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This Week's Film Reviews (Dec 8, 2017)

07 Dec 2017

Two EXCELLENT fims open this week.  See both:  THE SHAPE OF WATER and THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

BEST FILMS PLAYING:

THE SHAPE OF WATER

THE SQUARE

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

GOD’S OWN COUNTRY

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

PARADISE

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

THELMA

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

 

FILM REVIEWS:

CHAVELA (USA/Mexico/Spain 2017) ***
Directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi

The film opens with the film’s subject Chavela Vargas saying on camera to her interviewer that it is not the past that counts but what goes on from then.  That was before the time of her death in 2012, so the doc has to take audiences back to where CHAVELA came from.      There is also the point that not many know who she is, so back to the past.

The question then is what is so special about this Mexican artist/singer and why is it necessary to dedicate an entire documentary to her?  This doc provides the possible answers, but whatever they are,  it should be noted that Chavela Vargas was the Mexican icon who scandalized and captivated the world around her.

  A few reasons:  Chavela was notorious and that demands some respect.  She had an affair with and broke the heart of artist, the then older Frida Kahlo.  She attended Elizabeth Taylor’s Acapulco wedding, and woke up in bed with the movie star Ava Gardner.  These are shown with just photographs of Liz Taylor and Gardner separately and voiceover, as no footage is assumed to be available.   She wielded a gun and indulged in tequila with legendary enthusiasm.  She has been known to collapse after drinking, and this happened often so that she had quite the reputation.  Her singing made Spanish director Pedro Almodovar - and millions of others - cry.  Her death in 2012 saw mourning akin to a Mexican state funeral.  She was open gay, though no one ever brought it up directly.  She became noticed as a singer when she refused to wear the traditional Mexican dresses but wore trousers and shirts (male attire) instead.  She adopted the performance persona of the “charro” (a singing-cowboy genre plied by her legendary and tragic friend and collaborator Jose Alfredo Jimenez). 

As Chavela died in 2012, the doc has to rely on already taken footage.  Fortunately co-director Catherine Gund was the interviewer, availing herself of a rare opportunity during a time she spent living south of Mexico City.  “My girlfriends played me Chavela’s songs and told me tales of her womanizing, her irresistible allure, her deep voice, her audacity. I had to meet her” She says.

The film is divided into two halves.  The second shows her comeback, mainly in Spain and finally back to Mexico.  This is the part where Spanish director Pedro Almodovar appears to aid her in her career.  He uses her music in his films like KIKA and THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET.

The film’s best parts are understandably her performances, where the audience can see for themselves the reason for her popularity.  She has the talent to move audiences to tears with her performances.  The last part of the film see her in a wheelchair before her death in 2012.

Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary shows Chavela the way she is, and her lifestyle - warts and all.  At least their doc would make this artist (who every lesbian in Mexico respects, according to the film) more recognized in the world.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKyj5Tzrumo

DARKEST HOUR (UK 2017) ***1/2

Directed by Joe Wright

Director Joe Wright returns to his period World War II roots of ATONEMENT with a theatrical historical drama set during the first year in office of Sir Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as Prime Minister of Britain. The United Kingdom was then on the brink of invasion by Adolf  Hitler’s Germany.  Wright covered in ATONEMENT the evacuation of troops form Dunkirk, France and in this film covers the same event but from another angle - the difficult planning and fight that championed it.  It is in many ways a more difficult endeavour as witnessed in this film, appropriately entitled DARKEST HOUR.

The film opens with the forced resignation of then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) less than a year into the war due to his incompetence.  Churchill is selected as his only viable replacement despite his controversial career (the most important being the loss thousands of men of men at the Gallipoli War).  With British resources dwindling, France having already fallen, and the U.S. not helping much at the time, a contingent led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) pushes hard for peace talks with Hitler. 

There is much to enjoy in this feel-good, rouse up ones emotions war drama.  Wright provides Churchill a grand theatrical entrance as he is shown first in bed lighting his signature cigar.  The film even ends with his most famous speech in the House of Commons (We will fight in the streets, in the hills etc.)  Between them, Churchill is shown as a man, supported by his wife, who finally gets the courage to fight for his convictions.  His stately residence, the Parliament house, the cabinet rooms all form the mighty props in the grand venture.  The cinematography by Bruno Delbonneland with camerawork is superb, mainly of the interior rather than exterior.

Oldman’s performance of Churchill is magnificent.  Oldman, looking like Churchill, aided by Kazuhiro Tsuji’s great prosthetics and make-up, goes right into character rather than just impersonating the man.  This is an Oscar worthy performance.  Other performances are excellent all around with Kristin Scott Thomas making an impression with her little written role of Mrs. Churchill.

The chief complaint of the film is the manipulative segment of Churchill’s ride on the London Underground, where he speaks candidly to a number of tube riders on their view of entering the war.  He speaks to a too good to be true assortment of characters - a child, a black, a housewife, the working-class who all are able to voice their opinions (including the child and the black who can quote Shakespeare) too eloquently with the scene ending with Churchill crying into his handkerchief.

DARKEST HOUR is the second film this year with Churchill as the main character, the first one being Jonathan Teplitzky’s CHURCHILL starring Brian Cox.  Both films show two different sides Churchill took on the War - the first with Churchill against the Normandy Allied Invasion.  Both are worthy war dramas, both worth a look with DARKEST HOUR being the bigger more splashy production. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pNOCzV5jG0

DIM THE FLUORESCENTS (Canada 2017) ***
Directed by Daniel Warth

DIM THE FLUORESCENTS is a film that centres on two similar aged females who perform role-playing at corporate training seminars.  It would be best if they were performing in theatre or film, but this is the next best thing.  DIM THE FLUORESCENTS is their story.

If the plot sounds like a feminist movie - it is.  But being directed and co-written by a male Daniel Wart and co-written by another male, Miles Barstead, the feminist themed film has a male point of view which makes the feminist angle all look funnier and thus become more appealing.

The film’s party scene is priceless.  Both get themselves self-invited to a pretentious arty party by a friend who has good intentions of helping them get connected.  Everything goes wrong once they gate crash the party.  Foremost, they are overdressed.  Audrey meets a guy she has not seen in years who keeps asking her what she is doing, while she tries her best to avoid him.  Lillian’s friend tries pushing to hook her up when she is not ready.  All the while, they deal with the other party people who all seem to have made it well in the real world, the exception being the two of them.

The film contains one quietly hilarious moment when Lillian is talking about her dead cat to the agency girl who initially brought the ‘disturbed’ cat for adoption.  “She jumped,” is what Lillian is told.  “Did you give it space?” was her next question.  Then it becomes apparent that the cat is a metaphor for Audrey who has just got really upset and left the place and quit the job.

The film’s main asset are thee two leads Claire Armstrong and Naomi Skwarna.  They are perfect to watch especially for those who are taking acting lessons.  They bring distinction to each of their two characters, standing them out in different ways.  I could watch them forever.  They can change from teary to funny in a moment, and can draw one into their characters.

For a film about two women being so close, the subject of the relationship being sexual is clearly avoided.  Audrey is pursued by a male after Lilian and her have a major argument, so nothing comes of it.  Then the sexual relationship issue again is conveniently avoided.

The film is a bit lengthy at 2 hours for a light comedy about two women.  At the end, it becomes apparent that this friendship, its survival despite all troubles is the film’s key issue.

So why is this film just a poor?  The film is unfortunately marred by an overdone ending where it is obvious the office skit is a reflection of the two women’s lives rather than the outcome reflective on what proper action leaders should take in the time of crisis and change.  The two overact, scream, cry and break glass in the most disappointing overdone ending in a film this year.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/181892085

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (Finland 2017) ***** Top 10
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki

Master writer/director Aki Kaurismaki questions the other side of hope in his bleak new comedy.  Is it disappointment or success?  Whatever the answer, Kaurismaki provides the interesting journey of two men that get there.  Both have hope, each looking for a better life.

At one point in the movie, Haji, a recent Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland asks the bathroom attendant at the station directions to the police station.  “Where is the nearest police station?”  “You sure? Comes the reply.” “Not really,” is Haji’s answer.  The attendant replies: “I will show you anyway.  You can decide later.”  Funny?  Maybe to some but not to all.   Deadpan  comedy is an acquired taste.  The humour can be so subtle, it is not laughable.

The latest film by Master of deadpan comedy Aki Kaurismaki (DRIFTING CLOUDS, LE HAVRE, LENINGRAD COWBOYS GO AMERICA) tackles a current pressing world issue in his latest film - the issue of the refugee crisis in Europe. 

As the film opens, the audience sees a Syrian refugee, Haji pull himself out of a coal dumpster in ship docked at a port in Finland.  Khaled (Sherwan Haji)  seeks refugee status but is ironically refused on the basis of peace in his region, just as news on the TV report multiple bombings in his town with dozens of casualties.  At the same time, a Finnish middle-aged man, Wiktrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) is seeking a new life for himself as he leaves his wife, wins money at poker and buys a restaurant business.  The two meet after a fight and Haji is aided by the restaurant owner.  This is Kaurismaki’s most serious film to date and it sends an urgent message of the refugee status.  Kaurismaki has still not lost his sense of humour as illustrated in an important scene in the film when Khaled says: “I love Finland like nothing you can imagine, but please get me out of here!”  For those familiar with Kaurismaki, there are familiar segments in this film that are found in his other films like the gambling, starting up a new restaurant business, the cute pet dog and the LENINGRAD COWBOYS type music.

Kaurismaki spends 10 minutes or so on the stud poker game Wikstrom gambles with his money with the aim of winning in order to open his restaurant.  This is the element of suspense that is seldom present in his films.  It works!

Those familiar with Kaurismaki (he has directed 34 film as of date) will be pleased to catch a cameo from his favourite actress Kati Outenin.  She plays a shirt shop proprietress hoping to retire in Mexico City so she can drink saki and dance the hula-hula.

In THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE, Kaurismaki demonstrates once again masterly filmmaking that appears so effortless.  His outwardly looking simple films are more than a pleasure to watch.

This one has deadpan suspense coupled with deadpan comedy and ranks as one of Kaurismaki's best.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtiFG6utst8

PYEWACKET (Canada 2017) ***
Directed by Adam MacDonald

Writer/director Adam MacDonald’s (the little seen 2014 horror BACKCOUNTRY) new feature is another horror but seen from the point of view of teenager, Leah (Nicole Monoz).

Leah is the typical teenager in high school, as the film reveals at the start.  She is happy, nuanced and has issues with her parents, in this case her mother after her father’s death.  The mother (Laurie Holden) is falling apart, in depression and boozing, as in the words of Leah: “I don’t know what I am coming home to any more,” as the mother literally begs for Leah to offer her support in dealing high her inner demons.  When she decides to uproot the family to a cabin out in the country, Leah gets visibly upset, though as she tries her best to hide it.  But when the mother says she cannot stand seeing her father in her, Leah loses it.  She conjures the demon PYEWACKET to do away with her mother.  Leah tells her school friends who dabble in the occult, but they are shocked that Leah would want to kill her mother.

Things take an awkward turn when mother becomes more tolerable and asks Leah for her forgiveness for things said and done.  Leah want to undo the black magic.  In a slight turn of events, she invites her friend, Janice to stay the night.  Janice ends up freaking out that night, though no reason is given why.

This is a case of paranoia versus actual demonic horror.  Are there really footsteps in the night and monsters or are they all part of Leah’s imagination?  This is where MacDonald’s film works best.  There is nothing supernatural that occurs in the first half of the film.  When a monster is shown in the second half, the audience is still unsure whether the creature is real or Leah’s imagination.

The film contains a few loose ends - the main one being the convenient forgetting of providing the reason Janice got scared away from the house that night of the visit.

Though the film is a full Canadian feature, the film is clear not to include any Canadian town names.  The town and school that Leah attend are not named and neither is the county.  The town whee Leah and the mother escapes from could be any American or Canadian state.  This would mean that the film stands a better chance  at American distribution.  But Leah attends a book signing event and consults with the occult book’s author from the U.S.  So, all things assumed equal, one would assume the film be set the U.S.

The film makes good use of sound (example the crescendo of traffic noise) for scare effects.  The cinematography (the woods with no leaves) by Christian Bielz also adds an eerie creepiness.

The trouble with this film is that is is so believable - that the audience would almost wish that there would be more weird shit in the film, credible or not.  The film also questions whether a curse can be undone, a question never dealt with in other horror films.

PYEWACKET ends up a solid scare flick but it could do with more gore and violence.

Trailer: http://www.tiff.net/tiff/pyewacket/?v=pyewacket

THE SHAPE OF WATER (USA 2017) ***** Top 10 of the Year

Directed by Guillermo de Toro

The film opens with voiceover by Giles (Richard Jenkins) who tells his story that turns into a beautiful poem at the end of the film.  It braces the audience for sappiness, but as the film unfolds, Del Toro shows how sappiness can be done in movies in a  good way - with the repeated use of the famous Alice Faye song, “You’ll Never Know”.

The film’s subject is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mousy, curious woman rendered mute by an injury she sustained as an infant.  She works the night shift as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Centre in early 1960s Baltimore.   One day, the facility receives a new “asset” discovered by the cruel and abusive Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) in the rivers of South America.   Elisa has a brief encounter with The Asset (Doug Jones), which she discovers is an amphibious humanoid.  She feels sorry for it and helps it escape by stealing it from the facility.  Helping her are her best friend Giles, one of the centre’s scientists, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is actually a Soviet spy named Dmitri and her co-worker (Octavia Spencer).

The film’s best and most amusing is the TV (one of many) clip of MR. ED (the talking horse) in which after a newspaper article seen in the background of a monkey sent to space.  Mr Ed Says, “I guess I have to enlist.”  It is a very funny and appropriate segment as the setting is of the time when Russia and the U.S. were engaged in the space race, just as it is mentioned that the U.S. wanted to send the water creature into space because of its breathing capabilities.

Any perfect story has to be brought to the screen by a perfect performance.  This performance belongs to Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, who broke into the film scene with the remarkable portrayal of Mike Leigh’s heroine in HAPPY-GO-LUCKY.  She brings heart to the role as a deaf mute who finally finds not only love but a purpose for living.

A superb film with a message included -  THE SHAPE OF WATER shows a non-tolerance policy towards bullying, and discrimination towards coloured people, homosexuals and lower paid employees like the cleaners.  Most of this is realized in the diner that Elisa and Giles frequent, mainly because closeted Giles fancies the male server.  It is a marvel that a mute can communicate the film’s prime message: “If we do nothing, then we are nothing!”

There is a lot of good similarity between THE SHAPE OF WATER and Del Toro’s other best movie PAN’S LABYRINTH.   Del Toro’s dislike for anything military is shown in the unsavoury character of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon).  He is given Del Toro’s punishment of bodily injury of his two fingers chopped off (as the colonel in PAN’S LABYRINTH had his face hacked.)

Del Toro is smart enough to prime the audience for what is to come, thus invoking what was Hitchcock’s best tool - audience anticipation.  The audience first sees blood on the sink after Elisa touches the creature.

The film contains lots of the back humour one expects of Del Toro.  The poster “Loose lips might sink ships” is shown on the wall of  Elisa’s (who is mute) locker.  “No negativity”  Strickland utters, just as he realizes he is about to lose everything he has worked for.

The musical fantasy sequence towards the end in back and white where the mute Elisa is then allowed to sing is nothing short of inspired filmmaking.

THE SHAPE OF WATER is filmmaking at its best with Del Toro still in top form, with top talent on display.  He does not compromise on the violence (a few torture scenes involve the metal prod) but amidst the violence and occasional foul language, his latest film is one of the most credible and beautiful romantic stories in cinemas this year.

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

PYEWACKET (Canada 2017) ***
Directed by Adam MacDonald

Writer/director Adam MacDonald’s (the little seen 2014 horror BACKCOUNTRY) new feature is another horror but seen from the point of view of teenager, Leah (Nicole Monoz).

Leah is the typical teenager in high school, as the film reveals at the start.  She is happy, nuanced and has issues with her parents, in this case her mother after her father’s death.  The mother (Laurie Holden) is falling apart, in depression and boozing, as in the words of Leah: “I don’t know what I am coming home to any more,” as the mother literally begs for Leah to offer her support in dealing high her inner demons.  When she decides to uproot the family to a cabin out in the country, Leah gets visibly upset, though as she tries her best to hide it.  But when the mother says she cannot stand seeing her father in her, Leah loses it.  She conjures the demon PYEWACKET to do away with her mother.  Leah tells her school friends who dabble in the occult, but they are shocked that Leah would want to kill her mother.

Things take an awkward turn when mother becomes more tolerable and asks Leah for her forgiveness for things said and done.  Leah want to undo the black magic.  In a slight turn of events, she invites her friend, Janice to stay the night.  Janice ends up freaking out that night, though no reason is given why.

This is a case of paranoia versus actual demonic horror.  Are there really footsteps in the night and monsters or are they all part of Leah’s imagination?  This is where MacDonald’s film works best.  There is nothing supernatural that occurs in the first half of the film.  When a monster is shown in the second half, the audience is still unsure whether the creature is real or Leah’s imagination.

The film contains a few loose ends - the main one being the convenient forgetting of providing the reason Janice got scared away from the house that night of the visit.

Though the film is a full Canadian feature, the film is clear not to include any Canadian town names.  The town and school that Leah attend are not named and neither is the county.  The town whee Leah and the mother escapes from could be any American or Canadian state.  This would mean that the film stands a better chance  at American distribution.  But Leah attends a book signing event and consults with the occult book’s author from the U.S.  So, all things assumed equal, one would assume the film be set the U.S.

The film makes good use of sound (example the crescendo of traffic noise) for scare effects.  The cinematography (the woods with no leaves) by Christian Bielz also adds an eerie creepiness.

The trouble with this film is that is is so believable - that the audience would almost wish that there would be more weird shit in the film, credible or not.  The film also questions whether a curse can be undone, a question never dealt with in other horror films.

PYEWACKET ends up a solid scare flick but it could do with more gore and violence.

Trailer: http://www.tiff.net/tiff/pyewacket/?v=pyewacket

WONDER WHEEL (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Woody Allen

There is a slight hint that the film ’s central character is Woody Allen when the voiceover narrative claims to be a budding playwright, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who later has an affair with a married woman, Ginny (Kate Winslet) but after falls in love with her step daughter (Juno Temple).

WONDER WHEEL is set in the Coney Island of the 50’s.  The film opens impressively with a panoramic shot of the beach filled with swimmers and sunbathers, all in the 50’s swimming garb.  The film then moves on to the main characters.

The two main characters in the Woody Allen story are the writer Mickey and Ginny caught in a loveless marriage with Humpty (Jim Belushi).

If the characters feel close to home, Mickey is Woody Allen the writer and Ginny the actress Mia Farrow.  Allen and Farrow were married and in love before Farrow brought him and adopted Soon-Yi, the Carolina character.  (Allen is now married to Soon-Yi with two children.)  Just as Mickey ditches Ginny and falls for Carolina, Allen did the same thing.  There is an odd feeling that Allen is trying to gain acceptance in the Mickey character for all his past deed.  Art copies life instead of imitating it.

In an interview with Woody Allen, Allen claims all his movies are based on the same identical premise, a cheating male who looks for better and younger sexual fulfillment.  At first glance, one would think that the character is now female, with Ginny intent of leaving her husband for the younger, attractive lifeguard, Mickey.  Upon closer examination, one finds that it is still the male, Mickey who is dissatisfied with the older Ginny and leaves her for Carolina. 

Allen’s films are getting more serious lately and WONDER WHEEL is one of his most serious of his recent works.  The humour is less prevalent and at times more subtile.  Carolina’s father describes the daughter’s gangster husband at one point after she declared that she and loved him: “He was not even good-looking.”  That is the film’s funniest joke.

WONDER WHEEL contains the traits of the Allen films, first and foremost being the stunning choreography by an Award Winning cinematographer, this film done by three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro (THE LAST EMPEROR, REDS and APOCALYPSE NOW) who uses shifting blues and golds, often reflected on the characters’ faces from the revolving 

Wonder Wheel ride outside the apartment window.  Falling in love while being drenched in the rain (ANNIE HALL and many other Allen films) is also typically found in many of Allen’s films as in this one.

Allen often elicits superior performances from his all-star cast, many winning Oscars in his previous films (Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Diane Keaton to name a few).  Kate Winslet and Belushi deliver standout performances here while Timberlake shows too, that he can carry a movie on his own.

The subplot of Ginny’s troubled pre-teen son (Jack Gore) from her first marriage is an odd one.  He is obsessed with setting up fires for no apparent reason.  The jokes on the uselessness of psychiatrists appear the only reason that subplot is in the film.

WONDER WHEEL can be considered a disturbing film, being one that reflects too closely on Allen’s life - unless one wishes to dismiss the coincidences.  It is nevertheless, a well-made film well acted and executed that Allen needed to make to exorcise his demons.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFM0UqX9MJ8

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