1945 is the best film openig this week. The HAPPYTIME MURDERS puppet live action is nasty funny and also makes its debut.
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
1945 (Hungary 2017) ****
Directed by Ferenc Török
The year 1945 is immediately recognizable as the year World War II ended. While this might be an exhilarating year for most Europeans fighting the Germany and her allies, it certainly isn’t for a small Hungarian village. Most of the villagers from the film’s unnamed village in Hungary fear that Jews will return after the War to reclaim their property that have been taken away from them and redistributed to these Hungarians. And some unjustly. The town clerk, Mr. István (Péter Rudolf ) had informed of his Pollaks neighbours while getting a fellow villager to testify as a witness. Worst, he guiltlessly watched from his window as his best friend and family were taken away by the Nazis. He also bribed to get his son out of the army.
Few films on World War II have depicted the effects on those left behind by those who went off to fight during the War. The excellent recent French film, Xavier Beauvois’ LES GARDIENNES (which is a real crime that it was surprisingly not commercially released in Toronto) demonstrated in great detail how farmworkers survived without any males. 1945 is a Hungarian drama that demonstrates the evil that human beings exhibit as a result of that War, even when staying behind in the village and not going to fight.
Török, who also co-wrote the film directs it in a straight forward manner without resorting to cheap theatrical effects, realizing and relying on the strength of the film’s source material. The film’s period atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the film’s stark and clear black and white cinematography.
The catalyst of the story is the arrival of two Jewish survivors of the Holocaust (there is a camera closeup of the concentration camp tattooed numbers on one of their arms) by train to the village - a father and son. The purpose of their visit is unclear to the villagers and they assume they are back to reclaim land that had been taken away from them. The individual villagers have different reactions, mostly unpleasant.
The story contains a sufficient assortment of characters in varying situations to keep audience’s interest piqued. Besides the town clerk, his son is a coward about to be married to a woman who clearly does not love him, but the drugstore that his family owns. She, Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki) has an affair with Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) who is unafraid to flaunt the affair as well as side with the liberating Russians in the village. He is also flirting with a younger woman in front of her. The town drunk is guilty of being the town clerk’s witness and his wife is hiding all the expensive rugs and silverware the family took from the Jews. The priest is no Godly saint either, having stolen from the Jews.
This paragraph in bold italics contains minor spoilers: Interesting during the first half, director Török brings his film to an impressive climax where the clerk’s son leaves the village in despair and the deserted bride takes revenge on the groom’s family. Despite all the gloom and despair on display, there is a bit of hope in the clerk getting his comeuppance and his son finally breaking away from his family’s hold. When it is revealed the true purpose of the Jew’s visit, there is also some sympathy shown by the villagers.
The film was screened in the Panorama section at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival and was awarded the 3rd place prize in the Panorama Audience Award. 1945, a sincerely made film about the emotional baggage left behind by WWII is one of the best foreign films released so far this year and indeed worthy of a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination.
BREATH (Australia 2017) **
Directed by Simon Baker
BREATH is Australian actor Simon Baker’s directorial debut based on the multi-award winning author Tim Winton’s novel of the same name. Besides directing, maker also shares producing and co-writing credit with Winton.
The film is set in the 1970s and two teenage boys form a connection with an older surfer, Sando played by Baker himself. The boys Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) have grown up in a small western Australian town and through surfing meets up with Sando, who challenges them to take greater and more dangerous risks.
BREATH shows an all white world where no Aborigines or other minorities appear. The Australians on display are pure white, golden blonde hair engaging in a general all white male sport. Baker’s film contains repeated explicitly graphic sex scenes with Pikelet and Sando’s girlfriend Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) once Sando has abandoned them. The film and novel title BREATH comes from a kinky sex play the two indulge in. But Samson is only 14, the age he admits when asked at the beginning of the film. What is displayed on screen various times amounts to accepted pedophilia The film runs into problems in the second half once Sando is gone from the picture. Baker’s film lacks the spark it had and slags towards the end.
Understandably, the film’s best moments are the surfing segments, even when the philosophy of the sport is explained. “Paddle, turn and commit, without a moment of doubt.” The science of the sport is also explained at one point by Sando. He explains the contiental shelf, the girth and the pursuit of the right wave. At best, both the fear and exhilaration of the sport are demonstrated simultaneously.
The two young actors Coulter and Spence are real finds and make the movie. Veteran Australian actor Richard Roxburgh has a small role as Mr. Pike, the father.
The surf scenes are nothing short of stunning, credit to cinematographers Marden Dean and Rick Rifici. One wonders how the camera gets so close to capturing the action, with the smoothness of the waves. The audiences gets to see the surfers paddling out into the sea, the wave slowly forming and the surfers standing up on their boards, as the wave grows gigantic behind them. These magnificent scenes create a high not only for the surfers but for the audience as well. The stung landscapes are also on display in the film - the magnificent cliffs, rocks, sea and vegetation.
The film is tied together by the voiceover from start to end, supposedly the adult voice of Pikelet, bringing meaning to the story. The film is basically the coming-of-age story of Pikelet. His friendship with the rather uncontrollable wild-card, Loonie is also given due importance.
BREATH ends up an occasionally uplifting though flawed film about boyhood in an all white male surf setting. At the start of the film, surf is described by the voiceover as beautiful, pointless and elegant. The film BREATH can certainly described using the same three terms.
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (USA 2018) ***
Directed by Brian Henson
The idea of making a human/muppet filthy movie derived from the children’s popular TV shows SESAME STREET/THE MUPPETS is risky for a number of reasons. Firstly, filth and kid jokes do not always go hand in hand - an example being scary clowns. Secondly, the public might not go for it even if the comedy formula works. So risky is that the company formed to make the film is called HA! standing for Henson Alternative and the word ‘Muppet’ is totally removed from this movie - replaced by ‘Puppet’. The SESAME STREET makers have also sued but lost their case.
It does not take long before the filth and foul language starts. When Melissa McCarthy makes her first appearance and asked to sing the puppet song, she goes in a loud voice: “Man, Fuck you!”. Puppet-wise there are puppet disgusting scenes like the cow-milking scene at the Puppetpussy party.
HAPPYTIME from the film title refers to the television program “The Happytime Gang” on TPN, The Puppet Network. Someone is killing off the members of the program and with a motive. It is up to the unlikely human/puppet detective duo to solve the crime.
The story is created in a make believe world where puppets coexist with humans. Puppets are reviled by society and considered inferior. There is a nice take on racism without it taken too far . Puppet private investigator Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) reunites with his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to find a serial killer who murdered Phil's brother. The killer is now targeting the cast members of the 1980s television series The Happytime Gang, and Phil's former flame, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), is next on the list. It is up to Phil and Edwards, to find the culprit, but as bad blood and old resentments resurface the clues start pointing to the only viable suspect, Phil himself. Now he's on the run with only his wits and hard headed determination, as he tries to solve "The Happytime Murders.”
The film must also be McCarthy’s baby, she having producing credits. I am not a big fan of McCarthy as she gets usually super annoying in her roles - but in this film she is supposed to be and comes across as very funny. The actors blend well with the puppets, treating them like real adults. This is the same formula that made THE MUPPET SHOW on TV so popular, stars appearing and interacting with the non-humans as if they were humans. Maya Rudolph, Paul Thomas Anderson’s wife perfects the role of the secretary - Phil’s secretary, Bubbles. She was also in the role of a secretary sporting a helmet hairdo in her husband’s INHERENT VICE. This secretary role must be inspired by Bernadette Peters, who had a huge beehive hairdo in THE LONGEST YARD kissing Burt Reynolds in a cameo moment.
The Chinese film company, the H. Brothers has a hand in the film production which accounts for two Asian detectives in the cast, Jimmy O. Yang as Officer Delancey and Cynthy Wu as Brittenie Marlowe as well as a portion of the story set in L.A.’s chinatown.
The good news in that the film is very funny with sufficient laugh-out loud bits to keep general audiences happy. But keep the kids at home! Would parents and their children no matter how grown up watch pornography together?
MADELINE’S MADELINE (USA 2018) *
Directed by Josephine Decker
MADELINE’S MADELINE, supposedly a largely experiential film begins with an actress told not to be a cat but to be inside a cat, throwing away all metaphors etc. She purrs like a cat, is stroked like a cat and thus behaves as one. The screen is also filled with saturated colours for no apparent reason as the audience struggles to make some sense as to what is occurring on screen.
The film centres on a high school student, Madeline (Helena Howard) taking makeshift acting classes under some kooky teacher, Evangeline (Molly Parker). Evangeline is also pregnant which might explain a bit of the weird behaviour. Madeline has a eating disorder and is looked after by her overbearing white mother, Regina (Miranda July) who she does not get along with, especially during these rebellious years. She finds solace in her acting classes including befriending Evangeline who takes a sudden interest in her acting.
Evangeline’s methods lots of improvisation where the actors are ask to do anything from acting out what they feel to pretending to be animals. It is a wonder that none of the students think Regina is crazy.
At one point, Madeline acts like a sea turtle as the camera gives the audiences the turtle’s eye view of one as it makes itself towards the sea. “Be a sea turtle, not a woman being a sea turtle,” is the response Evangeline gives her. The rest of the class do weird things like beat the curtains, scream and make sudden body movements. The class also sit around in a circle to talk about a moment of violence they wish to share.
The film is not without violence, imagined or otherwise. Most of it is acted out or appear in dreams as in the one Madeline has of pressing a hot iron on her mother.
It is hard to critique a film as different and at times so experimental as this one. The film could be classified as inventive, exploring and original, going against the grain of narrative film. It can be also considered as a load of rubbish. To each his or her own. But what thing is for sure - MADELINE’S MADELINE is different experience.
There a lot of dramatic mother and daughter confrontations that occur in the car, similar to that of the famous LADY BIRD segment where the daughter suddenly jumps out of the speeding car. Madeline does the same, getting out of the car when mother becomes too much.
From the very beginning when a voiceover taunts Madeline: “What you are feeling is a metaphor, and your emotions are not yours,” words continually ring that often do not make any sense. The film requires the audience to surrender to the creative process of the acting workshop and find ones true self like the character of Madeline supposed to be going through. Unfortunately the workshop is conducted by a very insecure teacher, Evangeline who takes on Madeline like a daughter. They argue just as ferociously as the real mother and daughter. Do we really need to watch all this? Annoying characters, jittery camera, shouting and screaming, no head-or-tail logic and experimental s***. The film does not allow audiences to think on their own but blare its message and way of story-telling (if one can consider the film to contain one) of ramming it down ones throat. Decker never answers any of the questions she poses in her film either. To this critic, MADELINE’S MADELINE is a load of rubbish!
PAPILLON (USA 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Michael Nor
Why bother remaking the successful 1973 biography of French convict Henri Charrière nicknamed PAPILLON who escaped from Devil’s Island in 1941? After all, that film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring two huge stars of the time Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman is still readily available on DVD.
A few reasons! One would be that no one would likely remember anything about the 1973 film. After all it is is is almost half a century ago. I can only remember two things about the 1973 film - Dustin Hoffman eating a cockroach and Steve McQueen jumping off the cliff in the final escape scene.
The new PAPILLON is not too bad. Despite not having as big star names, Charlie Hunnam (THE LOST CITY OF Z) and Rami Malek (I, ROBOT) inhabit their roles very convincingly. There is no cockroach eating scene but the food served actually looks not half bad, like the consommé with diced vegetables in a tin can. In fact, Papi (as Charrière is called in short) is tempted with the soup in order to reveal the name of his conspirator.
PAPILLON is the nickname of Charrière likely from his butterfly tattoo on his body. The film opens with his frolicking with his girlfriend, Nenette (Eve Hewson) in Paris after nicking some jewels from the big boss he was working for. Thus framed for murder, Charrière, is unjustly convicted of murder and condemned to life in a notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, South America. Determined to regain his freedom, Papillon forms an unlikely alliance with quirky convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega, who in exchange for his protection, agrees to finance Papillon’s escape, ultimately resulting in a bond of lasting friendship.
For a film shot in Paris and set in France and French Guiana, not a word of French is spoken in the film. The filmmakers must thing speaking English with a French accent is sufficient, though the 1973 original had the same flaw. But true that commercial audiences rather hear dubbed dialogue than read subtitles.
If one can remember the 1973 version, this film is very similar as the new script by Aaron Guzikowski is based on Charrière's autobiographies Papillon and Banco, as well as the former's 1973 film adaptation, which was written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. In fact, credit is given to the script by Trumbo and Semple Jr. in the closing credits.
PAPILLON 2017 moves fast enough for its 133 running time. The film is not a film about escape but a film about the strained but lasting relationship of the two men. But the film’s only escape sequence with Papi, Dega and two other prisoners (Roland Moller and Joel Bassman) is the film’s highpoint, especially trying to survive a storm in a broken boat in the wide ocean. The hard prison conditions, though hard to watch make extremely intriguing fodder. One wonders how inhuman human beings can be. The film also demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit over mounting adversities. So, despite the dim outlook of the film’s heroes, it is still a film of hope and not despair.
It would be interesting to watch both films back to back to observe the different treatment of each director and actors towards this timeless material. Both films are equally well shot and absorbing and definitely worth seeing.
SUPPORT THE GIRLS (USA 2018) **
Directed byAndrew Bujalki
What is worse that working under an unreasonable boss? A reasonable boss having to support all of his or her employees. This is the premise of SUPPORT THE GIRLS, a film with the appropriate themed title that centres on an angel (but with a foul mouth) who supervises a burger and beer joint called “Double Whammies”. This is not a strip club but the staff are scantly clad, which is a formula for trouble. But the “Double Whammies” franchise is not that far out an idea. Toronto has “Hooters” a franchise which is basically the same thing.
Lisa (Regina Hall) is the mother-hen manager of “Double Whammies”. When the film opens, the audience sees her at work. She is faced with a number of problems while hiring a few new girls. There is a man stuck in the duct, some guy trying to break into the place - a good idea at that time. At work, she has to find a babysitter for one of the other girls, organize a fundraiser to support one of the girls in distress and a cable outage just before the big fight when business is expected to pick up. “You are the best manager ever, “ Lisa is complemented by one of the staffers in the film. Lisa runs the place so that there is zero tolerance for abuse. Touching and insulting are not allowed. She does not need to call the cops as the cops are usually present in the venue as customers.
Of all the dramatic set-ups, the best segment is the one where a biker calls one of her waitresses fat. She forces him to apologize or get kicked out of the place. This scene caused a stir in the audience when the film debuted at SXSW 2018. It is always a pleasure to watch an asshole, especially a female abuser get his comeuppance. There are a number of rules that must be followed at “Double Whammies”, the first of which is “No Drama”. How can one keep that one? Lisa complains to the ass-hole owner of the place.
The soundtrack is mixed including some rap and Motown music.
Regina Hall holds her own playing Lisa. Also starring as the wait-staff are Haley Lu Richardson as the cheery pro, Shayna McHayle (aka music artist Junglepussy) as the unflappable vet and Dylan Gelula as the newcomer who’d like to sleaze things up a bit.
The film is summed up by Lisa’s point of view expressed at an interview for a job at Man Cave. The film’s climax has two staffers screaming at the top of their voices from a rooftop with Lisa looking on. Their screeching voices are nothing short of irritating. What should be an exhilarating segment turns out the complete opposite. What was director Bujalki thinking?
SUPPORT THE GIRLS, good intentions aside (the film stresses the message of respect) runs down the predictable route. Nothing really expected or surprising is in the script which he also wrote.
Recommended maybe for the staff of “Hooters”!
WE THE ANIMALS (USA 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
The synopsis from the press notes of WE THE ANIMALS reads: Us three. Us brothers. Us kings, inseparable. Three boys tear through their childhood, in the midst of their young parents’ volatile love that makes and unmakes the family many times over. When the film begins these words ring out as the camera follows the boys running about, enjoying the joys of boyhood, carefree and with exhilaration. The film has a look of the boys in STAND BY ME and the audience is primed for a solid tale about boyhood.
The film’s script is co-written by Zagar and Dan Kitrosser, based on the novel, We the Animals by Justin Torres. It is a fictional story but based on Torres’ own experiences as a kid. The film follows the novel for the most part, with the part of Jonah being institutionalized at a mental institution being left out. This is a good idea and if included, would add more complexity and probable problems to the mood of the story.
WE THE ANIMALS stand for three brothers, in a tale told in the first person and from the point of view of the youngest brother, Jonah. While Manny and Joel grow into versions of their loving and unpredictable father, Ma seeks to shelter her youngest, Jonah, in the cocoon of home. More sensitive and conscious than his older siblings, Jonah increasingly embraces an imagined world all on his own. Jonah sketches his feelings out on paper.
Zagar depicts the family violence effectively resulting in realistic and disturbing scenes. Violence begets violence. When the mother is punched up by the father and the father is gone, she in turn, becomes violent to her kids, as a response of not being able to get back at her husband. And the kids reciprocates the violence. The kids attempt to escape the horror by covering their ears as they are told to in a Gospel program they watch on the television.
Director Zagar works well with his cinematographer Zak Mulligan giving their film a distinct look. Many scenes are shot using a hand held camera. The use of shadows and darkness works effectively to emphasize the darkness of family life.
Where does the violence originate from? Director Zagar spends screen time explaining he source of the violence. It is clear that the parents endure a hate -love relationship but it is specific events like the swimming incident that triggers a particular violent act. The father takes Jonah and the mother into the deep water and lets them go forcing them to learn to swim. When the act fails, the mother gets beaten up and they boy traumatized.
WE THE ANIMALS has the feel of the Oscar wining Best Picture MOONLIGHT for its authenticity and about the similar theme of the coming-of-age. Disturbing though exhilarating at times, WE THE ANIMALS is an eye-opening film of the pains growing up on an abusive family environment, aided by convincing performances especially by the young actors.