Two excellent foreign films open at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this week - THE SQUARE and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. THE SQUARE is my personal BEST film of the year while the other is my second best. THOR RAGNAROK is the big Hollywood movie opening,
A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS (USA 2017) *
Directed and written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Christmas comes early this year with Hollywood’s first Christmas comedy opening on November the 1st. And it is a nightmare - a nightmare before Christmas. When Publicity handed out sheets of an embargo to be signed with the embargo lifted at 9 am on opening day, the critics attending knew that something about the film must be amiss. A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS is really bad, and a major turn of events considering that BAD MOMS was really funny and that the entire crew responsible for the first successful comedy hit returned for this dud.
Once again, under-appreciated and overburdened moms Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) rebel against the challenges and expectations of Christmas. As if creating the perfect holiday for their families is not hard enough, they will have to do it tho time around while hosting and entertaining their own respective mothers (Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon) when they come to visit. But in the moms’ own words, they want to reclaim Christmas for themselves, very much the same way they did in the first movie.
When the three moms in the first movie decided to take back their own lives, it was funny and fresh. Here, the freshness has changed to stale. All the perkiness and naughtiness, especially with the Kathryn Hahn’s character rubs totally the wrong way - especially in a Christmas movie. The stripper dance during the Christmas dinner (at the end of the film) with the kids present is the perfect example of humour gone wrong. Kahn is obviously trying too hard her and the directors Lucas and Moore given her too much to do after her first success. Waxing too many vaginas in her job at the spa where she works, her foul language, her way with men and her drunkenness and loudness in public have been reduced from funny to annoyance. The romance element of Carla and her new stripper boyfriend is both unfunny and silly. Also missing in this sequel is Christina Applegate who played the bitchy head of the PTA who fought with the BAD MOMS.
Also to keep with the spirit of Christmas films, the film has to bring in the expected sentiment of good cheer, with too much material falling into cliched territory. As expected, each mom is told off by each respective daughter, for whatever reason - not being able to let go of mommy strings; borrowing money and then comes the reconciliation, one of them done in the midst of a church service, as if no one in the congregation minded or noticed. The worst sentimental crap is Amy’s father (Peter Gallagher) given his daughter the speech on how special her mother is.
Oddly the moms’ moms are funnier. The only decent scene is the one where Sarandon, Hines and Baranski end up in church as they help each other out with their daughters amidst insulting each other. But the film ends with the three bad grandmothers heading for Las Vegas - which makes for a terrible thought - the possibility of two sequels in the making.
DINA (USA 2017) **
Directed b Dan Sickes and Antonio Santini
DINA is a romantic comedy combined with the element of the documentary. It follows the real life romance (bliss and troubles; warts and all and a lot of warts at that) of a real life couple Dina Buno and Scott Levin. They are not the flashy Hollywood type romantic comedy couple but everyday normal looking folk. They are decent looking but not overtly attractive.
Dina is an outspoken and eccentric 49-year-old (she looks younger) living in suburban Philadelphia. She had a past marriage and a bad accident which has resulted in her living alone and not wanting to settle down again. But things never go as expected. Dina falls in love with Scott (as seen wen the film begins) who seems a decent and loving and simple guy working as a Walmart greeter. She invites her fiancé Scott, to move in with her. Scott has never lived alone. Having grown up neurologically diverse in a world blind to the value of their experience, the two are head-over-heels for one another, but shacking up poses a new challenge.
Though they constantly whisper sweet nothings to each other, their awkwardness is also present. This is observable during their short holiday trip to Ocean City, as Dina has never seen the ocean before. Other events shot in the film include Dina's racy bachelorette party and on honeymoon in the Poconos.
One wonders at the authenticity of parts of this documentary - when an incident is re-enacted or on-the-spot. The best example is the one with the couple on the bus arguing as they are lost. Is the cameraman sitting behind them on the bus filming their predicament as it happens, or is this a set-up?
The film hints of Dina’s previous marriage and the problems associated with it. That relationship seems more intriguing than the one on display in this film. To make the film more interesting, the problem of sex is introduced into the relationship. All romantic comedies have a problem that the couple faces which they will overcome. Scott is uncomfortable with touching and being affectionate, thus posing a problem as Dina who is very compassionate. The camera follows them as they often argue and bicker. The odd thing is that Scott always agrees with Dina but never proves himself.
DINA is brightened up by occasional musical interludes made up of popular tunes like “I am a Lady” and “We are Family” as well as songs written and performed by Michael Cera.
DINA, about a not so perfect couple with a not so perfect romance ends up a not so perfect movie. The question is whether audiences would want to spend 90 minutes and hard earned money watching something too ordinary. The film will be a tough sell. Audiences want to go to the movies to escape from their humdrum lives not watch one on screen. But the film did win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, which might be the reason the film got distribution.
THE DIVINE ORDER (Switzerland 2017) ***
Directed by Petra Biondina Volpe
There have been quite a few films about women fighting for their right to vote, the most notable being the splashy SUFFRAGETTE that had Meryl Streep in a cameo. DIVINE ORDER from Switzerland examines the same subject but makes it clear from the beginning that it is taking its study from a different point of view.
When the film opens, archive footage of current events in the world (particularly in the U.S.) - the hippie movement, the rock and roll, the political unrest are displayed on screen with the voiceover emphasizing that the small Swiss village the film is set is still behind the times.
THE DIVINE ORDER thus makes its stance on a different footing, differentiating itself from films like SUFFRAGETTE, and works in a way, as the film not only becomes more personal but one that people around the world can relate to. It is no surprise then that THE DIVINE ORDER was selected as the Swiss entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.
The film is set in a small Swiss village in the year 1971. Nora (Marie Leuenberger) is a young housewife and mother, living with her husband and their two sons. The Swiss countryside is untouched by the major social upheavals the movement of 1968 has brought about. Nora’s life is not affected either; she is a quiet person who is liked by everybody. But when she finds her niece taken away for ‘retraining’ after having a boyfriend and her refused by her husband from taking a job, she sees the need to fight for women’s rights. She starts to publicly fight for women’s suffrage, which the men are due to vote on in a ballot on February 7, 1971.
Director Volpe plays her film safe. Unfolding in chronological order, she shows the audience Nora’s life, and how she eventually discovers the need to stand up. An excellent moment is her waking up in the morning with her young son asking her about his breakfast, as is expected by a male from a female, without much thought from the son. This follows with the opportunity for her to make a difference, followed then by her acquaintance with others who feel the same way.
There is always something moving to watch an underdog (Nora in this case) give everything to do what is right. Director Volpe milks this tactic to the fullest thus making her little film work wonders.
Though the subject has been covered in other films, Volpe’s film is incident driven, which breaks the monotony at many points in the film, when one feels that it is just about to occur.
THE DIVINE ORDER is a quiet and small film but effectively done, clearly executed by the cast, crew and director who are convinced of the importance of its subject matter. The film is shot in German.
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY (UK 2017) ****
Directed by Francis Lee
2017 sees the arrival of three critically acclaimed gay films . BPM from France, this one from the U.K. (at point of writing with a 99% rotten tomatoes rating) about a young Yorkshire sheep farmer and from Italy, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. While the latter also deals with first love, unlike that sugar-covered unreal gay love story, GOD’S OWN COUNTRY is a hard look at gay life - acceptance and reality, the way it happens in real life.
The film is set in Yorkshire, around Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) who lives on the family farm with his father, Martin (Ian Hart) and grandmother, Deirdre (Gemma Jones). Due to his father having suffered from a stroke, and his grandmother’s age, much of the day to day running of the farm falls to Johnny. As his friends have left for university, there is little time for socializing. What time there is, he fills drinking excessively on his own at the pub. With the lambing season fast approaching, Johnny’s father tells him that they have advertised for extra help for the farm that arrives in the form of a Romanian worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). When the two are sent out into an isolated place to look after the sheep (shades of Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN), the two form a relationship after some initial rough sex and hostility.
When the two return to the farm, both Derdre and Martin discover what the two have been unto resulting in Gheorghe leaving the farm. Whether Johnny will make a stand and go out to get him back takes up the rest of the film.
What makes the film work for both the gay and hetro-sexual audiences is the honesty of the portrayal of the couple’s love. The film also serves as a coming-of-age rite of passage journey for Johnny who before just engages in casual encounters. This is aided by the film’s sheep farming setting, which unlike many pictures with a farm setting, just cater to one or token farm scenes. In GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, the sheep, landscape, Yorkshire scenery and farming are in the forefront. There are many eye-opening facts that can be learnt about sheep farming from the film like a lamb dying from a breech birth.
The rough macho life of men are on display - as in the rough sex practised by Johnny. Sexual gratification can be obtained without the fuss of a second hook-up or a budding relationship. The land is just as rough, but tenderness is also present, as witnessed by Gheorghe as he takes care of a weak lamb that almost dies.
The film contains one perfect scene somewhere in the middle when Johnny and Ghoerghe sit together overlooking the beautiful yet somewhat barren Yorkshire landscape. It is a rare moment, a turning point in the life of both, when the two lovers appreciate the beauty of GOD’S OWN COUNTRY and nothing else in the world but that and their love matters.
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY is in many ways just as perfect a gay love story.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (UK/Ireland 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Greek director (DOGTOOTH and THE LOBSTER) Yourgos Lanthimos’ latest feature is a supernatural psychological thriller that is the most difficult to watch despite its bouts of black humour. The reason the film is titled THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER becomes apparent at the film’s end and exposing the reason would spoilt the film’s key plot point.
The film follows Dr. Steven Murphy (Farrell), a cardiac surgeon who is first seen at a diner meeting with a 16-year-old named Martin (Barry Keoghan). The doctor buys the boy an expensive watch as a present. The relationship between the two is revealed as the film goes on. Steven introduces Martin to his wife (Nicole Kidman) and two children. Martin, determined to ingratiate himself into this unfamiliar new family, becomes something like an adopted son. Strange things begin to happen with the children developing paralysis right out of the blue. Dr. Murphy and his team of surgeons are unable to put a medical explanation for the illnesses.
Secrets start coming out of the closet. Director Lanthimos unveils bits at a time, thus keeping the audience in anticipation. Revealing more of the plot in this review will definitely spoil ones enjoyment of the film, and thus no more of the story will be revealed.
It is safe to say that the film gets more and more serious and ends up becoming quite a disturbing watch. Lanthimos does not skimp on the violence and language. The film has a lot of anger and the anger is slowly but surely unleashed by every one in the part concerned.
The humour often comes in the form of inconsequential dialogue, often spoken by the main character, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell). Humour is also provided in the way drain information, is relayed to the audience. For example, Steven tells his colleague out of the blue for no reason, that his daughter has begun her menstruation.
The sex scene between husband and wife is as expected a strange one, but sufficiently erotic. Kidman has an almost perfect body. Farrell, Kidman and Keoghan all deliver chilling performances.
The film demands the audience sit back and immerse themselves in the environment of horror. The film is clear a horror film with scary results that resulted in quite a few of the audience at the screening walking out.
The film uses quite a bit of choral music wit a scene of a scene of the daughter singing in the choir. Sound is also used effectively as when Steven takes off his wife’s panties, like the snapping sound of him taking off his surgical gloves.
The film contains some very scary scenes. These include the ones with the son and daughter both paralyzed from the waste down, dragging their bodies around the house, up and down the stairs using their arms. There is also an almost unwatchable scene of Russian Roulette
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER is a well executed psychological and emotional horror film. Not for everyone!
THE SQUARE (Sweden 2017) ***** Top 10
Directed by Ruben Östlund
What is THE SQUARE? In director Östlund’s (FORCE MAJEURE) new film THE SQUARE, the square is a place of trust and caring where everyone shares equality and obligations. It is also the name of the newest project of Museum Director Christian (Claes Bang) which he hopes will bring in money for the cutting edge art museum in Sweden he represents. Christian hires two young TV publicists to spread the word on social media.
The film is made of a number of cinematic set-pieces. If this method of filmmaking sounds familiar, it is used by Swedish director Roy Andersson (A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE, SONGS FROM THE SECOD FLOOR) who happens to be director Östlund’s mentor. Though these set-pieces appear unconnected on the surface, they upon close examination all tie into the greater scheme of Östlund’s universe.
These set pieces include:
the film’s most brilliantly executed segment set during the museum charity dinner where a wild man (a very scary Terry Notary) is let loose among the guests. If the guests show any sign of fear or make any sudden moves, the wild animal will turn on the hunter after sensing his/her fear. This art act ends up going out of control.
the post sex scene in when Christian and Anne (Elizabeth Moss) argue on who will take hold of the filled condom for disposal
the poor kid that confronts Christian on his act of accusing him of being a thief
the museum display of separating visitors into two sections; one that trust and the other that mistrust people. In the trust section, the guests are supposed to leave their cell phones and wallets behind.
a TV interview gone terribly and embarrassingly wrong
the confrontational scene between Christian and Anne when Anne accuses Christian of using his position of power to attract women, a segment that seems to serve as a prophecy to the current Weinstein sex scandal.
One observable thing is that what happens to Christian after his downfall from museum director. He is still questioned to no end, and not allowed to at least go into disgrace in peace. When he decides to seek forgiveness from the boy he wronged, it turns out that he is unable to do so as the boy and family has moved.
One of the film’s best jokes in the film is the scene of the exhibit with the mounds of gravel that goes terribly wrong when the cleaner on the vacuum machine accidentally sucks up the dirt.
The film is also not without arresting images, courtesy of cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel. The two most striking ones include the shot of Christian building with escalators and star is rising above him like a maze (see trailer in link below) and the other with Christian in a heap of garbage as he searches for the piece of paper containing an important telephone number.
As in most successful satires on film (Terry Giliam’s BRAZIL), the story follows the downfall of the protagonist. In THE SQUARE, Christian almost gets his chance to prove himself worthy of being a good human being by apologizing to the boy he has wronged. But Östlund removes this opportunity in a twist of fate when he discovers the boy has moved with nor forwarding address.
The film deservedly won this year’s Palme d’or Prize. The film is as wicked a wicked satire can be as well as sexy, brilliant, complex and wickedly hilarious. It is a cruel, absurd and unforgiving world we live in and Östlund has captured it masterfully in his minor-masterpiece. Clearly the best film I have seen this year - hands down.
THOR: RAGNAROK (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Taika Waititi
The third THOR film, the sequel to THOR:THE DARK WORLD and the seventeenth (not that anyone can really keep count) film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the massive $180 million production arrives with all the extravaganza expected. With a host of top Hollywood and British stars, lots of characters and action super heroes and tons of special and visual effects, THOR: RAGNAROK should please fans of the MCU but for the more serious cineaste, it is quite the chore to watch.
To recap who this Thor (Chris Hemsworth) person is… Thor is the crown prince of Asgard based on the Norse mythological deity of the same name, who has become a "lone gunslinger" while solving universe-ending perils in his search to learn more about the Infinity Stones.
The filmmakers have decided to make a few changes to the THOR universe. Immediately recognizable is Thor’s new look which includes his shorter hair and new outfit. He is more vulnerable in the third film with him plunged to the ground many times including the loss of his hammer. His enemy and half-brother Loki is now his aide and friend as also seen in the last scene when they ponder on how Earth will accept both of them when they arrive.
When the film opens, it is two years after the Battle of Sokovia, Thor's quest for information about the Infinity Stones leads him to the fire demon Surtur, from whom he learns that his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been impersonating their father Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) since the Dark Elf conflict. Surtur taunts Thor with knowledge of the coming Ragnarok, the foretold end of Asgard that Surtur will bring about when he unites his crown with the Eternal Flame that burns beneath the city, but Thor defeats Surtur and claims his crown, seemingly forestalling the prophecy. And this is just 5 minutes into the film. Thor then returns to Asgard and exposes Loki's treachery, before travelling with him to Earth to recover Odin. The story goes on and on with Thor’s eventually battle with his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) and his saving of his people. What is good about the script by Eric Pearson and the writing team of Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost is that it can be complicated that one can have a fine time dissecting the story, or one can totally ignore it and still enjoy the grandiose battles in the film. Pearson ties into the picture a multiple of other action heroes that include the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Skurge (Karl Urban), Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Heimdall (Idris Elba) among others.
A fair share of the budget must have gone into the CGI and special effects. It shows! The film looks amazing and is visually stunning. The music is by Mark Mothersbaugh and the soundtrack is not too loud to give anyone a headache.
The film is predicted to take in $100 million plus the opening weekend and to eventually gross domestically a goal of $250 million bringing Disney and Marvel a hefty profit. So that it is a big win against the serious cineaste who basically can be told to take a hike.