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This Week's Film Reviews (May 6, 2016)

05 May 2016

Summer begins at the movies!  CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, the first of the summer blockbusters opens this week.  But the best film opening is the French psychological thriller, DISORDER about an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD.

FILM REVIEWS:

BRIDGEND (Denmark 2015) ***

Directed by Jeppe Ronde

BRIDGEND is the name of a Welsh town in Bridgend County in south west Wales.  It is a beautiful town and the setting of the new English language Danish film photographed by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck and directed by Jeppe Ronde.  If I knew how stunning the area was, I would have visited the place when I vacationed in Wales two years. ago.

But it is not the beauty of the town that is on display here.  The beauty contrasts with dark goings-on that cannot be explained.  Between December 2007 and January 2012 seventy-nine suicides were officially committed in the area.  Most of the victims were teenagers, they hanged themselves and left no suicide notes. Danish documentary filmmaker Jeppe Rønde followed the teenagers from the area for six years and wrote the script based on their life stories.

Is it the water?  What was the intent?  Is it a mass murderer?  Is there a cult at work?  And why is it that it is always the parents who discover the suicides.  The suicides take place in the woods.  These are a few of the questions that spring to mind as Ronde’s film opens.  But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that he wants the audience to focus on the people of the village, and how ordinary folk can turn angry and unpredictable.

When the film opens, teen Sara (Hannah Murray from GAME OF THRONES) follows her dad, Dave (Steven Waddington) as they arrive in the small town in Bridgend County. The town is haunted by suicides amongst its young inhabitants.  As Sara starts hanging around teens her age, she eventually falls dangerously in love with one of the teenagers, Jamie (Josh O’Connor from THE RIOT CLUB) while Dave as the town's new policeman tries to stop the mysterious chain of suicides. 

The teens are shown by Ronde as teens are.  They hang around their own, get drunk, have sex and the occasional high, from swimming naked in a cold stream or doing dangerous stunts with a speeding train.  Ronde also show how irresponsible they are, often forcing his audience to take the side of the adults.  The local vicar (Adrian Rawlins) has good intentions but the teens mock him.  When it comes time to really help, he is at a loss what to do.  “Go home,” is the best advice he can give to Sara when she is in time of need.

BRIDGEND is an accomplished debut about the mystery of the suicides.  It reminds one of the classic Australian film. Peter Weir’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK.  Like that film, there are certain mysteries in life that can never be explained.  Both films do not offer closure on the mysteries, but provide clues in helping the audience interpret the happenings.  BRIDGEND finishes with a dreamy sequence that spoils the authentic feel Ronde had created.  That is the main flaw of the film.

Jeppe is a director to watch.  In 2013, he won a Gold Lion for Best Direction, plus

a bronze for cinematography for Come4 'The Lover', a seemingly seedy look at one man’s obsession with sex and prostitution, with a twist.  The film also won the Craft Grand Prix at Eurobest.

BRIDGEND does not open in Canada this weekend but in NYC at Cinema Village on May 6th.  However, the film can be viewed on the SVOD platform as it is released as a Fandor Exclusive Digital SVOD release on the same day.  Fandor is available in Canada and North America only.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8WI7Nn_0cY

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (USA 2016) ***

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

Judging from the box-office successful but critically panned BATMAN V. SUPERMAN,  audiences love to see their super heroes battle one another - never mind the reason, never mind who wins, and never mind anything else.  In this latest Marvel super hero movie, there are lots more of the same.  It is a dream come true for current action fans as there is a full 15 minute action fight scene during which two factions of super heroes battle it out with each other.

The film begins with establishing the reason for the formation of the two factions.  It is a world disaster in which innocent people are killed in Nigeria following a criminal being pursued by the Avengers.  As a result of the collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps, one led by Steve Rogers aka Captain America (the handsome hunk Luke Evans) and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s Ironman (played by Robert Downey Jr.) surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

This is an AVENGERS film despite the Captain America title.  Other Marvel heroes on display here include Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Winter Soldier of the film title (Sebastian Stan), Falcon from the IRONMAN films (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye with his arrows (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), Spider-man (Tom Holland) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) the latter two providing most of the humour in the film.  But the script by a multiple of writers includes many one-liners that only Marvel fans will find funny, or whoever is in the mood.  But the one-liners are quite mediocre and no match compared to those found in other action films like the DIE HARD or TERMINATOR films.

So there is one faction led by Ironman with Spidey, Faclon and Spider and the other by Captain America, Winter soldier and Hawkeye.  There is an extended fight scene between the two leaders as well but no one really comes out the outright victor. The  heroes use their powers like Spidey his web, America his shield and Hawkeye his arrows.

The film running at almost two and a half hours is surprisingly short on both story and  character development.  The script contains lots of repetitions on the need to control the Avengers i.e. to substantiate the rivalry between the two groups.  All this tends to be a tad boring after a while, not to mention that the matter is never resolved at the end and the film set up for a sequel.

Not much is demanded in the acting department for an action film of this nature excEpt for the actors to look good.  And they all look very bulked up or pretty as the case may be.  This reviewer never liked Robert Downey Jr. as an actor (in Sherlock Holmes, IRONMAN and other films) or in person for his wise-cracking smart-ass attitude.  So, the best line in the film delivered by Black Widow to him: “Are you incapable of letting go of your ego for one Goddamned second?” gave me a big smile.

CAPTAIN AMERICA is a film that would delight action Marvel fans, but those serious in their taste of cinema - might want to take all this with a pinch (or rather, heap) of salt. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKrVegVI0Us

DISORDER (MARYLAND) (France/Belgium 2015) ****

Directed by Alice Winocour

DISORDER is as the film title implies, a psychological thriller/drama.  It traces an Afghanistan veteran transgression into deep paranoia and how he deals with it.

When the film opens, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) is having a medical examination.  He is apparently tested in his hearing and later told that the results will be made known to him as to whether he can return to active military duty.  In the meantime, Vincent lands a job as security at a huge mansion estate called Maryland (the film’s original title).  The camera then follows him around when he patrols the estate doing his duties as he checks certain guests, some rude, some not, as he fulfill his duties.  In the process, he overhears a private conversation of the owner of an arms deal gone sour.  Director Winocour shows how stressful a security job can be, and even more so with his hearing problems as he has to wear an ear piece for communication.  Winocour keeps the audience on their toes.  Is something going to happen?  Is Vincent going to break down?  At the same time, the film hovers towards being a thriller, a suspensor, a drama and an action film.  This is the reason Winocour’s film works so well.  Her film is always several steps ahead of her audience. The reason she does certain things is clear later.  For example, Vincent undergoes a lot of repetitive annoyances - like loud sounds and blurred images, but these repetitions are necessary to explain the deterioration of Vincent’s mental health.

The psychological thriller is centred on Vincent, who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He is later hired by the rich client, Whalid (Percy Kemp) as security and driver for the wife (Diane Kruger) and son while he is away.  Vincent speeds the car up almost running  into an accident when he thinks the car is being followed.  The wife freaks out but finds out later that Vincent was right.  A home invasion reveals the reason being due to the husband’s arms deal gone sour.  The films switches to action drive.  Winocour handles the fight and action scenes with efficient finesse.  The temptation to include some romance between the wife and Vincent is thankfully avoided.  

Matthias Schoenaerts looks and acts his part convincingly.  His chiselled tattooed body complements his brooding nature.  He has proven himself apt in diversified roles as a troubled soul  (this film and RUST AND BONE) or as a sound and dependable one as in FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.

The film’s sound editing and effects (pounding and techno sounds) are excellent, emphasizing the imminent danger of each situation.  

The imaginary ending (not revealed in this review) is subtly conceived to bring a conclusion to the movie as to the final state of Vincent’s mental state.

DISORDER reminds one immediately of classic murder films such as those directed by Claude Chabrol in the 60’s and 70’s.  DISORDER is neither a whodunit nor a whodunit, but is still absorbing from start to finish.  Winocour has proven herself a capable director and a talent to be reckoned with.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMThvaCTAm0

THE MEDDLER (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Lorene Scafaria

Just a week after the comedy HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS arrives another film with a senior protagonist.  Though the two films are highly different, the target audience might be the same.  THE MEDDLER will have tough shoes to fill, as the former film serves up more comedy, commercial style with 2-time Oscar winner Sally Field while THE MEDDLER is a combination of down-to-earth drama and autobiography.  The story is fashioned from the writer/director Lorene Scarfaria’s relationship with her own mother.

THE MEDDLER of the film title is Marnie (Susan Sarandon), who after her husband’s death has nothing better to do but to meddle.  But her meddling is not bad in any sense as her intentions are genuine.  Her ‘meddling’ involves suffocating her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), not giving her any space, helping a fast-food worker with his law degree and offering as much as underwriting $13,000 for Lori’s friend’s wedding among others.

When Lori finally has had enough of her mother and moves away to sort out her career, Marnie is forced to face the worse - not having her daughter around and to rethink her options.  So she falls in love.

The trouble with THE MEDDLER that real life stories like the one based on the director’s mother do not turn out to be that interesting on film.

Another problem is that Marnie has no real obstacles to her life.  Her life is actually a total breeze.  She is financially more than able, thanks to late husband, and she has a loving daughter and two very eager lovers.  These factors lowers the film’s interest even more.  Director Scarfaria makes matters worse by having one eager lover, the one played by J.K. Simmons sing to his chickens, thus amplifying the desperation of the film’s story.

But the film contains a few neat surprises.  Examples are Marnie’s upcoming romances.  The way she ditches her lovers or possible lovers is nothing short of plain hilarious.

Sarandon has a track record of superlative performances in films such as  THELMA AND LOUISE, LORENZO’S OIL and my personal favourite, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK.  And she is still a knockout at the age of almost 70.  She makes the movie.

But the character of Marnie might not necessarily be a senior or mother.  A best friend or younger person could have the same charter mould as Marnie.  The script could have picked a different aged or even male protagonist to appeal to a wider audience and put some problems in her life to make the film more varied.

The result is a film more close to life (despite Marnie’s too convenient wealth) that it comes too close to home and monotonous.  THE MEDDLER contains less humour and more drama, most of it brought on herself by the character.  As such the target audience might prefer to watch a more fairy tale of a film like HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS.  Only box-office receipts will reveal the fate of both movies.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbN58_kYZrU

NATASHA (Canada 2015) ***1/2

Directed by David Bezmozgis

Written and directed by David Bezmozgis based on his short story, NATASHA tells the tale of the forbidden pre-teen romance between two Russian Immigrants living in the north of Toronto during one summer.  

It all starts with Mark Berman’s (Alex Ozerov) uncle bringing over a new wife from Russia to Toronto.  With the new wife comes baggage in the form of her young daughter, Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon).  The new wife is not what she seems and neither is Natasha.  Natasha hates her mother, calling her a whore.  Natasha is not that innocent either, having participated in the sex industry in Russia.  Mark is given the task of showing her around and a romance develops.  Mark on the other hand, supplements his pocket money by selling pot in his neighbourhood.

Director Bezmozgis is a good story-teller  His film is never boring and he fills his film with solid supporting characters from Mark’s family to the suspicious new immigrants.  A lot of Russian atmosphere is also integrated into the story with a large portion of the dialogue spoken in Russian as well as in English.

NATASHA is also a film proudly Canadian.  There are shots of northern Toronto where the film is set as well as shots of the Toronto Subway system and the ferry to the Centre Islands where Mark takes Natasha.  The film feels and looks authentic and there are no false notes in the story.  The catchy opening song and music adds to the film’s innovative feel.

A bit of philosophy is added for good measure.  Mark reads German philosophy and some good message are offered to the audience.  Natasha says that all of what she is told, she already knows, but Mark remarks that she knows only because it is said out aloud to her.  So true.  It is these little details that makes Bezmozgis’ film attentive.

The Russian content in the story and the fact that this is a dark tale involving young sex creates the atmosphere of a Vladimir Nabokov novel as in LOLITA and LAUGHTER IN THE DARK.   Secrets are laid out into the open but are yet not apparently visible.

But the forbidden romance, incest upon consideration is not really incest as the the two overs are actually related through marriage and not blood.  Still, the fact that the families trust the boy on looking after the 14-year old girl makes the sex forbidden.  The sex scenes are kept at a minimum and within good taste while remaining quite erotic at the same time.

The two teen leads deliver quite good performances.  Ironically both are young recent Russian immigrants like the characters they portray, Ozerov immigrating to Toronto and Gordon to the U.S.  Ozerov is a young star to watch - young, sexy and brooding, already proving himself able to carry a lead in this film and in other films like the recent COCONUT HERO and A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY. 

NATASHA is a well-made Canadian entry that deserves to be seen. 

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

THE PEOPLE GARDEN (Canada/Japan 2015) ***
Directed by Nadia Litz

Nadia Litz’s low budget mystery drama is yet another film set in the foothills of Mt. Fuji, Japan.  The recent horror film THE FOREST and the yet to be released Cannes premiered Gus Van Sant’s THE SEA OF TREES are the other recent two.  What is fascinating about the film’s setting though not specifically mentioned in THE PEOPLE GARDEN, is that the Japanese with the intention of committing suicide go there to commit the deed.  Director Litz’s heroine, known as Sweetpea (Dree Hemmingway) ventures to Japan to break up with her boyfriend, Jamie (Francois Arnaud).  Her film is bookended by the couple dancing in a club to the an old 80’s dance song.

When the film opens, Sweetpea lands in Tokyo.  But Jamie does not meet her at the airport. A Japanese called Mak (Jai Tatsuto West) shows up instead to pick her up, only to leave her at the forest parking lot.  Apparently, Jamie is shooting a rock video there and is missing.  Sweetpea gets to meet the film crew.

Nothing much happens in the first half of the film.   Sweetpea finds nothing and is giving the runaround by everyone.  But Litz’s film is far from boring as she weaves some interesting mysteries around the plot.  It seems that everyone is hiding something.

Litz ups the angst with a confrontation between Seetpea and one of the stars in the shoot, Signe, played by Pamela Anderson who, Sweetpea finds out has slept with him.  Pamela Anderson parodies her bombshell sex image and is simply hilarious.

Litz clearly leaves her imprint in the film.  It is a feminine film without being offensive to the males.  Sweetpea is a strong character but her vulnerability comes across as well, as in the scenes where she breaks down.  As strong a woman that she is, the audience can see she is unable to break her love for Jamie.  Jamie, though appearing fleetingly in the film, is shown as a charming character that flirts around, but not spineless.  The other male characters have strong personalities too, such as the Japanese guide, Mak.  This balance is quite rare films with a strong female character written and directed by female directors - credit to Litz.

Litz keeps her film an absorbing mystery to the very end.  The stunning forest segments are shot by cinematography Catherine Lutes.  Music by the Dirty Beaches is sufficiently upbeat to offset the mood of the film.

THE PEOPLE GARDEN has a limited run at TIFF Bell Lightbox and is the sort of small budget Canadian feature (shot in Sudbury, Ontario) that gets overlooked.  But this is Litz’s second film as director (her first being HOTEL CONGRESS) and she proves a director to be reckoned with.  

Trailer: http://www.indiewire.com/article/the-people-garden-trailer-dree-hemingway-pamela-anderson-francois-arnaud-20160506

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: DISORDER

Best Animation: ZOOTOPIA

Best Foreign Language Film: LE LOI DU MARCHE (MEASURE OF A MAN) 

Best Documentary: FRANCOFONIA

Best Horror: THE WITCH

 

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