Two new films opening this week come with high recommendations: The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
Belle de Jour
Angels Wear White (China/France)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
BEST FILMS OF 2018 (so far)
Angels Wear White
Isle of Dogs
You Were Never Really Here
BLACKKKLANSMAN (USA 2018) ****
Directed by Spike Lee
BLACKKKLANSMAN opens with a shot similar to the famous one seen in the poster of one of Spike Lee’s best films DO THE RIGHT THING. The shot is focused on the centre of the image but the characters stand around in the perimeter. Both that film and his new Cannes premiere hit BLACKKKLANSMAN tackle the problem of racism with savage brutality. Though this film contains more content, Lee tones down his anger a little compared to the more energetic DO THE RIGHT THING.
The film is based on the autobiographical book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. Set in 1970s Colorado, the plot follows an African-American detective Stallworrth (former footballer John David Washington and son of Denzel) who sets out to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan.
The film arrives after lots of hype after the Cannes premiere where many critics have hailed the film as one of the Top 10 films screened there. The truth is that the film is that good though not without flaws. It competed for the Palme d'Or and won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
Not since Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER’s climatic scene where he intercut the talking of peace with the different crime bosses to the execution of the bosses has irony been so vividly captured on screen. Lee intercuts the two rallies of the rise of black power to that of white power in one of the film’s key segments. Best still is the irony on display when Jewish cop Adam Driver denounces his Jewish heritage as Lee’s camera is placed in the position to emphasize Driver’s semitic nose.
Lee is fond of filming his segments with the camera slanted with a resulting slanted frame, used by many directors to emphasize a distortion of the events occurring on screen. Lee uses the tactic several times, particularly during the black rallies.
Though basically a period piece, Lee ties in current events to the story. There is a shot of Trump’s speech about very bad people in demonstrations s well as newsreel footage of violent police and crowd clashes during demonstrations in the August of 2017. Trump’s favourite line of making America great again is echoed in the film’s dialogue during of of the Ku Klax Klan leader’s speeches. Lee obtained permission to include the image in his film of Heather Heyer who called killed by the car ploughing into the crowd during a white supremacy rally.
Lee’s film not only incites anger among African Americans but also among Jews and gays. It is as if Lee is recruiting allies agains redneck whites in the movie.
It is always a pleasure to watch Adam Driver in a film. Driver (PATERSON) delivers an astonishing and powerful performance without having to resort of cheap theatrics, written dialogue or bouts of put-on anger. His mannerisms and body language tell all. Alec Baldwin is also memorable and hilarious as a bigoted doctor speaking on white supremacy. But all the white racists are treated as silly, stupid and ignorant country bumpkins, easy target for Stallworth and the good cops. It would be a more challenging task to have them made a more formidable foe.
The film contains lots of film references like the opening scene with the famous GONE WITH THE WIND street scene where wounded soldiers lay scattered to the blackpoitation films like SUPER FLY, COFFY, CLEOPATRA JONES and SHAFT. Included for laughs is a debate on who is better, Ron O’Neal or Richard Roundtree? The racist D.W. Griffith’s classic, BIRTH OF A NATION is also given special treatment - Spike Lee style.
BLACKKKLANSMAN is quite good but could have been more effective if Lee put more anger and opted less for comedy in the film.
CIELO (Canada/Chile 2018) ***
Directed by Alison McAlpine
CILEO which is Spanish for Sky or Heaven is writer/director Alison McAlpine’s ode to Cielo. It is a journey of the appreciation for both the silence and the beauty of the skies. The awesome cinematography by Benjamin Echazarreta and poetic musings by McAlpine herself offer audiences an escape into nature in tis purest form.
The film begins with two scientists discussing freely and humorously their experiences of just staring at the skies above. They tease each other, laugh and speak of their ideologies. One might not agree 100% with what they say, but each person has his or her valued viewpoint.
To understand what is seen on screen, one must know a bit of the method and technology used in photographing the skies. Used were time-lapse cameras (the Sony A7 and Atomos Shogun by night, the Sony FS7 by day) to create at the visual symphony of the moon, stars, sun and clouds as they move through the wild blue yonder as seen on screen.
CIELO is a quiet film that often requires the audience to remain silent during the performance, quite like A QUIET PLACE. It would be good for audiences to experience silence and a quieter type of cinema, away from the loud and more is better mentality of action films like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT and horror films like A QUIET PLACE.
The skies above the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile alternately achieves and strains for poetry. There are numerous images of transcendent beauty in Cielo, which is a Canadian Chilean co-production.. A good portion of its running time contemplating the firmament above Northern Chile's Atacama Desert and it feels what it must be like to actually stand in Atacama, gazing up in awe. Amazing are the numerous shooting stars flying by like paint slashes on a cosmic canvas. The vapour trail from a plane acts as the sole cloud in an otherwise clear azure sky. Even the Milky Way self rotates through the heavens with breathtaking clarity.
CIELO is not without the human element. People that McAlpine have selected for her film include astronomers who work in Atacama, as well as cowboys, miners and algae collectors who live and depend on the desert. What they say reveals that way of life and their simplicity of ways. They contemplate about life and the stars. Often these might seem simplistic, especially for audiences in the busy finical world.
One wishes McAlpine shot more of the Atacama Desert though it might distract from the main issue. McAlpine’s film contains some of the most arresting images seen in a film this year. The best is the one with the sky’s reflection in a lake with mountains in the background. No wonder one of the desert inhabitants dance to the sky in one exhilarating scene.
Also beautiful are the structures of several observatories seen on screen. What is missing in CIELO however, is the scientific element to complement the artistic poetry. The film would be more whole if something is explained on what the observatories achieve as well as some astronomical explanation of the being of the universe and its stars.
CIELO provides a different kind of movie, lots of visuals with little but poetic dialogue. The film is shot in both Spanish and English.
THE CRESCENT (Canada 2017) **1/2
Directed by Seth A Smith
This horror film from Nova Scotia, Canada has an excellent though slow beginning. Weird colourful patterns are formed and changed, which seems to flow naturally. Those who are in engineering or science, will be quick to realize that the patterns follow the Second law of Thermodymanics which state that the entropy of a closed system will always increase towards its equilibrium. So, is the chaos that affects the mother and young son in the film something that will naturally occur?
The film, after the opening credits and patterns turns to a funeral service where the preacher talks about suffering and pain before coming to a final rest. The film then focuses on the single mother and young son, and advised by her mother (Danika Vandersteen) than in order to survive: “You have to keep a level head.”
Smith plays around with sounds effectively as he uses different sizes images to frame his film. The frame sizes change when showing an image as seen from a window or from Beth’s paintings. Smith also uses tilted and upside down images, the latter as seen from the reflection of the sea water at low tide as Beth and Lowen (Woodrow Graves) walk along the beach. The intermittent blaring sound is used at many points in the film. The sound could be the sound of a ship’s horn as one blaring during a fog or the sound of a house alarm system. Beth takes out the alarm electronics thinking it to be coming from there but the sounds persists during the night. Sound is also used to create ambiguity as in Lowen’s baby voice. The audience would strain to hear what the child is saying as he often mumbles along. Danika Vandersteen also delivers a memorable performance.
The best thing about the film is the young boy Woodrow Graves’ performance as Lowen. Lowen is hardly old enough to walk properly, less climb up and down the stair, and is seen throughout the film just mumbling his dialogue like a child. His humming of tunes, the child-like “Row, row, row your boat,” and utterings like: “Where’s mommy?” are so real and eerie. It must have taken Smith (Graves is his son) quite a while to film the boy’s abilities.
The actually ghosts first appear at the one hour mark into the film. For those who love their horror violent and gory, they might have to wait a while, but the blood parts do occur. Most of the weird puzzles are also explained by the end of the film, though a few more are introduced.
Smith’s film might be a bit too slow paced for the typical horror film. But THE CRESCENT more than makes up for it in terms of atmosphere and ecstatics. Normal horror fans will also not be too happy at this too arty piece of work that looks too smug for its own good.
DOG DAYS (USA 2018) **
Directed by Ken Marino
The logo at the start of the film “Life is better with a dog” implies what director Manrino’s film sets up to prove. It is not a very subtle message and not a very subtle film too. DOG DAYS is a family oriented movie about humans and man’s best friend. Unfortunately the word dog can also be used to describe the movie. DOG DAYS is sporadically funny at best with a very low joke hit/miss ratio.
The film contains four humans stories - all silly and uninteresting. The first is a TV host who ends up interviewing Jimmy Johnston a sports star only to end up arguing on set. The cliché ridden script would mean that the two will fall in love, which they do, and lo and behold, what a surprise - it also turns out that they each own a cute dog. The next story begins at a Starbucks style coffee shop where a regular customer meets an employee who falls for Mr. Hots, a dog doctor who owns a fabulous car. The customer, as geeky as they come owns a dog shelter that, yes, any 2-year old can guess is going to have trouble financially. She helps him out with a fundraiser but is dated by Mr Hots. A one-year old can guess what happens next - yes, she discovers Hots to be an a-hole and realizes true love might be Mr. Geeky himself. Then there is the musician who babysits sister’s dog while she is having twins. The dog is a huge but cute one who changes Mr. Annoying’s life. My Annoying is not only annoying buy terribly unfunny. The last story involves a sad man who ha substituted the love for his past wife with a dog he has lost due to Pizza boy. The dog is found and looked after by a couple who adopts a little girl.
Director Marino clumsily intercuts these stories with weak links. For example, Johnson’s dog is brought to the clinic owned by Mr. Hots. The lack of a villain in the story means that each story meanders around with no purpose except to display the cuteness of different dog breeds.
The film has no shortage of cliches. A girl ditches her not-that-good-looking friend to date Mr. Hots only to find Mr. Hots an idiot and then dates back her not-that-good-looking friend who is actually in love with her. A lost dog found by a family who needs the dog more than the owner is eventually given the dog by the owner and so on.
The human stories are weakly linked to each other like an excuse. The stories are predictable and unexciting. No one really cares.
As if cliches are not enough, director Marino aims to pull at the heart strings with no signs of stopping A lost dog is re-united with its owner; an owner learns about life lessons from his canine friend. It is as if Marino has discovered that his humour is to working and trying for tears as a last resort.
Containing more cliches than dog tricks, DOG DAYS makes one wonder who let this one out of the dog house? This is just a very bad dog of a movie.
Warning!! Make sure you leave before the closing credits. There are extra takes of the actors cracking more unfunny jokes that will guarantee to make your skin crawl.
THE MEG (USA/China 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Jon Turtletaub
A shameless 2018 update of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS, THE MEG is the Megalodon prehistoric shark that has broken the depths of the ocean to re-enter modern times to terrorize beaches. Being an Asian/American co-production the beach featured in the film is the Japanese Sanga Bay where hundreds of Japanese gather with their colourful plastic floats.
The film stars Jason Statham in his first sci-fi film where he is not punching up gangsters or bad guys. It is all silly as hell fun, which translates to not too bad a movie despite the cliches, especially when one can tell how it rips off a dozen or so similar films while vying for the Asian market. For a horror shark film, THE MEG contains lots of laughs, and a few prized comedic set ups.
THE MEG begins with a rescue mission in which Jonas Taylor (Statham), rescue expert saves himself and five others while the rest perish. It is not who were left behind but who you save. This appears to be Jonas’ motto. But Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor) deems Jonas who has since retired, a coward. The sequence is hard to make out, apparently shot way under water where everything is murky and dark. The dialogue is as corny as :”There is something crushing the ship” to: “back to the rescue vehicle.”
Entertaining as it is, THE MEG can no where be compared to Spielberg’s masterpiece of horror shlock, JAWS. The most important difference is that Spielberg was crafty enough to put in the human element in JAWS with characters like Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) and other sorted characters. Spielberg sacrificed the life of a boy in the unforgettable scene where the dead boy’s mother slapped the sheriff for not closing the beach when he knew of a shark attack, In THE MEG, even the silly yappy dog “Pippin” survives THE MEG, though the poor expendable Asian Toshi is sacrificed. Toshi does write a last letter to his wife though he same sentiment is not there.
It must have been tempting to re-use the famous line from JAWS “We need a bigger boat”, as is also evident when the monster appears to the shark hunters on their little boat. But the filmmakers could not resist ending the film with the words ‘Fin’ instead of ‘The End’ at the end of the film.
A few plot points are duplicated from Jaws in THE MEG. Both films had everyone initially believe that they had killed the main shark, only to reveal a little later that they got the wrong fish.
THE MEG updates the blockbuster to cater to the Asian market, particularly since this is a Canadian/Chinese co-production. Besides half the supporting cast being Asian, the locations are mostly Asian from the Japanese beach to the deep trench in the Philippines. The humour os as silly as those find in the typical Chinese comedies, the funniest being the fat Japanese kid whose mother finally lets go into the water.
Silly, dumb but entertaining nevertheless with a few thrills thrown in.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (USA 2018) ****
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Young adults forming alliances and fighting formidable foes of evil in an alien environment. It is all part of survival and retaining ones identity while saving the world. This might be the description of the young adult films like DIVERGENT, THE HUNGER GAMES or the recent THE DARKEST MINDS but also for a very real and disturbing film entitled THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. The quiet Cameron Post has only her self appreciation and wits as weapons against the forces of evil, which here is in the form of misguided Christianity.
Abuse can take many forms, but not as bad as those suffered by the young orphan girl Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz). Caught during her prom night making out with another girl (the prom queen) in the back seat of a car by her date, Cameron Post is sent to be ‘cured’ at a gay conversion therapy camp. In one scene she is seen hiding under a table sneaking a telephone call home, crying her eyes out because she cannot take the abuse any longer.
Abuse is the worst when it is psychological. “Isn’t teaching a person to hate herself for being gay self abuse?” asks Cameron at one point in the film.
Co-written by Cecilia Frugiuele and directed by Desiree Akhavan, adapted from Emily Danforth’s acclaimed 2012 YA novel, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is the survival story of this young, spirited, orphaned, small-town Pennsylvanian, forcefully sent the equivalent of a prison camp with no privileges. The setting is 1993, just after AID’s had taken the world by storm and just before gay rights, same-sex marriage and gay acceptance were the norm. It is indeed sad to be gay during this period.
The film has two standout performances by two young actresses Moretz and Sasha Lane (as Jane Fonda). Why that character is called Jane Fonda is humorously explained in the film. Lane is immediately recognizable from her last role in Andrea Arnold’s 2016 film AMERICAN HONEY where she earned the title role as a spirited teen. Of course, she plays another here, but one is is of such independent spirit that she survives the brainwash and helps Cameron stay glued to her sexual orientation. But it is Moretz from SUPERBAD who steals the show as the vulnerable Cameron who finally sees the way. She delivers a controlled yet powerful performance, often crying intend of yelling, planning instead of physical retaliation.
Director Akhavan moves her film at a leisurely yet gripping pace. She understands the power of the story and the gravity of Cameron’s desperation. She lets her story unfold with all its intensity without resorting to cheap theatrics or dramatic set-pieces except for the one displaying a suicidal’s troubled outburst. This allows the audience to think and feel for the film’s characters.
The villains at the Christian camp are Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her visibly oppressed, “ex-gay” brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.). The two of them are smiling all the time making them really creepy. Dr. Marsh runs the camp with a Nurse Ratchet-like efficiency.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, a hit when premiered at Sundance ends up a powerful told tale of the triumph of the individual spirit over evil.
PUZZLE (USA 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Marc Turtletaub
As PUZZLE opens audiences to the world of jigsaw puzzles, PUZZLE opens the world of taken-for-granted housewife, (I work at home too, she says), Agnes (the wonderful also under-utilized Scottish born Kelly Macdonald) into a world of self discovery.
It all begins at her birthday party where husband Louie (David Denman) breaks a plate that she glues the pieces back together. She is given a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle which she puts together again and again. She discovers this hidden passion and leaves the house in Bridgeport, Connecticut to buy another where she learns that a mother puzzle solver wants a partner for a competition. She travels twice a week without her family knowing to Manhattan where she meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy recluse and together put together jigsaw puzzles in record time.
At the same time, Agnes finds her life unfolding in ways she could never have imagined.
Director Turtletaub directs this delicate tale of a housewife’s self-discovery from a script by Oren Moverman and Polly Man based on the Argentine movie Rompecabezas by Natalia Smirnoff. The film is dedicated to Turtletaub’s mother who we would think would also have been an under-appreciated mother.
Turtletaub’s only other directorial feature was GODS BEHAVING BADLY, a flop with negative reviews. PUZZLE proves his worth given a second chance. He is described to shoot with only a few takes allowing the actors to deliver their own interpretation of their roles allowing the film to be fresh. True to what have been described, the performances are honest, fresh and occasionally powerful. Macdonald (GOSFORD PARK), always an excellent actress, discards her British/Scots accent for an American role. Macdonald is the one reason to see this moving story. She is perfect even in he looks for the role. At times, looking like a simple housewife, she can also look radiant, especially in the scene where she lying on the grass, the camera right above her when she talks to Robert on her cell phone. Of the supporting cast, the young unknown Bubba Weiler stands outs Agnes’ elder son, Ziggy who does not get accepted to college and is stuck in a dead end job he detests working for his father in the auto shop.
The film’s best scene has the two of them Agnes and Ziggy having a heart-to-heart talk one evening. It is a candid one whee they share unexpectedly each other’s secrets. The shocking question Ziggy asks his mother is why she has not left his father.
The film has a neat spill on coincidences. Agnes believes that there is a reason things happen as in the train where “Ave Maria” is sung to the words, “Tea, Maria” uttered by Robert. Robert on the other hand believe that these are are coincidences. The metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle as life is therefore quite obvious. The jigsaw is a puzzle where the wrong pieces can be put right whereas life’s puzzle might not be solved in the same manner, as the film proves.
As expected, the family eventually learns what Agnes is up to. She gains her independence and there is a neat ending as to what on she eventually decides on doing. A housewife’s fantasy that audiences can relate to, thanks to director Turtletuab