signal before a terrifying creature (Matthew Ninaber) of unknown origin can consume what’s left of her.  Alerted by the distress beacon, battle-weary guns for hire, Marshall (Mitchell) and Beckett (Jeremy Ninaber) are commissioned to carry out a covert operation to extract the imprisoned scientist.  Upon deployment, the team is ambushed by another heavily armed militia hell-bent on finding a way into the compound themselves.  Now the film becomes a war/mercenary film.

Severely outnumbered, the mercenaries find entry to the bunker through an unsealed emergency hatch only to find themselves in a horrific fight for survival. With time and ammunition running out, the team must locate Dr. Chloe while also navigating the underground maze of corridors before they are hunted down one by one.

To director Ninaber’s credit, the battle scenes look authentic enough - which means plenty of gunfire and some foggy scenes which one can hardly see, with soldiers in uniform who can hardly be able to distinguish one from the other.  All this is an excuse for the horrid monster, who once appears turns the war movie into a mother horror flick.

It does not help that there are no personalities written into the characters.  The soldiers are just there in DEATH VALLEY.  No background, nothing!  There is also little interesting banter, hardly any small talk and humour between the soldiers and other characters.  Nothing is invested in the characterizations meaning that none really will care who will live or be killed by the monster.

Best given DEATH VALLEY a miss as it gets too boring only too quickly.  The film's ad reads - the mission has gone to hell.  Apparently the mission is not the only thing that ended up in hell.

THE HATING GAME (USA 2021) *

Directed by Peter Hutchings


Based on the Harlequin-type novel (it might as well very be one), the title HATING GAME implies just one thing - that the hate can be turned to love and that love conquers all.  Written by Christina Mengert based on the all popular romantic novel by Sally Thorne, this is the romantic comedy of romantic comedies.  What this means is that one would expect total kitsch, a film full of cliches and predictability and total boredom.  It would not be surprising that romantic comedy addicts will also find this film totally ‘blah’.

Based on the best-selling book, THE HATING GAME tells the story of ambitious good girl Lucy Hutton (Lucy Hale) and her cold, efficient work nemesis, Joshua Templeton (Austin Stowell, looking like Dennis Quaid or Ben Affleck). Committed to achieving professional success without compromising her ethics, Lucy ultimately embarks on a ruthless game of one-upmanship against Josh, a rivalry that is increasingly complicated by her mounting attraction to him.

Lucy Hutton has always been certain that the nice girl can get the corner office. She is charming and accommodating and prides herself on being loved by everyone at Bexley & Gamin. Everyone except for coldly efficient, impeccably attired, physically intimidating Joshua Templeman. And the feeling is mutual.

Trapped in a shared office together 40 (OK, 50 or 60) hours a week, they’ve become entrenched in an addictive, ridiculous never-ending game of one-upmanship. There’s the Staring Game. The Mirror Game. The HR Game. Lucy can’t let Joshua beat her at anything—especially when a huge new promotion goes up for the taking.

Committed to achieving professional success without compromising her ethics, Lucy ultimately embarks on a ruthless game of one-upmanship against Josh, a rivalry that is increasingly complicated by her mounting attraction to him.

Maybe Lucy Hutton doesn’t hate Joshua Templeman. And maybe, he doesn’t hate her either. Or maybe this is just another game.  Or maybe they will fall in love and the movie will be over quickly.

There is no reason that director Hutchings could not have lifted his film about the bar of fully ‘blah.  If at least the characters are endearing or the film funny (there is hardly any laugh-out-loud moment in the film), then a fun film might have been OK.  The entire paint ball segment generated zero number of laughs.  The recent romantic comedy that opened on Netflix last week is SINGLE ALL THE WAY.  By making it a gay rom com with characters and actors that are only too funny with a great supporting cast that included Jennifer Coolidge, SINGLE ALL THE WAY turned up a winner all the way unlike THE HATING GAME, a detestable piece of commercial moviemaking at its worst.

“Don’t judge the book by the cover, but in this case it is plain awful.” says Lucy’s friend to her at the bar.  The same can be said about the film.

THE HATING GAME opens December the 10th in select theatres and on Demand.

 

JOY WOMACK: THE WHITE SWAN (Russia/UK/USA 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Dina Burlis, Sergey Gavrilov

 

(Capsule Review) 

(Full review to be posted weekend)

 

JOY WOMACK is the story or biopic doc on a remarkable person.  As the film opens, the audience hears her voice saying that she has worked and trained not be special, not normal.And she has worked in a broken Russian system.

Joy Annabelle Womack is an American ballet dancer.  She is the first American woman to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s main training program with a red diploma, and the second American woman to sign a contract with the Bolshoi Ballet.  She was a principal dancer with the Universal Ballet and Kremlin Ballet, and is currently a prima ballerina at the Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre.   The film is her story.

Besides being an inspirational story, the film includes lots of brilliantly choreographed ballet that should satisfy both ballet and non-ballet fans ready to be converted.

Trailer: 

 

 

MEETING THE BEATLES IN INDIA (Canada 2020) **

Directed by Paul Saltzman

 

The Beatles did not go to India to perform.  In February 1968, the English rock band the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in northern India to take part in a Transcendental Meditation (TM) training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  The visit followed the group's denunciation of drugs in favour of TM and received widespread media attention.  The band's interest in the Maharishi's teachings was led by George Harrison's commitment, and it changed Western attitudes about Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of Transcendental Meditation. The visit was also the most productive period for the Beatles' songwriting.  In India they met Paul Salesman, the director of this film.  The film MEETING THE BEATLES IN INDIA focuses on this meeting and its outcome.

Filmmaker Paul Saltzman retraces his journey of 50 years ago when he spent a life-changing time with the Beatles at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram on the banks of the Ganges River. In 1968, he discovered his own soul, learned meditation, which changed his life, and hung out with John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Fifty years later, he finds "Bungalow Bill" in Hawaii; connects with David Lynch about his own inner journey; as well as preeminent Beatles historian, Mark Lewisohn; Academy Award nominated film composer, Laurence Rosenthal.: and Pattie and Jenny Boyd. And much of this is due to Saltzman's own daughter, Devyani, reminding him that he had put away and forgotten these remarkably intimate photographs of that time in 1968.

The doc does not contain much archive footage or current interviews.  Most of the shots on the Beatles are from old photographs.  The main interview is with David Lynch, immediately recognizable from his fluffed up white hair, hairstyle.

Like most religious organizations, there is always the fall from grace,  The doc should have examined the Yogi’s fall, which would have at least made the doc a bit more interesting.  rumours of the Maharishi's inappropriate behaviour towards Farrow (other celebrities also attended the meetings including Mia Farrow, Donovan, Mike Love and Paul Horn) and another of his female students.  Dirty Yogi! The divisive influence of the Beatles' Greek friend Alexis Mardas, financial disagreements, and suspicions that their teacher was taking advantage of the band's fame have also been cited by biographers and witnesses.

To note, there is also a documentary called THE BEATLES AND INDIA.  That is a 2021 documentary film directed by Indian author and political journalist Ajoy Bose, based on his 2018 book.  It covers the Beatles' immersion in Indian culture and philosophy during the 1960s and the band's influence on India.`

The only plus of the film is to observe The Beatles in a more relaxed light.

MEETING THE BEATLES IN INDIA is a very slight film - more of a curiosity piece than anything else - lasting less than 90 minutes on the Beatles.  Not much about the music of the Beatles but more on Saltzman and TM.  The results in a boring piece unless one is interested in Yogis and TM.

Trailer: 

 

OFF THE RAILS (UK 2020) ***
Directed by Jules Williamson

 

Three best friends from college recreate their post-graduation trip across Europe to honor the memory of their friend Anna. Joining is Anna's 18-year-old daughter Maddie fulfilling her mother's last wish to have them take this trip with her. When lost passports, train strikes and romantic entanglements get in their way, they put old feuds aside to complete the journey and remind themselves that they are still at their peak.

OFF THE RAILS is a journey of 4 ladies to a place in Spain to honour the life of a  recently deceased.  Three of them Kate (Jenny Seagrove), Liz (Sally Phillips) and Cassie (Kelly Preston) and the deceased were the best of friends when young and had their best times in Europe when they were young.  (Who ever does not have a good time when in Europe?)   As an apt gift, the deceased leaves the three with 4 interrail tickets for them and her daughter to relive the memories.  And off they go on the train.  But distractions cause them to go OFF THE RAILS.  The distractions include various romantic interests and flings on the way, drinking parties and mishaps like the losing of their passports.  One needs a passport to travel on the train using interrail, as those who have backpacked in the continent know.

The three women behave badly, wherever they go.  They are loud, obnoxious and only care about themselves.  At a street festival, one of the Spanish onlookers says to the other: “English women are so vulgar.”  “They could be American” replies the other to which the retort comes: “Even worse.”  (One of the 4 is actually American.)  While Americans might be offended by this remark, any English speaking non-American who has been to Europe can attest to this truth - of how awful Americans can behave - mainly for the reason that all they think of is themselves and that American is so great!  This one of the bright observant spots from the film.

The segment of arrest at the Spanish police station might not be that funny but it comes across as quite charming.  This statement applies to much of the film.  The quartet of females have a jolly time, that might be personal but the happiness is contagious.

“We want to be drunk.  We want to dance.  We want to have a good time.  Make it happen, Dan! is one of the film’s lines.

It’s a female movie all the way - with female camaraderie that includes an unnecessary side plot involving the delivery of a baby after a train breakdown.  The delivery does lead, however, to a fling with one of the girls with the Italian town’s mayor, the grandfather of the baby daughter.

The film beats two superstars Judi Dench and Franco Nero.  Dench delivers one to the best eulogies in film while Nero, the Italian gunfighter in the old spaghetti westerns and now husband of Vanessa Redgrave again makes a welcome cameo.  The four actresses hold their own, providing a good contrast of different characters.

OFF THE RAILS should satisfy the non-demanding filmgoer, with a little charm and humour despite some clunky pacing, story and lots of late menopause type humour.

It should be noted that this is Kelly Preston’s (John Travolta’s spouse) last picture, she, playing Cassie, one of the four ladies in the film.  The film contains nice location shots, being filmed in the U.K., Spain and France.

Trailer:

THE ONLY ONE (USA/Canada/France 2021) **
Directed by Noah Gilbert

 

Written by Seth Gilbert and directed by his brother Noah, HORSE LATITUDES, THE ONLY ONE is a romance drama about love lost and love re-found.  Tom (Caitlin Stasey) just turned thirty.  She has spent her whole life chasing her wanderlust, collecting passport stamps, experiences and stories to tell her grandchildren one day. Now, contemplating the question of the biological clock, she arrives on a vineyard in the south of France, when the film begins, to revisit the only man she has ever considered settling down with.  The man, David(Jon Beaver) has been in love with Tom since the first time he met her, but he's spent the six years since she disappeared dedicating himself to the backbreaking art of making wine.  When David decides to cancel all the plans he's made and pursue the relationship he's never been able to forget, Tom has to decide whether to commit to a conventional life or continue her life of adventure.  Director Gilbert moves his film at a slow pace, meaning that the audience have to be very patient to see the couple’s love develop and whether their love will survive. Gilbert must love France as he devotes a lot of time showing the beauty of the vineyards and French countryside.

Why was the film initially called HORSE LATITUDES?  The horse latitudes are located at about 30 degrees north and south of the equator. It is common in this region of the subtropics for winds to diverge and either flow toward the poles (known as the prevailing westerlies) or toward the equator (known as the trade winds). These diverging winds are the result of an area of high pressure, which is characterized by calm winds, sunny skies, and little or no precipitation.

According to legend, the term comes from ships sailing to the New World that would often become stalled for days or even weeks when they encountered areas of high pressure and calm winds. Many of these ships carried horses to the Americas as part of their cargo. Unable to sail and resupply due to lack of wind, crews often ran out of drinking water. To conserve scarce water, sailors on these ships would sometimes throw the horses they were transporting overboard. Thus, the phrase 'horse latitudes' was born.  One can imagine that Gilbert likely changed the course of his film to lessen the influence of horses in his story.

The film requires the audience to care for the characters Tom and David.  But the film does not invest enough effort for the task.  Instead, there are too many distractions in the love story (France, horses, past history of the couple, winemaking …) for one to really one to be interested in the film.

Trailer: 

 

WEST SIDE STORY (USA 2021) *****TOP 10

Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

If one wonders the reason Hollywood has decided to remake the Robert Wise musical 1961 classic WEST SIDE STORY, wonder no longer.  Watching the Steven Spielberg version gives the answer.  The 2021 American musical romantic drama film directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner is a sprawling extravaganza that completes what the original never achieved.  To be truthful, aside from the songs, I never really liked Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY, as I never liked a film that did dance play fighting (between the two gangs).  There was no urgency in a supposedly violent doomed love story.  All this is corrected in this raw, violent and emotional new version, again with all the original songs and dances by Jerome Robbins intact.

The film opens in the 1950’s New York where a sign reads that the slums will be taken over by the city and new buildings erected.  The irony is that the soon to be reclaimed territory is fought over by two rival gangs, the Jets made up of Caucasian Americans and the Sharks formed of Puerto Rican immigrants.  They fight because they are different.  They plan a ‘rumble’ at midnight to battle the fight of all fights, in which the winner gang gets to rule the soon to be gone territory.  Like the Shakespearean ROMEO AND JULIET tragedy, a romance buds between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) from the two different gangs.  Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy) tries to stop the violence, but no one will cooperate.

The best thing about the film is obviously the Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein songs.  The musical’s best songs “Maria”, “I Feel Pretty”, “A Place for Love” and “Tonight’ provide enough nostalgia for audiences everywhere.  And if that is not enough to bring tears to one’s eyes, the romance between Maira and Tony will.

Director Spielberg and writer Kushner bring relevant updates to the story including a trans character of the Jets that is eventually accepted for his bravery.  The racial tension between the two gangs can only be too relevant today than in the 1960s.  The resolve of conflict only after no other course is available only shows that deep down every human being has the capacity to forgive and love.

The 1961 version made stars of the then young newcomers George Chakiris and Richard Beymer.   This one should make a star out of newcomers Mike Faist (who is already a well known entity after DEAR EVAN on Broadway) and Rachel Zegler who plays Maria.  Zegler is nothing short of phenomenal in her role, her eyes radiating passion while she speaks her lines with conviction and flair.  Rita Moreno, who was in the original cast of the film stars as Valentina delivering a performance that should win her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

But the cinematographer by 2-time Oscar Winner Janusz Kaminski is a sight to behold from the dusty and haze interiors of the salt factory where the rumble takes place to the night sky when Tony journeys through the night singing “Tonight” looking for Maria, never mind that people still have their washing hanging out on clothes lines at night, is stunning.

Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY should have everyone applauding by the film’s last reel, a sprawling musical epic that is one of the best films to come out of Hollywood during the Pandemic.

Trailer: 

 

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This Week's Film Reviews ( Nov 19, 2021)

11 Nov 2021

Two sports movies open this week - one excellent and the othertoo awfully feel good.  Surprisinglythe better one has so-so shot tennis matches while the other haas impressively filmed rowing matches.  The Canadian indegenous horror movie DON'T SAY ITS NAME is a worthy time-waster.  Forget the blockbuster GHOSTBUSTER: AFTERLIFE.   Best film opening this week, digitally on Bell Lghtbox: TITAINE.

 

 

FILM REVIEWS:

 

DON’T SAY ITS NAME (Canada 2021) ***
Directed by Reuben Martell

 

DON’T SAY ITS NAME is a horror film shot in Alberta, Canada.  It centres on the indigenous community and the destruction of their environment by a invading coal mining company.  There are many superlative adjectives that can be used to describe this flawed film which forts first two thirds work very well, capturing the attention of its audience wile covering several key current issues that are insightful.  It is only when the film returns to its horror genre roots of the stalking monster that it begins to fall apart. working with her partner Andy

The film opens with a girl walking on a snowy wintry road covered in snow.  She notices a car behind her, that moves towards her, and then stops.  It is stop and go before the car runs her down.  The investigating cop is Betty (Madison Walsh) who is indigenous working with he partner Andy (Justin Lewis).  But when a slew of grossly killing occur, Betty enlists the aid of another indigenous woman, Stacey (Sera-Lys McArthur) by making her her deputy in order to solve the mystery of the killings.  Stacey’s uncle Carosn(Julian Black Antelope) reveals the source of he killings.  It is a spirit.

In the meantime, this monster kills and its apart an assortment of victims form a poacher to a surveyor.  Apparently these are people that do harm to he environment.  It all begins with the victims being the circling of a black followed by the foul smell of a dean animal.  Then they are ripped to death.  If all sounds as if it does not make much sense - it doesn’t. Whenever the monster appears in the story the film falls apart.  When the monster appears, it can be seen and shot at by firearms.   The master can also be invisible.  It seems as if the filmmakers are making up the riles as the film goes along.

On the plus side, whenever the film moves away from the monster, and delves into the family lives of the indigenous people, the film takes a better grasp of the audience.  For this reason the film works better in the first half before the monster spirit wrecks havoc.

The film covers two current issues - that of the plight of the indigenous people as well as female abuse.  I is already widely known in Canada especially in the western provinces the increased problem of missing indigenous women.  The film tackles the issues well.  Stacey, one of the main characters is an indigenous female who has served in the military,  She is a tough cookie as demonstrated in the excellent shot segment where in the parking lot of a diner, a white male from the mini company blocks her car so that he can make advances towards her.  She plays along initially before using the butt of her rifle to hit him in the fact, a scene that will cause many in the audience to cheer quietly.

Though not without flaws, DON’T SAY ITS NAME is an often compelling film, that can be regarded as fully indigenous in the good way magnificently shot in Alberta, Canada.

Trailer: 

 

 

GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (USA 2021) **
Directed by Jason Reitman


The GHOSTBUSTERS franchise beginning with the first one directed by Ivan Reitman with Bill Murray, Dany Aykroyd and Harold Ramis as the original ghostbusting crew is essentially a kids movie about capturing doubling ghosts but made with adults.  The latest of the franchise afterlife is an update.  GHOSTBUSTERS AFTER LIFE is a kids movie with kids aaa the main characters,  There are 4 of them, too females of whom is one black for the film to be more richly and gender correct in these politically correct times.

The film’s opening 10 mite sequence is filled with lots of special effects in eluding a car that goes speeding in the night only to end up overturned.  It is hard to see what is really happening and to figure out what is really happening either.  The sequence is later explained in the film.  This beginning sequence is a foreshadow of what is yet to come - a complete mess of narrative and incomprehensible story-telling, with many explanations going well above the kiddie target audience but filled with special effects gone berserk.

After being evicted from their home, a single mother, Callie (Cary Coon) and her two children, the younger daughter, Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and older son, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) are forced to move to a decayed farmhouse in Summerville, Oklahoma, left to them by the children's late grandfather, where a series of unexplained earthquakes are occurring despite not being situated on any volcanic fault and strange things are happening in an old mine which once belonged to the alleged occultist Ivo Shandor.  The children discover the history of their grandfather with the original Ghostbusters, who have since been largely forgotten by the world beyond their fan base.  When supernatural phenomena relating to New York City's "Manhattan Crossrip of 1984" arises and threatens the world, the kids, along with their family and friends, must solve the decades-old mystery of the relocation of their grandfather and use the equipment of the Ghostbusters, and become their successors to save it.

Phoebe is the brains of the operation - a brilliant scientist despite her age.  This is good inspiration for school kids to appreciate the non-arctic subjects at school.  Mr. GRooberson played by Paul Rude, Phoebe’s teacher, plays the mother’s romantic interest.

The original GHOSTBUSTERS cast make welcome cameos at the end.  Dan Aykrod, Bill Murray play the biggest cameos and the late Harold Ramos makes an appearance too.  The film is lovingly dedicated ‘To Harold’ as the words are announced at the end of the film.  When the original GHOSTBUSTERS song is heard on the soundtrack during the film’s closing credits, the film digs deep into the audience’s nostalgia.  One then recalls how cheesy and amusing the first GHOSTBUSTERS was.

This latest (and maybe final) film had trouble in the making owing to a variety of reasons not including the effect of the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Besides the death of Rami in 2014, Bill Murray had objections to many of the previous scripts.  Murray seems happy and content in this film.

GHOSTBUSTERS:AFTERLIFE, despite a few excellent nostalgic moments from the past films, is a messy update to a kiddies version with too many special effects and horrid storytelling.  

Trailer: 

 

HEART OF CHAMPIONS (USA 2021) **

Directed by Michael Mailer

 

The trouble with sports films in which the underdog team trains and eventually become champions is that they often try too hard to become feel-good movies.  The feel-good aspect should be a consequence of the film and not the purpose.  And often if the filmmakers try too hard, the film becomes over-sentimental, sappy and bait for the critics to divulge.

The film begins with a rowing race, in which the teaming question comes in last as a result of infighting and lack of direction.  The exam captain is Alex (Alexander Ludwig) while the talent Chris (Charles Melton) is the leader that the team actually respects.  John (Alex MacNicoll) is a newbie entering the team while carrying a whole ton of baggage including the death of his parents and girlfriend in a car accident.  Into the picture comes Coach Murphy (Michael Shannon), a war veteran given the task of transforming the team into a winning one.  But his decisions face tough opposition, especially from Alex’s dad, Mr. Singleton (David James Elliot) who wants his son to shine as captain and to hold top spot on the team.

Director Mailer studied at Harvard and was impressed with Harvard’s rowing crew before coming across the script SWING which he championed into HEART OF CHAMPIONS.  He made the Harvard team the enemy in this story as the Harvard team is the difficult one to beat in the rowing championships.

To be politically correct, the actor hired to play the college President and an overall open and nice guy is a black.

“Who is the leader of the team?”  “It is measured in the heart of those who follow.  No one was following you.”  These are the type of questions the coach loves to pose to the rowers.  “What is the purpose?  To work as a team.   Eventually the purpose is known to be the winning of the National Championships beating out their main competitor and regular winner, the Hard team.

The romance slows down the film’s pace a little and could be done away with without much effect.  The romance is likely there to please

Yes this team consists of a large proportion of assholes, the biggest one being the team captain.  The script palsy the fact that all the bulked up beefy rowers have most let it all go into their heads.

Michael Shannon, once again proves himself an outstanding actor.  Shannon (TAKE SHELTER, his breakout role) is a 2-time Academy Award Nominee for Best supporting Actor in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD.  As the coach, he shows that the coach can be both inspirational as well as an asshole.

The camera work is impressive, especially the rowing races.  The camera can never be seen and yet all angles of the boats in the race are observed.  There is a fondness of overhead shots, showing the beauty of synchronized rowing and the majesty of the river.

Despite a solid twist in the otherwise predictable tale, the film cannot help but descend into cliched territory falling into the trap of sentimentality and the need to pull the heartstrings in a feel good movie.  Kudos though, for the young actors and Shannon for their great effort though as well as good camerawork on the rowing.

Trailer: 

EL HOMBRE BÚFALO (THE BUFFALO MAN) (Mexico 2020) **
Directed by David Torres

 

Inspired by true events as the words indicate at the beginning of the film,, writer-director David Torres’  fantastical thriller underscores the grave dangers of investigative journalism in Mexico.  The film follows Eric (Raúl Briones), a driven young journalist in Mexico City who focuses on inequality, abuse of authority and other issues that seem to place him directly in the crosshairs of some very dangerous people.   At the start of the film, he is shot.  But is he dead?  He does not fall on the ground.  Though he’s about to uncover a criminal open-pit mining venture, after receiving multiple death threats, he reconsiders his line of work.  However, after becoming obsessed with the urban legend of “the Buffalo Man” a mythical being who takes care of abandoned children and appears for no reason at several parts of the film, he decides to write again, even if it costs him his life.

The film also follows several other characters that Eric encounters.

Most of the action, rather than taking place is told of its occurrences by the characters of the film.  Eric talks of his mother, who is also a journalist who left him when he was a boy, to stay with his cousin.  his cousin also talks about Eric.  Director Torres loves to have his film jump among his different narrative threads.  When shooting one of his female characters, for example, his camera approaches her from different angles as she is walking before filming her on a bicycle.  All this can be quite confusing and annoying.  Torres has made what is assumed to be an art/experimental film and films of such are often require a lot of patience to take in.  The one hour running time occasionally feels like an infinity.

Trailer: 

 

KING RICHARD (USA 2021) ****
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

One of my favourite films of 2012 is the little-seen documentary on the Williams Sisters, Venus and Serena Williams called VENUS AND SERENA.  Directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major featuring the awesome song HEART OF A WARRIOR by Wycliff Jean, the song when played as the sisters battle out their tennis matches is simply euphoric entertainment.  In the doc, their father Richard Williams was seen to be the driving force of the sisters’ success.  

Based on the true story that inspired the world, KING RICHARD follows the journey of Richard Williams (Will Smith), an undeterred father instrumental in raising two of the most extraordinarily gifted athletes of all time, who will end up changing the sport of tennis forever.  Driven by a clear vision of their future and using unconventional methods, Richard executes the plan that will take Venus and Serena Williams from the streets of Compton, California to the global stage as legendary icons.

The father is now the major subject of the new sports drama film produced and starring Will Smith, KING RICHARD.  While telling the story of the success of Venus and Serena, it focuses on the father’s dedication and often dangerous obsession for success.  This makes a good drama that is well written by Zach Baylin.  Drama over a feel good sports movie, even though the feel-good aspect still rears its head to be seen.  The story of KING RICHARD stops once Venus plays her championship matches and comes in number 2 in the world.  The doc went on to show the success of Serena and the injury and rivalry of the sister as both ascend the ladder of mastery.  Still, the drama of KING RICHARD plays well.  Who does not like a good solid drama? There are good super dramatic confrontation scenes, the best two being the ones between an angry wife and the other between the coach and Richard Williams.

Will Smith delivers an Oscar winning performance but the best performance belongs to Aunjanue Ellis playing his wife, Oracene "Brandy" Price.  I would put my bet that she will come away with the Best Supporting Actress statuette.

For a sports drama about tennis, there are surprisingly few segments of the tennis matches.  The only matches seen are those that are deemed absolutely necessary, such as the final match, and even so, the match is shot only from the front and back of the players rather than the side of the court.  The matches emphasize the ball, being in or out rather than the expressions of the players or of the crowd.   Still, this is a film that celebrates the sport of tennis, which makes the film even more enjoyable for this reviewer who plays tennis 5 times a week.

Two sport dramas make their debut this week - KING RICHARD and the Michael Shannon feel-good sports film about college rowing HEART OF CHAMPIONS.  The latter is plain awful, falling into every single trap of story predictability with just unbelievable cliched dialogue.  KING RICHARD, on the other hand, is a sports film that offers an alternative dramatic story focusing on the drama rather than the sport thus transcending the typical sport biopic formulae. 

Trailer: 

MA BELLE, MY BEAUTY (USA 2021) **
Directed by Marion Hill

 

The film opens with a singer, Fred (a very dreamy Lucien Guinard) playing the guitar of one of his songs to his new wife, Bertie (Idella Johnson) who sings it out for him.   Fred then goes to the train station to pick up a woman, unknown to his wife, Lane (Hannah Pepper).  They kiss, which is a first surprise to the audience.  “This will be a nice surprise for her,”  he says.  “She hates surprises,” is Lane’s reply. It turn out what the tree have been having a polyamorous affair.  Then Fred and Bertie got married.  Lane has not kept in touch until the visit now.

As expected, jealousies will erupt, pretentiousness heighten and past skeletons in the close revealed.  Director Hill has made a very boring movie despite having three lovers come together.  The trouble is that each of the three characters look totally self absorbed in themselves and no one else.  Who would really care what happens to each one of them or to what happens in the film.

Director Hill uses silly tactics like loud music played as shots of the building he won are shown.  There is no logic in this or why different buildings need to be shown.  The south of France is beautiful and ancient.  The audience gets it.  Hill also uses slow music when her scenes are shown in slow motion.  There are scenes where the two women ride their bicycles on the country road.  Lane has a toned shirt that flows in the wind as she rides in the wind.  It is a pretty sight, but has been done before, especially in French films and it looks as if the shirt is left unbuttoned to show off the scene rather than satisfying Lane’s comfort.

The south of France is celebrated in Hill’s film.  The scene where the trio bathe in the stream looks like the aqueduct near Avignon, where myself have bathed in the cold water.  The closing credits mention the film shot around Anduze, which is close to Avignon.

A really annoying scene is the evening dinner party scene where Bertie gets to sing to the audience.  Yes, the fan that she is a good singer has already been noted,  But the audience has to sit through an excruciating sequence where the soundtrack is turned up several notches too loud, and Bertie ends up embarrassing herself rather than impressing them.

The part where the newcomer Not (Sivan Noam Shimon) gets to seduce Lane in the new fast sports car, (or is it the other way around) is almost unbearable to watch,  The whole sequence is predictable, corny and silly.   In the film, it seems that anybody can get anyone they wish for sex, because director lane thinks it is so cool.

It is also odd that the character Bertie, who can hardly utter a word of French, is happy in the town in the south of France.  The Fred character is totally annoying too, smiling all the time and acting as if he knows what is going on and thinking he is right and can do anything he wishes.

MA BELLE, MY BEAUTY has been described in the ad as a polyamorous story - whatever that means.  It is just another name for this menage-a-trois.  The film ends up a very bad, boring and pretentious exercise right from the very beginning.

Trailer: 

SHE PARADISE (USA 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Maya Cozier

 

When the film opens, the audience sees a young teen, Sparkle (a breakthrough performance by Onessa Nestor) who says she is 17 at the local market buying peppers.  When she notices a few falling on the ground nearby, she tells the vegetable vendors she does not want the peppers and picks up the ones on the dirt.  Sparkle’s poverty is confirmed when she returns home to her grandfather who has a tough time making a living as a goldsmith.  She loves him (she calls him Papa) dearly but he is strict about rules in his house.  “I can do anything I want, this is my house,” Sparkle complains that Papa goes into her room.  At this point, director Cozier has grabbed the audience’s  affection for Sparkle.  Sparkle is a good person who tries hard, going through a tough life, which many in the audience can relate to.

It is not surprising then that Sparkle is attracted to dancing and the money to be made from it.  Sparkle is desperate to be a soca dancer to escape a dead end life.   She botches her first audition with the dance troupe but uses her wit to convince them to take her under their wing.The girls bring Sparkle into a life of partying, dancing, and young love but is it what Sparkle wants - or needs? She catches the eye of a music producer, Skinny who hires her and her 3 friends to shoot a video.  But Sparkle gets to learn that show biz is not all sparkles.  She falls for Skinny despite warning from her dancing mentor that he is a nasty man who chucks girls away once he has had his way with them.

SHE PARADISE is a coming-of-age story set in a remote town with dance videos, partying and various super-dirty dances as a backdrop.  It is a  tremendously spirited film that is compelling to watch- hilarious and totally entertaining.  It is so much more interesting too to see life in a different country and how young female teens deal with their problems.

Director Maya Cozier is a real prize, kudos given to her for the delivery of one of the most spirited dance films of the year.  His background in dance/choreography is expected.  Cozier has only made a couple of short films (and winning ones at that) in the past.  She gained years of experience working as a dancer/choreographer for music videos and television shows (on her own and as part of a champion hip hop crew that represented the island at the world hip hop championships).  At age 18, Maya had her first international gig when Nicki Minaj flew to Trinidad with Hype Williams to direct the ‘Pound the Alarm’ music video. It was on set as a background model that she became fascinated with the process of filmmaking.  A lot of the naughty dancing in the movie can be clearly seen to have been influenced by Minaj, since Minaj had made famous her ‘booty’ shaking moves.  The boody shaking and gyrating provide a lot of the film’s hilarity and spirit.

The film’s country of origin is the United States.  Though the film never clearly states where it is set, it looks life from some African small town, the setting is actually in a city in one of the twin cities of Trinidad and Tobago, as the closing credits indicate.

Trailer: 

 

THE SHUROO PROCESS (USA 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Emrhys Cooper

 

Directed by Emrhys Cooper and co-written by her and Donal Brophy, THE SHUROO PROCESS  is a dramedy that cleverly bends the drama and comedy of successful journalism and religious cults.

Religious cults have been frequent favourite topics for filmmakers.  In one of Jane Campion’s best movies, HOLY SMOKE, we see Harvey Kietel wearing a bright red dress in the Australian outback.  How he got to this ridiculous stage made one of the best movie making storytelling.  Kietel is hired by a family to de-program and bring back the daughter played by Kate Winslet from a cult in India.  Then there is also the hilarious THE GURU with Mike Myers that I found absolutely hilarious that everyone else hated.   THE SHUROO PROCESS is remarkably funny as the opening first act sees the breakdown of successful journalist Parker Schafer (Fiona Dourif) after her lover leaves her for his ex.  Parker completely loses it at the Awards ceremony.  How low can you go?  Says also, the words at the start of the film.

When a NYC journalist’s life crashes and burns, Parker becomes infatuated with a celebrity guru, and begins a wild journey of love and grand larceny.  Running from her past, she hits rock bottom.   In a drug fueled downward spiral, she blows up her career and reputation in a spectacular act of self-sabotage, giving her best friend and boss no choice but to fire her.   Then comes the cult craziness!  With nothing to lose, Parker reluctantly tries a remote wellness retreat with the famed Guru Shuroo. Over three days, a diverse group of unlikely characters are brought together through Shuroo’s process: digital detox, meditation, gas lighting, mescaline trips… fraud!

The opportunity rises then when Parker makes a discovery.   Will Parker expose the guru and rise back to the top?  The more important question is whether the audience would care for Parker and wish her success.  The answer, because this is more a comedy, is that it does not really matter.  As long as the laughs keep coming….. and they do, nobody would really care.

THE SHUROO PROCESS is no Jane Campion HOLY SMOKE classic, but it is still a solid comedy.  There is a soon to be opening French film that also pokes fun at journalism, Bruno Dumont’s FRANCE which I also highly recommend!

 

Trailer: 

THE STRINGS (Canada 2021) **
Directed by Ryan Glover

 

In the dead of winter, a musician. Catherine (Teagan Johnston aka Toronto indie alternative music artist Little Coyote)  travels to a remote cottage to work on new material, but soon finds herself under attack from a mysterious dark presence.

THE STRINGS is a new horror film from Shudder that is quite different from the normal fare found on the screaming streaming service.  THE STRINGS is an extremely slow burn with the monster or spirit or horror or whatever not appearing until way into the film’s second half.  Lots of patience is required to invest in this story that involves a supposedly talented musician that retreats to a remote residence owned by her aunt by the sea in the dead of winter, though there are lots of awesome winter landscapes and frozen sea.  The film is Canadian shot in Prince Edward Island.  There is also a reference to potatoes, a produce P.E.I. is famous for.  Her music recording equipment are all laid out on the floor and she has to stoop on her knees to write her music. 

The audience also has to bear with an odd and not really credible lesbian relationship this musician named Catherine has with a photographer, Grace.  What they see in each other makes quite the mystery too.   Fortunately, there are no sex scenes.  Catherine discovers an abandoned farmhouse with a dodgy past.  Things then begin to happen.  An apparition of a man appears to Catherine, bringing a sense of dread to the already troubled artist.

“It would help if we did just once in a while everything that we planned,” says Catherine to her collaborator just before she agrees to go along with him anyway,  The film is simply hilarious the way the character Catherine thinks she is God’s great gift to mankind.  She poses to her friend’s camera with her hair blowing in the wind as if she is the Goddess of Beauty.  Or lies in the bath like the Little Mermaid.  She also performs as if she was the world’s greatest musician where the true fact is her music, a sort of alternative kind of sound with lots of strings (hence maybe the film title THE STRINGS) is nothing I or many others will go listen to, even if it was free.  Johnston apparently wrote all the songs and performed them in their entirety in the film.  To be frank, I hated the songs and music, they often coming across as un-melodic noise.

The climax of the film has the apparition haunting Catherine again.  She enters the dark room to see Grace about to and herself together with the apparition next to her.

THE STRINGS premiers on Shudder Tuesday November the 23rd.  Weird slow horror that demands lots of patience.  Warning: nothing is explained in the film.  Unless you like the ‘music’ of Little Coyote and like to see barren winter landscapes, avoid this boring excuse of a horror movie that teases and teases but leads nowhere.

 

TICK, TICK…BOOM! (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

In the film, the words “ TICK,TICK…BOOM!” are uttered by playwright  and American composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) on stage in New York City describing the sounds he hears.  At this point in his career, Larson is worried he has made the wrong career choice to be part of the performing arts.  The autobiographical story is centred on Larson who had been trying to establish himself in theatre since the early 1980s.

TICK,TICK…BOOM! is now a Netflix film with a limited theatrical run.  It is based on the musical of the same name.   Larson began to perform the piece as a solo work in 1990. After his death, in 1996, it was revised and revamped by playwright David Auburn as a three-actor piece and premiered Off-Broadway in 2001.  Since then, the show has had an Off West End production, a West End production, an American national tour, two Off-Broadway revivals, in 2014 and 2016, and numerous local and international productions.

Larson is an interesting character who died at the early age of 35.  He is known for the successful musical and film RENT.  Unfortunately he died before the success of RENT.  He was noted for exploring the social issues of multiculturalism, addiction, and homophobia in his work. Typical examples of his use of these themes are found in his musicals Rent and Tick, Tick... Boom!  He received three posthumous Tony Awards and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the rock musical Rent. 

The film follows the period in 1990, when Jonathan Larson juggles his duties as a waiter at the local diner with preparing for a workshop for his musical SUPERBIA, which he has been working on for eight years.   One of the film’s key scenes is his hosting of a party at his house with his friends, including his former roommate Michael, who left an acting career to work in advertising, his girlfriend Susan, a dancer who has lost her passion after a nearly career-ending injury, and his fellow waiters Freddy and Carolyn.

Actor, director and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda is the perfect choice to helm the film, having gone through the same experience as Larson did.  Miranda soared to fame after starring in Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS, the film also winning him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor.  From the 2-hour film, one can definitely see the pain and diligence that goes into the work of a struggling musical director.  If his film appears too serious, the main lead Andrew Garfield (EYES OF TAMMY FAYE, SPIDER-MAN) lifts the spirit of the film with his spirited acting.  He portrays Larson with just the right amount of exuberance without overdoing the role.  This role might just win him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Larson’s life was largely influenced by writer/composer Sondheim.  The film clearly shows this, with Bradley Whitford.  There are neat cameos to watch out for, including ones from Broadway stars Chita Rivera, Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters.

Those who know and love music theatre will be in for a real treat with TICK, TICK…BOOM! with its impressive list of cameos, apt direction by Miranda and a superlative lead performance by Garfield.

 Trailer: 

 

TITANE (France 2021) ****
Directed by Julia Ducournau

 

TITANE, which means Titanium in English is a 2021 body horror film written and directed by Julia Ducournau.    Agathe Rousselle in her amazing feature film debut stars as Alexia, a woman who, after being injured in a car accident as a child, has a titanium (TITANE) plate fitted into her head.   Is this plate causing her crazy behaviour or is she plain crazy to begin with?

The matter of fact is that it doesn’t really matter.  The film follows Alexia’s crazy life to the final reel where she finally finds self redemption and peace amidst all the f***ed-up s*** that is going on around the world.

The film begins with the source of the titanium plate in Alexia's head.  A little girl named Alexia annoys her father during a drive.   As she removes her seatbelt, her father turns around to scold her, causing a car crash.  Alexia suffers a terrible skull injury and has a titanium plate fitted into her head. When she gets out of the hospital, she shuns her parents and embraces their car passionately.  This is a totally absorbing and disturbing first act, that one wonders immediately after watching it, how director Ducournau can top that.

She does in the second act.  Years later, Alexia, now an adult and wearing a large scar on the side of her head, works as a sexed-up showgirl at a motor show. While there, Justine, one of her coworkers, flirts with her. One night, after a show, a male fan follows Alexia in the showroom's parking lot, declares his love to her, and forcibly kisses her; she then brutally murders him using her large metal hairpin. As she returns to shower after getting the man's drool off her, Alexia hears a banging coming from the showroom. She finds the car she modelled with earlier has turned on by itself and enters it naked. She eventually climaxes as she has sex with the car.  

And Ducournau continues to ‘wow’ audiences in each and every act till the last reel.  Not every segment is easy to watch.  The unsuccessful attempted self inflicted abortion and Lindon’s injection of steroids into his already scarred buttocks that are two scenes will be enough to make many turn their heads away.  Never has a scene been this disgusting since Caspar Noe made SEUL CONTRE TOUS (ONE AGAINST ALL), but all this incredibly, makes the movie.

But Ducournau’s film is not all SAW type slasher killer disgust.  Her camerawork is fantastic and she paints a colourful palette of colours in all her images, including black that often substitutes for the red collar of blood.

TITANE can best be described as crazy f***ed-up s***, but yes, in a good way.  It is not surprising that Ducournau became the second female director to win the Palme d'Or, the festival's top award. TITANE was also selected as the French entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards.  I hope it wins!  My personal favourite for this year’s Best Foreign (International) Feature!

Trailer: 

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