- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
Big films opening include FOCUS and THE LAZARUS EFFCT while smaller movies opening are '71 and ELEPHANT SONG.
Alex de la Iglesia, Hou Hsia-hsien, Michael Mann and Barbara Stanwyck retrospectives continue at TIFF Cinematheque.
’71 (UK 2014) ****
Directed by Yann Demange
’71, first screened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews, is a war drama set in the Protestant/Catholic conflict of Belfast. The story concerns a young somewhat naive British soldier by the name of Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) who is accidentally abandoned in Belfast. Gary is forced to survive in a land where it is almost impossible to distinguish between friend or foe. The dangers of Belfast is first introduced to the audience in a briefing by Gary’s Commander, Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), himself a novice plunged into the unwanted war.
As the war in Belfast is not that well known or covered in North America, the detail that unfolds on screen is not only fascinating but educational. Normal family lives are turned into hell, friends and family are mistrusted, and houses are not homes but refuges that often store weapons and ammunition. Young boys grow up too quickly, forced to take sides with dire consequences. At times, director Demange turns his film into a sci-fi dystopian apocalypse. The chases on screen are as thrilling as any futuristic thriller like BLADE RUNNER. But one cannot forget that the setting is the reality of Belfast, and this is what makes this film unforgettable.
The is a film impressively made by newcomers all round. This is scriptwriter Gregory Burkes’s and Demange ’s first feature, following some TV work for both. Actor Jack O’Connell has already made a name or himself with the also excellent STARRED UP and Angelina Joli’s UNBROKEN. Of the supporting cast, two of the youngest stand out with admirably authentic performances - Corey McKinley and Barry Keoghan. McKinley plays the boy who first appears to Gary as his salvation. Even as a boy, McKinley demands respect from his elders. Keoghan, on the other hand, is on the side of the enemy, but he is too young and forced to shoot Gary in one extended suspenseful segment. Spoiler alert:- One would wish to be able to see more of the two characters, but their actions bring their lives to an abrupt end.
The simple story involves the abandoned soldier, Gary Hook in Belfast after he chases a boy who has picked up a weapon and runs off with it. Beaten up, Gary is almost left for dead. But he escapes and hides in an outdoor latrine. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse chase of survival, with his regiment desperate trying to rescue him.
The story includes a bit about Gary caring for his brother in a foster home who he visits occasionally and another bit on his military training. Though the bits could be left out of the story, one assumes they be included to bring in some background and humanity to the Gary Hook character.
Despite the simple story, the film is tremendously effective aided by apt direction and writing, stunning authentic looking cinematography of battle-torn Belfast by Tat Radcliffe as well as nail-biting well edited chase scenes by Chris Wyatt.
But apart from all this, it all boils down to the survival of an innocent individual. One feels for the life of the protagonist. ’71 is an impressive debut and a small likely unnoticeable film that should be seen.
BANDE DE FILLES (GIRLHOOD) (France 2104) ***
Directed by Céline Sciamma
The English title GIRLHOOD is a softened alternative to the direct translation of the French title BANDE DE FILLES which means Girl Gang. GIRLHOOD is an extremely tough no-nonsense tale centering on 14-year old Marieme (Karidja Toure) as she comes of age while joining a group of free-spirited black teen girls led by Lady (Assa Sylla) in the Paris projects.
How tough is the film? There are two cat violent fights with one involving Marieme, drug trafficking, swearing, bullying and robbing. All these are displayed in a realistic setting, no holds barred, making director Sciamma’s (TOMBOY) film hard to watch.
Her uncompromising film forces the audience to see two different sides of the coin, thus allowing them to take their own view of Marieme - whether to pity her or dislike her. She is shown lying to mother, quitting school and abused by her violent older brother. But she is protective of her younger sister, falls into her first romance and gains her independence for the first time.
Sciamma shows the dead ends faced by Marieme - a demanding family, dodgy neighbourhood, questionable friends and poverty. Marieme thus finds herself before long in dangerous waters, while she finds a way to assert a new-found empowerment, though not always in a good way.
The film’s cinematography stands out, as does the film’s hip-hop soundtrack. The film also has an occasional playful tone, especially in the scene when the girl gang uses their spoils of a robbery to rent a hotel room - partying and dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds in the Sky’.
GIRLHOOD is not an easy story to tell, nor is it an entertaining film in the normal sense. But it is one forgettable film with the universal theme about one unforgettable character trying like all human beings, to lead a better life for oneself.
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (UK 2014) ***
Directed by Peter Strickland
The duke in this case is a butterfly species which is featured prominently in the movie, as one of the characters is an amateur lepidopterist, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) a studier of moths and butterflies.
The other main character is Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) an orthopterist, studier of grasshoppers and crickets. But entomology is not the only common interest of the two. They are sordid lesbians who favour role play to the extreme. When the film begins, Evelyn cycles over to Cynthia’s mansion, where she does the household chores, only to have Cynthia dole out punishment when the job isn’t done properly. She overlooks the washing of one panties. At the end of the day, Evelyn’s punishment becomes sexual and the audience realizes that all this is a deadly serious sexual role play.
Lesbian films are often set in isolated places like the remote farm in D.H. Lawrence’s THE FOX or the small unnoticeable basement sitting room in THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE Here, it is a deserted mansion.
Amidst these acts, director Strickland fascinates the audience with stunning shots of beauty from the countryside to butterflies to insects to costumes and props and sets. There are lots to observe and admire in this relatively slow film. One even wonders by the opening credits ‘Perfume By” since audiences cannot smell from the screen.
There is only one blurry nudity scene and the actresses playing the lovers are not erotically hot either. In one scene, Cynthia wear baggy pyjamas that Evelyn dislikes, claiming that she cannot be aroused by such outfits.
But once the novelty of the role playing wears off, so does the scenes of the forest, insects and sets.
The time and place of the story is ambiguous. One can likely assume Britain since the Duke of Burgundy butterfly is found there, but the species are also found in middle Europe.
Strickland who directed the equally strange and disturbing KATALIN VARGA and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO has continued to fascinate audiences with THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY. Though it currently holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not everyone’s cup of tea.
ELEPHANT SONG (Canada 2014) ****
Directed by Charles Binamé
ELEPHANT SONG is adapted from the play by Nicolas Billon who also wrote the script for the film. The staginess of the play is still much evident in this rather well adapted film, though director Binamé (ELDORADO, LE COEUR DU POING) tries his best to bring the film into the open (the bench scene in the park at the film’s end, scenes of the hospital outdoor car park). The elephant song is a song that features prominently in the plot though it is something that English audiences will not get. The song is a French song with the French word of trunk (in the song) also having a second meaning of deception. Deception is key in the mind game that is played by the two characters from beginning to the end of the film.
The film’s two main characters are troubled psychiatric patient Michael (Xavier Dolan), and the unprepared doctor, Dr. Toby Green (Bruce Greenwood) who attempts to untangle his web of lies. It all begins when psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence (Colm Feore) goes mysteriously missing from a hospital that has recently been plagued by scandal. Dr. Toby Green investigates. Convinced that Michael is hiding knowledge about his colleague — and in no rush to go home to his complicated personal life — Green is determined to control both the situation and the patient, adamantly ignoring the advice from the person who knows Michael best, Nurse Susan Peterson (Catherine Keener). As the film unfolds it becomes apparent that Michael is manipulating Dr. Green, as he reveals truths and lies about what happened between him and the missing Dr. Lawrence, among other things.
Dolan, the wonderboy director of Quebec hits like “J’AI TUE MA MERE, MOMMY and LAWRENCE ANYWAYS) proves that he is as excellent an actor as a director. He completely steals every scene he appears together with Greenwood, who himself is a proficient actor. His facial expressions, nuances, and reactions all add to the acting on display. It is not surprising why Dolan was attracted to this role. It is one that deals with a mother/son relationship and also one that deals with mental illness, both recurring themes in his directed movies.
The film has many intercut scenes. Two interviews and the meeting between doctor and patient are intercut, meticulously with the correct time frame in mind. All this serves to prove how well Billon’s play is written and put together by director Binamé.
The period film is also meticulous in its details. The vintage cars on display, the wardrobe and frequent cigarette smoking in scenes all serve to remind the audience that the year is 1966. But one glaring detail is Xavier Dolan’s colour tinted hair. How did he manage this feat in a mental institution?
Minor flaws aside, this suspense drama reminds one of past whodunit success films like SLEUTH and DEATHTRAP. All three films share the common trait of being excellent 'talky' compelling films that concentrate on just two characters playing mind games.
FOCUS (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a super accomplished con man who takes an amateur con woman, Jess (Margot Robbie from THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) under his wing. Nicky and Jess become romantically involved. But after a big con which marks the completion of her con artist course, they split. But they come across each other three years later. And things get messy.
FOCUS alternates between being a love story and a classy con-artist suspense film. The film flows comfortably between the two genres, each complementing each other so that interest seldom wanes. The obstacle of the romance in this case is the nagging mistrust that exists between the lovers. The chemistry between Smith and Robbie is excellent aided by the two points. The two are extremely good-looking actors and the sex scenes sizzle.
The film can also be split into two parts - the part before things get messy in New Orleans and after in Argentina. Both are interesting but the latter satisfies with a fast climax.
The chief flaw of the plot is the outrageousness of the scams. These are as believable as the car chases or action sequences in a big Hollywood blockbuster. So, the directors assume that audiences will forgive the plot implausibilities. Liyuan's (BD WONG) con with the number 55 is ridiculously outrageous as well as the climatic one involving Nicky being shot at an exact position between two ribs. I suppose directors Ficarra and Requa expect to be perfect con artists themselves.
Despite the plot, directors Ficarra and Requa keep the suspense and interest maintained. It helps that the film demonstrates their confidence in their material regardless.
The cast perform well. Hopefully, the film will put Smith back in high salary demand after his recent box-office misses. The supporting cast are just as good, particularly Rodrigo Santoro as crooked car racer Garriga who cannot look more suave in his role.
The production with settings in NYC, New Orleans and Buenos Aires looks extremely slick. The $100 million production budget explains why. But the soundtrack, sound and editing are also of top-notch quality.
Directors of Ficarra and Requa are the writing/directing duo behind I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS and BAD SANTA two underrated films. The more highly visible FOCUS should bring the duo more into the limelight.
THE LAZARUS EFFECT (USA 2015) **
Directed by David Kelp
The dead, the afterlife and resurrection are all topics that both send a chill down ones spine and boggles the imagination. The latest horror flick from THE PURGE, INSIDIOUS and SINISTER franchises follows a group of researchers who succeed in bringing dead animals back to life. But when they intend to bring a human back to life, things get tricky.
Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde) are university researchers who with the help of Niko (Donald Glover) and two others (Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger) bring a dead dog back to life. A subplot involves the dean shutting down the experiments and the materials confiscated. So, they break into the university laboratory at night to carry out the experiment resulting in an accident in which Zoe is executed. When Frank brings her back to life, she is not the same Zoe.
The story is interesting enough but whatever fascination with the topic is quickly dispersed after Zoe is brought back to life. The film holds the most interest when the audience is left guessing at the answers. Is the dog going to be violent and kill and is Zoe going to go through the same effects? The one arresting image of the dog standing on all fours on Zoe’s bed while she is sleeping is the most frightening. But once all the explanations are given, and given too early, the film falls apart. The silly twist ending is also laughable.
The film is also often all over the place. The found footage/recording of events at the beginning of the film is slowly forgotten by the end of the film. The subplot of the corporation perhaps shutting the project down to make a monopolistic profit on the Lazarus serum is left hanging.
The unintentional humour of the movie is chiefly derived from the pseudo scientific explanations given of how the experiment works. Otherwise, any opportunity for comedy is missed, replaced by cheap scare tricks like Niko surprising Zoe by wearing a hockey mask.
Audiences that loved FLATLINERS would likely flock to this film. But these are totally different films. FLATLINERS involve curious suspects venturing into the afterlife while THE LAZARUS EFFECT involves returning from the dead and unknowingly bringing back some demons. Whatever initial interest in the plot is eventually diffused into a low budget horror flick with all the predictable trimmings.
PLAYING IT COOL (USA 2014) **
Directed by Justin Reardon
PLAYING IT COOL has a writer (Chris Evans from CAPTAIN AMERICA) hired to write a romantic comedy script for his agent, Bryan (Anthony Mackie). Trouble is, according to the film’s voiceover which is the character’s voice himself, is that he has never fallen in love before. He uses his friends’ experiences and pretends to be them thus imagining and writing what occurs, the next best thing to the real thing, according to him.
So PLAYING IT COOL is a romantic comedy about a romantic comedy writer. This is indeed very dangerous territory. For critics, whatever the main character says better be applied to the film and work 100%. If he says for example that most romantic comedies are clichéd with a gay best friend character or an airport scene, then there had better not be one in this film. Unfortunately the script by Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair breaks the rules. For example, there is a gay bests friend character by the name of Scott (Topher Grace) in the film.
The story is simple enough. Struggling writer (they are always struggling in films and plays) meets girl (Michelle Monaghan) at a charity event. He pretends to be a rich philanthropist. She is engaged. They begin a platonic relationship. Anyone who has been to a romantic comedy knows that this cannot work and that the two will fall in love. Sure enough. Platonic relationship evolves into true love. And the promise not to have sex is also broken in a totally unsexy and unbelievable sex scene. The rest is cliched predictability.
The climax has the hero running round the city trying to find the location of the wedding in order to stop it. Kind of copied from THE GRADUATE. The film only emphasizes how good a film THE GRADUATE is and how pathetic this one is.
Director Reardon (this is his debut feature) has a nice bit of changing scenes when his character walks through a door at the right of the screen. Which he does many times.
PLAYING IT COOL asks the basic question how difficult it is to write a good romantic comedy. The film’s voiceover provides a lot of solutions of what should be done. But the answer to the question, as evident at the end of the film is - very difficult. The filmmakers have failed miserably. As a romantic comedy, PLAYING IT COOL is not only pretentious, cliched, unbelievable and crass, but terribly boring! There is some truth to the comment made in the film on a script that will show love how it really is: “Sounds like a downer!”
THE SEARCH (France/Georgia 2014) ****
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
THE SEARCH, first screened at Cannes is supposed to be a remake of the Fred Zinnemann 1948 film about WWII concentration displaced children but the setting is completely different. It is set during the Chechnya War in 1999 when Putin was (and still is) the President of Russia.
THE SEARCH begins with a totally black screen when a soldier first finds a video camera and attempts to get it to work. He films a horrific incident of the mother and father of a family being slaughtered by Russian soldiers for entertainment. The 9-year old son escapes with his baby brother while his sister searches for him. This is THE SEARCH of the film’s title. Many, including myself are unaware of this war and its effects.
The film contains twin stories that are intercut though their time lines are different and revealed at the film’s end as sort of a clever plot twist.
One story sees a young Russian teen, Kolia, recruited for military duty. Kolia’s morals are compromised by the facets of war as he transforms from a normal teenage boy into a ruthless killing machine that embodies no hope of redemption. He learns to kill innocence and leave what's left of his childhood behind. This serves to explain the horrors that have resulted in the Chechnya War.
The other story follows orphan Hadji, a young lad who witnesses his family's murder by the soldiers at the beginning of the film. Hadji flees his home in search of someplace safer and is reluctant to be picked up by refugees and taken to an orphanage. He does not know however that his teenage sister, Raissa, managed to survive. She begins to search for Hadji, whom she believes is still alive. Hadji is aided by human rights worker, Carole played by the director’s wife Berenice Bejo.
Both stories are equally important and pressing as well as equally compelling.
The theme of Europeans ignoring the humanity problems in Russian states is not a popular one, which might account for the reason for the film’s lack of success. (But film was selected for TIFF.) This theme of non-involvement is emphasized in the meticulously shot film’s best segment. Carole delivers her well prepared speech to the U.N. where a number of members show disinterest. One strolls in late into the room and exchanges greetings during her speech while another appears texting and yet another dozing off with his eyes open. It is a powerful scene which emphasizes how much needs to be done to influence a select few.
Hazanavicius’ film shows moments of great sensitivity in simple scenes like Hadji’s first hugging Carole or his first scream of joy when he meets his sister. Hazanavicius could have gone for the tears but holds sentiment back. The result is a clear message delivered in a very tasteful and carefully thought of film.
It is difficult to fathom that it is the same director Michel Hazanavicius who made the light and entertaining Oscar Winner THE ARTIST and the spy spoof OSS 117 comedies. THE SEARCH is deadly serious, makes its point and hits the audience hard in the message across.
Drama: Mr. Turner
Action: Kingsman: The Secret Service
Foreign Language: Leviathan (Russia)
Comedy : What We Do in the Shadows
Best documentary: Red Army