This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 28, 2018)

27 Sep 2018

A few solid films make their debut this week.  There is a doc on Joan Jett, BAD REPUTATION, a doc on the adverse human impact on the planet ANTHROPOCENE and another MY GENERATION narrated by Michael Caine. 

The Bradley Cooper remake of A STAR is BORN opens but if you want a real authentic rise of a singer/songwriter to fame - opt for BAD REPUTATION that pales this film by inevitable comparison.

The period piece LIZZIE set in 1892 a re-imagination of the hatchet killings is also worth a look.

BEST FILMS PLAYING:

 

 

Best Documentary:
Bad Reputation

 

Best Foreign: 

Angels Wear White (China/France)

1945

 

Best Horror:

Hereditary

 

Best Drama:

The Children Act

 

 

BEST FILMS OF 2018 (so far)

 

Angels Wear White

Hereditary

Isle of Dogs

You Were Never Really Here

 

 

FILM REVIEWS:

 

ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH (Canada 2018) ***1/2

Directed by Jennifer Baichwal

ANTHROPOCENE - the current proposed geological epoch in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change.

Filmmakers filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier return with their latest and third of their trilogy after MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES and WATERMARK, entitled ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH.  The doc, written by Baichwal and narrated by Swedish actress and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander is a disturbing doc that demands to be seen for it explores human’s impact on the Earth.  The term for this impact is terraframing - the resurfacing of land due to human needs.

Scientists believe that human beings have left the Holocene epoch (which started 11,700 years ago when the last ice age receded) and entered the Anthropocene (because humans 

now change the earth and its systems more than all other processes combined).  The film examines this awful age where the planet is altered for its worst.

Baichwal’s films are always stunning to look at, even when displaying the ugliness of the earth.  This is most evident with the landfill segment where the entire screen is composed to human garbage.  One can only imagine the stench of the place.

The film’s first scene is that of molten metal  The site on display is north of the Arctic Circle in what Baischwal describes as Russia’s most polluted city.  This is where the world’s largest metal smelting industry is located. 

Baichwal and her crew travel the world documenting evidence of human domination – from concrete seawalls that cover 60% of China’s mainland coast, to psychedelic potash mines in Russia’s Ural Mountains, to vast marble quarries in Italy, to surreal phosphate tailings ponds in Florida.  In each country, the voiceover is in the country’s languages (in English, Russian, Italian, German, Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles) so as to add to the segments’ authenticity.

Baichwal’s film provides a bit of distraction in the form of the segment on extinction.  She shows as well as educates on the extremely endangered species including the white cheek gibbon, the white rhinoceros, the Egyptian tortoise, the chicken frog and the okapi.  I never knew what a okapi was till now.

Baichwal does not provide solutions to the problems nor offers much hope to the saving of the planet.  Perhaps she hopes this document on film might serve the purpose.

Still, ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH is a spectacular film - Baichwal’s best of her trilogy.  She has spent an immense amount of time on research and travels resulting in this magnificent educational documentary.

The film is part of The Anthropocene Project that also comprises complementary exhibitions premiering simultaneously on September 28 at the Art Gallery of Ontario and National Gallery of Canada, new Burtynsky photographs, new film installations by Baichwal and de Pencier, experiences in augmented and virtual reality, a book published by Steidl, and education program.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44RYqgKwfSQ

BAD REPUTATION (USA 2018) ****
Directed by Kevin Kerslake

BAD REPUTATION is a very appropriate title for the comprehensive documentary of Joan Jett of her former band the Runaways.  For one it is the title of a famous Joan Jett song and it is also the reputation that precedes girl rocker Joan Jett.

Director Kerslake makes the film more relevant by centring on the persecution the band faced being an all girl band.  When they fist performed, they were praised, but when they posed a challenge going on tour and cutting records, they were then called sluts.  Jett tackles the problem head on, talking about it.  She says Britain and Japan were more acceptable than the United States.  During interviews, she was always asked about the sex thing and she had to make sure it was always about the music.

They (The Runaways) initially toured and got no money.  They had to ask for food hamburger money.  Jett said that only in Japan were they starting to get paid. 

What makes this doc unique is the way it traces Jett’s maturity as a rock and roller.  When the Runaways started, they were 5 teenage girls, taking drugs and making songs.  Jett was initially shy but graduated to lead singer first performing as lead singer in London.  Jett also almost died from a heart infection while on tour. Her broken heart (from keeping the band together) ironically became literal.  And when the band broke up, no one really cared.  One has to give credit to a person who hung out with people like Sid Vicious and Nancy who died but she survived.

At best the film traces the difficulty of attaining success.  It is all in the marketing and believing in oneself.  As the film tracks the slow rise of the band (first moving from L.A. to New York with a wider network and the to Europe), the band’s soundtrack in the background of the footage makes the film’s point.

“Why don’t you get off my back?  Says Kenny Laguna, Jett’s best friend and manager at one point.  “Because it’s a lovely back.” replies Joan to which a more amicable response comes”: “Why don’t you lick it?”  The film devotes a fair amount of time between Jett and her manager, of course the person who has made a difference in her life and career.  Like marriage without the sex, like twins from different fathers.  These are words used to describe the relationship between Jett and Laguna.  The film’s funniest line is from her to Laguna when they disagree.  “Don’t show me that face!”

Just when the film begins to lag towards the last third, Kerslake lifts the doc up with Jett’s contribution to the Vietnam war.  She is anti-war and her discussions make so much sense.  “War is caused by the non-acceptance of difference religions.  If only there would be more curiosity instead.”  Mankind as a species has decided this was the way to go long ago.”  A bit of humour is also inserted as a fellow performer tells Jett, now head shaved, “I love the way you lift your arms when we can see the hair on your armpits and not on your head.”  The film turns inspirational and one cannot now help but admire Jett for what she stands for.

The only flaw of the film is its omission of Jett’s bad points.  Everyone has some.  Her drug use is only mentioned fleetingly and attributed to the immaturity of her teenage days.

Still the prize of the film are the recordings of her performances, especially on the big stage.  BAD REPUTATION establishes Joan Jett’s fantastic reputation as singer, songwriter and performer of a changing generation.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3FVyKa7gp8

 

COLETTE (UK 2018) **
Directed by Wash Westmoreland

COLETTE tells the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), celebrated French writer and gay icon, not the average early-20th-century woman.  The film follows her rise to fame while her writing credit is stolen by her husband.  One cannot help but side with Colette against her obnoxious and cowardly husband, Willy (Dominic West) but the script makes him a too easy target to hate.  Knightley prances about as if she is the best actress of the planet playing Colette, even more so giving the impression that it is just such a huge thing when she bears her breast in a scene onstage.  Giving the impression of being totally staged and manipulative, the film gets more monotonous during the second half when it could have become more exciting.  Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mqdyyk-iOvY

HOLD THE DARK (USA 2018) ***
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

 

HOLD THE DARK is the latest film from director Jeremy Saulnier (GREEN ROOM, BLUE RUIN) whose specialty appears to be moody thrillers.  In HOLD THE DARK, written by Macon Blair adapted from the novel by William Giraldi, the film begins with a child playing outside in the winter snow when he sees a pack of wolves.  The child goes missing.   His home is one of a handful of trailers on the edge of the wilderness in Alaska.   His father (Alexander Skarsgård) is serving in the Middle East and his mother (Riley Keough) seems to be succumbing to cabin fever.  She calls in Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a writer and expert on wolves; she believes the creatures took her boy and hopes Core can find him.  The film is quite different for a number of reasons that enable it to stand out.  The first is the wilderness setting.  The second is an unlikely older unattractive looking hero who disappears for a length of the film.  Anyone can be killed off in the story.  The film is also a bit over the top in violence that undermines the authenticity of the story.  Still, HOLD THE DARK is an apt thriller.

Trailer: (Unavailable)

KNUCKLEBALL (Canada 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Michael Peterson

KNUCKLEBALL is a Canadian horror thriller set in the U.S. in the dead of a winter storm.  It is advertised as an R-rated HOME ALONE in which a 12-year old boy must defend himself against a house intruder, in this case not only a killer but a pedophile.

As far as the story goes, it is a straight out too well-thread thriller plot with a few nasty bits added in.  By co-writer Michael Peterson knows how to put on the suspense in this exercise in terror.  Peterson understands the mechanics of a Hitchcockian thriller and applies it at best he can.

The film begins with a husband and wife dropping their son, a 12-year old Henry at his grandfather’s out in the woods while they fly out of the city.  It is clear from the dialogue that the relationship of the couple is estranged, which as expected (cliches occur quite a bit in the story) will improve later on, once they realize their boy is in trouble and they cannot get to him because of the storm. 

As the plot goes, the grandfather unexpectedly dies in the night.  Henry finds himself cut off and alone on an isolated farm.  When his nearest neighbour, Dixon, realizes that the boy has no one to protect him, Henry becomes a target for reasons he cannot understand.  With his parents at least 24 hours from returning and a massive snowstorm brewing,  Henry retreats into the house and prepares for a siege, HOME ALONE-style but so much more brutally violent.  We are talking barbed-wire here.   What follows is a desperate battle for survival that will also unlock the terrifying connection between his family and the killer next door. 

As in true Hitchcockian fashion, the terror does not arrive immediately.  In Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS and also Spielberg’s JAWS, the first attack occurs only after half the movie has passed.  In KNUCKLEBALL, the grandfather is alive with Henry for the first 30 minutes, with the film tending towards simple drama/comedy instead of a thriller.  Grandfather dies in bed at the 30-minute mark.

Peterson’s film contains lots of segments  that prompts audience anticipation.  When grandfather teaches Henry how to throw a knuckleball, one knows that Henry will eventually use his new craft at his intruder.  There is one point that grandfather collapses from a heart attack while climbing the roof.  He screams and utters to himself: “Get up you old sap. Time to call it a day”. 

When Henry is alone with the intruder, a local cop is dispatched to the house.  No need to guess what happens to her - the same thing when a detective or cop is dispatched (Hitchcock’s PSYCHO) to a residence when the occupant is under siege happens here.

KNUCKLEBALL suffers from an all too familiar story.  But Peterson improves this story by an engaging first third and and scary other two thirds.  Peterson’s talent is his ability to draw his audience into the story which results in a very satisfying and absorbing be it ultra-violent thriller.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nM-CpDkPOcM

LIZZIE (USA 2017) ***1/2

Directed by Craig William Macneill

The name LIZZIE will sound familiar to many.  Even to kids, LIZZIE is a well-repeated nursery rhythm containing more sinister connotations.  LIZZIE is also the first name of Lizzie Borden who was accused but acquitted of the vicious hatchet murders of her stepmother and father.  The incident occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.

Why would this dated biography be of interest to today’s audiences?  For one, Lizzie is alleged to be a lesbian and the script by Bryce Kass re-imagines Lizzie to be guilty of the heinous crime.  Lizzie is also highly abused by the male gender in a time where gay relationships were disallowed.  One scene has her uncle grabbing her by the throat threatening her. 

The film is bookended with the ghastly murder of a man hacked to death.  The guilt falls on the daughter Lizzie which the film sets to prove committed the deed despite her acquittal.

The film goes back 6 months with the arrival of a female at a three story house, obviously owned by a wealthy family.  The female is revealed to be Brigitte Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), a single Irish woman, who has come to live with the family and work as a live-in maid.  Lizzie, of the film title, is living with her wealthy father (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother (Fiona Shaw) and sister (Kim Dickens).  Her father is up to no good, while her stepmother silently enables.  Worst still, it seems that her uncle (Denis O’Hare) may end up controlling her inheritance.  Socially isolated, with her comings and goings strictly monitored, Lizzie finds solace in her pet pigeons. 

Brigitte works hard.  The patriarch of the family recognizes Brigitte’s hard work but his visits to her room prove him to be a sex abuser.  At the same time, Lizzie and Brigitte start an affair.

The script ups the angst with the father becoming more abusive towards Lizzie.  Lizzie also suffers from fits.

The film benefits from the creation of claustrophobia of the prison of the family home.  Lizzie is discouraged from going out and if allowed, must return by midnight.  The camera is quick to always show the high walls as if acting like imprisoning barriers.  When Lizzie does get to go out, she is attacked by society as the Borden family are cheap and disliked large house renters, still using candle light instead of the new electricity of the times.  The audience is made to feel that Lizzie has no way to escape psychically and emotionally.  Which drives her towards the act.

Whereas in real life Lizzie was acquitted for the fact that the jury could not imagine a woman performing such a violent act, the film shows otherwise with Lizzie hacking her father to death with repeated blows, and in the nude with blood splattered all over her body.  This shows director Macneill over-confident that he has convinced his audience believe that Lizzie is so desperate that she has nothing to lose (she would otherwise lose her inheritance as well as love for Brigitte) but to commit gruesome murder.

Performances are top-notch with Stewart getting away with her Irish accent. But the main star of the film is Noah Greenberg lush cinematography that captures the period atmosphere of the times and the claustrophobic imprisonment of the girls.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-QJ81-k6w8

MY GENERATION (UK 2018) ***
Directed by David Batty

 

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”  These are the unmistakable words that belong to actor Michael Caine, made more famous by Steve Coogan when he does his Michael Caine impersonation in Michael Winterbottom’s films THE TRIP and THE TRIP TO SPAIN.  These words are uttered and shown with the clip from Peter Collinson’s 1969 heist movie THE ITALIAN JOB the film MY GENERATION in this very entertaining documentary narrated by Caine himself begins.

The good old days.  This is a phrase many use but are these really the good old days.  Michael Cain questions the period of the 60’s - the period after the War, after the blitz and when food rations took effect.  With poverty, unemployment, are these really the good old times?  It takes the then generation, as Caine narrates to make a change.  Caine claims himself at the age of 33 then, to be the grandfather of that generation.

The title MY GENERATION is taken from the song by the English rock band The Who, which became a hit and one of their most recognizable songs.  The song was released in 1965 has been said to have "encapsulated the angst of being a teenager," and has been characterized as a "nod to the mod counterculture”.

The doc is extremely watchable and entertaining for several reason, the foremost being the film references.  Everyone loves the movies, especially in the 60’s.  But as Caine narrates, the films were made on Dukes and Duchesses and the upper class, followed by a clip of a David Niven film with him wearing a top hat.  The film goes on to the David Lean’s classic BRIEF ENCOUNTER where the characters now speak as the working class English do.  This is the love story of the last meeting between Trevor Howard and Cilia Johnson, a film most film aficionados are familiar with.

Doc is revealed in acts.  Act 1: Something in the Air.  The song says it.  “We all have to get it together now!”  Act 2: I Feel Free. and Act 3: Always not what it Seems

The film’s best segment is the collection of montages of what is wrong with the world (the riots, the atomic bomb, the Vietnam War) played on screen to the tune of the Rolling Stones song “I can Get No satisfaction”.  Caine emphasizes the influence of bands of the 60’s - the Stones, the WHO and of course, the Beatles.

This is typical British school boy mentality.  When the old guard tells the boys not to do it, the boys always find away to do it.

MY GENERATION are the young of the 60’s.  They are the pop stars, the models, the photographers and Cockney at that.  Models given screen time include Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy shot by photographers like David Bailey.  The film attacks the class system particularly the upper classes.  While celebrating the young, Caine makes his point against drug use, that became rampant in the 60’s particularly marijuana and LSD.

Overall, MY GENERATION offers a good nostalgic look at the 60’s, particularly 60’s London.  Wonder if there would be making docs on the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and if they do, who would be narrating?

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

A STAR IS BORN (USA 2018) ***
Directed by Bradley Cooper

 

The third remake after the Judy Garland/James Mason and Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson entries, A STAR IS BORN, Academy Award Best Actor nominee Bradley Cooper’s

directorial and screenwriting debut arrives in Toronto for a commercial release right after great hype at both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals.  Having high expectations, I was ultimately disappointed.  The film is good but not that good, falling into the trap of the typical failed romantic drama due to personal demons and artistic conflict - predictable storyline of personal conflict and over-staged drama.

The film opens with super singer Jackson Maine (Cooper) performing live at a huge concert.  It is an amazingly shot scene complete with a screaming crowd, astounding acoustics and musical performance, setting the stage for more outstanding performances to come.  And they thankfully are, whether performed by Jackson or his rising star, Ally (Lady Gaga).  But Jackson is clearly on a self destructive course.  He arrives at a bar after the opening concert, dropped off by his chauffeur.  He ends up in a drag bar (because Lady gag has the hit gay positive song, “Born This Way”) where he is impressed by Ally’s performance of La Vie En Rose.  Apparently she is so good, she is the only non drag performer allowed to sing there.  Jackson takes her home and this is the beginning of the relationship in which Jackson also grooms Ally to be a star.

The rest is history and the story almost everyone in the movies is aware off.  As Ally rises to fame, Jackson downward spirals into losing his.  Jackson also suffers from a hearing problem and has a rift with his older brother and manager (Sam Elliot, who is good but mumbles half his dialogue).

Cooper’s film captures the atmosphere of the rich and famous, from the parties, the glare of the spotlight, the attraction of fame as well as the pain that comes with it.

The main trouble is that it can safely be said that the audience has seen all this before -a star’s rise to fame, her lose of identity (clearly mentioned a few times to make its point) and conflict of interest.  Cooper’s film attempts to bridge the gap between having a solid relationship and a successful singing career   This does not happen.  One basically has to give up family life for musical fame.  This story is more effectively told in the gut wrenching documentary BAD REPUTATION, about the life and career of girl rock and roller Joan Jett, that coincidentally also opens this week.  BAD REPUTATION puts A STAR IS BORN to shame.  BAD REPUTATION is the real thing where Jett maintains her identity, ditches family life to launch a successful music career that audiences can root for an identify with.  A STAR IS BORN, unfortunately sinks into predictable melodrama  at many points.

The film also suffers from having two protagonists Jackson and Ally instead of just concentrating on Ally.  Cooper is ok, he has his star charm but it is Lady gaga that makes the movie.  She does not look anything like the Lady Gaga everyone is used to seeing and it is her that the audience sees that a real young and rising star is born.  Move over Madonna!

Still A STAR IS BORN will be well received by many as a love story that hovers between the shadow of tragedy and the bright light of artists at their peak as observed by many of the teary eyed audience (mainly females) who left the theatre at the promo screening.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPxGl3B2I4A

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