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This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 6, 2017)

05 Oct 2017

BIG films opening this week are BLADE RUNNER 2049, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US and THE LITTLE PONY.  These 3 films will not be reviewed as yours truly was on holidays he past two weeks.  Other films opening are reviewed below.

 

FILM REVIEWS:

BAD GRANDMAS (Canada 2016) **
Directed by Srikant Chellappa

It has barely been two weeks since two films about old ladies hits the screen.  There was THE BEST OF THEIR LIVES and now BAD GRANDMAS, a Canadian feature where one granny accidentally kills her friend’s bad son-in-law resulting in all other cronies trying to hide the body and cover up the deed.

The film’s first scene shows an American flag out front of a building of an insurance company in this IndieCan production.  Obviously, the film is set in the States (Southern U.S.A. to be more accurate) to expand the film’s marketing base.  All the grandmas in the film thus speak with a southern drawl.

The film contains typical scenes of the elderly ladies doing jumping jacks and smoking up, trying to look cool, things that have been done in films on old farts before.

Four grandmothers spend their twilight years in peace playing card games and baking cakes.  Their world is turned upside down when one of ladies (Bobbi played by Susie Wall) son-in-law Jim (David Wassilak) cons the lady.  In the process of trying to fix the problem, Mimi (chief protagonist, ringleader and brains played by Florence Henderson) accidentally kills him. Things go from bad to worse but the ladies are smarter than they seem.  The premise does not sound original and this plot of accidental killing has been done more than once in other films, for example in the best film dealing with accidentally killing, Robert Carlisle’s THE LEGEND OF BARNEY THOMSON, where a barber’s accidental killing leads to another to another.  BUT BAD GRANDMAS is hardly funny, despite many opportunities for comedy.  The film is a clear textbook example where timing is essential in comedy.

The addition of the character of the investigating Detective Randall Mclemore (Randall Batinkoff) is puzzling.  His character is a smug rather good-looking man who charms the daughters of the grandmothers.  He does not add much humour either but not for want of trying.

There is also one bug flaw in the script.  If the ladies have in their possession  the CCTV video of the villain kidnapping Bobbi, why don’t thy just go to the police in the first place?

The film is performed by a cast of mostly little heard actors except for veterans Pam Grier and Judge Reinhold,who do nothing to lift this piece out of the doldrums.

The film contains countless attempts at humour but none too successfully.   The only laugh out loud joke for me is the one when one of the grandmas remarks after seeing a dead body: “This makes me more nervous than a long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”  But this is not because the joke itself is funny but because it has ben ions when I used to repeat that line.  The film improves during the second half, story-wise.

BAD GRANDMAS attempts to cash in on the successful comedy BAD MOMS by adding the murder angle.  Better skip this one and wait for BAD MOMS AT CHRISTMAS or BIG DADDY 2 where the 2 grandpas (played by Mel Gibson and John Lithgow) are added to the story.

Trailer: http://indiecanent.com/movies/bad-grandmas/

LOVING VINCENT (Poland /UK 2017) ***
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

A Polish English co-production, the film features Polish animators with voices from actors largely from the United Kingdom.  LOVING VINCENT boasts to be the first hand painted animated feature.  It examines the mysterious facts surrounding the death of the famous Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh.

It took more than 100 animators and them to be re-trained in animation for the film.  It shows.  The film is beautifully ‘painted’ in the style of the Master himself.  Each frame could very much be something Van Gogh himself might have painted.  The segments in the farm fields and the colours used are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings.

Audiences should be familiar with the particularities of Van Gogh’s life.  Among these facts are his suicide, his stay at a mental asylum, his cutting off of his ear in Arles and his relationship with his brother Theo.  LOVING VINCENT reveals more of the facts and details with some doubt given on the reasons behind Van Gogh’s death.  But many will not know that he wrapped the severed ear as a present to given to a whore or that Theo paid for most of Vincent’s art materials and lived poorly as a result.

All the incidents surrounding Van Gogh’s death are revealed through the excuse of the delivery of one last letter Vincent apparently wrote to his brother Theo.  This letter was undelivered by the postman Joseph Roulin (Chis O’Dowd), so he commission his son Armand (Douglas Booth), a hard drinker and scrapper to do the job  He reluctantly does.  When he discovers that Theo is also dead, he finds the good doctor who was Van Gogh’s good friend and mentor to give the letter to.  He then finds out the truth behind Van Gogh’s death.

Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman play their film like an investigational whodunit.  One segment has Armand explained that Van Gogh could not have shot himself in the stomach due to the impossibility of the gun’s angle.  Why too would Vincent ask for art supplies the next day from his brother if he was to commit suicide?  Doubts are also put about on Van Gogh’s flirting with whores and also at one point possible homosexuality at a possible gay encounter with the teen village idiot.

The film could do with a bit of humour even though the subject matter is serious.  I cannot recall a single bout of humour in the film.  The film also does not justify Armand’s motivation into wanting to know the truth of Vn Gogh’s death.  He does say at one point in he film: “I want to do more for the artist,” but why he feels that way is never dealt with.

But not all of the artist’s bad points are highlighted in a film that is affectionally called LOVING VINCENT, though moments that highlight the artists work are rare.  Van Gogh’s dream of showing the world that a nobody like him could have the world remember him forever is inspirational.  The film’s romanticizing of his death as a short cut to heaven instead of the slower route of a  normal death is cute. 

The coloured hand painted animation is well worth the price of the admission ticket of LOVING VINCENT, despite the events of its intriguing premise unfolding stoically. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47h6pQ6StCk

LUCKY (USA 2017)  ***1/2

Directed John Carroll Lynch

Harry Dean Stanton plays the character of LUCKY of the film title in a film that audiences recognize could be the real Harry Dean Stanton.  LUCKY is the nickname the ex-navy man earned after being designated the cook in the Navy while others were sent to fight and die during the War.  Lucky is 90, bitter, alone (but not lonely as he has a routine of chores to do each day), cynical, sickness free, and smokes a lot.

The audience sees Lucky doing the same things daily - visiting the grocery store with the Mexican cashier to get his cigarettes; having some drinks at the bar; having coffee at his dual diner; and watching his favourite quiz show - but with different reactions.  The soundtrack replays the tune of “Old River Valley’ on a harmonica.

The film contains a lot of musings like what realism (as explained by Lucky as real for one person but not necessarily in another occurs to another) is or even the friendship between man an animal as the latter discussion (it is apparently essential to the soul) starts.  Lucky’s friend, Howard (David Lynch) at the bar walk in to sadly announce the loss of President Roosevelt, his pet tortoise. (Lucky does not believe this….. not the statement but the existence of a soul.)  Though the latter statement seems inconsequential dialogue in the script, it is important in the way Lucky looks at life if he does not believe in the existence of a soul.

The film is directed by actor John Carroll base on the script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja.  The film pays more attention to the character than to plotting.  The film is also wonderfully acted by Stanton.  Director David Lynch delivers a surprisingly moving speech defending his case of leaving his inheritance to his tortoise that has apparently escaped as does James Darren how a nothing person like him transformed to one who now has everything.

LUCKY the film can be best described as a cynical coming-of age movie of a 90-year old man who has almost given up on life.  It is quite an idea for a film which is likely the story got made.  It is a film about an old fart that is not the typical Hollywood old fart film like the fantasies of old people reminiscing on their youth or having sex one more time.  Lucky confesses in one scene that he can hardly get it up any more.  Here, Lucky says in the film’s most intimate scene where he reveals his deep secret to his friend, Loretta (Yvonne Huff): “I’m scared.”  It all happens when he falls down out of feeling faint, though doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) tells him that nothing major is wrong with him.

Harry Dean Stanton passed away this year (2017).  LUCKY is a worthy swan song of an actor that has surprised audiences many a time with his wide range of performances.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YurR6xZeBCk

REBEL IN THE RYE (USA 2017) **

Directed by Danny Strong

REBEL IN THE EYE is an American biographical drama film based on the author of the famous ‘The Catcher in the Rye’.  It is directed and written by Danny Strong, who adapted the book J. D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski.  Director Strong bought the book rights with his own money which must mean that the book really fascinated him.

A film about successful creative writing appeals to many particularly film reviewers who could learn a thing or two about their writing.  The spill on voice in writing illustrated by a passage read by Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) in a William Faulkner novel is especially engaging.  He reads a passage in a monotonous tone to illustrate the fact that it is the incidents will make the writing and not the tone.  But if the author’s voice or impression is added, that would be inspiring.  Unless the voice comes across as pompous instead of sincere.

The film follows the life of Jerome Salinger (Nicholas Hoult).  He attends writing at Columbia University where Professor White Burnett grinds him to be a successful writer.  His devastating experiences during the War watching many die during the D-Day beach landing earn him the maturity that finally gets the fame he seeks with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ but not after suffering mentally.  He is aided by an Indian Swami (Bernard White).

The message in the film is quite obvious - the importance of truth in writing.  Salinger refuses to compromise changing his story to the notes of the New York Times in order to be published.

Besides the story of J.D. Salinger as a writer from budding writer to published author, the film has several major subplots that undermine the film’s goal.  One is the relationship between Salinger and his mentor Whit Burnett.  The second is the failed love affair between Salinger and Oona (Zooey Deutch).   All the action takes place during World War 2 with Salinger himself going off to fight in the war.  The segments with the Indian Swami are more laughable than credible,

In Strong’s attempt to put his voice into his film, he gets too obvious.  One example (too in-your-face metaphor) is the blurred image of Salinger’s face as seen through the glass of his mother in the homecoming dinner.  This also comes across as an attempt to be too pompous instead of sincere - advice that he should have taken himself from the film.

For a film that stresses about voice in a story, Strong falls again into the trap of not following his own advice.  He resorts in too many familiar filming formats.  One is the over-use of voiceover.  Another is obvious at the start of the film when a scene is shown and then the film flashes back to years earlier (in this case 6 years) to the events that precede the scene.  The over use of music, as if to force the audience to feel a certain way (Indian music during the Swami advice segments and a musical interlude when Salinger gets published) is yet another.  Every character in the film speaks the same way - with sarcasm and with anger. 

REBEL IN THE EYE ends up a flawed biography in which director Strong commits all the mistakes the writing professor Burnett in the script warns Salinger never to make.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWRhXMMb7CY

TAKE MY NOSE….PLEASE (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Joan Kron

TAKE MY NOSE….PLEASE is a documentary comedy that looks at nose jobs as in plastic surgery.  For a subject like this, writer/director Joan Kron (89-year old former Allure Magazine editor now filmmaker in her debut feature) chose to take the hilarious route.  Can you imagine making a serious documentary on nose jobs?  That would be disastrous.  To keep her film hilarious from start to end, she chose to look at the subject from the stand-up comics’ point of view.

In short, the film goes in depth with a comedic take from the top female comedians on the subject of women and plastic surgery and their career as artists.

The film is insightful, no doubt but it is not in your face insightful.  That is the secret beauty of the film.  One has to extract the lessons to be learnt from the punch lines.  The best one can be observed from Margaret Cho’s routine where she condemns the process as a mutilation of the female body then remarks: “I am going to get it anyway.” 

Kron also, in making her film comet on the subject, delves into the history of nose plastic surgery from the Egyptian past to the present.  However, this portion seems rushed and done just to provide humour rather than the real origins of plastic surgery.

Kron has assembled an impressive cast of talent, which makes the film very entertaining.  This is also the strength of her film.  The comics on display include Roseanne Barr, Phyllis Diller, the late Joan Rivers,Judy Gold, Julie Halston, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykies, Lisa Lampanelli, Giulia Rozzi, and Adrianne Tolsch, all of whom add to the magic of this film.

But interviewees also include plastic surgeons and psychologists to offer a look on the subject from the other side. 

The good thing about standup comics being interviewed is that whatever serious comments they make - they can make it funny, while still getting the message across.

The film’s best segment is the one dedicated to the nose job of Fanny Brice, 20’s dramatic actress and comedienne.

As an additional bonus, Kron gives her audience a new respect for stand-up comediennes.  One is Jackie Hoffman, who manages to be real and funny.  It takes a certain courage to be able to laugh at oneself - and she does anther Jewishness and looks.  The film also takes a candid look at the process as Hoffman visits different doctors.  Warning: the film gets a bit serious towards the end.

As a female director with female subjects, the film understandably attacks the male gender.  Many examples are given in movies where the age difference between male and female in the romance range from 15 to 35 years.  But that is unfortunately the reality of life as observed in an Amy Saunders skit.   

How about  men who undergo plastic surgery?  This side of plastic surgery is totally omitted till the end credits.  Men do get plastic surgery too.  Myself, I had surgery done to get the bags under my eyes removed 15 years ago.

The film has not got a Toronto engagement yet but will open exclusive one week engagements in New York on October 6 at the Village East Cinemas, and then October 13 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica.  It will open nationally following these cities.

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

SCHOOL LIFE (Ireland/Spain 2016) *** 1/2

Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane

Premiering at Sundance and Hot Docs in Toronto, SCHOOL LIFE begins its theatrical run and is one film sure to captivate audiences for its charm and magic.  Almost everyone has fond memories of their primary school and their teachers who are very impressionable.  The film takes the audience around the classes to reveal the studies, the hobbies as well as they extra-curricular activities.  Watching the children read End Blyton’s Famous Five novels will certainly make one wish for to re-live these wonderful times.

SCHOOL LIFE begins with an excellent introduction of two old teachers, a husband and wife as they talk and prepare for their new term.  They teach in the only primary-age boarding school in Kells, Ireland.  Headfort, a school not unlike Hogwarts with its 18th century buildings, secret doors and magical woodlands, has been home to John and Amanda Leyden for 46 years and a backdrop to their extraordinary careers.  For John, rock music is just another subject alongside Maths, English, Scripture and Latin, all of which are taught in a collaborative and often hilarious fashion.  For Amanda the key to connecting with children is the book, and she uses all means to engage the minds of her young charges with literature.

The film charmingly demonstrates what it means to educate.  It is not merely the dissemination of information but the care and concern given to the kids.  This is especially true for a boarding school whee the children are left behind for the first time not to see their parents for a few weeks.  For nearly half a century John and Amanda have shaped thousands of minds but as the film opens, it is finally time for them to start making preparations for their retirement.  “What are we gong to do when we have nowhere to go?” questions the husband.  The two are still healthy though they smoke quite a bit.

The film’s best segment has a teacher discussing with the class the controversial issue of same sex marriage.  The reactions from the primary school students are innocent, revealing and sometimes surprising.  “It is not right,” says one. “God made a man and a woman not two men, to which the teacher replies, “How do you know God exists?”   Other keen observations from the film include the teachers’ speed at rebuttal and the delicate concern each one has over their pupils.

The film ends with the pupils finishing the school year and leaving the school with their parents.  It is a touching moment when goodbyes are said.  The audience also feels sad to have to depart with the film’s characters who have been made so endearing by the filmmakers.

The film flows so smoothly it feels as if the doc is scripted.  Well conceived from start to finish, moving, sad, funny and inspirational, SCHOOL LIFE turns out to be marvellous entertainment.

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5475022/videoplayer/vi974108953?ref_=vi_nxt_ap

UNARMED VERSES (Canada 2017) ***
Directed by Charles Officer

UNARMED VERSES arrives with all the critical and public raves after being named Best Canadian Feature Documentary at this year’s Hot Docs 2017.   It is a National Film Board of Canada production which means it is (as most NFB films are) a meticulously constructed arty small budget film. 

The centre of the film is 12-year old Francine Valentine, played by the real Francine Valentine.  So, the film is a documentary of sorts, a documentary of the present so that the film feels like a fiction piece.  Francine is a Jamaican Canadian (as seen from the country’s flags in her house) who has been to live with her old grandmother and father inToronto so that she can obtain a better education.  The film follows her throughout the entire film with her often speaking out loud so that the audience can relate not only to her thoughts but also with what is going on in the film.  Francine’s family in Toronto is not rich.

As the film opens, her community faces a difficult transition, when the largely low-income residents of a rental housing block in the city’s northeast end are threatened with imposed relocation due to the impending demolition of the place they call home.  They have to move out and given a chance to return.  They are unable to afford even renting the new condominiums that will be built.  They are informed, as expect from the typical government, that that any of their questions will be answered though this does not mean that their problems will be solved.  Francine’s grandmother, old but still bright a a light questions the schools that need to be changed for the children.

The film follows the thoughts of Francine, as she reads poems, writes her thoughts and composes her songs,  Through the activities, the audience sees Francine’s reflections on life, the self, and the soul. 

But Francine is not the only person on display.  Her rhythmic father also sings reggae in the film.  Another older black teen inner community class, raps and writes poetry. 

One wonders about the authenticity of the scene in which Francine is so shy at the recording studio, almost unable to go on.  If this is so, how come she could sing in front of the film’s camera earlier in the film?

A highlight of the film is Francine’s visit to the Basquiat exhibit at the Ago (Art Gallery of Ontario)in Toronto.  She gives her 12-year old view on art.

The film ends up a quietly insightful film that also serves as a coming-of-age drama of Francine Valentine.

UNARMED VERSES screens in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., starting Friday, October 6. There will be a Q&A with producer Lea Marin and guests from the film on opening night, October 6; and with director Charles Officer and guests from the film following the 8:30 p.m. screening on Monday, October 9.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/212776693

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