- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
Lots of new films opening this week, with YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE the best of the lot.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
ISLE OF DOGS
The China Hustle
C’EST LA VIE (LE SENS de la FETE)
THE SHAPE OF WATER
You Were Never Really Here
ABU (Canada/Japan/Saudi Arabia/Pakistan/Thailand 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Arshad Khan
On the imdb film website, a user review praised ABU as the most moving film he had ever seen in his life.
ABU is the first name of filmmaker’s Arshad Khan’s father.
A documentary about a son spending his whole life trying to gain his father ’s approval is certainly a moving subject especially proven with books/films like EAST OF EDEN. ABU is moving without sentimentality.
Using family archives and animation, filmmaker Arshad Khan turns the camera (Khan studied cinema in Montreal in 2006) on himself with his father Abu Khan, always in the foreground affecting his every move in life. This is a sort of home movie that serves as a life story as well. This is a very intimately painted picture that would move every immigrant. Every person (or a family member) is an immigrant at some time or other. The Khan family immigrated to Canada to Mississauga in 1991. (Myself I immigrated here in 1986, not long before.) Khan shares a deeply personal story of migration from Pakistan to Canada, self-discovery and familial reconciliation. An additional factor is that Khan is gay. Therefore, as a gay man, Khan examines his troubled relationship with his devout, Muslim father Abu.
One of the most fascinating points in the film is Abu’s dream, that Abu only disclosed to his wife. The dream concerns three wise men who visited the father. One told him of a visit to a mosque in Pakistan another of his pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and the third of his death at 3 o’clock. The prophecy of the three events including the timely death in the hospital with the death certificate stating the time of death at 3 pm all came true. (Abu 1937 - 2011). This is disturbingly coincidental. Is Islam really the true religion? This would be a question to ask the filmmaker for sure.
ABU begins with an animated sequence involving a dream and a prophecy of a monster wearing a light blue buttoned shirt. (Khan seems extremely fond of prophecies). It was a dream Khan had 6 months before his father’s death.
Abu used to tell the family and relatives that Arshad and his sister would bring him either great fame or great shame. From the film, Arshad probably brought him both at various times in his life. But often enough shame or fame could be interchanged, depending how one looks at it.
The film contains many moving moments for sure - besides the father/son re-conciliation. (That occurring on the father’s death bed makes it even more endearing.) The part of his father telling his son that he loves him despite being gay is also unexpected given the Islam’s non-acceptance of homosexuality. Yet another, is Khan’s initial encounter with gay love at the age of 14 (with a fellow Pakistani called Elvis) and his parents relationship.
ABU is an extremely watchable and moving film made entertaining from Khan’s personal style of filmmaking. It unveils the fact that every other person in the world has an equally interesting story that needs to be told and filmed.
BEIRUT (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Brad Anderson
Set in the 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War, BEIRUT is a fictional action film centring on a former U.S. diplomat who returns to service in the city of Beirut in order to save a colleague who is held hostage by the group responsible for the death of his family.
Unlike films dealing with hostage situations like 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE and ARGO, BEIRUT deals with the next best thing. It is a fictional story based on a true event - the hostage taking during the Olympics in Munich. While the lead is no super spy like James Bond, he is the next best thing, a diplomat that has revenge on his agenda, as in the Liam Neeson TAKEN films. BEIRUT benefits from a script by Tony Gilroy who penned the BOURNE films and more important, also directed one BOURNE film and the excellent MICHAEL CLAYTON. There are shades of MICHAEL CLAYTON in BEIRUT with the main character similar to the George Clooney character and a strong supporting female character here played by Rosamund Pike.
The film opens in 1972 at a posh party thrown by Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a U.S. diplomat living it up in Beirut with his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti). They have no children of their own, and so they adopt and treat 13-year-old orphan refugee Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg) as family. Karim serves hors d’oeuvres. During a posh cocktail party, however, uninvited guests bring unwelcome news: Not quite so alone in the world as he’d pretended, little Karim has an older brother. Things never go as well as planned - especially not in movies. Mason is then informed that Karim is the brother of Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), a notorious Palestinian terrorist linked to the recent Summer Olympics massacre in Munich as well as other attacks. Just as Mason is about to say, “I don't believe it,” the party is stormed by gunmen under the orders of Rajal attempting to spring Karim.
To cut a long story short, Mason is sent home, takes to the drink but later asked to return to Beirut, There he learns, that his friend Cal of the CIA (Mark Pellegrino) is held hostage by the now grown Karim. Karim wants his brother Abu Rajal freed.
Despite the long story, it is an interesting one and one that allows a mild mannered man to resume his glory days and save the day or in this case, his best friend Cal. The subplot between Mason an cultural attache Sandy Crowder (Pike) makes a good diversion. The film feels like a mix between MICHAEL CLAYTON and the BOUNRE movies. Morocco, where the film is shot stands for war-torn Beirut.
Unlike most action films where the heroes spurt out funny one-liners, the dialogue here is more subtle and at times a bit cynical, which suits the mood of the film. Hamm makes a good reluctant hero.
The film has had complaints of being racist. The film’s trailer ended with voice-over from Mr. Hamm’s character: “2,000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder. Welcome to Beirut.” It does not help too that Beirut looks nothing like the real Beirut since the film was shot in Morocco.
BIG FISH & BEGONIA (China 2016) ****
Directed by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun
China produces quite a few animated features every year, though only a few reach North America. BIG FISH & BEGONIA, made in 2016 has achieved tremendous success both critically and financially, thus finally making it to North American screens. It plays and looks at times like the Studio Ghibli films as the film shares common trays like fantasy in alternate universes as well as young innocent true love.
The film’s universal appeal lies in human being’s love for fairy tales. BIG FISH & BEGONIA has all the elements of an epic fantasy with magic, romance, sacrifice, monsters and a coming of rites passage that involves a long journey filled with wonders and danger.
For an animated feature, the story is quite complicated and requires a bit of concentration to follow. The story is set in a mystical realm that exists beneath the human world, populated by magical-powered beings. The protagonist is a girl named Chun and when the film opens she undergoes a coming-of-age ritual where she is transported through a portal of water to experience the human world in the form of a red dolphin. She is warned several times never to engage but to stay away from those dreaded human beings, which means she has to fall in love with one - shades of THE LITTLE MERMAID. In the human world, she encounters a human boy who lives by the sea and reveres aquatic creatures. During a storm, Chun in the form of a red dolphin is tangled in a fishing net near the boy's house, and the boy drowns while freeing her from the net. Chun returns to her world, taking the boy's ocarina with her.
Chun bargains with the soul keeper, a resident of her world who collects virtuous departed souls from the human world, to return the boy to life. The soul keeper, a real businessman takes half of her lifespan in exchange for giving her the boy's soul, which has manifested in this world in the form of a baby dolphin. He advises her that she must nurture the dolphin to adulthood in order to return the boy's soul to the human world. Qiu, Chun's childhood friend, discovers her undertaking; since beings from the human world are forbidden, he promises to help her keep her task secret. Together, they name the dolphin Kun, after a massive fish of legend.
The romances are between Chun and Kun and between Qiu and Chun. But Chun treats Qiu as an older brother which makes him really sad. Still, Qiu will do anything for Chun including sacrificing his life for her.
The adventures take the audience through many wondrous as well as frightening places including a big sewer filled with shit and rats where they encounter the rat matron. She is scary to Qiu and Chun but hilarious to the audience.
The animation is nothing short of spectacular, the animators unafraid to include scenes of snow, fire and water which are difficult to animate. The fairly tale atmosphere with Chinese architecture add to the film’s beauty.
BIG FISH & BEGONIA is the third largest grossing Chinese animated feature ever after KUNG FU PANDA 3 and MONKEY KING. On a budget of 30 million Chinese Yuan, it grossed, up to the time of writing CN¥565 which translates to a profit of 1800%. Hopefully, the box-office success will spurn more animated features from B&T Studios.
BLUMHOUSE’S TRUTH OR DARE (USA 2018) ***
Directed by Jeff Wadlow
The film title is not Truth or Dare but BLUMHOUSE’S TRUTH OR DARE. With reason! The game played is a Blumhouse, the film horror company’s version of the game in which players will die a very violet death if they do not tell the truth or do a dare.
The premise of the game is simple enough but the script takes the audience into a much thicker plot. College student Olivia (Lucy Hale) wishes to use her spring break to further her work with people. She being the heroine of the film, has to be the one to be self sacrificing to do good for mankind. Her partying best friend, Markie (Violett Beane) convinces her to go with the gang to Mexico instead as in her words: ‘the final spring break before life tears us apart.”
In Mexico, they stumble across a missionary ruin and coerced into playing Truth or Dare by a stranger, Carter (Landon Liboron). When it is his turn to play, Carter reveals the real truth he is there with the group - to force them into playing with death involved. Of course they disbelieve him, till the gang starts dropping dead one by one when they do not follow the rules.
The plot follows the predictable path though to the script (written by Michael Reisz
Jillian Jacobs, Chris Roach and Jeff Wadlow) has quite a few inspired twists. The group or in this case, Olivia the heroine has to figure out the way to remove the curse and to halt the game. The film’s ending is too ambitious for its own good an ends up being an unbelievable let-sown, judging from the response of the audience at the promo screening.
The film follows a few general rules of the typical horror film. The corky self-centred assholes are the first to go. All the deaths are gross enough, with the audience at the promo screening gasping aloud. There is more character development in this film and when one of the victim dies, some of the audience is actually brought to tears. This is a rarity in horror flicks - and a good thing. The film also contains a brilliant anti-message. Olivia is told off by her friend, Markie to stop thinking about others and to start thinking about herself (in order to survive).
The young actors are all believable enough as party animals brought to their senses. The best actor of the lot is Canadian Hayden Szeto who brings his gay Canadian character, Brad to life. He was last seen in EDGE OF SEVENTEEN. One flaw in the plot is his character saying that he is studying in the States to be away from his father though his father turns up as a cop in the U.S. where he is studying at college. Another is the absence of the characters’ parents except for Markie’s and Brad’s. I have never known any Asian to be called Brad.
Blumhouse has made three box-office and critical successes with SPLIT, HAPPY DEATH DAY and the phenomenal GET OUT. BLUMHOUSE’S TRUTH OR DARE seem to have got the lowest rating so far of the four films on Metacritic. The reason is that the film has more story and character development than the average horror flick with no false alarms or cheap jump out of the seat tactics common to films of this genre. Horror fans do not like their horror formula tampered with. Still this Blumhouse film which cost $3.5 million to make is estimated to draw $15 million at the box-office which will make it as another successful Blumhouse film.
BORG vs. McENROE (Sweden/Denmark/Finland 2017) ***
Directed by Janus Getz
BORG vs.McENROE is one of two tennis films that played at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, the other one being BATTLE OF THE SEXES that had already opened.
The two films by inevitable comparison show vast differences in approach. BORG vs. McENROE takes its subject of tennis very seriously capturing all the fear, all the glamour and all the stress each player faces of the matches, unlike the other film relying on comedy to stir its audience. The results of the tennis matches are crucial for both films. In BORG vs. McENROE, they are exciting and competently shot while the matches in the other film is laughable and boring. The actors also here sport tennis bodies while Emma Stone is too skinny and Carell too bloated.
The best thing about the film are the filmed tennis matches. The camera shows each player as they stride across the courts, their muscles often shown quivering in slow motion. Those who are tennis aficionados will recall who won which game. For the majority, one will definitely remember because of all the media frenzy that McEnroe beat Borg. This is true but they did not play only one match. So in the film, it will be unknown to many who would win the 1980 match depicted in the film. (I play tennis and I got it wrong.)
Director Getz shows the punishment and pain each player goes through. Though Borg is set as the stable reliable player the Swedes can count on, the film also shows Borg at his most vulnerable, buckling too under pressure. On the other hand, McEnroe is shown as a player that strives on pressure and one that performs well on stress. The film also shows more of Borg’s relationship with friends, coach and family then McEnroe, the reason likely being that the film is Scandinavian.
But the key to Borg/McEnroe is the story of the epic rivalry between Swedish tennis legend Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and his greatest adversary, the brash American John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). The film devotes almost equal time to each player, and shows them as two totally opposite human beings, despite the fact that both compete in tennis. But the common thing is that both know that they have been pushed to the limit to get where they are.
Gudnason and LaBeouf deliver believable performances as the tennis stars. LaBeouf probably played himself, the angry controversial person himself in real life. Great performances elicited by Getz all around.
BORG vs. McENROE is what a tennis film should be. It celebrates the game of tennis, delivers exciting matches and teaches the audience a thing or two about the game while offering some insight of what tennis professionals go through.
The film was chosen as the Opening Gala for the Toronto International Film Festival last year and garnered generally favoured reviews. A super watch for tennis fans, especially.
FINDING YOUR FEET (UK 2017) ***
Directed by Richard Loncraine
(Warning: This review contains a spoiler which is highlighted in bold italics at the end. Skip it if you intend to watch the film.)
As the title of the film implies FINDING YOU FEET refers to finding ones footing in life with dancing helping along the way.
When the film opens Sandra Abbott (Imelda Staunton) is about to become a Lady, thanks to the success and fame of her husband, Mike (John Sessions). They have enjoyed a good long marriage together till this party, where she catches him red handed kissing her friend in the dark. She abandons him, distraught and shows up at the council flat of her bohemian sister. No need to guess that she is then taught how to behave like a less haughty human being as well as to enjoy the simplicities of life, which includes attending the sister’s dancing class. She also gives love a second chance, in the form of Charlie(Timothy Spall), who’s wife Lily (Sian Thomas) is suffering an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s at a nursing home.
Three great performances to be entertained here by Oscar Nominee Imelda Staunton (Mike Leigh’s VERA DRAKE), Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie . These performances distract from the facts that the film is not really funny nor are there many funny parts, nor is the script particularly bright. But the charm of the actors come across quite effectively for the audience not to notice the film’s shortcomings. Absolutely Fabulous’s Patsy (Joanna Lumley) lends her hand in the role of a five time divorcee offering advice for Sandra. Lumley is the only real comedienne in the cast. Staunton and Spall are known more for their serious comedies. Director Loncraine has made comedies in the past as in Michael Pailin in THE MISSIONARY but also more serious films as RICHARD III and in one of my favourite films, BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE with a young Sting making his acting debut.
The dance performance supposedly shot at Piccadilly Circus is sufficient spirited. London is shown in her Christmas splendour as Sandra ad Charlie take on the London lights during a romantic fling. The two make a believable couple coming to terms with their own personal troubles. It is this human feature of the script that makes the film work despite the script’s flaws. The film obviously leads towards the typical happy Hollywood ending which is a real shame, since it is so manipulative and obvious as to what is going to happen. (Spoiler alert: But the last straw, almost unforgivable is the literal leap of faith Sandra takes to be with Charlie.)
The dance metaphor which reflects Sandra getting on back to her feet after her matrimonial disaster works quite well, though it can hardly not be noticeable. Sandra gets back into the dance groove, together with her old cronies with a few solid but simple choreographed numbers to old tunes like Rockin’ Robin and newer numbers like La Freak.
FINDING YOUR FEET is an old folks Harlequin romance that goes through all the usual obstacles and predictability of finding true love lifted slightly by the presence of both Imelda Staunton and Timothy Spall.
INDIAN HORSE (Canada 2017) ***
Directed by Stephen Campanelli
INDIAN HORSE is a Canadian drama that premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, based on author Richard Wagamese’s most famous novel of the same name. Wagamese and yes, Clint Eastwood both executively produced this native Indian film.
INDIAN HORSE tells the fictional story of Saul Indian Horse but surrounded by real life non-fiction events such as the forced attendance of native children in Indian residential schools and Canada’s love for ice hockey.
Saul Indian Horse is played by different actors at different stages in his life. Sladen Peltier plays Saul at age 6, Forrest Goodluck at age 15 and Ajuawak Kapashesit as Saul at age 22. The only known actor in the cast is Martin Donovan who plays Saul’s Toronto hockey father. To the credit of director Campanelli, the transition of the actors playing Saul is smooth with no big jolt in the story telling.
The story and film is at its most exciting during the first half, especially at the Indian residential school where the Indian children are mistreated and punished. Saul’s love for hockey is what saves him. After cleaning the stables, he practices hockey on his own and gets the attention of Father Gaston. He eventually gets into big league hockey. But Saul also discovers racial prejudice and ends up disheartened by life. There is a twist to Father Gaston’s good intentions later on in the film that has shocking consequences.
The film stresses the importance of family. Saul’s foster mother tells him in one of the film’s sweetest moments: “You ware part of our family now, and you always will be.”
The film’s starting with Saul as a boy, surviving the Northern Ontario wilderness is also magnificent to watch. The beauty of Canada as seen in the lakes and rivers, the rooks and terrain, the forests and trees and the wild animals needs to be seen as captured on screen. Saul and his grandmother also escape on a rowboat that unfortunately capsizes in the rapids, excitingly captured on camera, leading to the grandmother’s death. As expected, the first part of INDIAN HORSE is the most captivating and young Peltier who plays the young Saul is most adorable.
After giving up hockey, Saul Indian Horse hits rock bottom. His last drinking binge almost kills him, and is a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. He embarks on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows. The last part where he tells his story is not seen in the film and Indian Horse’s life story and the film unfortunately loses its impact, despite all good intentions. Still, audiences get to see what natives (Canadian First nations) go through, despite the non-Hollywood ending.
LEAN ON PETE (UK 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Andrew Haigh
LEAN ON PETE is British drama film written for the screen and directed by Andrew Haigh (45 YEARS), based upon the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin. LEAN ON PETE is also the name of the horse that both changes and challenges the life of 16-year old Charlie (Charlie Plummer).
The film is about a boy and a horse, but not for the whole duration of the movie. When the film opens, the audience sees Charlie with his father and new girlfriend. Being dependent on his father for a limited amount of money, Charlie befriends horse owner Del (Steve Buschemi) for a job. He is introduced to a horse called LEAN ON PETE. When the horse loses a race, coming in last, the horse is to be sold off to die.
The film benefits from the performance of its young lead, Charlie Plummer who has already proven himself in the role of the millionaire Paul Getty’s nephew in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, playing opposite Oscar Winner Christopher Plummer. Charlie is no relation to Christopher Plummer despite the identical surnames. Charlie Plummer captures the pain and desperation of a teen unwanted by both parents. He has still the look of innocence that will have the audience on his side no matter the bad deed he commits. In one scene, he suspects that he might go to jail, but heaven forbid if he does! When the film screened in the main competition section of the 74th Venice International Film Festival, Plummer won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress. Besides Plummer, Buscemi and Zahn both stand out in their supporting performances. Both actors reprise their quirky character roles, though their character are very different.
LEAN ON PETE moves at a slow pace during its first two thirds of running time before switching gear with a story twist. Haigh’s camera loves to linger on the actors. On the few action scenes, the two punch up scenes and the one where an accident occurs with Pete (the details not to be mentioned in the review as to avoid a major spoiler) are executed with quick edits as to create a shock effect. This succeeds as the audience is clearly jolted out of their seats the three times.
Haigh’s film suffers from a suitable ending. He opts for the Charlie running off into the horizon (no sunset here), reminiscent of the famous French classic of youth, Francois Truffaut’s LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS (400 BLOWS) where Truffaut ended his film with young Jean-Pierre Laud running on the beach.
Despite the film’s slow pace and other minor flaws, LEAN ON PETE comes off as a sincere film about a boy’s coming of age . The story shows that life does not always hands one everything on a silver platter. Some are born into riches and royalty. Others like Charlie are less fortunate, born into a broken family. He learns from his race horse, looking after Pete, the horse reflecting the same poor demise, Charlie the human is going through. Charlie struggles and makes it at the end. Haigh’s shows that it is a long and hard journey, but one that is necessary to take. On these grounds, LEAN ON PETE is a successful film, evoking the audience’s emotions and sympathy.
SWEET COUNTRY (Australia 2017) ****
Directed by Warwick Thornton
An Australian outback western and a very good one at that. Based on true events that occurred in 1929, SWEET COUNTRY tracks the killing, search and trial of Aboriginal Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris). Aboriginal stockman Sam works the land of a kind preacher, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), living and labouring in a respectful, if diffident, harmony. But when a bitter and often-drunk war veteran named Harry March (Ewen Leslie) returns to town, trouble escalates and Sam is forced to kill in self-defence. Shocked, afraid, and with a deep distrust in the impartiality of settler authority, Sam and his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), go on the run. They are immediately pursued by a posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and Aboriginal tracker Archie (Gibson John), expert bushman Sam must ultimately decide which of several looming unknowns to face. The whites are shown as racist pigs while the abused Aborigines are not that angelic either. If there is any redemption for the white man, there is the good Fred Smith and more important and the change of heart of Fletcher (subtly shown). A very absorbing film with almost perfect storyboarded set-ups from atmosphere to performances.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (UK/USA/France 2017) ****
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has been praised as one of the best living directors. She has made excellent films the best being RATCATCHER and the last one WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. She got into front page news when she did not show up on the first day of shooting of ANNE GOT A GUN, abandoning the project completely and causing the producers to sue. In YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, Ramsay is one of the producers which means she cannot walk out on herself. She presented the unfinished version of the film last year at Cannes winning her Best Screenplay and Joaquin Phoenix Best Actor. Totally deserving! The film is short at 90 minutes, concise and a marvel! This is a dramatic thriller written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, based on the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames.
Joe (Phoenix), a combat veteran and former FBI agent with post-traumatic stress disorder, is a hired gun who rescues trafficked girls. He cares for his elderly mother in his childhood home in New York City. Joe has graphic flashbacks to his childhood and past in the military and FBI. Director Ramsay loves flashbacks as evident in her previous films, and flashbacks allow her carte blanche to do whatever she wishes to shock the audience.
The trouble starts when returning home from a job, Joe is spotted by the son of Angel, the middleman between Joe and McCleary, his handler. Joe meets with McCleary, and expresses his concerns about his safety potentially being compromised due to Angel's son being aware of his address. McCleary then informs Joe of his next job: a New York State Senator, Albert Votto, has offered a large sum of money to discreetly find and rescue his abducted daughter, Nina.
The plot thickens with a lot of people getting violently killed. This is director Ramsay’s first thriller though death, killing and the psychology of killing has been dealt with in her previous films particularly in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. But she treats this film with dead seriousness. Her fascination with recurring themes of grief, guilt and death and its aftermath is present here as in her other films - a strength in her filmmaking. Apparent is the trauma her protagonist undergoes in the film in his path towards redemption.
Phoenix delivers a remarkable performance similar to the one he did in Paul Anderson’s INHERENT VICE. That role appears to have prepped him for the role of Joe in this film. Judith Roberts is also memorable playing Joe’s mother.
In WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, Kevin, in the final scene tells his mother that he finally discovers the reason he murdered his schoolmates in the gym. When asked what the reason is, Kevin remarks that he had forgotten. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE also contains a remarkable ending and a bright one (not to be revealed in this review.) A remarkable ending for an even more remarkable film.