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This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 9, 2015)

08 Oct 2015

Films opening include PAN, and two weird films, THE FORBIDDEN ROOM and THE CREEPING GARDEN, a documentary about slime moulds.

 

The Deepa Metha film restrospective opens this week ahead of her new film THE BEEBA BOYS, whihc debuts next week.

FILM REVIEWS: 

99 HOMES (USA 2014) ***1/2

Directed by Ramin Bahrani

99 HOMES is yet another of 2014’s TIFF films (GOODNIGHT MOMMY, COMING HOME and LABYRINTH OF DREAMS to name a few) that finally gets a release after more than a year.  Unlikely to be a blockbuster hit because of its serious theme with no big star names except maybe for Andrew Garfield who has played SPIDER-MAN, 99 HOMES is an engrossing film based on the disturbing American subject of house foreclosures.  The title is so-called because the realtor needs one more home, with the help of the lead character to seal his dream deal.

Bahrani knows how to frame a dramatic scene.  The first of these is the eviction of Dennis Nash (Garfield) and his family by the police and a crooked realtor, Rick carver Michael Shannon).  Bahrani quickly gets his audience on Dennis’ side and able to get the audience to switch sides quite easily.

The film’s story concerns a single father living with young son and widowed mother.  He loses his home and fights back to win back the family home, but not until selling his soul to the devil, personified by the crooked realtor.

The film can also be looked upon as a late coming-of-age story of the father.  Carver seduces Nash into a risky world of scamming and stealing from the banks and the government; he teaches Nash how the rich get richer. Living a double life, Nash hides his new boss and job from his family.  Nash rises fast and makes real money as he finally grows up to do the right thing.  Though the film is predictable in its story, Bahrai still keeps his audience on their toes from start to finish.

The script by director Bahrani and Amir Naderi contains many choice lines.  Most noticeable in the story is the lack of a female presence in the main character.  When asked about the mother of the boy, Dennis brushes it off as a previous high-school fling.  There is no romance in the film.  The only time Dennis shows interest in the opposite sex is in a party scene where he seems uneasy flirting with a beautiful girl, likely from intoxication.

99 HOMES benefits from three superlative performances.  First is British actor Andrew Garfield, with facial hair with a full American accent, showing effectively portraying his fall from grace.  Laura Dern plays Dennis’ mother, Lynn Nash, unbelieving that her son has become what she has feared most, and now trying to protect her grandson the best she can.  Michael Shannon desires top honours as the unscrupulous realtor of foreclosing, constantly smoking his e-cigarette, looking like Satan himself breathing fire.

Director Bahrani is still not a film household name as yet.  Hopefully this film will grant him some fame.  An American director born of Iranian parents, his first film MAN PUSH CART was recognized by film critic Roger Ebert who went on to pronounce his 2000 film CHOP SHOP the 6th best film of 2000’s.

The film’s closing credits have the words “For Roger Ebert” flashed on the screen.  99 HOMES is a worthy tribute for the famous American film critic who put Bahrani on the filmmaking map.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfttvNCIJvE

THE CREEPING GARDEN (UK 2014) ***1/2

Directed by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp

THE CREEPING GARDEN begins like a 60’s B-horror movie.  On the radio is heard a warning about blobs, a particular red one found in a garden in Texas.  One could be the size of a tea cup while another the size of a car.  And they can travel.  Like the old movie THE BLOB.  But THE CREEPING GARDEN is no 60’s sci-fi horror though the directors, to their credit, set it out to have that same period look.  It is a documentary about the least likely of subjects - slime mould.  And as the filmmakers demonstrate, these could be creatures from outer space populating by spores that can survive in a vacuum.  And the slime moulds can move in the direction of food and moisture.

Using time lapse photography and other techniques, directors Sharp and Grabham have concocted a gem of a film.  Though one can complain that the feature sounds and occasionally looks something like an educational program kids are forced to watch in a science class, this is still pretty neat stuff.  The doc gets quite technical at times, with vast explanations of electronics and physics, but if one just goes with the flow, all the scientific mumbo jumbo do translate into quite effective results.

There is much to marvel in the film.  One is a fungitory, a sort of fungi museum in which thousands of species of fungi are recorded and kept.  In a secluded corner is the slime mould exhibit.  Another neat segment has a forest mould enthusiast searching under logs for these moulds.  He then exclaims to the audience’s delight that he has already spent hours just looking around this one same log.

There is also a science demonstration carried out in a British museum where people, connected by cords, simulate slime moulds.  This segment is rather silly and could be done away with.

But there are other peculiar experts involved with the story of the slime moulds.  There is the visual artist Heather Barnett, the commuter scientist Ella Gale and composer Eduardo Miranda who all demonstrate the features of the moulds using their expertise.

The film also answers the magic question of what part the slime mould plays in the environment.  In other words, if these moulds were to disappear, what the effect would there be on the environment.  (Sorry - Answer won’t be revealed in the review.  See the movie!).  The climax or rather conclusion, playfully returns to the radio announcement of the blob at the start of the film with a scientific explanation.

Though an hour and a half might appear too long to spend on a study of a subject like slime moulds, the entertainment and curiosity value are undoubtedly there.  THE CREEPING GARDEN is creepy only because it is out of the sphere of many’s comfort zone.  But it is still a fascinating documentary well put together.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/58295282

 

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (Canada 2015) ****
Directed by Guy Maddin

Another weird and wonderful film by Guy Maddin with co-creator Evan Johnson - and one of Maddin’s best and most structured, which is not saying much.  And the film is in colour instead of black and white.

The film begins, humorously with a man in a bathrobe giving lessons on how to draw a bath.  This vignette is linked to another concerning a submarine crew in dire distress.  The captain is missing and the air supply is running out.  They chew on flapjacks to utilize the oxygen bubbles in the batter.  Does not make sense?  It does not matter.  All this is part of the weird pleasure that is abundant in a Maddin film.  A woodsman (Roy Depuis) suddenly appears andthe crew figure if there is a way in the sub, there must be a way out.  It turns out the woodsman is one of many out to rescue a damsel in distress from a pack of forest bandits.  And so it goes on.  

The way in which one scene leads to the next is impossibly funny.  A bust of the God Janus leads to possession of the carrier transforming him into Lug Lug.  To get rid of the bust, he finds a night auction to sell it to.  But he ends up bidding with his double but finally winning the bid and buying the bust back.  He turns into Lug Lug again to kill his double.  This is one example.  But it is the most hilarious segment.  And beware - the ASWANG!  - a black rotten black cone shaped rotting banana aka the jungle vampire.  (The aswang actually is the devil in the banana tree in Philippines folklore.)

Shot in Paris, which is the reason the film contains a more than impressive cast of French and Quebecois actors including Roy Depuis, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Maria de Medeiros, Jacques Nolot and a few other surprises.  Shot in various old gothic styles of films of old, Maddin’s film is terribly funny, nostalgic and the perfect vehicle to watch while under the influence.  A real treat that might be too weird for everyone’s taste!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDbLTwzj_IU

HYENA ROAD (Canada 2015) ***

Directed by Paul Gross

HYENA ROAD is the second war film under the direction of actor/director Paul Gross, after PASSCHENDAELE.  It purports to reveal the true picture of Canadian forces fighting in Afghanistan.  Gross says when introducing his film at the promo screening that the tales are told by the soldiers stationed in Khandahar to him, and all he does is to join the tales together in this film.  But the insertion of a war-torn romance between the lead charter, the sniper and an operative complete with a discovered pregnancy is pushing of the credibility button.  Surely, other parts of the script must be concocted.

HYENA ROAD is a Canadian-American safe transport initiative.  The road is to be built to provide safe transport but the Taliban keep the road from being built.

The lead character is a sniper (Rossif Sutherland, brother of Keif) who becomes emotionally involved while on duty.  Both he and an intelligence officer (played by Gross, himself) have the same goals but use different methods.  The I.O. follows the book believing the greater good will prevail while the sniper acts according to his gut feelings.  In the midst of all this arrives a legendary former mujahid known as The Ghost (Neamat Arghandabi) who, for mysterious reasons, is lured back into the battle zone to assist the Canadian forces.  It turns both the I.O.and the sniper can both be wrong.  The story deals with the meeting between this ghost and a Taliban leader.  The Canadians hope that the ghost will get rid of the Taliban and allow the road to be built.  But when the climax comes,  the ghost has another secret agenda up his sleeve which creates havoc.

The trouble with the film is that the interest of the audience wanes  half way through the film and does not pick up till the last 15 minutes.  Who really cares if the Taliban leaves the road builders alone?  And who really cares about the meeting of the ghost and the Taliban leader?  It is not like an exchange of hostages as in the upcoming war thriller, Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES.

The film’s production values are high.  But despite Gross’ claim that footage was shot in Khandahar, it can be deduced that most of the segments were shot in Manitoba, likely in the sands of a quarry.  It makes more sense to shoot in Manitoba that to ship the entire crew of film technicians and actors to Afghanistan.

There are two thing wrong with the scene in which the girl discovers she is pregnant by her friend giving her an ultrasound.  Isn’t a pregnancy test more convenient and less public if she wants to keep it a secret?  Secondly, there is no need to show the image of the baby as the film does.  The reactions of the two women are  more important on camera and the image can be assumed.

Gross injects quite a bit of his wry humour throughout the film which lifts it over the doldrums.   There are a lot of scenes showing the soldiers’ highs and lows, frustration  and joys.  Soldiers are always seen playing hockey on the side.  But despite his good intentions of showing Canadians deployed ‘in reality’, the reenactments like the segment of one soldier’s wife showing him her breasts on cam is more sensational information than anything else.

HYENA ROAD turns out to be an ok film, but it does not come anywhere close what Gross intended his film to achieve.  To his credit, HYENA ROAD is likelier a smaller budget, better looking film than PASSHENDAELE, besides being the better film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=168LvOIoUUw

 
 
 LALABYRINTH OF LIES (West Germany 2014) ***1/2

(IM LABYRINTH DES SCHWEIGENS)

Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli

 

The film is set in Frankfurt, of 1958. Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling of Inglourious Basterds and Young Goethe in Love) is the young prosecutor trying to climb the ladder in a major law firm.  As a novice, all he gets are traffic violations.  He yearns to take on something substantial and when it comes, it comes as a knockout case that no other lawyer wishes to touch.  

When he learns of hidden Nazi criminals in prominent institutions and branches of government entangled in a conspiracy to cover up the crimes of Nazis during World War II,  Johann works obsessively alongside journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) and Jewish concentration camp survivor Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch) to uncover the evidence.  And to hunt and prosecute them.  But director Ricciarelli shows more of the resistance and obstacles in the task.  

But what is more disturbing is that Johann discovers that no one is innocent, not even Thomas.  Being thrust in that world, people like his father and his girlfriend’s father are also guilty of being a Nazi.

But the film plays like a thriller, and is based on true events, and to give the filmmakers credit, it is the rare occasion Germany is shown taking responsibility in prosecuting her own Nazi criminals.   Though at times too talky, director Ricciarelli still keeps the interest of the subject from waning.  But what is most striking is the fact that a large number of young Germans have never heard of the Holocaust.  In fact, at the start of the film, Johann hardly knows anything himself.  One of the best lines in the film is that the that the purpose of the trials is not to punish but to educate.

There is a well executed comical segment in which Johann tries to patch things after a big quarrel with his girlfriend Marlene (Friederike Becht).   They speak with lengthy metaphors about the patching of his torn jacket, the jacket standing for they torn relationship.

The final result of Johann’s work is seen on the screen in the closing credits when the number of German war criminals that were finally brought to justice is disclosed.  A story untold to many and yet educational and informative, if not entertaining.  The film is Germany’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2016, and stands a good chance of winning because of its brave subject matter.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5ovcBGMLEs

 

PAN (USA 2015) *

Directed by Joe Wright

PAN seems the ideal project for British director Joe Wright who has brought magic to the screen with strong films like ATONEMENT, HANNA and ANNA KARENINA.  No such luck in his adaptation of the prequel to the Peter Pan story.  This film is a bungled mess that makes PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN look like a epic.

The film opens with Peter Pan the baby left at an orphanage by his lone mother.  Flash forward to the orphanage 12 years later during the second world war.  Peter is now grown up as a boy (Levi Miller) and with buddy Nibs (Lewis MacDougal) play a cat-and-mouse with nasty but funny head nun (Kathy Bates).  For reasons never made clear, they are pulled into a flying pirate shop into the sky with a lot of other orphans by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).  But he meets an Indiana Jones type hero, James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and with Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), Peter finds the truth about his mother and sets the fairy world free.  

This story allows a lot of action set-pieces to be concocted by director Wright.  The fight on the trampoline between Hook and some Thai-boxer looking warrior; the duel between Blackbeard and Tiger Lily; the two ships crashing into each other; the crocodile attack and a few others.  None of these are really urgent or make any sense in the realm of things.  In short, nothing fits together in a complete mess of a spectacle.  The only Kingdom at stake is the fairy Kingdom which the audience does to see at all and who obviously care little for.  When the fairies show up fighting at the end, they are only seen as specks of dust that encompassing the enemies.  How so boring - special effects replacing old fashioned action.

The pixie dust in the Peter Pan stories which is what enables children to fly, is now some drug mined by child labour under the direction of the pirates in Neverland.  Tinkle Bell still appears, though at the end of the story to enable Peter to fly.

The magic is clearly lost in Wright’s film.  He even uses the name ‘Pan’ instead of ‘Peter’, which just does not sound the same or nowhere as magical.  With all the flying pirate ships in the air, PAN looks like a sequel to Monty Python’s TIME BANDITS.  The only thing missing are the midgets.  PAN also feels like another version of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (and a poor one at that) than a Peter Pan film.

The dialogue is just as bad.  Most of the one-liners are especially unmemorable.  ‘Eternity beckons’ and ‘Let me cut in’ says Blackbeard at one point intervening a sword fight with Tiger Lily.  Those are as best as they get.  The messages include “Don’t doubt yourself, Pan.”  The name Pan sounds terrible compared to Peter!  Disney’s 1953 animated PETER PAN remains the best of the film adaptations, though one could say PAN is a prequel.  A hint for what is to come occurs when Hook says to Peter, I mean Pan, that they will remain friends for a long time, as long as it may seem.  Hopefully, that hint will not come true.

PAN is definitely Wright’s worse movie of his career.  Whatever happened to Wright? Did he grow up and forgotten the magic?

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjW1mKwNUSo

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Avi Lewis

There have been countless films on global warming, the destruction of the environment and climate change.  THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING is one more addition and though it tries to differentiate itself form the rest by isolating the topic of capitalism vs. the environment, there is nothing really new here that audiences have not seen or heard before.  To director Avi Lewis’ credit though, it is one different way of looking at identical issues.  And this film lands on a higher note and is more exhilarating than other films on this genre.

Lewis’ film works from the book of the same name that was written by journalist Naomi Klein.  Klein also narrates the film.  She has a very pleasant and soothing voice, perhaps too nice for a film warning about the destruction of nature.

Lewis’ film stays away from wild life like polar bears trying to survive a melting ice age.  But nothing else is much different.  The audience is shown the convention of disbelievers of climate change, or those ‘bastard’ scientist paid to tell lies, which have been shown in other films too.

But what the film stresses on is what people can do.  And this is the positive look of this film which makes a difference.  From India to Greece, to the U.S., people have taken to the streets protesting.  They cannot take it any more and have done something.  And it shows. The sights of Indian children chanting on the streets and Natives actually preventing a pipeline are moving stuff.  And exhilarating as well!

The other scenes that are most disturbing are the contrasting ones of the green forests and blue trees replaced by a barren landscape filled with smoke stacks and trucks removing earth.

The film also emphasizes Klein’s theory of having to give back to the Earth what humans take from.  It all makes sense.

But the film’s most uplifting moments are when human beings actually succeed.  Germany is shown as a country that has achieved renewal energy by the people moving the government to make changes.  The chancellor is shown in all her glory as the fatherland with all the windmills and solar panels.

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING might not change everything, but the film brings together a lot of material and condensing it into what can be done, has been done and hopefully will be done.  Then, things will change for the better.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpuSt_ST4_U

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: LABYRINTH OF LIES

Best Animation: INSIDE OUT

Best Documentary: THE CREEPING GARDEN

Best Action comedy: AMERICAN ULTRA

Best Foreign: GOODNIGHT MOMMY

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