A few new Canadian movies are opening this week.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
THE SHAPE OF WATER
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
AVA (Iran/Canada/Qatar 2017) ***
Directed by Sadaf Foroughi
AVA is not to be confused with the other film AVA, the French film directed Lea Mysius that won a prestigious Cannes prize about a 13-year old discovering sex before going blind. Both films coincidentally have young female protagonists.
What is a Persian high school female teen to do? Everything she does is criticized and looked own upon. Her mother (Bahar Noohian) is constantly on her case as are her teachers at school and even her friends when she goes on about dating boys. Ava (Mahour Jabbari) would be considered a normal girl in the western world with her behaviour that would not be tolerated in the Persian world.
AVA is a critically acclaimed Canadian co-production shot in Iran that screened in the Discovery section at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize and received an Honourable Mention for Best Canadian First Feature Film.
Writer/director Sadaf Foroughi ups the angst when Ava discovers that her parents were not so innocent either. When Ava learns that her parents were once flagrant rule breakers themselves, she begins to rebel against the very foundations of her society.
Surprisingly, Ava’s father (Vahid Aghapoor) is more tolerant and director Forough shows that Ava’s problems comes mainly from the females and not the males. It is a cycle in society that has been so established that change is almost impossible.
The film slags a bit in the middle with what seems to be a shortage of material. The film’s segments are the ones where mother and daughter argue it out, no holds barred. They use every means possible to win their arguments including personal hidden secrets. Director Foroughi clearly wishes the audience take the daughter’s side but actress Baba Noohian is so good as the mother, that her argumentative points gets the audience’s sympathy. Father is always only in the background until the film’s climax.
AVA also reveals what an all girls school system is like (assuming what is shown is authentic). As expected the headmistress is an anal retentive authoritarian (or bitch to be more direct) who has no sympathy for Ava and no clue on the restlessness of the youth under her care.
AVA masterfully demonstrates how a culture of authority can force denial and detachment, particularly among young women during their formative yet vulnerable high school years. A small but important yet impressive first feature! The film builds to an exciting and effective climax.
AVA is the film that sparked a bit of controversy at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival when its Iranian actors were denied entry to Canada for the purpose of promoting the film. Immigration Canada responded to say that the would-be visitors failed to meet the requirement standards.
AVA is currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for a week, limited engagement as part of Canada’s Top 10 Films of the year. Worth a visit for sure!
BADSVILLE (USA/Canada 2016) **
Directed by April Mullen
BADSVILLE is about bad people in the town of Dodge. The main character is a scary gang leader called Wink (Ian McLaren) whose mother has succumbed to cancer. The mother makes Wink promise to leave town as it is a bad town. Never mind a lot of the badness is Wink’s own doing. With gang members like his (The Badsville Kings) especially his best friend Benny (Benjamin Barrett), who needs enemies?
The Badsville Kings enemy is the rival gang called the Badsville Aces, made even nastier by that gang leader’s father (Robert Knepper).
There is not much story in BADSVILLE. It is a heart-felt gangster drama with older gang members that still behave like teens. They try to let go of the past which somehow keeps creeping back into their lives. Wink meets and falls in love with a local girl Suzy (Tamara Duarte). The pleasure of the film is the film’s nitty atmosphere and watching the shady characters destroy each other. Note that the film is no easy watch. Most of the make-up in the film consists of doing faces with dried blood and fight scars. The time of the film is not stated, but there are no cell phones, so one can likely say the film is set in the 60’s or 50’s.
The film contains a lot of anger. One scene has Wink siting in his car banging the steering wheel and the roof for a full 2 minutes. If not anger, the characters are wallowing in self-pity. Wink’s girl spends time explaining how she should be felt sorry for with her sob story of her mother and drunken step-father. Not that the audience really cares or made to care.
The real mystery of the film is why Will just doesn’t just leave town instead of just moping about it. Just do it!
If Will and his Badsville Kings gang are not beating each other up, they are either bashing up other gang members or fucking their girlfriends.
One of the film’s flaws is the main character, Wink, which the audience is supposed to be sympathetic with. But the actor playing him is 59, and really creepy looking with slick hair, an over-wide smile and tattooed fingers, besides having a good body.
BADSVILLE also contains dialogue that is corny at best. Wink to Little Cat: “I made a promise, we have to keep promises. I want you to make a promise. To Leave Town! There is no love in this town.”
The plus in this film has is its nitty-gritty atmosphere. BADSVILLE is a male dominated world where violence, sex and hate persists. It is surprising that the film was directed by a female, April Mullen (BELOW HER MOUTH, REAL DETECTIVE) - to her credit! Despite it being a Canadian/American co-production, the film was shot largely in L.A. and in the U.S.
BIRDLAND (Canada 2017) *
Directed by Peter Lynch
BIRDLAND is a heralded DGC (Directors Guild of Canada) film from DRG veteran Peter Lynch who made the successful ARROWHEAD and PROJECT GRIZZLY. The special screening I attended was followed by an extensive Q and A session with director Lynch, his wife, the film’s editor, Caroline Christie and its production designer and Patricia Christie moderated by Canadian director Atom Egoyan.
Described by Lynch himself as a 60’s style European art movie, the film follows an ex-cop, Sheila Hood (Kathleen Munroe) whose marriage is on the rocks. Sheila hides surveillance cameras in her home and watches her husband’s (David Alpay) transgressions, becoming a voyeur of her own life. When the husband, Tom Kale is suspect for two murders, she is forced to question her motives. The script by Lynch and Lee Gowan bring in current events of oil and fracking into the story. If all this sound straight forward, the film isn’t. Lynch’s film is very difficult to follow. When asked about this, the reason given is to keep the audience on their toes. But it seems more an excuse than anything else.
The film was shot in 6 weeks on a minuscule budget with $6,000 devoted to the production. It is therefore not surprising that the film looks so badly edited and confused. To the production designer Patricia Christie’s credit and the Director of Photography, the film looks stylish and expensive. Lynch apparently borrowed artwork from friends and filmed in a friend’s very expensive and plush apartment as well as at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Surveillance is the common thread in the story. Human beings are seen as if living in a birdcage with all their actions observed. The song BIRDCAGE is also performed a few times in the film.
BIRDLAND is too stylish and artsy for audiences to feel for the characters. Besides the story being difficult to follow, the film requires full concentration. Lynch in the film’s defence, said that it is necessary for the audience to get lost in the film. The result is quite a few of the audience ‘politely’ leaving the theatre (including my guest) midway during the film. Lynch says that the film should be watched at one go, maybe on a computer, something that very few directors ever say about their movie.
The plot leads nowhere. Despite having the topic of surveillance on display, Lynch never leads the topic anywhere either, nor does the film contain any clear message on surveillance in the 21st century. Lynch is also fond of repetitive scenes. The one with Sheila looking up at he closed circuit cameras and tapping on the lens is one example. Another is the one with a subway rider listening to her headphones before pressing the emergency stop break as a result of an accident (a victim thrown from the bridge on to the train.)
To the film’s credit, Lynch has made a film that looks expensive despite its low budget. This is not enough a good reason for this terrible film.
THE DEATH CURE (USA 2018) **
Directed by Wes Ball
The last of the trilogy of MAZE RUNNER films, though advertised as MAZE RUNNER: DEATH CURE, the opening credits list the film as THE DEATH CURE. Obviously so, as there is no maze in this film or in the second film either.
The film opens with a special effects ridden train hijack, by trucks and hidden hijackers though attacked by manned and armed drone-like flyers. Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar) chasing down a WCKD train holding a group of immunes, including Minho (Ki Hong Lee), the one they aim to rescue. They are chased by a Berg, which lets Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and Vince (Barry Pepper) arrive, blowing up the connector rail that connects the train cars together. Brenda and Jorge get help from Frypan (Dexter Darden) before hijacking the Berg and return to the train, pulling the carriage full of immune with them, and Thomas, Vince and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Snagster) aboard.
They arrive at the rebel base only to discover Minho was in another carriage, yet they managed to free numerous immunes. At WCKD’s headquarters, they perform numerous tests on Minho to extract a serum from him.
The thing that is supposed to make much sense is that the immunes have it in their blood to produce a vaccine that will eve the world, or they turn into zombie-like beings. Yes, nothing much else is expected story-wise either, despite the fact that each film in the trilogy is based on a book.
The film’s main character in THE DEATH CURE and in the other 2 films is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien). Other characters like his love interest Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and best mate Newt are also present. As fights go, it is difficult to get excited at whether a character survives or dies as two dead characters in THE MAZE RUNNER (the first film) who are supposed to be dead are miraculously resurrected for no good reason. One is Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), the Head of WCKD who shot herself in the first film. The other is Gally (Will Poulter) who is speared by Minho. Gally and Minho are both friendlier in this film. The film also introduces a few new characters, all none too exciting except for Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito). The villain of the piece is Janson (Aidan Gillen) who is given a chance to fight Thomas, the hero at the film’s climax.
The film runs too long at 2 hours and 20 minutes. The film definitely could have been shortened as it seems that the story is made up as it goes along. The special effects are impressive but that is no reason to go see a movie for. This is director Ball’s third film in the MAZE RUNNER trilogy and one would think he would have improved with his final entry in the franchise.
The first MAZE RUNNER cost $34 million to make, grossing $384 million while the second $61 million to make and grossing $312 million. This final one cost a whopping $83 million to make, is the lengthiest and the most boring of the lot. It should cover costs but profits will be tough to beat!
FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (UK/USA 2017) **
Directed by Paul McGuigan
British director Paul McGuigan and Paul Bettany broke into the film scene with their energetic GANGSTER No. 1, full of brutal violence and drama. In McGuigan’s latest effort, this time with young BILLY ELLIOT actor Jamie Bell (watch the dancer’s hustle scene with Annette Bening), the energy and freshness are clearly missing.
FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL, they die in New York City. At St. Vincent’s Hospital, to be exact. The film star in question is Oscar Winner, Gloria Grahame (portrayed by Oscar nominee Annette Bening) who dies of cancer after one last fling (at the age of 57) with young beau, Peter Turner (Bell). She spends the her last days in Peter’s home in Liverpool, must to the chagrin of her family. The film based on Turner’s own memoir and adapted into a script written by Matt Greenhalgh alternates between the years 1981 of her death and 1979 when Grahame and Turner first met in Liverpool. It seems awkward to call them a couple, because they look so awkward as a couple - both in real life and on the screen.
The film is an affectionate tribute to Gloria Grahame but the film is almost a total bore. Audiences have had many chances of watching a romance between an old man or woman or vice versa and someone half their ages. Films with this subject have always been a disaster from Clint Eastwood’s BREEZY (William Holden and Kay Lenz) to SAY HELLO TO YESTERDAY (Jean Simmons and Leonard Whiting). Though FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL is a true story based on the memoir written by Turner himself, the film still fails despite solid efforts by Bell and Bening.
Bell looks too cute and adorable to be falling for an older person. Are there no younger women in Liverpool? I have never really liked Bening in anything, so I will save any negative comments here, except to say she gave her best performance in AMERICAN BEAUTY (though the real bitch in real life turned out to be Kevin Spacey).
McGuigan attempts to pull at the heart strings, with an archive clip of Oscar night when the real Graham accepted the Oscar with a short ‘Thank You’. Oscar Host Bob Hope remarked in the film’s funniest moment: “She made it!” It would help if Gloria Grahame is shown in the film possessing a few redeeming qualities. Not much insight is offered on the life of Gloria Grahame either, nor her work. There is only brief mention of her memorable films like THE BAD ANDTHE BEAUTIFUL . She is portrayed as a rich and spoilt movie star obsessed with her glamour - the typical cliched portrayal of an ageing star.
Surprisingly more interesting that the Grahame and Turner’s romance is Peter’s parent’s romance. Early in the film, the mother (Julie Walters) complains of her marriage of being married to a lump of nothing, but near the end of the film shown holding hands affectionately with her husband (Kenneth Cranham). Vanessa Redgrave has a cameo as Gloria’s mother in the film.
Though shot in Liverpool, there are more scenes at Turner’s house with the old staircase and musty wallpapers than exteriors. There is one scene of the two at the beach.
Film stars might not die in Liverpool but this film dies a quick death.
HOLLOW IN THE LAND (Canada 2017) ***
Directed by Scooter Corkle
Written and directed by Scooter Corkle, this moody crime suspense thriller uses the backwoods of British Columbia as the new underbelly of the inner cities for the backdrop of the story. The nearby town is a paper pulp town that prospered from the local timber industry.
When the film opens, a bar brawl has just taken place. Brandon (Jared Abrahamson from HELLO DESTROYER) has to be bailed out of jail by his sister, Alison (Dianna Agron). Alison tells him that she has had enough and cannot keep doing this, while Brandon claims he is doing his best. This no win situation gets worse, when Brandon gets caught, in what has been described by the unsympathetic local sheriff (Michael Rogers) ‘in a mid-fuck’ by his girl’s father, whose body has just been found. Brandon, who is now chief suspect goes missing.
Alison is not a liked character in the local town. She is known to be having a same-sex relationship with Brandon’s girl’s mother. Whether the lesbian relationship is necessary in the story is questionable, as there is enough already going on in the film.
If the story all sounds quite straight forward, the story is actually quite difficult to follow in the film. For one, it is only a third through the film that it is revealed that Alison is Brandon’s elder sister. It is natural to assume that Alison is Brandon’s mother at the start. It is then confusing if the affair Alison is having is with the girl’s mother or maybe the girl’s sister. Other identities are also blurred. One wonders if it is the intention of writer/director Corkle to keep the audience on their toes to decipher the story or if it is unintentional. The time setting of the story is also left unclear. There are clearly no cell hones used at all in the film, but one could argue that no one needs one in the backwoods.
Though HOLLOW IN THE LAND is a nitty gritty drama set in a male dominated town, it is more of a feminist film. Corkle is a Not only is the protagonist female, but the story leans towards the female in more ways that one - including the lesbian relationship and all the other strong female characters, which is good given the way females are so less represented these days in film. (The director Corkle is male.) But that does not mean that all the male characters have to be weak ones, like the characters of Brandon and their father (who is ono shown at the end, of the film, with one tooth missing.)
To director Corkle’s credit, the atmosphere of dread, terror and suspicion are effectively created in the moody film. The audience is also kept on their toes from start to end, and the film builds to a satisfactory climax. It also helps that Agron delivers a power-packed performance as the reluctant heroine.
HOLLOW IN THE LAND ends up a better than average atmospheric thriller with well developed characters that the director makes sure the audience cares for.
L’INSULTE (THE INSULT) (France 2017) ****
Directed by Ziad Doueiri
The film is financed from France and has a French title but the film is shot totally in Arabic. Set in Beirut with references to Darfour, the story all started with an insult. One afternoon in the dog days of a Beirut summer, Tony gets into an altercation with Yasser, a foreman in construction over a broken drainpipe. Tony is a car mechanic and a Christian. Yasser is a construction foreman and a Palestinian. When Tony, hard-nosed and hot-headed, refuses to accept Yasser's half-hearted apology, two bruised male egos begin to swell. Tony utters an unforgivable insult to Yasser. With a speed neither man could foresee, their personal argument escalates through the neighbourhood and the city to the national stage. The dispute comes to encapsulate the lasting legacy of the Lebanese Civil War — and becomes a lightning rod for people with more power than either man to pursue their own agendas. The film contains lots of courtroom scenes with great arguments that provoke the audience to think about other important issues. The plot is not without its twists like the attorneys of the defendant and plaintiff being father and daughter. THE INSULT ends up as an often brilliant peace that in the end, shows more about tolerance and forgiveness.
JUST CHARLIE (UK 2017) ***
Directed by Rebekah Fortune
Charlie Lindsay (Harry Gilby), the film’s protagonist, as the film opens is shown playing football. He has the world at his feet, literally as he is extremely gifted with the the popular sport. He is chosen by a professional club for training which means money for his family and an easy life for himself with a game Charlie himself loves.
As the message in many a film has: “You got to follow your heart!” But when Charlie looks at the mirror he sees a transgendered person. His heart is not to remain a boy.
JUST CHARLIE is set in the Midlands, in England where football is the game for most kids. It is also the setting of many of famed English cult writer/director Shane Meadows many films like my favourite ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS and others like THIS IS ENGLAND and his break-out film A ROOM FOR ROMEO BRASS. It is refreshing to see a totally different film - a UK working-class teen trans drama set in he Midlands.
Fortune’s film contains too much of Charlie’s moping at the beginning. Moping instead of him doing something concrete. Yes, and the audience knows and need not be reminded too that ‘there are to other things more important than football’.
The film goes through the expected motions: Charlie dresses up; the cross-addressing is discovered; parents freaking out; family coping etc. But the film contains some good moments too. Surprisingly though, it is the females and not the males (the father excepting) that cannot accept Charlie’s gender change. The girl football team has problems with Charlie playing for them. Charlie’s grandmother ostracizes the family. Another good moment occurs when the father, initially against Charlie, is forced to stand up for his son at the local pub, right after Charlie breaks Tommy’s, his best friend’s nose after an altercation started by Tommy.
Fortune’s film starts slowly but eventually accelerates towards the drama of acceptance, tolerance and discovery. JUST CHARLIE is one of those few transgender coming out films, a difference from gay coming-out films. It is obvious there are more issues with transgender coming out with more problems and difficulties. Coming-out gay is mostly accepted these present times.
Good performances all around from an unknown cast especially the actors playing Charlie and Charlie’s immediate family.
Fortune also never forgets that football is one of the subjects in the film. But there are no crucial matches that need to be won.
The film ends on a positive note. But somehow things turn out a little too happy ending-like after so much trouble have been imposed over each character in the film.
JUST CHARLIE does not provide any new insight into the transgender genre, though it speculates the troubles that could occur. Still, JUST CHARLIE is an interesting film that perhaps educates and make audiences more aware of the differences of being gay and being transgendered.
MIDNIGHT RETURN: THE STORY OF BILLY HAYES AND TURKEY (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Sally Sussman
An incredibly watchable movie because of is subject and also because it is derived from one of the most controversial films of all time, Alan Parker’s MIDNIGHT EXPRESS that was written by Oliver Stone.
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS is the slang for prison escape. MIDNIGHT EXPRESS is the American extremely box-office successful prison drama that tells the real life prison escape of 23-year old American Billy Hayes from a Turkish prison in the 70’s. Billy Hayes was jailed for smuggling a large amount of hashish across the Turkish border. MIDNIGHT RETURN, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, explores the making of the cult classic Academy Award winning film MIDNIGHT EXPRESS as well as the international controversy it started with Turkey and the true story around Billy Hayes' infamous imprisonment for drug smuggling.
Based on True events! This does not mean that the film is 100% or even 50% true, as in the case of the film MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. Hayes’ escape from prison was glorified while Turkey put down as one of the worst places in the world to live in.
MIDNIGHT RETURN tackles three issues. First is the life of the film’s real life hero Hayes, as he benefits from the riches from telling his story. Second is the filmmakers’ points of view. Writer Oliver Stone who won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay saw his career advanced by the film. Director Alan Parker reveals that he and Stone never got along despite the film’s success. The third issue is the Turks who have been shamed from the film, which has grown even more popular after Turkey protests.
It is advisable that one sees MIDNIGHT EXPRESS before (if not, at least after) watching the doc, so that the audience can get a good perspective of the issues in MIDNIGHT RETURN.
The doc features the real Billy Hayes in almost very scene. Hayes loves the camera and is more than keen to tell is story, in the making of both the doc and in the original MIDNIGHT EXPRESS movie. He puts a real person into the story and makes the film both believable and personal. He is also quite a good-looker, very much like the actor Brad Davis (who died of AIDs in 1991) who portrayed him in the film.
To make her film more entertaining, director Sussman injects some insight and humour, especial in the making of the film. It is revealed for one that the prosecutor apparently babbling at Hayes in the courtroom in what is assumed to be Turkish is not, but a combination of Turkish and other languages. Parker said he wanted the effect that Hayes would be scared at not knowing what is happening to him in court, so whatever was said was immaterial. Parker also reveals that no one had known that it was Hayes’ 4th attempt at smuggling drugs. If it had been known, the film wold probably never had been made.
Sussman’s trails Hayes’ revisit to Turkey as the film’s climax. In this, she reveals the inner personality of Hayes and what kind of man he is. In the process, Sussman also demonstrates how life could be dramatically altered from a single event. The film ends on a light note with Hayes describing how he got his medical marijuana license.
The insightful and entertaining MIDNIGHT RETURN: THE STORY OF BILLY HAYES AND TURKEY will be opening theatrically in Toronto on January 30th.
MONOLITH (Italy 2016) ***1/2
Directed by Ivan Siverstrini
MONOLITH is an effective thrilling Italian entertainer made for Sky Pictures. Director Ivan Silverstrini loves and as well as knows how to tease his audience.
This, Silverstrini does at the start of the film. The MONOLITH car is explained, a 4 by 4 all terrain vehicle that can self-drive and enter into armour mode. The car is absolutely modern and protective but these features eventually cause deadly problems to Sandra. The car is so well explained that the film could pass off as a real documentary. (The narration at the start: With the MONOLITH, we introduce a car in the safest possible environment…). The film shifts gradually to horror mode.
The plot involves the safest car in the world turning into a death trap when Sandra (Katrina Bowden) and her son get into a car accident in the middle of a scorching desert. With her son gets trapped inside a car known for being bullet-proof, Sandra must fight to save him.
Silverstrini plays with the background in many instances. The first is observed when Sandra is video calling her husband and there is a knock on the door of the husband’s room. The audience never sees who is at the husband’s door and the audience hopes of course he is not cheating on Sandra. The person is never revealed. Another has her toddler son suddenly gone missing after a stop at a convenience store. She finds her son with three teens and pulls him apart from them scolding them. In reality the teens picked the kid up from wandering outside the store. “You are a bad mother,” quips one of them. As it turns out, Sandra is quite the bad mother. She also buys David a bag of marbles, and it is shown through the car’s rearview mirror that he is about to put one in his mouth. Sandra also smokes causing David to cough and keep letting him play ‘turtle’ on her cell phone to keep him quite, though resulting in a disaster. Yet she tries her best to be good mother and husband.
It is also good to see a male director deal so well with a female protagonist, giving Sandra a strong character though not without weaknesses. Bowden does a good job portraying the mother, down to a scantily lad outfit because of the desert heat. Silverstrini elicits a fantastic performance from the young child actor playing the son.
For this modern vehicle, the special effects provided are quite cheesy yet enhance the film’s entertainment value. The glowing ring, the tooting noises and the voice of ‘Lillith’ are hilarious.
The film’s genuinely scariest parts involve the car sliding backwards (the child locked inside) towards a cliff and the other with Sandra hiding underneath the vehicle with a hungry coyote looking for prey.
MONOLITH emerges as a very effective and satisfying low-budget film with a completely identifiable character with weaknesses that audiences can still root for. The film proves that a little imagination can go a long way in making an entertaining thriller.