This Week's Film Reviews (May 13, 2016)

12 May 2016

A BIGGER SPLASH and MONEY MONSTER are two worthwhile films making their debut this week.


A BIGGER SPLASH (Italy/France 2015) ***

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Luca Guadagnino’s new film after his acclaimed hit I AM LOVE is based on the 1969 Jacques Deray sex/murder flick LA PISCINE (THE SWIMMING POOL).  The title A BIGGER SPLASH could mean that this film is a more modern take of the then subtle thriller, this one louder and with more sex, nudity and verbal intercourse.  To be fair, both films are quite good.  A BIGGER SPLASH should be examined on its own, despite the initial bad reviews it received after the Venice Film Festival premiere last year.

The story is updated and the famous Alain Delon role is now undertaken by newly popular hunk, the Belgian Mattias Schoenaerts who plays a character called Paul de Smedt.  (Delon played a character called Jean-Paul.)  Oddly the other three characters, Paul’s lover, Marianne (Tilda Swinton), his best friend, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson) all retain their same names.

When the film opens, there is a shot of nude figure by the swimming pool.  Rock legend Marianne Lane is recuperating from a throat operation on the volcanic island of Pantelleria with her partner Paul when iconoclast record producer and old flame Harry unexpectedly arrives with his daughter Penelope in tow.  One can tell immediately that sex is going to be exchanged between different partners.  And it happens as predicted. 

The four characters (in the menage a quatre), are not particularly likeable personalities.  Marianne can be considered a queen bitch, full of herself and served sexually by meek Paul which the audience will likely have no patience with, especially when he is subtly seduced by Penelope.  Penelope is a spoilt rich kid.  Harry is the most dislikable of the 4, being loud, offensive and abusive when he wants.  On the other hand, these four are performed by 4 of filmdom’s top stars.  Oscar Winner Tilda Swinton - I would see her in anything and she is always good in any film.  She makes gargling sexy in the bedroom scene.  Schoenaerts is now hot property after RUST AND BONE and DISORDER, proving himself apt in roles of brooding, sexy men.  Fiennes and Johnson are also excellent to watch - especially them inhabiting horrid personalities.

Intriguing as the story is, the film could be shortened from its lengthy 2 hours.  Two characters Mireille (Aurore Clement) and Sylvie (Lily McMenamy), Harry’s friends who show up invited by Harry could have been eliminated from the film without much effect.  There is also a sudden shock in the plot at the film’s end when the chief Carabiniere announces the death of 7 Tunisian immigrants.  One can only guess the purpose of this revelation as it is never made clear.  It is likely that Guadagnino wishes to state that the problems of the rich, white elite are not the only problems faced by the police.  The dead 7 make A BIGGER SPLASH.  The snakes writhing by the pool probably is a metaphor for something else in the story.

Music and sound are appropriately used.  The clanging sound invoking menace is one example.  In another scene, Harry teases his listeners (and the audience) to identify “What is it? the drumming sound from a record he plays that turns out to be the banging of trash cans.  The end credits Rolling Stones song “Emotional Rescue” is also suitably chosen.

The action slowly but surely unfolds in two hours of subtle sexual pleasure.  Nudity, both male and female are abundant.  Writer/director Guadagnino never makes it clear at the end what really happened between Penelope and Paul.  It really does not matter in the long run, which makes all the guessing so neat.

A BIGGER SPLASH marks the return of the sexy moody thriller genre that was so popular in the 70’s and 80’s.  Hope the film will make a return (I will refrain from using the obvious pun) to of more films in this genre.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zC13ekq1Sk

DHEEPAN (France 2015) ***
Directed by Jacques Audiard

Audiard’s (UN PROPHET, RUST AND BONE) latest work, direct from Cannes and a Palme d’Or Winner, is likely the first and only French film shot largely in Tamil.  In this one, as in other Audiard’s films, features a desperate protagonist trying to adapt, often successfully in a new environment after much duress and determination.

DHEEPAN is the name of the protagonist, an ex-Tamil Tiger from Sri Lanka (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) who with a woman, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and child (Claudine Vinasithamby) use false passports and pretend to be a family so that they can immigrate and stay in France where fraternite, legalite and egalite apparently rule.  Obviously this is not the case.  The three find it just as hard to assimilate, less survive in their new surroundings.   They have to learn a new language a well.

The housing project they are assigned to is a front for drug trafficking.  Dheepan is given the job as caretaker while his ‘wife’ a job of caregiver for a Mr. Habib (Faouzi Bensaïdi).

Dheepan works as the caretaker for ‘Block B’ and the woman as a caregiver for an old Frenchman while the girl attends school.  Like Audiard’s best work UN PROPHET, he shows that prison need not occur behind closed walls.  

The film contains other interesting characters besides Dheepan and his family.  One is the mysterious Mr. Habib, the elder gent that the wife is hired to cook and look after  The other is the Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) who develops sympathy for the wife, Yalini.  Unfortunately, Brahim is done away with soon after in the film.

The film’s best segment is the one where the couple have a private talk.  Dheepan confesses that he had understood an entire French conversation but finds nothing funny in the joke.  The ‘wife’  tells him it is not the joke but that it is Dheepan who has no sense of humour, even in Tamil. 

Lead actor Jesuthasan is himself a former child soldier with the rebel group Tamil Tigers (now an accomplished author who have written books Gorilla and Traitor)but his lack of training in acting shows.  He is ill equipped to handle the dramatic scenes and ends up pouting or brooding most of the time.  Srinivasan who plays the wife fares better, eliciting both humour and sympathy in her role.  But a bigger part in the film should have been written for Rottiers, who is the best actor in the film.

The film’s message appears to be that family is what one makes of it - not what is dished out in terms of blood relatives.  Also, home is also what one makes of it.  These come out loud and clear through the plot.

The last 15 minutes of the film goes against the grain and mood of what Audiard established so well during the rest of the film.  The film opts for a cop-out happy ending after a ridiculous action film-styled shootout in which Dheepan utilizes his ex-Tamil Tigers fighting skills.

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

FIRE SONG (Canada 2015) **

Directed by Adam Garnet Jones

Calgary born Cree-Metis filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones’ first full length feature (he has made a few shorts) begins with a teen suicide in a First Nations community.  Her brother, Shane (Andrew Martin), a young Anishinaabe man is at a crossroads at to whether to start school in Toronto or stay in the Reservation after the family comes across some inheritance money.  But the family also needs  the money for the family house which is in shambles, as seen by a pail collecting water from a leaking roof, at different points in the film.  Shane has a girlfriend who wishes to leave with him, but Shane has a gay relationship with David (Harley Legarde-Beacham), the grandson of the community's leader.   Short of cash, Shane tries peddling drugs.  

The film is a universal story about youthful dreams confined by reality, set in a remote Aboriginal community and the first LGBTQ drama by an Indigenous, two-spirited filmmaker in Canada.

Despite director Jones’ sincerity, the film is crushed by the weight of the manifold issues it tries to address - teen suicide, small town captivity, drug use, teen angst, gay love, son/mother relationship, native tradition, familial duty and perhaps a few more I might have missed.  (They come so fast!)   The significance of the title FIRE SONG will become apparent when you see the movie.

When a man has both a girlfriend and a gay lover, it is only a matter of time before the girlfriend finds out.  And David faces this confrontation in one of the film’s better scenes.

Performances from the cast of unknowns are fair at best.  The gay scene with Shane and David is nothing short of embarrassing.  In fact, it is the most unrealistic gay scene I have ever seen in a movie - the two lovers just sit next to each other looking lost as to what to do next.    So, finally mother decides to sell the property for the son to go to school.  She should have done that long ago and saved every one so much trouble!

But FIRE SONG has played at various festivals including the Toronto and Vancouver International Film Festivals.  It is also the Winner of the Air Canada Audience Choice Award at the ImagineNATIVE festival and the Winner of the Best Feature Narrative at the Reel Out Festival.  Am I the only one who dislikes this film?

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/136113745

KILL ZONE 2 (China/ Hong Kong 2015) ***
Directed by Pou-Soi Cheang

KILL ZONE 2, the sequel is largely different from the first film, this one being more ambitious and set in Thailand in addition to Hong Kong with both Thai and Chinese spoken.  It also stars Thai action star Tony Jaa who is not in the first.  Jaa is the star of the popular Thai ONG BAK action flicks who also landed a role in FURIOUS 7.  Simon Yam and Wu Jing appear in both KILL ZONE films but play different characters.

There are several stories in this movie, all linked by coincidences.  All are equally important judging from director Cheang’s treatment of each, giving each equal screen time.  One involves a Thai prison guard Chai (Tony Jaa).  His daughter has leukaemia and requires a marrow donor that only a person called Kit (Wu Jing) can give, due to matching blood type requirements.  Coincidence has it that Kit is one of the prisoners in the Thai prison.  There is more.  Kit is an undercover cop working for his uncle, Wah (Simon Yam veteran of over a dozen Hong Kong films including IP MAN).  The undercover operation turned bad and Kit is in jail.  The suspect is crime boss Mr Hung (Louis Koo) who needs a blood transplant from his brother (Jun Kung), who turns out to be the cops’ suspect.  A minor subplot involves the stern warden Ko (Zhang Jin) who wants Kit dead for the smooth operation of his prison.  Mr Hung had saved the warden’s life before.

If you think the plot sounds difficult to follow, it is.  It takes 45 minutes for the film to get its footing.  At this mark, the audience is able to follow who is whom, who the bad and good guys are and which uncle or brother or daughter needs a blood or organ transplant and whether the syndicate deals with drugs or body parts.

The stories all come together at the film’s climax which of course ends in lots of martial-arts fights.  A few elaborate action sequences include the ones at an airport and a prison break.  These action sequences make the film.

KILL ZONE 2 share the same traits as most Hong Kong crime kung-fu action films like the IP Man films. Director Cheang accomplishes a rare feat of invoking some genuine emotions with the characters.  The scene in which Inspector Wah and Mr. Hung talk it over outside a hospital displays seriousness in the acting department between the two Hong Kong stars.

The film is not without the typical corny dialogue.  The worst of these is Chai comforting his daughter talking about how a seed germinates in the dark and the importance of having hope.  The many coincidences are attributed to as Uncle Wah says God toying with them.

Cheang’s action sequences share Hong Kong director John Woo’s common trait of being highly stylized.  A few of them are in slow motion and a lot done in super-cool art deco such as polished shiny and white surroundings, often accompanied to classical music.  There is a scene of a billboard in the film with the words A BETTER TOMORROW, the title of one of Woo’s films.

It is odd to see this commercial martial-arts film selected for a run at TIFF Bell Lightbox where art house films are mostly screened.  Judging the other typical Hong Kong action flicks (from Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers) of this variety, KILL ZONE 2 hits the mark. 

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

Directed by Jodie Foster

MONEY MONSTER is a star-studded sharp Hollywood satire/drama that is as current as the stock prices on the stock market charts.  Financial TV personality Lee Gates (George Clooney), who offers up stock advice on his hit show "Money Monster", is held hostage by a viewer, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’ Connell).  Kyle had lost all of his money, following a bad tip from Lee during his show.  Kyle wants answers.  As the police surround the TV studio, Lee eventually sympathizes and takes Kyle’s side in discovering the truth about the company's $800 million loss explained on TV as a glitch in the company’s financial algorithm.

MONEY MONSTER is a odd film in that its middle portion is better than the end.  The story is predictable enough once naive Kyle takes Lee hostage.  It does not take a genius to figure out that Lee will take Kyle’s side and that the villain of the piece is the CEO of the company (Dominic West) who eventually confesses to his embezzlement.  But as they say, the devil is in the details.  It is all the little observations and various incidents that make the movie totally watchable thus covering up the predictability complaint of the story.

Directed by Jodie Foster (THE PANIC ROOM), the film contains strong feminine roles.  The most obvious is Julia Robert’s Patty Fenn, a more than able producer.  She is Lee’s neglected girlfriend who proves she that she is able to control the hostage situation as well as their relationship.  The other is that of Molly (Emily Meade), Kyle’s girlfriend.  Molly's speech to Kyle, on the air, on how much a loser he is, is the arguably funniest to be found in a film this year:  As in recent ‘female’ films, the males (Lee, Kyle, the show producer, Walt) are all egocentric ‘idiots’.  But by putting them up high on the pedestal and making it all funny, Foster gets away with it.

Performances are top notch.  Clooney and Roberts work their chemistry but top marks go to Brit actor Jack O’ Connell (STARRED UP) , playing the straight role of the victim/antagonist.  He demonstrates how to keep attention from waning even when the limelight shifts to another character.  The other supporting roles are well performed by Dominic West as the financial villain, Walt Camby and Caitriona Balfe as Diane Lester, the whistle blower.

The incidents leading to the expected results are however genuinely inventive.  The parody on found footage is take up another level with a network camera following the hostage and kidnapper down the elevator and into the street, still shooting.  Lee raps on stage and offers stock tips also satirizes the financial world well.  The script by Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden is smart enough to include clips of “The View” as everyone watches the takedown on television.  Walt’s defence statement that all these would not have happened if events had worked out with the stock going up instead of down rings so true.  When something illegal occurs and everyone benefits, no one says anything. 

For a thriller, editing is crucial.  The camera shots of the snipers crawling into position, the movement of the target, the shots of the crew behind and in front of the camera and the dance routine (to show just enough but not too much) are close to perfect.

MONEY MONSTER ultimately satisfies as it delivers what it is supposed to -  a sharp and witty satire on the financial world that is both funny and smart at the same time.  It features Hollywood’s top and upcoming stars at their best.  Highly recommended - take this as as a movie tip!

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

NEON BULL (Brazil/Uruguay/Netherlands 2015) ***
Directed by Gabriel Mascaro

NEON BULL tells the story, set in a Brazilian rodeo setting, of Iremar (Juliano Cazarre) and his immediate family, all living at the edge of poverty.   The family consists of his girlfriend an exotic dancer (Maeve Jinkings) and her daughter Caca (Aline Santana).  Iremar works at a rodeo called the ‘Vaquejadas’   in the north east of Brazil.  In the rodeo, two men on horseback bring down a bull by its tail (which is sanded for grip) within a time limit.  There is no story but the film’s purpose is to show what life is like for them.  The film works around Iremar’s immediate family and work while focusing on his desire to get out of the bull business as it is difficult hard-breaking work.  Iremar’s passion, believe it or not is designing skimpy women’s clothes.

Mascaro uses dramatic set-ups to tell his story.  The segment in which the little girl Caca asks Iremar, the mother’s befriend out of the blue for a hug shows the closeness between the two that is missing between her and her real mother.  On the other hand, the mother slapping Caca in another scene demonstrates the mother just tolerating her most of the time.  These often isolated segments do not help smooth the flow of the story telling, which feels choppy at times.  The dramatic contents of the film, however, are strong.

Mascaro loves to focus his camera on images of bodies be it humans, even on co-worker Ze’s (Carlos Pessoa) pot-belly and his protruding belly button or on the almost perfect contours of the white bulls in the rodeo.  It seems natural then, that his protagonist has the ambition to design fashion outfit as an alternative source of income.

The film’s cinematography by Diego Garcia is detailed enough to observe dust in the wind.  His fond of use of shadows is apparent in the many night scenes.  There is much to enjoy in the lighting department as well, as evident in a scene which is lit up by the needle of a sewing machine emphasizing Iremar’s dedication to his design work.

NEON BULL has the mixed feel of art and biopic.  The slowness of pace and the often lingering of the camera with the explicit use of colours (the white bulls, the neon lights, the colours of posters) are the realistic dirty look of poverty of the subjects.

The climax of the film is where everything comes together - filmmaking-wise.  It is a sex scene, very graphically explicit, shot in the night with shadows and minimal lighting with selected musical scoring.  The sex is very erotic and different, between Iremar and his cosmetics saleslady who happens to be pregnant.  It is not a scene for everybody, riding from behind, but tastefully done, arguably.

If the visual and dramatic setups are tied in with a stronger film narrative, NEON BULL would emerge a more focused film and even one that could contain a message of survival and maybe the mistreatment of animals.  Shot in Portuguese.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0Tt_HuOfXY

SUNSET SONG (UK/Luxembourg 2015) ****
Directed by Terence Davies

Terence Davies does David Lean in this adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's novel of the same name.  SUNSET SONG is considered one of the most important Scots novels of the 20th century.

The central character is a young woman, Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), growing up in a farming family in the fictional Estate of Kinraddie in The Mearns in the north east of Scotland at the start of the 20th century.   Life is hard, and made even more difficult as her family is dysfunctional.  An early scene shows the patriarch (actor/director Peter Mullan) beating his son Will (Jack Greenlee) for using the words, “Move over, Jehovah,” to a horse in the barn.  “I hate him,” Will confesses to Chris that night.  But an almost unwatchable scene has Will being flogged later on.  Davies shows that more harm comes about from human beings than the land, which is the star of his movie.

SUNSET SONG is Davies’ first film to have a setting in the countryside.  All his other works were city bound.  Yet Davies manages to bring out great beauty in his films despite their limitations.  In THE LONG DAY CLOSES, for example, he has an extended lengthy shot of a carpet in the room, as the sun sets through a window.  SUNSET SONG allows him the entire open country as his new playing field.  And he uses it at the start of the film, for example, with the wide expansion of wheat in the fields before the camera lingers on its heroine lying in a spot in the field.  Davies again shows his fondness for song as his characters often break out into a ditty, though not as often in this film as in THE LONG DAY CLOSES.  Davies is also well known for his beautiful tracking shots.  These can be observed in segments when his camera scans the deserted battlefields or the village paths where the villagers march to church on a Sunday morning.

A lot happens in the story as time progresses.  The First World War arrives and goes.  Its impact on Chris Guthrie comes in the form of her husband Ian Pirie (Chae Strachan) who leaves her and returns a different person, often beating her as a result of his postwar trauma.  This part is particularly difficult to take by the audience but it follows the style of the book.  It is the frailty of human beings that cause trouble.  Only the land endures.

Davies omits the incestuous relationship between Chris and her father in the film.  In the book, the father tries to persuade Chris to have incest with him, but is unable to force her after suffering a stroke.  In the film, the audience sees the father falling out of bed screaming for his daughter, Chris, reaching for the door knob only to have the door locked from the outside by Chris.  Davies leaves the scene to be interpreted by the audience.  

The film strongest moments occur between Chris and her father.  During his funeral, Chris breaks down crying at her father’s casket, unable to leave him a farewell kiss.  In reality, she is unable to feel the love for this man who has given up his life for the land and his family.

The title of the film and novel indicates the fond passing of the old, traditional ways and the coming of the new.  SUNSET SONG is the first of Gibbon’s trilogy “A Scots Quair”.  It would be very welcome if Davies undertook the next book in a sequel to this beautiful SUNSET SONG.

Trailer: http://www.theguardian.com/film/video/2015/nov/10/sunset-song-trailer-terence-davies-agyness-deyn-video



Best Film Opening: MONEY MONSTER

Best Animation: ZOOTOPIA

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

Best Documentary: FRANCOFONIA

Best Comedy/Drama: MONEY MONSTER

Best Horror: THE WITCH

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