- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
The two best films opening this week are MUSEO and HONEYLAND, both screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
Spider-Man: Far from Home
BARBARA RUDIN AND THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND (USA 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Chuck Smith
This new doc educates on underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin who rose to fame from her 1964 art-porn so-called masterpiece “Christmas on Earth”, made when she was only 18 years old. The film, showing segments (that are both shocking yet innovative) in the doc, shattered creative and sexist boundaries and shocked NYC's experimental film scene.
Barbara worked for a large part other ‘career’ with Jonas Mekas at the Filmmaker’s Coop. Barbara was instrumental in creating NYC's thriving underground film community and a rare female voice in a world of powerful men. A rebellious Zelig of the Sixties, she introduced Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan to the Kabbalah.
But beyond shaping the spirit of the Sixties, Barbara was seeking the deeper meaning of life. After retiring to a farm with Allen Ginsberg, she shocked everyone by becoming a Hasidic Jew.
For years, 94-year-old filmmaker Jonas Mekas has saved all of Barbara’s letters and cherished her memory. Working with Mekas’ footage and rare clips from the Andy Warhol archives, the film reveals inside the world and mind of Barbara Rubin; a woman who truly believed that film could change the world and then vanished into obscurity.
Like most biopics, the doc begin with the background and influences on the subject, traces the rise to fame, then some grave downfall and then hopefully, their redemption to a sort of normalcy in life. How interesting a biopic is usually is affected by how interesting the subject is. Biopics are often accompanied by interviews with the subject, if still living, their friends and family with archive footage. This doc allows an identical path.
The Barbara Rudin doc can be divided int two parts. The first charts her and her underground films and the second her lifestyle. The two blend into each other, but the underground filmmaking slowly disappears as Barbara gets weirder and weirder.
The film gets as weird as its character. Barbara’s most famous film was the art-porn CHRISTMAS ON EARTH. One fo the film’s segments has her open letter to Disney asking them to finance her movie, she claiming that she was affected by SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. The film also details the pure implausibility of what Barbara wants to have in the film which is a galactic cast of famous stars and artists including The Beatles, Marlon Brando, Herman’s Hermits and a host of others. Of course the film never got made.
The film’s most intriguing portion is the last this when Barbara begins to behave very erratically. This is when the audience sees how crazy this woman can be. At one point, she wanted to have children with Allen Ginsberg, who never wanted any. When rejected, she became more isolated, depressed and crazy. She finally showed up at an Orthodox Jewish orphanage and decided that that was her calling. She denounced everything that she accomplished, friends included to learn the ways of the Orthodox Jew.
By the end of the film, one can end up either admiring Barbara as a gifted, independent go-getter who influenced the underground art world greatly or some tiresome opinionated commandeering bitch. Whatever ones opinion on Barbara Rudin, one cannot deny that this woman was a force to be reckoned with.
The film has a limited release at the Royal Cinema. Originally slated for showings on Aug 4 and 5th, the latter screening has been cancelled (but will be re-scheduled) due to the long weekend holidays.
FREE TRIP TO EGYPT (Switzerland/Egypt/USA 2019) ***
Directed by Ingrid Serban
The doc FREE TRIP TO EGYPT has one of the most preposterous promises I can recall. A man travelling on a tram in Switzerland has a flash idea. He wants to do good. He wants to execute a random act of kindness as opposed to a random act of violence. He wants to bring random Americans to Egypt where they can talk and iron out differences. Bring peace. Bring kindness. Do good. When the film starts, Tarek Mounib (who co-produced the film) admits, laughing that it is a naive but good idea. What transpires in this doc is not only surprising, but occasionally eye-opening while showing a slice of America as well as the world.
Tarek Mounib, a Canadian-Egyptian entrepreneur living in Switzerland, is troubled by a world that seems ever more divided and polarized. In response to increasing levels of anger and hatred towards “the other” on American social and broadcast media, he resolves to reach out to the very people who fear his culture, with an intriguing idea.
With the aim of trying to build mutual understanding, Tarek travels across the United States beginning with Trump’s south in order to find Americans who feel threatened and offer them a Free Trip to Egypt. “Make America great again.” Trump’s popular slogan is heard all across the south. The Americans Tarek questions on film if they would take a free trip to Egypt to discuss peace and kindness, the answer in almost every case is a ‘no’. The Americans want outsiders out and America to be left alone. This is the American belt that supports Trump. The film is surprisingly pro-Trump though.
When Tarek first appears interviewed in the doc, he laughs and tells of his goals. He initially comes across as quite the naive jerk but as the film progresses his earnestness and diligence grows on you. Like him, what appears to be a silly non-sensical film ends up not only quite endearing but entertaining and insightful.
The film moves into the land of Egypt where the selected earn and experience their trip. What is missing is the Tarek’s plan for the winners of the free trip. As the film progresses, it seems that he has prepared the Americans to visit different Egyptians in their homes. They then share their experiences on screen. These are often nothing short of remarkable. The affection that radiates from the Muslims is undeniable. The film is not devoid of humour. I laughed my head off at one of the remarks an Egyptian mentions of Trump. I like Trump, he says, I do not like Hillary. The remark will not be mentioned in this review but it is truly one of the funniest jokes in a movie this year.
FREE TRIP TO EGYPT takes audiences on a journey, in which an unlikely group of travellers to the Middle East find themselves transformed by the power of human connection. The doc is a feel-good film and director Serban and Tarek often manipulates too much. Watching the docs like taking medicine that you know will do good for you. No surprises! One of the Americans, Terry passed away after the trip, and they use the fact to fact to further promote the effectiveness of the trip. But this is the kind of doc that would understandably appeal more to audiences than to critics who often have a more hardened ad critical view of the world.
FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (USA 2019) **
Directed by David Leitch
There is the recent debate in Hollywood whether they now make a product or a film. From this film’s title, what comes out is clearly a product. HOBBS & SHAW is a product from the FAST & THE FURIOUS franchise. And this is not a good thing.
From the makers of THE FAST AND FURIOUS films, HOBBS & SHAW is as much a film about fast cars than human beings. Any chance the script gets for an excuse for a vehicle chase, there comes one. If that is not enough, anytime there is anything to do with skyscrapers (the last FAST & FURIOUS film had an unbelievable stunt where a car drove from then top of one skyscraper to another), there is one.
When the film opens, a crew of MI6 agents attempt to retrieve a virus, Snowflake, which can be programmed to decimate millions of people, from terrorist organization Eteon. Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), an Eteon operative with advanced cybernetic implants that allow him to perform superhuman feats, arrives and kills all agents except for their leader, Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), who injects Snowflake into herself as a dormant carrier and escapes. Brixton frames Hattie as a traitor who killed her team and stole Snowflake, forcing her to go on the run.
Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) are both informed of the missing virus and are assigned to work together reluctantly to track it down. The trio locate Professor Andreiko (Eddie Marson) who brings a bit of life into the picture. The arguing duo save the world in a midst of fast and furious car chases.
The film takes quite a while to get its footing, and when it does, it does not stay focused. To give the director credit, Leitch (DEADPOOL 2) achieves quite the feat with his action set pieces. The one with Hobbs and Shaw racing down the skyscraper in pursuit of the kidnappers captures both the humour and excitement of the moment. The climatic chase and tugging of the helicopter and cars at the edge of the mountains are impressive and almost saves the movie. The villain Idris Elba is too invincible to excite any suspense in the fight scenes. The buddy or enmity between Hobbss and Shaw that is supposed to be key in the move is average at best, eliciting a few laughs at most - nothing that is not already done in other buddy cop movies.
Statham and Johnson deliver average performances - what audiences expect from them. The film contains quite a few surprise cameos, that will not be disclosed in the review. These are tactically spread out throughout the film.
The script goes at lengths to bring in more human element to the story. The introduction of Hobb’s 9-year old daughter does not do much to enhance the film but his extended family with his mother in Samoa, Hawaii stirs up the much needed boost in the story.
HOBBS & SHAW is so forgettable that it is doubtful many would remember who played Shaw and who played Hobbs in the movie. Apart from the excellent action set-pieces HOBBS & SHAW is a total bore!
HONEYLAND (Republic of Macedonia 2019) ****
Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov
HONEYLAND is the so-called for the film’s setting where honey is produced by wild bees. It has been touted and well believed that bees are necessary for the planet to survive lest exists. If bees are eradicated from the face of the earth, so will all living creatures. HONEYLAND bases its premise on the fact and works well to stress the importance of the living bees.
The film begins as a documentary as the camera moves to show the barren terrain of an unarmed country later revealed through the radio that it is Macedonia. HONEYLAND also marks the rare occurrence of a film that is made in that country that earns a commercial release in North America. The film is slated as a documentary but it rarely feels like one. As the camera spans the mountains, it closes in on an old woman, soon revealed to be the last female beehunter in Europe who must save the bees and return the natural balance in Honeyland. The film has the feel of fiction as it follows the life of the protagonist as she cares for her ailing mother among other chores. She removes rock from the mountain while on a narrow edge to reveal bees and honey. She also cultivates honey with the bees back close to her home while looking after her mother. The film goes on to show how she etches a living going to the town to sell her high quality honey to the vendors. She gets about 10 to 20 euros per jar. But trouble then begins in paradise. A family of nomadic beekeepers invade her land and threaten her livelihood. She initially bonds with the family till their acts threaten her bees. Her rule is to take half and leave half of the holy for the bees. This film is an exploration of an observational Indigenous visual narrative that deeply impacts our behaviour towards natural resources and the human condition.
Nazife Muratova plays herself as the beekeeper. It is so noticeable that she has bad teeth. For those unaware - I read this in the internet - that honey is really bad and much worse than sugar for ones teeth. Yet, she is pretty in her own way and has sufficient charisma as the leading lady in the doc.
As a documentary, the film contains a few unforgettable candid scenes. One is the birth of calf as a boy pulls the calf out of the mother. The other are the segments with the bees. The beekeepers, Nazife in particular often do not wear any protective gear and yet yet do not get stung.
A multi-award winner at the Sundance festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) and several special mentions, HONEYLAND was also selected at the last Hot Docs Film Festival. HONEYLAND opens this week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox together with MUSEO a new film from Mexico. Both these films are the best films opening this weekend. Take a trip to the Lightbox.
MUSEO (MUSEUM) (Argentina 2018) ****
Directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios
It seems that Mexico has surprised international cinema with two unforgettable films this past year - ROMA and now MUSEO.
What happens when two slackers who know nada about artifacts decide to steal and sell them? MUSEO tells the amazing entertaining and credible possibility of a ‘true’ story. The titles say at the film’s start: “This is a replica of an original (story).”
Two students and best friends plan on robbing the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and steal precious Mayan, Mixtec and Zapotec artefacts. There is hesitance at the start as one of them Ben (Leonardo Ortizgris) is looking after his frail grandfather and he does not wish to abandon him as it might be their last Christmas together. On the other hand, the more insistant and confident one, Juan (Gael Bernal Garcia) uses the Christmas gathering he is at as an excuse to to do the robbery as he has the perfect alibi of being at the Christmas dinner thus sneaking off soon after. The funniest thing about all this is that Juan has to borrow his dad’s car as the getaway vehicle.
While everyone celebrates Christmas, the two thieves manage to break inside the museum and steal hundred of pieces. They return home to see on the news how their deed is described as an attack on the entire nation and realize that there is no turning back.
There are many pleasures to be derived from director Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film. First and foremost besides his excellent camerawork, visuals and cinematography Damian Garcia, Ruizpalacios is able to surprise his audience with a host of other things. One of the film’s most ecstatic moments is when Juan and Ben have just gotten away with the stolen artifacts, driving off in the car. There is the look of elation on Juan’s face, as he cries “We did it.” Ben’s response is “I need to pee,” when he suddenly stops the car and takes the pee. The look of relief as he pees is just as gratifying as Juan’s previous look of elation.
The cinematography of the theft at night in the museum and the escape through the dark tunnels are magnificently shot. Ruizpalacios and his d.p. Garcia has a series of still photos flash on the screen really quickly one after the other, that evokes an effect like stop-motion animation. One part involves the light coming on and the pair leaving a hammer on the ground when the guards are making their rounds. This is suspense worthy of Hitchcock. There are also images that astound during the museum theft. For an image, it is usually the background that is still and the foreground (the subject or subjects) that moves. Director Ruizpalacios reverses the effect. As the thieves remain stationary the foreground, the background comprising of dust particle and little moths form the movement in the image.
The film covers several genres including family (dysfunctional) drama and suspense thriller. One common complaint is that films that cover more than one genre never settles on one. This is true for MUSEO as well but Ruizpalacios proves that his film can still work with multiple genres working side-by-side.
The story also plays like a buddy film as the thieves are two childhood friends. Yet the odd thing is that their personalities are as different as night and day.
MUSEU is a total delight for cineastes especially with its constant cinematic surprises around every corner. The best foreign film I have seen this this year. Opens at the Bell Lightbox.
TEL AVIV ON FIRE (Israel/Luxembourg 2018) ***
Directed by Sameh Zoabi
Is Tel Aviv really on fire? TEL AVIV ON FIRE is the name of the fictitious TV spy opera in which a Palestinian female infiltrates the Israeli military in order to kill the commander. The film begins with an act from the show being filmed. One can tell right away this is not the real thing but something filmed from the way the scene is carried out, with extra melodrama and cheesiness. But after the camera pulls back, what happens in the background with arguments among the actress, scriptwriter, director and producer is just as melodramatic.
The film then settles on the writer Salam. Salam is relatively good-looking, single and a bit of a troublemaker. Troublemakers make the best reluctant heroes.
Salam (Kais Nashef) is a Palestinian from East JeruSalam, who is a low-level production assistant on the soap opera "Tel Aviv on Fire" in Ramallah. Following a lie he tells Assi (Yaniv Biton), the commanding officer at the checkpoint he must pass through every day to get to work, Salam is suddenly promoted to be a screenwriter on the show. There is only one problem - Salam can't write screenplays. To avoid getting fired, Salam makes a deal with Assi, who helps him write in exchange for fine Palestinian hummus, and a promise that the series' plot will end with a wedding. However, the Palestinian investors want a different ending, and Salam finds himself in a bind.
Most Israeli and Palestinian films have their conflict as the subject and it is not surprising to see the reason. The conflict has been going on for ages, is still unresolved and makes a permanent dent in the lives of both peoples.
The script loves playing with life imitating art and art imitating art. What happens in he soap opera affects the characters in the film and vice versa. “Why do you like the show? It is anti-semitic,” Asks the commander to his wife to which the reply is “Not everything is political. It is romantic.” The romance of the soap opera eventually changes his hard-ass attitude towards the war.
There is one excellent written scene in which Assi asks the Israeli writer how to tell a couple is in love. “By hugs and kisses?” asked the Israeli. “No but by the way they listen to one another.” The film is about these two enemies coming together listening and writing the script for the TV soap opera together - a subtle message delivered by the film to the audience.
The film has won numerous awards including Venice Film Festival 2018's Best Film (Interfilm Award). It recently opened the Toronto Jewish Film Festival to a sold-out theatre. A definite crowd-pleaser - this ingenious rarely-seen comedic satire on the Arab-Israeli conflict, about a Palestinian soap opera writer who takes story ideas from an Israeli checkpoint commander.
The film at times tries too hard to be a crowd pleaser. It is not difficult to see the reason audiences love the picture. Audiences also love melodramatic soap operas and TEL AVIV ON FIRE while disguising itself as a satire, often plays like one.