- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
Lots of new openings to mark Thanksgiving long weekend in the U.S. RAPLH BREAKS THE INTERNET should make it #1 at the box-office.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
Ralph Breaks the Internet
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Great Buster
BEST FILMS OF 2018 (so far)
Angels Wear White
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix)
Isle of Dogs
You Were Never Really Here
AT ETERNITY’S GATE (UK/USA/France 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Julian Schnabel
There have countless films/biographies on Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. So the question is why would any filmmaker want to make yet another?
The reason is hinted at during the closing credits when it is mentioned that writings in a journal n Van Gogh had been discovered in 2016, the year before production of this film began. Director Schnabel also said on the making of the film which is written by himself and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, quote: “This is a film about painting and a painter and their relationship to infinity. It is told by a painter. It contains what I felt were essential moments in his life; this is not the official history – it’s my version. One that I hope could make you closer to him.”
The film is set during the final years of Van Gogh’s life. As most are aware of, the famous painter was mentally institutionalized at Auvers-sur-Oise, France. He died from complications from a gunshot wound to the stomach and he had also cut off his ear in Arles in the south of France. Making a film about madness is a difficult task which is often not rewarded with a crowd pleasing film. The result is as expected, a film very difficult to take in as director Shnabel personalizes and ups the angst on the painter’s decent into madness. Schnabel is no stranger to mental torment and suffering. His best picture to date THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY how a paralyzed writer completed his memoirs is a near-masterpiece in film endurance and suffering. Unfortunately AT ETERNITY”S GATE does not reach the same heights.
For one, the Van Gogh story is one that everyone is familiar with. To re-think that his suicide is something unexplainable might not please everyone. Watching a person’s decent into madness is not anything entertaining or pleasant to watch either. The film understandably lags in the middle with quite a few boring parts.
But the film is magnificently shot by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme in colours identical to the colours of the Van Gogh paintings painted in the open. In the film, Van Gogh was advised by fellow painter, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) to go to the south of France to paint as it is so beautiful there. So Van Gogh travelled to Arles. Being to Arles myself, for the reason Van Gogh cut off his ear there, I never found Arles as pretty than the present after watching this film with the beautifully shot scenes.
The film also benefits from the cameos of Mads Mikkelsen as the priest, Mathieu Amalric (in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY) as Dr. Paul Gachet who Van Gogh painted, Emmanuelle Seigner as the Woman from Arles, Niels Arestrup as a fellow inmate and Vincent Perez as the director.
What is marvellous to watch is Van Gogh at work painting his masterpieces. These scenes look really authentic. The display of dozens of his work on screen is a bonus for those who love Van Gogh’s work.
AT ETERNITY’S GATE is undeniably a difficult watch due to its madness theme but the film is by no means not without its pleasures. Just don’t expect the normal Van Gogh biography.
BORDER (GRANS) (Sweden/Denmark 2018) ****
Directed by Ali Abbasi
The hit at Cannes, BORDER is likely the weirdest film to emerge in cinemas this year. And it is totally unpredictable even with a feel-good romantic element despite the ugliest looking characters in a film.
BORDER is a film about changelings. This is not apparent till the last third of the film, so how the film gets there is a good part of the story’s mystery, which will not be revealed in the film. A changeling is a creature found in folklore and folk religion. A changeling child is believed to be a fairy child that had been left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies, and is perceived as an ugly creature.
But the film is entitled BORDER, because the film’s protagonist is a border customs officer, and one very good at her job owing to a unique ability. Tina (Eva Melander) has a bestial-looking face, a scar above her tailbone. Her ability is sensing how people feel though smell. She is especially adept at detecting fear or unease (sex, hilt and shame), skills that make her an invaluable border guard. Nobody likes a border guard, especially when they get caught cheating customs by one, and especially more if the officer is as ugly as Tina. “Ugly bitch,” is what one caught curses under his breath for attempting to sneak though above the limit alcohol.
Yet Tina's latest customs stops are more troubling than the usual routine arrests. First, there’s the twitchy businessman carrying child pornography, whose crime so enrages Tina that she begins to take foolish risks when she’s brought in to help with the investigation.
But her life changes when she meets a suspicious Vore (Eero Milonoff), who shares physical traits with Tina (being ugly and sort of a look-alike), Vore wears a permanent cocksure smirk that suggests he knows things she does not, which the film reveals later on to be true.
A sample of the weirdness includes consumption of maggots, uncomfortable sex scenes and very odd mannerisms (facial twitching and grunting) of the characters.
The cinematography by Nadim Carlsen is stunning, especially the scenery around where Tina lives. The dark water of the pool, waterfalls and forest greenery are something right out of a fairy tale.
Excellent performances by both Milonoff and Melander complete the honours in the acting department.
The film contains some acute observations (not not necessarily a life lesson or message) on life. One is that like Tina, not matter how weird, she thought herself special as a child. Beautiful things can also happen to someone as unfortunate as Tina. Tina chooses good over evil. The film demonstrates that anyone including any human being or monster is capable of both. There should be no prejudices.
Though extremely weird, the story is based on a short story by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, Border conjures up memories of unsettling folk tales that tie humans to the natural world and its odder anomalies, a world that now seems distant yet creepily familiar.
BORDER won its director Abbashi the Best Director Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes. The film has also been winning awards in festivals around the world. The film is a must-see. I have seen it twice, though the film loses its surprise element the second time viewing.
THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES (USA 2018) ***
Directed by Clay Kaytis
Before dismissing this new Christmas family Netflix original as boring fare, one should give the film directed by the director of the ANGRY BIRDS animated feature a chance. THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES is actually surprisingly watchable though it rehashes many of producer Chris Columbus earlier films like HOME ALONE, GREMLINS and ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING.
Kate (Darby Camp) is a 10-year old who still believes in Santa. Her brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis) is having doubts. When they decide to cam-record Santa on Christmas eve, trouble begins when they sneak a ride on his sleigh resulting in lost toys and Santa arrested. It is up to the two to save Christmas.
The story is cliché ridden. The premise is that Christmas needs to be saved. The audience is led to believe that without the presents, good cheer will be lost resulting in unhappy angry people with lots more crime in the streets.
The script contains original ideas. As the three search for the missing reindeer, they meet strangers - all of whom Santa knows (whether good or bad) since he had delivered presents to everyone when they were children in the past. This idea provides ample opportunity for jokes and comedic set-ups.
For a silly movie based on a silly premise, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES is quite endearing and funny, making it light and enjoyable entertainment for the undemanding moviegoer. Take the scene where the two ids first meet Santa Clause (played amicably by Kurt Russell). “Alive and In Person one night only!” He jokes. “Disappointed. Yes, I am not what you expected? I get fat after all the cookies I eat.” hen asked to go; “Ho-Ho-Ho.” His reply: “I don’t do that. That is a myth. Fake News!” The notion is the that the filmmakers know wheat this film is, never aim that high and take it for what it is. This little film has more laughs than the dismal recent DR. SEUSS’ THE GRINCH based on the Christmas classic that audiences expect much more from.
The main character is Kate played by a young Darby Camp. Camp is sufficiently endearing and cute, delivering her one-liners like a pro. When Santa loses his magic hat, he questions Kate: “How do you think I am able to leap from one rooftop to another? “Pilates?” replies Kate who decides then to help Santa so that she can remove herself from his naughty list for life. Her brother Teddy plays second fiddle to her.
The film also contains an animated segment featuring the elves in Santa’s workshop and a musical number performed in a jail cell.
What is a Christmas film without a Christmas message? The corny message delivered by Kurt Russell’s Santa feels at least, sincere. The best thing about this film is actually Santa i.e. Kurt Russell. Whether crooning the song “Santa is Back in Town” in shades or trying to convince everyone that he is the real thing, this is Russell’s movie.
CREED II (USA 2018) **
Directed by Steven Caple Jr.
How time flies. Before one knows it, CREED II, the sequel to 2015 CREED is now the 8th instalment of the ROCKIE franchise. All of the films feature Sylvester Stallone who also co-wrote CREED II. CREED II is not as good as CREED I primarily because ideas are running out - after all it is the 8th film.
The film follows Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) training in order to defeat the son of Ivan Drago, the powerful athlete who killed his father in the ring more than 33 years prior.
It was in 1985 that the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) killed former heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed during an exhibition fight in Las Vegas. That same year, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) defeated Ivan Drago in a boxing match on Christmas Day in the Soviet Union. Thirty-three years later, Apollo Creed's son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), with Rocky's training and guidance, seeks to avenge his father's death by fighting Drago's son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) while at the same time, Ivan hopes to reclaim his honour through Viktor. Stallone plays again Robert "Rocky" Balboa, Sr., the two-time world heavyweight champion and Apollo's rival-turned-friend who becomes Adonis' trainer and mentor. He still owns and operates his Italian restaurant in Philadelphia.
The script surprisingly is sympathetic towards the villain Viktor and his over-unforgiving father Ivan. During a few points in the film, one actually wishes Viktor would win the fight. Adonis is comes across (unintentionally) as a spoilt celebrity. Viktor is shown in the script to be a victim of family circumstances that he cannot escape from. A similar situation was tapped in Steve McQueen’s WIDOWS where the Colin Farrell character is tied in to his family’s reputation. Both wish to be out. This is the only positive difference in the ROCKY films. On the negative, Stallone ups the melodrama several notches. Adonis’s girlfriend Bianca Thompson (Tessa Thompson) is suffering from hearing loss. Rocky Balboa has not seen his son and granddaughter for years and finally gets to reconcile (sob-sob!) at the end of the film. Rocky visits his late wife Adrian’s grave and speaks to her. Adonis visits his late father’s grave and talks to him too. It is this melodrama that kills the movie.
A neat touch is the appearance at the final fight of Viktor’s mother (played with icy coolness by Brigitte Nielsen) who had deserted the family.
It is clear that Viktor is the bigger and better fighter, so it is a hard task to make Adonis a credible foe that can beat Viktor. The script devotes the usually hard training sessions (devised by Rocky that Adonis undergoes - like pulling trucks, turning tires and running in the ht desert).
The climax of the film is understandably the heavyweight championship bout between Adonis and Viktor, executed with all its expected gore and brutal violence. The fight begins during the last 15 minutes of the movie.
All that can be done with CREED II is to use the recycled formula of what worked in the past. The result is a lacklustre over melodramatic film with a few good fighting sequences.
THE DRAWER BOY (Canada 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Arturo Pérez Torres and Aviva Armour-Ostroff
Arturo Pérez Torres and Aviva Armour-Ostroff’s first narrative feature THE DRAWER BOY is based on Michael Healey’s Governor General’s Literary Award winning play. The darer refers to one who draws. Expectations are high on the esteemed play’s adaptation. Thankfully, the film lives up to the expectations.
The play, set in the 70’s, is a three handler with a stranger - an actor from Toronto who suddenly shows up at a farmhouse door in Huron county, Ontario, and entering the then comfortable lives of two friends who served in world War II now working on a small farm in Canada.
The actor is Miles who wishes to observe the farmers in order to write a play about farmers. Miles asks for a place to stay and an opportunity to watch them do what they do.
The next day starts of disastrously. In an attempt to start learning their ways, Miles tries to use Morgan’s tractor and ends up injuring Morgan almost immediately. Miles suggests that maybe he should just watch from now on, but Morgan insists that he isn’t getting a place to stay unless he helps out. Upon getting to know the farmers further, he learns that the man who originally answered the door was Angus, who has short-term memory loss due to an injury from the war.
The film and the play has an odd premise of character interaction but it is this oddity that enables the film to fascinate the audience. Directors Torres and Armour-Ostroff realizes the fact and keeps the story always one step ahead of the audience. For example, the audience only learns of Angus memory loss after the effects of the memory loss are shown. The war stories are also revealed slowly, one bit at a time. The uncovering of the truth and the story carries the mystery of the film that is quite effective.
The directors take the film out into the open so that it does not feel like a play. The three characters talk a lot which is the only point that reminds one that the film is based on a play. The brilliant performances also remind one of the film’s roots as a good play which is almost sure to contain riveting performances. All the actors Jakob Ehman playing Toronto actor, Miles, Ricahrd Clark playing Morgan and Stuart Hughes as Angus are to be commended most notably the latter. Hughes has the ability to move an audience to tears by changing the pitch of his voice. Otherwise, there are shots of cows, the Huron landscape, the farms, the harvest fields, the interior and exterior of the farm house that lead the audience to forget a stage bound play.
A post-screening Q&A is added on Saturday, November 24th at the 7:00PM screening. In attendance will be Director-Producer Arturo Pérez Torres and Co-Director-Producer Aviva Armour-Ostro
THE DRAWER marks one of this year’s best Canadian films this year. Among the many awards won is the Best Feature at Canadian Film Fest 2018.
THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION (USA 2018) ***
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Buster Keaton is not someone as well known Charlie Chaplin. But this is by no means to say that Buster Keaton is no less a genius. Myself, I first saw Buster Keaton in a supporting role in Richard Lester’s 1966’s comedy A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. The doc, THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION includes a footage of Keaton in the film.
The film is a celebration of actor/comedian/filmmaker and genius Buster Keaton. Buster, in those days meant ‘Fall’ and Buster Keaton grew famous in funny falls from the young age touring the country with his travelling show parents. The film is an examination of the artist from literally a baby to adult, which writer/director Peter Bogdanovich undertakes.
Who better than Peter Bogdanovich whose most famous film WHAT’S UP DOC? starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal was likely influenced by the slapstick antics of Buster Keaton. Bogdanovich also loves black and white oldies and made the excellent THE LAST PICTUR SHOW and PAPER MOON, all black and white period pics.
Unless one is familiar with Keaton’s films or grew up in those times (i.e. if you are over 70), there is much to enjoy in the old footage assembled by Bogdanovich. From Keaton’s early pictures like his two reelers to his shorts and feature films, expect plenty of laughs.
Bogdanovich also ties in the passion of film into the doc. Not only is Keaton’s talent for comedy shown but his genius in filmmaking.
The early comedic sequences are the ones with Fatty Arbuckle and Keaton. Arbuckle was Keaton’s mentor and introduced him to film, which aided Keaton’s fame. The sequence of the two having dinner is not only funny but a genius in its set up. Other simple sequences featuring these two are equally priceless.
Every genius has his downfall or at least bad times in life. Arbuckle got entrapped with a murder charge and scandal. For Keaton, it was his drinking and contract with MGM. The film was clear to point out that MGM destroyed a few classic comedians of the time including The Marx Brothers, Stan and Ollie and Abbott and Castello with churning out their worst films. Keaton’s drinking led to his divorce and firing at MGM, fed up with his drinking. The height of his depression led him to be committed to an army hospital taken away in a straight jacket. ‘Straight Jacket required to move Buster Keaton to hospital, “ read the newspaper headlines.
It becomes apparent half way through the film that material is running out. Bogdanovich inserts old Keaton film footage as fillers. At least they are funny and satisfying in filling the time.
The film ends with Keaton’s death in 1966 and with the words of Dick Van Dyke who delivered the eulogy at the funeral service.
THE GREAT BUSTER is a celebration of not only Keaton but the artists of the silent era. The film’s best segment is the clip from Charles Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT where Chaplin and Keaton performed together for the first and only time.
THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING (USA 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Nathaniel Kahn
Basquiat paintings regularly fetch tens of millions of dollars, and the recent sale of a little-known Da Vinci topped $450 million—but what forces are driving the white-hot art market? Who assigns and who pays these astronomical sums? What currency adequately measures art’s value? The captivating new documentary THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING takes the audience on a thrilling art ride - into a rarefied labyrinth of galleries, studios, and auction houses to wrestle with these questions and explore what society loses and gains when art becomes a rich person’s commodity.
As the film opens, the voiceover announces as an art auction takes place that art and money go hand in hand and that good art should be expensive. Only if something has great value will it be protected. The scene ends with a Basquiat painting sold at $8 million.
One of the pleasures derived from the film is the wide assortment of art on display. This pleasure does not come from paintings alone, but from sculptures and other artifacts. One of the most famous is the Jeff Koons rabbit , a stainless steel bunny that on staring in, reveals a grand display of other art pieces.
The film also contains interviews from two prominent groups - the artists (including art celebrity darlings like Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons) and the art collectors. Gallery owners and art dealers form the other interviewees outside these two groups. This results in is one of the most insightful documentaries about art. This is not to mention the dozens of priceless paintings on display on the screen, together with an estimate of their worth.
Director Nathaniel Kahn (Academy Award nominee for his 2 documentaries, MY ARCHITECT and TWO HANDS) always keeps the film on track - the price and value of art. The film considers all kinds of justifications for the price rage on paintings (including the economic forces of supply and demand) always reminding the audience the notion that a work can only really be considered important if it has cost a small fortune. Kahn is also clear to emphasize the fact that a painter is usually very poor with only 99.99% making it rich. An artist paints because he or she wants to.
A collector wisely compares the price of art like the price of stock in the stock market. One has to be constantly keeping track on things, with price fluctuations rising as much as the crazy stock market.
Included is a valid debate on the subject of whether a famous painting be kept in a museum or private home. The gallery owner obviously says that it should not be in a dark place like a museum but then at least all people rich or poor would have equal access to see them. At the end of the film, a wealthy and successful collector Stefan Edlis donates two rare paintings to a museum, the reason he gives is that he has no grandsons.
THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING is a pleasure for those interested and familiar with the art world. But it also proves an educational and informative source of information for the others.
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (USA 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
One can observe more and more formulaic flow in the Disney movies. Even for their December Christmas animated features, one year features a male and the next a female young protagonist. This year sees a young female (as it is the lady's turn) but she dabbles in stuff that more males would be interested in - car racing. Her character, Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman, who recently got her Hollywood Walk of Fame) is however, in a video game and her best friend is WRECK-IT RALPH (John. C. Reilly), who in this film breaks the internet. Her dream is to win races. The film questions the importance of friendship against chasing ones dreams. No prizes for guessing the answer!
The film begins with something quite different. While a lot of scripts begin with some dream that needs to be reached from poverty, this story begins with Ralph and Vanellope having the perfect life. They enjoy what there doing, are best friends and want nothing to change. The film questions this status quo.
The setting is six years after the events of the first film (also in real time as the last RALPH movie was 2012). The steering wheel controller on the Sugar Rush arcade game console breaks, forcing Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) to unplug the machine. Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz evacuate all of the Sugar Rush residents to other games before it is shut down, placing the racers in the care of Fix-It Felix Jr. and Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun. Ralph and Vanellope then use the arcade's new connection to the Internet to go looking for a replacement steering wheel.
The script uses fully all the quirks that can be found in the internet. Those who are unfamiliar (maybe none in today’s audiences) will find a few things strange but the filmmakers make the solid assumption that everyone is aware of the concept of viruses, search engines and social platforms. A few new internet characters like eBoy and Mr. Knowsmore ( the man who knows everything in charge of a search engine) sprite up the list of characters.
The film also contains a few totally entertaining imaginative numbers like the tap dancing on the car hoods and the animated Busby Berkeley sequences. The film’s funniest segment is Ralph’s visit to the virus Master, Double Dan (Alfred Molina in his British accent) and told never to look at his little brother, which of course, he cannot help but do, while making comments about him all the while.
John C. Reilly has an unmistakable voice and one can only expect him to do his goofy, sympathetic tones, especially in the scenes where he is pleading for Vanellope’s friendship.
Two lively songs ‘Zero’ and ‘Place Called Slaughter Race’ enliven he festivities. (There are also a few songs in the other December Disney animated features).
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET is no FROZEN, TOY STORY or COCO. But it does have its moments and its inventiveness. The most inventive of these involve the coming together at the film’s end of all the past animated movie characters (the Disney Princess lineup with The Muppets, Star Wars, Disney Animation, Marvel Comics, and Pixar characters)
THE WILD PEAR TREE (Ahlat Ağacı)(Turkey/France/Germany/Bulgaria/Macedonia/Bosnia and Herzegovia/Sweden 2018) ****
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylon
The third film set in Anatolia, Turkey after ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA and WINTER SLEEP, THE WILD PEAR TREE is another engrossing and rewarding drama to watch despite its 3-hour running time. As in all of Ceylon’s films, the drama deals with an individual as he contemplates existence in a rural setting. Because Ceylon is able to connect his protagonist with his audience through film, his films are tremendously satisfying, this film having the best rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a film screened at Cannes this year. THE WILD PEAR TREE is also Turkey’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2018.
The film opens with the return after graduation from college of one young Siman (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) to his family farm. Ceylon is clear to show that he is one in love with Turkey as the camera proudly pans the landscape of the rural countryside and the beauty of the port. Sinan is passionate about literature and has always wanted to be a writer. Returning to the village where he was born, he pours heart and soul into scraping together the money he needs to be published, but his father, Idris’s (Murat Cecir) debts catch up with him.
The segment with Siman working unsuccessfully to dig a well on the farm so that the father could till the land is one that demonstrates both the problems a family faces while working together as well as the harshness of farming as an occupation. Siman’s goals and ambition in life are put into question when he later meets a young girl. He confesses that the villagers are simple peasants and she remarks that he would think little of her as she has aims of staying in the village and getting married, settling down.
One wonders if the segment in which the idealistic Siman looks into getting his work published is autobiographical. Director Ceylon probably faced the same resistance when he wanted his films made. It is a question of the idealistic vs the realistic. Siman’s possible publisher is reluctant having seen many similar cases before, one of which includes himself wanting to write as well. This part ends the second half of the film. It is a bit slow and would likely be more interesting to artists having to go throughout the same ordeals as Siman in the story.
Ceylon has a religious debate that goes for a while at the 2/3 mark of the film. The debate that is also applicable to other religions, about changes in the Koran might either come across as too heavy, too distant or un-relatable. Even the imam confesses at the end of the debate: “There is no end to this discussion.” But Ceylon allow the debate to go on and on with little conclusion.
THE WILD PEAR TREE, as in the other Ceylon films a heavy watch - a case of one having to work in order to reap the rewards.
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