- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
Lots of excellent foreign language films now playing. There is the multiple Oscar Winner PARASITE if you have not already seen it. Also opening are CORPUS CHRISTI from Poland and BEANPOLE from Russia, bith highly recommended.
Hlighly Recommended are
1. Les Miserables
4. Portrait de le Jeune Fille en Feu
6. Corpus Christi
BEANPOLE (Russia 2019) ****
Directed by Kantemir Balagov
BEANPOLE is a harsh but excellent movie set during harsh conditions in Leningrad post war in 1945. Based on the 1985 book “The Unwomanly Price of War”, the film sees the struggle of two tenacious women, one a nurse, Iya and the other a soldier, Masha as they share an apartment.
In post-WWII Leningrad, two women, Iya and Masha (brilliant performances from newcomers Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina), intensely bonded after fighting side by side as anti-aircraft gunners, attempt to readjust to a haunted world. As the film begins, Iya, long and slender and towering over everyone-hence the film's title-works as a nurse in a shell-shocked hospital, presiding over traumatized soldiers.
As the story goes, Masha, infertile convinces Iya to bear a child for her, but with disastrous results. The film premiered at Cannes last year following screenings at TIFF. If there is a film about women in power over men, BEANPOLE is the one. Iya exhibits gay feelings towards Masha. The film has echoes of D.H. Lawrence’s novella “The Fox” where a man enters the two women farm though the results are different. Director Balagov paints a bleak look of poverty in Leningrad especially with the poor hospital conditions and the tended wounded soldiers trying to recuperate under those conditions.
The 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov won Un Certain Regard's Best Director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this richly burnished, occasionally harrowing rendering of the persistent scars of war. An accomplished piece of filmmaking though not always an easy watch at 140-minutes. The film was Russia’s Best International Feature entry for the Academy Awards.
THE CALL OF THE WILD (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Chris Sanders
Jack London’s 1903 novel CALL OFTHE WILD has been made into no less than 4 films in 1935, 1972, 1976 and 2009. A TV series in 2000 was also created on the subject. The question is whether audiences today need another adaptation? The answer is debatable but the 2020 version offers the effects of CGI and other new cinematic technologies. And it also stars Harrison Ford.
THE CALL OF THE WILD is directed by Chris Sanders, in his live-action directorial debut, written by Michael Green.
A domesticated St. Bernard/Scotch Collie dog named Buck is stolen from his Santa Clara, California home and sold to freight haulers in Yukon. Buck goes through different adventures with different owners. Crossing paths finally is with a man named John Thornton (Harrison Ford), the two embark on an adventure where Buck finds his true place in the world.
These are quite different stories and the script divides the film among each with roughly equal screen time. The first story with Buck in Judge Miller’s huge home in Santa Clara is the silliest, laying for laughs though not really working. The life of Buck gradually gets tougher and tougher. The huge piece of the drama in the London novel involving Buck holding his own against the other wild dogs is clearly missing in this film.
Set in Yukon around 1890s about the Klondike Gold Rush, the film offers stunning scenery of the wild outback of the Yukon. Yet, its should be noted that this film was not shot on location. Some of it was also shot on sets in Los Angeles and some exteriors in Santa Clarita, California. Still, cinematography is by Academy Award winner Janusz Kaminski (for SCHINDLER’S LIST). The film relies on heavy special effects work from MPC Montreal. Actor and stunt coordinator Terry Notary stood-in for the CGI creation of Buck, whose model was scanned after an adopted dog.
But more interesting than the Harrison Ford John Thornton character is the other owner of Buck, the black postal worker, Perrault played by French actor and comedian Omar Sy. Omar Sy is the Cesar Best Actor Winner for the 2011 comedy hit LES INTOUCHABLES.
But the film looks and feels authentic enough that many will not be able to tell the difference. It would be exciting to watch one fo the older film adaptations to see the difference. THE CALL OF THE WILD has the feel of a Disney animal film. There are scenes of cruelty, especially when Buck is beaten but Disney films always had some sense of cruelty, example BANBI’s mother dying.
To the more observant, the studio logo at the films start reads ‘20th Century Studios’ instead of ‘20th Century Fox’ marking THE CALL OF THE WILD to be the first film released under the new brand to reflect 20th Century Fox’s acquisition by Disney Studios.
The film comes with a lofty budget of $109 million and looks like it is going to be a big loss at the box-office.
CORPUS CHRISTI (Boze Cialo) (Poland/France 2019) ****
Directed by Jan Komasa
In a tough year for foreign films, CORPUS CHRISTI, the Polish entry for the Best International feature at this year’s Oscars made the short list and now stands as a nominee. It will be hard fight against the favourite PARASITE and underdog LES MISERABLES, but CORPUS CHRISTI has impressed critics everywhere it has been shown and is a very good film.
The film begins with a violent incident in which an inmate, assumed who have betrayed the others gets his due. His trousers are pulled down in the workshop and balls crushed in a drawer. The next scene shows the inmate who likely had orchestrated the previous incident preparing for a religious service. The camera pauses showing the gleam in his eyes as if emphasizing the irony and hypocrisy of the religious service. It is just then that the director surprises the audience with the priest’s speech. “If you don’t want to be here, you can go outside to play football. But remember this…Each of us is a priest for Christ.” These words are soon to echo true for the young protagonist, Daniel.
The question that arises in the film is why Daniel survives? The answer is shown that Daniel is born a survivor. Daniel uses his common sense and adapts to the situation at hand. He can can fool anyone as a priest offering solid advice, often fooling even himself in the process. In contrast, he can live the other worldly life, fornicating, snorting coke and indulging in drunkenness.
The film shows that there is some good in man despite outward appearances. Daniel, the juvie has been bad most of his life but after pretending the be a priest learns that life offers him a chance to do good. “When asked what penance should be given to her when a mother confuses to hitting her son for smoking cigarettes, “Father’ Daniel tells her her penance is to take the son for a bike tour. Daniel also conducts mass in a comical manner, director Tan not offending the Catholic religion but executing the scene in good taste. Daniel's sermon are also something else - even receiving an unanimous applause from the congregation.
Better still is the scene when Daniel who the youth still believes is a priest hangs out with them in civii’s. So what is life all about? It is the topic that they eventually discuss, which of course no one has an answer to. But it is a lively session, which opens ones eyes to life.
The message that there is good in man and that one good deed follows another is a good one. But CORPUS CHRISTI is not an entirely feel good film, and this what marks the film’s difference. It is grounded in reality. It is likely the reason the Polish film got nominated and made the short list for Best International Film at this Year’s Oscars.
THE LODGE (Canada/UK/USA 2019) ****
Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
A soon-to-be stepmom, Grace (Kiley Keough) is snowed in with her fiancé's two children Mia (Lia McHugh) and Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) at a remote holiday lodge. It is the perfect scenario for a high tension horror movie. Richard (Richard Armitage) is about to wed and his children resent their new step-mother. When the father has to go to the city for business and the three are forced to be together, an evil game begins to unravel resulting in strange and frightening events taking place.
The film contains a few scenes of ‘what could be’ or ‘what could not have happened’. At the lodge, Grace is having dinner with the family when blood starts dripping from her nose. The children look at her. She wipes the blood away. the children continue eating. Did the nose bleed really occur or was it an imagination?
Excellent additional drama is provided by the non-acceptance of the children of their father’s future bride.
Directors Fail and Franz use audience anticipation to elicit more suspense. One involves Grace being shown a gun and taught how to use it. This means that the an intruder might find the way into the cabin and Grace in need of the weapon’s use - especially when the dad has to go to the city leaving Grace with the kids. Or something else.
Sound and setting are demonstrated to be effective ingredients to create scares. The ticking of a grandfather clock, the mechanical noise (the sound of moving mechanical parts) of the generator in the soundtrack are used multiple times, the latter reaching to a screeching peak. Good use of the wintry snow and ice setting include a fall into the icy waters from thin ice and and lost dog, Brady outside in the snow.
The film pays nods to horror classics including Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, HEREDITARY (the doll house) and CABIN FEVER, appropriate for a film set in a lodge. There is a shower scene in THE LODGE and a surprise disposal of a key character akin to Janet Leigh’s murder in PSYCHO, but details will not be revealed in the review. But be prepared to jump out of your seat!
A big star of the film is the lodge itself. Directors Fail and Franz use various means such as sound (the creaking wooden floors, the ticking clock, the sounds of the generator), darkness (the corridors, attic and basement) and white (the outside snow storm) and religion to create scares.
A big turn in the plot arrives an hour and 10 minutes into the film - and a very neat one at that. It would be criminal to reveal the key plot point, but be forewarned of something totally unexpected. The mystery point throughout the film is whether there is supernatural element in the story. It is only during the last half hour that the audience can finally realize what is going on.
Directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz prove here that they understand the fundamentals of how to scare audiences while taking things a few steps further. The result is a solid mystery horror chiller that is one of the best so far this year.
ORDINARY LOVE (UK 2019) ***
Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn
ORDINARY LOVE navigates through the trials of a middle aged couple in Northern Ireland as they undergo the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The loving couple is Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Leslie Manville) who are first seen taking a long walk before settling in for the night. They bicker and joke, making small talk as loving coupes do. It is when Joan takes a shower that she notices a lump on her breast which Tom and their family physician insist is likely nothing but perhaps a cyst. A medical examination at the hospital reveals that Joan has breast cancer and the difficult journey begins.
The script which is written by Irish playwright Owen McCafferty based on his wife’s breast cancer takes its time to show all the steps involved in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. As Joan screams and cries at one point in the film: “This is my disease. I have to go through it, not you.” As Tom has to suffer as well, he gets terribly upset when Joan does not take her pills in all seriousness. They both end up losing it in one of the film’s key confrontation moments.
The film clearly shows all the stages both parties have to go through - the initial denial; the hospital waiting; the acceptance of the awful truth; the blame; the coping; the anger and finally the coping. The film need not end with Joan’s death or recovery for that is not the film’s purpose. The propose is to have audiences see and understand what a couple tackling a serious illness has to go through.
There are a few clear omissions in the script. There is little mention of Tom’s or Joan’s occupation. There is no mention of either’s family. They do not seem to have any friends in their lives either. Though these may distract the film from its main aim, the omissions would make the story more credible.
The film benefits from the excellent performances of its two leads Liam Neeson and Leslie Manville, particularly the latter. Manville is brave enough to show the ugliness of chemo, having her head shaved bald and even the part when she can pull clumps of hair from her scalp. Manville is an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress) nominee for her role in P.T. Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD.
For a film with a depressing theme, the music is quite lively. The beginning song by Billie Holiday “I’ve Got My Love to Keep me Working” is a good choice. There are a few good laugh-out loud humour as well.
What stands out in the film are the keen observations. At one point, Tom replaces the dead goldfish in the tank so that Joan will not notice it. They want their love to continue as if the illness never occurs - which is near to impossible. The best insight comes from Joan who confesses: “Going through the experiences did not change me.”
Despite certain flaws, ORDINARY LOVE accomplishes its aim which is to show what a couple with a serious illness have to go through. Clearly a marriage is for better or for worse.
SEBERG (USA 2019) **
Directed by Benedict Andrews
SEBERG is the bio-pic inspired by real events in the life of French New Wave icon Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) best known as the chic in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (BREATHLESS). In the late 1960s, Edgar J. Hoover’s FBI targeted her because of her political and romantic involvement with civil rights activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie).
One problem of the film is that it never digs into the reason Jean Seberg is so dedicated to the Black Panthers. Their meeting between Seberg and Jamal is shown in a confrontational scene in a plane - executed with little fanfare. The audience will not be moved. It is hinted that a reason of Seberg’s dedication to the Panterhs could be the drawn from the affair with Jamal. But Seberg comes across as a brainless floozy who has wealth and fame and not much intelligence and one who does not really know what to do with it.
Kristen Stewart has been an actress to be reckoned with ever since she first appeared in PANIC ROOM and the TWILIGHT films. In SEBERG, her thin body frame and short, blond hair suits the look of the actress she is playing. Anthony Mackie is also good in his role has Jamil.
But the script is unexciting, just relating one incident after another without any pace or variation in suspense or mystery. The script includes the husband and wife relationship of the main FBI agent John Solomon’s (Jack O’Donnell), the sound expert that does not appear to serve any purpose or cause in the bio-pic.
Many will go to see SEBERG because they know Jean Seberg the actress and want to see more of the actress than the FBI’s investigation of her activity. No such luck. A short scene shows her burnt doing the shooting of Otto Preminger’s JOAN OF ARC. Almost nothing in the film would remind audiences of Seberg’s hit film, Jean-Luck Godard’s A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (BREATHLESS), whee she played opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo.
SEBERG is not a badly executed film, but the biopic concentrates on the parts of the actress’s life less interested by the film’s target audience. The FBI investigation is hardly interesting at all and why spend time on FBI life in a film about SEBERG the actress/star?
SEBERG ends up a flat film despite Stewart's and Mackie’s strong performances.
STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN (USA 2018) ***
Directed by Matt Ratner
As the title STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN implies, the film tells the story of a stand-up comic falling down on his aspirations of becoming one. Ben Schwartz plays Scott, the lovable loser, who leaves L.A. after not making it in the stand-up business, to return to Long Island to stay with his parents. He meets again his sister, who is also living with the parents. At the local bar, he meets a drunken dermatologist, Marty (Billy Crystal). Marty comes with a lot of baggage, including two late spouses and a son who blames Marty for his mother’s (Marty’s first wife) suicide.
The script offers many situations ripe for typical stand-up routine jokes. One is moving back to the family and living with ones parents. Others include unemployment and the opportunity of silly jobs like the postal service. There are two funerals in the film, but the script refrains any off coloured humour on death.
A few jokes - bad ones perhaps executed in poor taste are left unedited in the film. My ex-wife when died did not like to be buried.” Reply: “I dig that.” “My other wife died of stomach cancer. It ate her up.”
A few messages on life are included for good measure - nothing life-changing, just keen observations. “The older one gets, the fewer friends one has.” “Regret is real - Happiness fades!”
In a film about the life of a standup comic, there will come the time for the segment when the protagonist does his standup comedy routine. This part comes right at the hour mark of the movie. Whether the routine is funny depends on the flow of the story but funny helps. Whether the routine works is left to the audience - no comments here! Only part of the routine is shown, indicating that the director Ratner is more interested in propelling the plot that indulging in his actors, as actor Schwartz is in real life, a stand up comic as well. Schwartz is a veteran of the Upright Citizen's Brigade comedy troupe who began making his way into the world of television by appearing on shows like Parks and Recreation and in sketches on CollegeHumor.com
Three time Golden Globe Nominee Billy Crystal (best known for THE PRINCESS BRIDE, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and CITY SLICKERS) nails his role as the mostly drunk dermatologist and Scott’s friend, Marty. Crystal, himself born in Longe Beach where the film is set, proves both his dramatic and comedic chops here, winning the audience instead of being annoying, as the role could have turned out in the hands of a not so experienced actor. Ben Schwartz holds his own comfortably aside Crystal.
STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN ends up a well intentioned small comedy that is sweet enough to charm audiences while elicits quite a few laugh-out loud laughs along the way. There is the bonus of a message about regret to boot.
TERRA WILLY: PLANETE INCONNUE (France 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Eric Tosti
Note that the film also known as ASTRO KID is also known by its French title ‘Terra Willy: planète inconnue’.
French animator Eric Tosti who has helmed other children’s classics like SPIKE (2008) and THE JUNGLE BUNCH (2017) returns with an imaginative boy’s space adventure, that takes nods from the famous TV series LOST IN SPACE.
The film begins on the spaceship of an explorer space family. The boy age-10, Will loves video games and has the nickname of Captain Arrowboard. When the spaceship is hit by an asteroid storm, the boy and his trusty robot is hurled in a pod into outer space, landing on an unknown planet. But there is more the meets the eye. Upon closer examination, TERRA WILLY is actually the coming-of-age story of 10-year old Will as he matures from a kid playing video games to one understanding survival, friendship, loneliness and other human values. “You are right, Buck. I cannot keep doing what I want,” says Will at a key point during the film.
At this point, the film could be an episode (out of the total 84) taken from the LOST IS SPACE series that aired on TV from 1965 - 1968. In LOST IN SPACE, the Robinson family (headed by actors Guy Williams and June Lockhart) travel through space with their son, also named Will played by child star Billy Mumy. The family often land on unknown planets where adventures begin. Will is also accompanied by a faithful robot. One of the key lines in the movie is the robot warning the boy: “Danger, Will Robinson…… Danger, Will Robinson!!” One would expect similar words coming out of Will’s robot as well.
Director/animator Tosti’s imagination is at its peak in TERRA WILLY. The unknown planet with unknown creatures and vegetation allow Tosti to use his entire palette of colours to feed his imagination. There are orange, blue heart-spotted like human companions like Flash similar to a dog (or even Toothless in the HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON films) but with two tails and 8 legs, pink butterflies, glow-flies and a myriad of colourful fruits that often have side effects when eaten, even after analyzed to be non-toxic by Buck, the robot.
The film might appear a bit too childish for the average adult but Tosti’s imagination more than makes up for it. There is new wonder around very corner and in an unknown planet, any kind of animation can pop up.
The film is made in two versions in the French and English versions, with different actors (French and English) doing the characterizations. Timothy Von Dorp and Edouard Baer voice Will and Buck in the French version while Landen Beattie and Jason Anthony do the English honours. The film also contains a couple of songs (‘Everlasting Holiday’ and ‘Flash and I’).
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