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This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 27, 2017)

26 Oct 2017

Big films opening include THANK OU FOR YOUR SERVICE but the prize film is a French documenatary by Agnes Varda entited VISAGES VILLAGES whihc comes with my highest recommendation.



Directed by Doug Nichol

Would one want to spend an entire 2 hours watching a film about typewriters?  After all nobody (or hardly anyone these days) uses one.  CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER, a documentary by typewriter aficionado Doug Nichol attempts to prove otherwise - that there are both enough material for two hours of interest on the subject and that there are sufficient people in the world involved with the machine.

The title is taken from the name of a typewriter shop in California.  In it, the owner, Howard has devoted his whole life into the servicing and repair of the typewriter.  He barely etches out a decent living, but his son helps him out in the store as well.  As the film progresses, he eventually sells the store and has to seek work elsewhere.

The film focuses on a few ‘typewriter celebrities’. 

One is Toronto typewriter collector Martin Howard, who is featured in the film.  He has a monumental collection of typewriters available for viewing upon request.

Another is artist Jeremy Mayer who lovingly repurposes their parts to create elegant sculptures.  The film follows him as he takes apart a typewriter and makes up a human being from its parts, curved parts for the face and so on - no doubt both a painstaking and artful process.  The talented Mayer talks about his obsession as well and how it takes him off the worries of the world.

A surprise of the film is the appearance of major star Tom Hanks, who also has his say on the subject.  He loves typing on paper, and making his point that a typewritten letter is so much different from something concocted on computer.  Nichols film is a bit too serious all the way - but Hanks appearance injects the much needed humour in the film.  He brings laughs and sarcasm into the picture.  Besides Hanks, the late Sam Shepard also has a few words to add in.

The other light moment in the film is the musical element - typewriter music.  A group of ‘typewriter musicians’ form their own group, creating tunes with the typewriter key sounds and the bell.  This must take a lot of time and work but the results are marvellous.

To each his own.

But director Nichols also goes deep into the invention of the machine from its first conception (a wooden one) to its commercial release in 1869 to its importance and popularity when factories came on board mass producing them.

The music accompanying the film ranges from piano playing to polka music suiting the time presented on hand.

CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER is an interesting film on the bygone subject of typewriters - no doubt about that.  Those uninterested will shrug at the film but the film is nevertheless still educational and puts the subject of word processing on the computer in perspective.

Director Doug Nichol will be in Toronto for the opening weekend screenings at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on October 27.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgJ3kSOHMiU

ON PUTIN’S BLACKLIST (Canada 2017) ***
Directed by Boris Ivanov

In the light of the recent threats made by the Russian government against Canada (check this link on https://globalnews.ca/news/3782262/russia-threatens-canada-with-retaliation-as-bill-targeting-human-rights-abusers-nears-passage/. for more details), Canadian filmmaker Boris Ivanov delivers an educational and informative documentary on the subject of what Putin’s Russia is up to.  Whenever Russian and the United States come into the news, propaganda is at play - and on both sides.  Director Ivanov’s doc is obviously prejudiced against Russia and in a way propaganda as well, but despite these facts, audiences should still see his side on the evil that Russia does.

Director Ivanov begins his film chronologically with the year 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) and the resignation of Gorbachev.  Through Ivanov’s eyes, the wounded pride of Russians as the Soviet Empire crumbles is observed as the privatization of massive national industries and the new social order that then comes into being.  Ivanov simplifies by concentrating initially on one of Russia’s policies (assumed to be originating from Putin).   According to Ivanov, Russia always needs an enemy so the United Stats was the easy target, just as the U.S. needs to go to war to support its military manufacturing factories.  Russia started banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans claiming that Americans mistreated the children with some sent for prostitution or to fight in the military, eventually against Russia and how one child had died.  Ivanov interviews just a few children and a few adoptive parents to draw the conclusion that children are better off with American adoption than in an orphanage.  But Ivanov brings back this issue during the last part of the film with a few more examples.  The subject of NGOs are also brought into the picture and how Russia outlaws them.

Ivanov then abandons the orphan adoption issue to jump to tortured and imprisoned opponents to the government.  Following that he goes into the state-sanctioned hacking of the Internet and the heartless treatment of LGBT citizens.  The film concentrates on the oppressed Russian LGBT community at the film’s 35 minute mark.  The LGBT community is targeted as an enemy of the State.

Ivanov explains Putin’s 90% popularity as his height of acceptance, which Ivanov attributes to the success of the Olympic Games hosted in Russia and the emphasis of family values. 

Two other important issues are also examined - Trumps acceptance as the new President of the United Staes and the vote of Crimea as part of Russia.

The film feels as it is all over the place in the first half.  It is during the second half of the film that Ivanov brings all the separate issues together - the adoption ban, the LGBT oppression, the imprisonment of Pussy Riot, the oppression of the Opposition, combining all the elements into Putin’s blacklist.

But the key issue to North Americans is the apparent accusation by the Americans of Russians tempering of the election polls to get Trump into the American Presidency.  This issue is just mentioned in passing. Oliver Stone’s showtime documentary on Putin: ‘The Putin Interviews’, (which deals more on this issue) out earlier this year in June should be a good companion piece to Ivanov’s sincere film.

Director Boris Ivanov will attend select screenings at both theatres in Toronto (Ted Rogers and Kingsway Cinemas) alongside principal subjects from the film.

Trailer: (unavailable)

Directed by George Clooney

Written by the Academy Award wining Coen Brothers, Grant Heslov and George Clooney himself, this odd piece of satire on the American dream turning into an uncontrollable monster nightmare has its wicked charm but unfortunately fails.  But better an ambitious failure than a simple minded film with no faults - I always say.

The film is set in the fictitious community of SUBURBICON - of perfectly manicured lawns and white picket fences (as in similar films, FAR FROM HEAVEN, PARENTS), one can tell something is amiss or going to go terribly wrong.  In PARENTS, the boy discovers that his parents barbecue human flesh and in FAR FROM HEAVEN, the husband comes out of the closet.  In SUBURBICON, the father of the family, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) hires two killers to do away with his wife in a home invasion scenario so that he can be with her sister, Maggie (both roles played with Julianne Moore with blonde and brunette hair).  They plan to go to Aruba with the collected insurance money.  But things get complicated, particularly with the interference of an enterprising insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) who ends up being poisoned by Margaret.  Their son, Nicky (Noah Jupe) is totally aware of everything that is going on, as he is always snooping or eavesdropping.  Father has no qualms  with doing away with the meddling son, just as the cannibalistic dad would gladly eat his son in PARENTS.  (The film feels very similar to PARENTS at some points.)  A lot of fun in the movie is observing how Nicky discovers what is going on and tries to save his own life.

SUBURBICON’s humour and writing has the distinct Coen Brothers touch, especially in the way events suddenly occur out of the blue and how violence can also suddenly come into the picture (reference: the Coen’ ARIZONA).  But the humour can be so sly and at times so dead-pan, that the humour can be missed.  Also, the film unfolds at a dead slow snail’s pace.  One would definitely fault the film’s direction and editing, though Clooney has directed a few outstanding films in the past.

The art direction of the 50’s idle housing estate is nothing short of perfect.  As the camera pulls back, one can see how all the houses and streets are interconnected.

The film also intercuts into the main story a side-plot of the first coloured family that moves into SUBURBIA.  From initial surprise to full outrage, the neighbourhood finally riots right outside the coloured family’s house.  Ironically the two boys, the coloured boy and Nicky become the best of friends, playing throw and catch baseball, the typical American sport.  The two kids show how adults should behave.

Despite the film that illustrates Murphy’s Law that if anything that can go wrong will and at the worst possible time, the film does end beautifully on an optimistic note, which almost saves the film. One plus of the movie is French composer Alexandre Desplat’s score that includes some suspense music as heard in a typical Hitchcock film.

SUBURBICON premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reviews.  Still, it is an interesting failure, and by no means a dull piece despite its slow pacing.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBezc1S1BAQ


Directed by Jason Hall

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE is a biographical film based on true events (the closing credits reveal the pictures of the real characters) on the subject of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).  Returning after a war and adjustment back to civilian life has been dealt time again in films like the well-known THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but few have dealt specifically with the Iraqi War.

The film opens appropriately with the cause of Sergeant Adam Schumann’s (Miles Teller) trauma.  After a bomb goes off and injures fellow soldier Emory (Scott Haze), Adam fireman lift’s him down to safety.  Well, almost.  He drops him down the stairs resulting in some brain injury.

The film shifts to the return home.  The homecoming is shown with the fanfare of waiting family and loved ones.  The film centres on three soldiers, all of whom find things are not so smooth sailing.  The other two are Solo (Beila Koale) and Will Waller (Joe Cole).  Waller has it the worst when he finds himself abandoned by his wife who takes his child and empties his bank account.  Waller shoot himself in front of her at the bank she works in.  That part seems quite incredible, though it must have happened as in the non-fiction book of the same name written by David Finkel.  The rest of the film follows the other two as they adapt to their PTSD.

The script is adapted by Jason Hall who won an Academy Award nomination for his adapted screenplay of AMERICAN SNIPER.  When Steven Spielberg pulled out of the director’s reigns, Hall jumps in and makes his directorial debut.

The first time direction is obvious in the way the film unfolds in a safe, standard way predictable with no unexpected punches pulled.  The obstacles preventing Solo and Adam from getting their psychiatric care are all there - the long queues; the red tape requiring proof; the waiting time; with the soldiers finally getting their way after some needed shouting and anger outbursts.

Miles Teller in the main role of Adam proves once again his ability to carry a film on his own.  With recent rave reviews for his performances in films like WHIPLASH and the recent ONLY THE BRAVE, this film will add to his impressive resume.  Of all the actors, comedian Amy Schumer (TRAINWRECK, COMEDY CENTRAL) is totally miscast in the serious role of the dead soldier’s wife, Armanda. 

As for the rehabilitation of the soldiers, it seems too convenient that Adam is recovered after Armanda tells him that her dead husband wanted Adam to continue living, this removing Adam from the guilt he feels.  The same kind of convenient removal of guilt occurs in the recent film STRONGER where the bomb victim rehabilitates after one meeting with the guy who helped in during the Boston. marathon bombing.  But Hall’s script at least shows the long path towards recovery.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE is a heavy film with a heavy theme.  One might argue that it is a story that needs be told - and that is right.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50LQGcb5knE

VISAGES VILLAGES (Faces Places)(France 2017) ***** Top 10

Directed by Agnes Varda and JR


Faces Places have received high critical praise from critics at Cannes, many calling it a masterpiece.  That might be too big a term to use for this little personal film but VISAGES VILLAGES is simply the most delightful and personal film that premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.  Director Agnes Varda (wife of the late Jacques Demy), now 89 is famous for her films, photographs, and art installations that focus on documentary realism, feminist issues, and social commentary with a distinct experimental style.  In this latest and perhaps her last doc (she is losing her vision), she and fellow friend and artist known as JR travel around France, particularly the North in their photo camion to take pictures of the people they visit.  At Le Havre, for example they photograph the images of three wives of the dockworkers and paste them on stacked containers.  In a deserted mining town, they paste the photograph of the last woman (wife of a miner) still staying in the old house district.  When asked the reason she does this, she replies it is too demonstrate the power of imagination.  No doubt about that, this film is personal, inspiring, powerful, sad and happy and handsdown, the best and most enjoyable documentary to be seen this year.

Trailer: https://www.youtube


Directed by Todd Haynes

Runaway kids escaping to a strange, new town in search of a parent.  This subject has always been a favourite for films and plays, the most notable being the recent Tony Award winning THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, in which a boy travels to London to find his father.  IN WONDERSTRUCK, a young deaf autistic boy leaves home after his librarian mother is killed in a car accident.  All he has is a little clue of a museum.  He takes off with some cash obtained from his Aunt Jennie (Michelle Williams), gets his wallet snatched but eventually finds out the truth about his father, who he initially knew nothing about.

WONDERSTRUCK appears like a a typical story but director Haynes (CAROL, POISON and his best movie SAFE FROM HEAVEN) decides to do it different.  The openly gay director has always dealt with isolated loner characters who has to come to terms with some truth.  In WONDERSTRUCK, because the subject is deaf, Haynes blacks out all words, so that the film feels like a silent movie with just background music.  The film is alternatively shot in colour and black and white for the flashbacks (in the year 1927).  It seems a good tactic but it does not all work.  For one, the film ends up very difficult to follow.  With no dialogue, one has to figure out who is whom, how the subjects are related and basically what is going on with the plot.  It does not help that the film intercuts two stories set fifty years apart, switching frequently between them.  Each tells the story of a child's quest.  In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away from her father's New Jersey home to find her idol, the actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, recently orphaned Ben (Oakes Fegley) runs away from his Minnesota home in search of his father.  Moore plays two roles - the older Rose as well as Lillian Mayhew which confuses matters even more.

The reason the film is called WONDERSTRUCK is revealed towards the end of the film.  The film’s sets are amazing, special mention to be made of the New York City model though details are not really shown.

Director Haynes leaves the audience much in the dark for the first half of the film.  Though one might, upon considerable thought put all the jigsaw pieces together, it is a very frustrating process.  Director Haynes, gives the full explanation during the last third of the film, what then is the purpose?  Is it to illustrate to the audience the inconveniences of being deaf?

The cast largely of unknowns (excepting Moore, Michelle Williams in a token role and Tom Noonan) including Fegley do an ok job, noting exceptional.

Though credit should be given to Haynes for his non-conforming storytelling techniques, it does not really work.  It comes together at the end, as if Haynes gave up and decided that it is safer to tell it all the usual way.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n207k52C3DM

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