- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME opens Tuesday! MIDSOMMAR opens Wednesday. Two important African American films TONI MORRISON THE PIECES I AM and THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO debut this week.
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EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Director Joe Berlinger is no stranger to the serial killer genre nor even to the Ted Bundy killings. Ted Bundy is one of the most infamous American serial killers in history, being extremely charming and good-looking while committing unspeakable violent acts with the women he has killed. Berlinger has made the 1997 doc PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS and lately CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES. In his latest film, EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, the Ted Bundy story is told from a different perspective, from the point of view of one of the women charmed by him, who fell in love with him and visited him in prison while all the time believing in his innocence. This woman is Liz (Lily Collins) who is finally forced to let him go at the end of the film.
The words of them film’s title are the exact words of Judge Edward Coward (played with sarcastic relish by John Malkovich), himself charmed by the killer while sentencing the man right after the trial. Throughout the film, Berlinger never admits to Bundy’s guilt though there are a few instances (the evil sensed by a dog; his look while having sex; his look while being pushed beyond the limit) of a possibility. If one had not known the history that Bundy had admitted his guilt and has since been executed in the electric chair, the film would attest his innocence and how wrongful his arrest was. Such is the story-teeing ability of Berlinger.
The film unfolds like a love story. Bundy and Liz meet at a bar. It is love at first sight. He takes Liz on as a girlfriend and lover despite she being a single mother. When arrested, Bundy insists on his innocence. Liz believes in him and supports him all the way despite contrary advice given her by her best friend.
Berlinger wants to show that Bundy can charm both his women as well as the audience, Zac Efron playing Bundy does just that and a marvellous job. In fact Efron bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Ted Bundy.
The film’s lighter side has Bundy defending himself in court after firing his lawyer. He pokes fun at the American Justice System while also putting down the politics of Florida. These are the only parts that Berlinger glorifies Bundy as a kind of folk hero.
At the end of the film, Bundy still persists his innocence. Though the man was to confess to his 30 or so killings before his execution, nothing of this fact is mentioned anywhere in the film, not even at the end credits. The film should be seen in conjunction with CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER, Berlinger’s doc on Bundy to get a fuller picture of the story.
EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, a Netflix original movie as well as CONVERSATIONS are both currently streaming on Netflix.
FIRECRACKERS (Canada 2018) ***
Directed by Jasmine Mozzaffari
FIRECRACKERS, a low budget Canadian hit at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival is a hybrid of two films about North American female youth. One tells of the strong willed teen unafraid of no one as in Andrea Arnold’s excellent 2017 AMERICAN HUSTLE, and the other one concerning the psychological imprisonment of a small-town as in the recent other Canadian feature, Sebastien Pilote’s THE FIREFLIES ARE GONE (LA DISPARITION DES LUCIOLES). One thing about escaping small town genre movies is that escaping the small town does not solve the problem as many of these films imply.
FIRECRACKERS begin like firecrackers. The protagonist, Lou is being insulted by another girl resulting in a violent catfight, seen only in quick edits. Lou and Chantal (Michaela Kurimsky and Karena Evans) are best friends who have made big plans to ditch their grim little town for New York as soon as possible. They have earned enough cash to do it - after working as cleaners at a local motel. But towns like this — and particularly the men who inhabit them — don't look favourably on defiant young women who have better places to be. The night before their departure, Lou and Chantal go out partying and Chantal's ex-entanglement Kyle finds out about their plans. As his cousin later explains, "He gets territorial and shit, okay? It's in our blood." Lou and Chantal want to be free. But no matter how ferociously they stick up for themselves, winning independence means upending the social order and that always comes with serious risks. Is it more beneficial to fall back into line, even if the status quo comes with its own inherent menace? But once Kyle is out of the way, other obstacles appear. Lou loses the money as her mother takes it away to pay the damages on a car Lou destroyed.
The script contains a few neat surprises that goes against the predictability of films in this genre. Lou’s mum’s boyfriend, Johnny (David Kingston) is not the usual asshole but turns out to be a really sweet guy. Lou’s younger brother looks as if he is turning up gay, again the film being politically correct towards giving minorities a voice. It is also good to see males having intelligent roles in a female dominated movie.
‘There’s a lot of bad people in the world. You better get used to it.” Lou’s mum advises her in one of the film’s more sombre moments. In this instance, we see there the frequently harsh mother (who often shouts obscenities at her daughter) actually caring for her while Lou quietly acknowledging the advice as if understanding what her mother goes through. The later scene with the loaded rifle in the mouth affirms the fact that there truly are bad people in the world.
Director Mozaffari shot this spring female drama almost entirely with a key female crew. Her film reminds one of the great feminist dramas made by Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold and one can hardly wait for her next feature. There are images in FIRECRACKERS that remind one of Ramsays’s RATCATCHER and music use of Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY.
The film opened in March of this year and the VOD release is this week on July 5th.
LA DISPARITION DES LUCIOLES (THE FIREFLIES ARE GONE) (Canada 2018) ***
Directed by Sébastien Pilote
Warning: This review contains a spoiler in its plot point. The spoiler occurs int h second last paragraph of the review.
At the start of the film, a radio show host Paul (Francois Papineau) announces on the radio that due to some unknown mysterious reason that have puzzled scientists and everyone else, all the fireflies are disappeared. The fireflies are obviously a metaphor for something in the film which will be revealed in the second last paragraph of the review in italics. Spoiler Alert: Skip reading the second last paragraph italics but the spoiler is included as it is crucial in the film’s critique.
The film’s best segment occurs at the start at a dinner arranged when Leo shows up late, The uncomfortable dialogue that goes on around is brilliant - funny, informative and sarcastic. Leo (Karelle Tremblay) is clearly out to disrespect her mother (Marie-France Marcotte) while showing her disdain towards her step-father, Paul. It is Leo’s birthday but she leaves the dinner after excusing herself to the toilet. Later on, the mother gives her her birthday present telling Leo never to do what she did ever again, which she promises. The scene is multi-purposeful. Besides introducing the audience to all the primary characters, it also reveals the relation ship Leo, clearly the protagonist has with each of the present at the table. he dialogue is also sardonic if not witty, funny if not revealing. Unfortunately no other segment in the film comes matches this. But the confrontation scene between Leo and stepfather, Paul comes close.
The only character missing from the tables a local guitarist, Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant) who is much older than her. She takes guitar lessons from him and becomes a little infatuated with him. When her real father, (Luc Picard) shows up, she finds him not the hero she expected him to be.
It is the performance of the actors that save this otherwise predictable tale of Leo, s girl stuck in her small town. Newcomer Karelle Tremblay affects the audience’s sympathy without being the annoying teenager while older Quebec actors lend their support.
It does not take a genius to guess that the fireflies are a metaphor for Leo’s hope - or hope in general. As Leo finally gains enough courage to hop on a bus to leave the small town and start life anew, the fireflies suddenly re-appear around the town in the dark (as is unfortunately totally predictable, especially for one who have seen too many films) signifying the return of hope or that hope is no longer lost.
For all that the film is, the film still succeeds as a well executed and thought-of portrait of a teen stuck in a small town. At least Leo survives. In a similar film, Robert Mandel’s 1983 INDEPENDENCE DAY (not the Roland Emmerich’s disaster flick of the same title), Diane Weist’s character escaped her personal prison by lighting up a cigarette while filling up the house with gas in the film’s last scene.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Joe Talbot
Joe Talbot’s directorial debut begins impressively in fact so impressively that one critic said that watching the first few minutes of the film made him realize that he was watching a great film in the making. The first few minutes OF THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO are indeed magnifique, with fluid camera work, layered music and a wondrous cinematic look of a slice of San Francisco before the film settles on two protagonists, seen riding together on a skateboard.
Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) is in love with a Victorian house built by his grandfather, Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover) in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. When the house’s current occupants leave for good, Jimmie and his friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) attempt to repair and reclaim the place that Jimmie most considers home, despite its prohibitive price tag and place in a gentrified, rapidly changing neighbourhood. The film is apparently based on a true story, Joe Talbot’s directorial debut is a love letter to a disappearing side of San Francisco and a touching look at how communities are made — and kept alive — by the people who care for. Talbot and Fails wanted to make this fit when they were teenagers and theism the production their dream.
The film contains inspired observations of San Francisco. One has Fails sitting on a bus shelter having a conversation with a nude man while the troller car drives by with the passengers shouting at the nude man, who goes on as if he is totally clothed. Another has Fail’s group of black friends insulting him and each other, laughing and having a great time, yes, until the issues get personal. The trouble with all these segments is that they seem forced, despite capturing a true slice of the city and its citizens (which I take as true though I have only visited the city twice). Talbot is trying to impress rather than go to the root of the material. It is also difficult to root for the two non-law abiding protagonists who squat and just move into empty houses. Nothing is mentioned of what they do and where they get money for their living, a case of lay rather than careless writing. Talbot has a scene where a realtor tells Monty that is not true that Fail’s grandfather built the Victorian house, throwing the audience even more into disarray of why they are watching a film about two misfits, if they not be losers.
The film will definitely impress those that connect with Fail’s material. The film is at times preachy, over-ambitious and stagey. At other times, it can be sensitive, insightful and artistic.
The remix of the song “San Francisco (Be sure to wear Flowers in your Hair) sung my Mike Marshall is remarkably catchy. The song can be heard in full during the closing credits.
The film was produced by PLAN B Entertainment, the company founded by Brad Pitt, Jennifer Anniston and Brad Grey before Pitta and Anniston divorced. Three of Plan B’s pictures have won Oscars for Best Picture - MOONLIGHT, THE DEPARTED and 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Who knows? THE LAST BLACK MAN might be the dark horse at the next year’s Oscars, though the film appears to have more bark than bite. The film did already won the prestigious directing Prize at Sundance where the film premiered.
MIDSOMMAR (USA 2019) ****
Directed by Ari Aster
Writer/director Ari Aster’s follow up to the critically acclaimed and highly successful horror feature HEREDITARY is a sprawling 2 hour 20 minutes occasionally disorienting horror piece that at times forgets that it is a horror movie.
At the special pre-screening of MIDSOMMAR that was graced by the presence of director Aster and actor Jack Reyner, the director describes his film, and very accurately so, about a film on codependency. It is a break-up story, as the audience also learns that the director himself was undergoing one when he wrote the script.
At the Q & A, Aster, clearly jet lagged and understandably disoriented kept beating about the bush when asked direct questions, often taking a full 5 minutes on a straightforward question. This could be the reason his film stretched out to 140 minutes. But to Aster’s credit, what the film company A24 planned as a straightforward slasher film set among a Swede cult has turned into something more relevant, human and believable. Aster did a lot of research on European folklore and history culminating in what can be witnessed as a worthwhile effort. Though set in Sweden, the film was shot in Budapest, Hungary for financial reasons.
MIDSOMMAR ends up as an engaging folk horror film that follows a group of friends who travel to Sweden for a festival that only occurs once every 90 years. Christian (Jack Reyner) and Dani (Florence Pugh), a young American couple, are having trouble with their relationship. The story points out that is a dysfunctional one that should not go on. Dani is over possessive and Christian is not there for Dani when she needs him most, as when her parents and sister are killed from gas poisoning. She follows Christian and his friends to a commune in Sweden where the relationship is further put to the test. As the group stay on, weirder and weirder incidents take place that have to be seen to be believed. Aster does an excellent build up.
The film is well shot with colourful exteriors - large field in Hungary standing in for Sweden with bright coloured huts of the commune. The young actors Pugh and Reyner form good chemistry as the dysfunctional couple. There is an emotional scene where Dani is laid across Christian’s lap crying, bawling her eyes out at the death of her family. That image is reminiscent of he unforgettable image of the tortured couple in Alfred Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN. But the scene is dark and one cannot see Christian crying as a result of Dani crying. Actor Reyner during the Q & A confessed he cried as a result of Pugh’s emotional outburst.
Though the film is generally slow, it is even paced and is an absorbing watch. There has not been such a slow moving film where time actually flies through the films running time. Aster at the Q & A says that he has several scripts ready to be directed but none of them horror. His HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR are marginally horror films, so nothing much will be changed.
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (USA 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Jon Watts
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is the sequel to SPIDER-MAN:HOMECOMING with the events taking place after AVENGERS: ENDGAME. It would be helpful if one is aware of those events like the 5-year blip (where humans disappeared from the planet) and the death of Tony Stark aka IRONMAN.
The film begins with a scene in Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) high school where the students complain about the odd circumstances arising from the 5 year blip. Those that have disappeared and those who have not got a 5-year difference in their ages - a fact that is totally ignored in ENDGAME, which is really queer. Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has been Peter’s mentor since his death in ENDGAME, and Peter mourns the death of Stark in a comical Whitney Houston’s moment. Peter Parker wants a normal life at school and to be in love with one of the classmates, M.J. (Zendaya) As fate goes, the class is off on a field trip to Europe where Peter aims to declare his intentions to her at the top of the Eiffel Tower. No such luck as the Earth is under attack by the Elementals. But another superpower called Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) is saving the day. Meanwhile, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is actively trying to recruit Peter Parker aka Spider-man into the avengers.
For a superhero movie, this film has more plot which makes the film more interesting. It is also fun to watch as Peter is a teenager still susceptible to human foibles like romance and certain innocence. The film also functions as a coming-of-age drama complete with Peter Parker pining for his first girlfriend, while (the film) not forgetting it is still a super action-hero movie complete with CGI action sequences.
Impressive performances overall from the more serious Jackson and Gyllenhaal to the goofy Holland.
The film’s contains a few amusing subplots. “Happy” (Jon Favreau)is in love with Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) while Nick Fury has the running joke of trying to contact Peter while being ‘ghosted’. The film is all fun and action - the way an action super-hero flick should be - minus any dark side. Whenever a action heroes moves into the dark side, it is the end of that franchise (BATMAN v. SUPERMAN).
For purpose of entertainment, as little of the plot is revealed in this review. But stay right to the end of the closing credits. There are two more important segments, the last of which occurs right at the very, very end after the hundreds of animator CGI names have been listed. It is worth the 10-minute stay.
The film has an odd opening day on the Tuesday - probably for July the 4th which is the U.S. Independence Day. The studios are re-releasing AVENGERS: ENDGAME but SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is clearly the better choice.
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
This artful and intimate meditation on the legendary story- teller, TONI MORRISON examines her life, her works and the powerful themes she has confronted throughout her literary career.
For those unfamiliar with the literary world of Toni Morrison, Toni is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her novel Beloved and also the recipient of the the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 with four novels in Oprah’s Book Club. She is at present 88 years of age, and still as spritely as a young author, evident during her interviews captured on film. She has been described more accurately as a legendary storyteller whose books are written from the black perspective.
There cannot be enough praise for Toni Morrison. Morrison has accomplished monumental orgs in her lifetime. Besides her literary works, she also did the biography of Mohammad Ali. On camera, she does not blow her own horn. But the other interviewees on camera like Oprah Winfrey, Toni’s friends and author Fran Lebowitz, author/activist Angela Davis, poet Sonia Sanchez, long-time editor Robert Gottlieb are others singing her praises.
Toni’s life, career and achievements are actually available for a good read on Wikipedia and one can learn just as much reading Wikipedia as it traces Toni’s lifelong journey from child to the present and how her life influenced her works. But Greenfield-Saunders brings her life to the screen with lots of archival footage, such as grainy black and white film of black folk riding horse carriages in the old towns in America. The film also puts her work and black folk into perspective. It is revealed in voiceover that blacks were not allowed to be taught to read not even by the white folk. Toni, who grew up in Loraine, Ohio, went to school and eventually to college. She attended the historically black Howard University (where she faced segregation within the black community), to her stint as an editor at Random House (where she did ’70s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali). She was also a single mother with two sons, rising at 5:00 am to write.
The film is directed by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who met Morrison in 1981 when he did a cover shoot with her. For this film, he has Morrison looking directly into the camera, while he shoots the others in an “over the shoulder style.” As a director, he’s known for his “identity” documentaries such as The Black List (inspired by Morrison).
The best part of the doc is Toni’s books been described on film as well as the reactions of the books when first published. Mention is given of her works like Beloved. Another book “The Bluest Eye” is described in detail. This is the book she wrote every morning up at 5 am while bringing up her two children. Oprah interviewed, described how she got and called Toni on the telephone, ending up making a film of BELOVED directed by Jonathan Demme. There is no mention, however that the film was a box-office flop.
Though it is pointed out in the film that Toni has both the respect and readership worldwide of Mexicans and Asians, the film would be more directed towards Americans (both black and white). After all, the black American is half and an important part of American history.