This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 28, 2020)

22 Feb 2020






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.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfWhQXg4GrA



Directed by Albert Shin

Albert Shin is a Canadian writer/director who specializes in mystery/dramas.  DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL, his latest film leads more towards mystery than drama.

DISAPPEARANCE has a very impressive 15-minute opening involving the protagonist  Abby as a child.  With her family on holiday in a cabin by the lake, a huge fish is caught and she brings it and a bucket to fill in with water at a standpipe to keep the fish alive.  Director’s Shin’s shots of the situation and the camera angles of the fish depict something ominous on the horizon.  True enough, Abby sees a boy with one eye bandaged.  She then witnesses him being beaten and dumped into the trunk of a car.  Abby cannot forget the incident.  Neither can the audience in a film that never rises above this unforgeable executed segment.

The plot involves a single woman by the name of Abby (Tuppence Middleton).  When Abby (Middleton) returns home in Niagara on the Lake following the death of her mother, she intends to continue with The Rainbow Hotel that her mother worked on.  But the local developers wish the property be sold to open a Paintball facility.  Abby becomes obsessed with fragmented memories of the kidnapping she claims to have witnessed as a child.  The relationship between Abby and her younger sister (Hannah Gross) is tested as Abby’s obsession spirals out of control.

Abby goes all out to hunt down the culprits of the boy’s death/disappearance.  This makes the rest of them film - coupled with family drama.  The film sounds better than it actually turns out, as the mystery is revealed to the audience a bit too early.  Director Shin also paints a not-so-healthy picture of Abby as she apparently is hiding the fact that she could have been institutionalized before.  Thus, can the audience really believe her?  Some incidents are also a bit confusing though they are eventually cleared up.

According to press notes, Director Shin lived at a time on Niagara on the Lake with his mother, also running a motel.  He supposedly also witnessed a kidnapping.  The film could be Shin’s story.

The film industry has bit actors that shine above and beyond the material they are given to play.  One of these actors is Canadian actor Dan Hett.  In DISAPPEARANCE, Hett appears in only two scenes but his screen presence is immediately felt.  He plays the family’s lawyer/advisor, one who gives advice with a hint of sarcasm, the advice of which eventually gets ignored.  He plays a similar character as the subject’s father in the last film, David Sagan’s 2017 THE MEANING OF LIFE.  I could watch him forever and it would be good that this actor be given more recognition and  bigger roles to play.  Hett has also played in major films like THE SHAPE OF WATER and MRS. SOFFEL.

Director Shin eventually resolves his mystery in good time.  DISAPPEARANCE is not bad but not as good as his previous film IN HER PLACE.  But Shin’s affinity for quirky characters and peculiar details makes DISAPPEARANCE stand out from the typical mystery thriller.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi2422914841?playlistId=tt5919756&ref_=tt_ov_vi


EMMA. (UK 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Autumn de Wilde


The first thing to note about the new film adaptation of the novel EMMA by Jane Austen, the last novel published by her while living is that the period following the title indicates the film to be a period piece.  Three things the filmmakers wish the audience to know first and foremost about the Austen character, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is that she is handsome, clever and rich.   And at the age of 21, she has never been vexed in any way.  Other traits of Emma soon revealed are that she is spoilt and a meddler in the love affairs of her friends and family.

EMMA. is clearly a woman’s picture.  From the first image of a full nude male body - that of Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma’s obvious main love interest, it is clear that the film is made to satisfy the woman first and the man secondary.  The story plays like a Harley Quinn novel and it does not take a genius to figure out who will end up marrying whom.  It is still a fun comedy of manners, nevertheless that both sexes would enjoy.

The story of the perils of misconstrued romance takes place in the fictional village of Highbury and the surrounding estates of Hartfield, Randalls, and Donwell Abbey.  It involves Emma as she manipulates the relationships among individuals in a country village.  It is also a story that depicts the issues of marriage, sex, age, and social status.

When the film opens, Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) is delivering a bunch of freshly picked flowers for Miss Taylor, her former governess.  Emma is of such a privileged social status that she does not have to pick the flowers herself but instructs those under her employ to do the task under her instruction.  The reason is to celebrate Miss Taylor’s wedding to Mr Weston.  Having introduced them, Emma takes credit for their marriage and decides that she likes matchmaking. After she returns home to Hartfield with her father, Emma forges ahead with her new interest against the advice of her sister's brother-in-law, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), and tries to match her new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) to Mr Elton (Joh O’Connor), the local vicar. First, Emma must persuade Harriet to refuse the marriage proposal from Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a respectable, educated, and well-spoken young farmer, which Harriet does against her own wishes.  And so Emma carries on and on till her own relationships are affected.

The Jane Austen period adaptation  delivers in terms of what is expected in terms of dialogue (the word games are particularly fun), performances and logistics.  The costumes by Alexandra Byrne are nothing short of divine as are the sets, paintings and props. 

South African singer/songwriter Johnny Flynn who also plays Mr Knightley performs the song “Queen Bee”, the lyrics of which suits the character of Emma that is heard during the closing credits.  The catchy song is worth staying to the end for.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi2031927065?playlistId=tt9214832&ref_=tt_ov_vi


THE INVISIBLE MAN (USA/Australia 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Leah Whannell

THE INVISIBLE MAN is part of Universal’s shared cinematic universe consisting of classic movie monsters like The Mummy, Frankenstein and of course THE INVISIBLE MAN.  After the disastrous 2017 THE MUMMY with Tom Cruise, Universal re-thought their strategy.  The result is indeed positive with a fresh look at H.G. Wells’ THE INVISIBLE MAN given a feminine make-over - and for the better. 

THE INVISIBLE MAN is part of Universal/s change in plans from a serialized universe to films based on individualized story-telling,  The result is a new horror psychological thriller with Elisabeth Moss in the role of a traumatized hero.  And in the #MeToo environment.

The film opens with a risky but effective 15-minute suspense sequence in which a woman escapes the gorgeous cliff top mansion overlooking the sea of her sleeping lover.  She has drugged him, as revealed later on in the film, the audience not knowing this fact enhances the suspense.  She succeeds from the physical escape.  But does she escape him psychologically?  Apparently not.

Trapped in a violent, controlling relationship with a wealthy and brilliant scientist, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) escapes in the dead of night and disappears into hiding, aided by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), their childhood friend, James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid).  But when Cecilia is informed of her abusive ex commits suicide, who also leaves her a generous portion of his vast fortune, Cecilia suspects his death was a hoax.  The plot thickens. 

The main flaws of the film arise from the implausibility of the plot.  The irony of it all is that the twists and turns of the plot are necessary in the suspense mystery, so it is best that credibility be shown to the wind.  There was quite a bit of laughter from the audience at the promo screening I attended as the plot unfolded during the climax.  But director Whannell tries hard and it almost works.  Still it may be argued that the story will not come to proper closure if the mystery was not resolved to its satisfactory Hollywood ending.

The implausibilities include Cecilia’s first attack by the invisible man.  She is left alone in her friend’s house for no reason except for her to be attacked.  The friend does apologize that he should not have left her alone in the house later on in the film, but still that is no excuse.  During Cecilia’s escape while being attacked by the invisible man at the Security Treatment Centre, all the guards are too conveniently disposed off.  A few of them should have been more alert and effective.  Another plot point is how Cecilia or Adrian could have carried all these practical impossible tasks while invisible.  These would take a lot of luck, planning and coincidences.

Despite its flaws, it should be remembered that THE INVISIBLE MAN is sci-fi fiction suspense/horror.  In this respect, Whannell has pulled off a solid mystery thriller aided largely by Elisabeth Moss’ stunning performance.  Hopefully, Universal will pull similar personal retellings of the other horror classics in the same manner.


Directed by John Turturro

THE JESUS ROLLS is so called because the main character has the name of Jesus who is played by John Turturro who also directed the film.

Turturro plays Jesus Quintana, a character right out of the Coen Brothers’  1998 hit film THE BIG LEBOWSKI.  The characters appeared in the big bowling scene.  The film opens with Jesus just released on jail after a chat with the warden played by Christopher Walker in a cameo.  The audience learns a bit about Jesus as well as a bit of his background.  Outside the prison, he is picked up by his good friend, Petey (Bobby Cannavale).  Before long, they are on the road courtesy of their new stolen car.

Nothing makes much sense in the film, like the age of Jesus’ mother played by Sonia Braga.  Petey says to Jesus: “ She looks like the same age as you.”  No explanation is offered regarding this remark.

The film, which uses the BIG LEBOWSKI character is actually based on a book and the film by French auteur Bertrand Blier (GOING PLACES - LES VALSEUSES - 1974).  Turturro puts his heart and soul into the character but film-wise, it fails..  Turturro does not have the comic insight of the Coen Brothers and plays his comedy for broad, coarse laughs, often resorting to fouls language - fuck this and fuck that.  The French are particularly comfortable with sexual comedies as in Blier’s films like GOING PLACES and GET OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS which featured bi-sexual relationships.  In JESUS ROLLS, this comedy does not work - especially not in America.  At least Turturro realizes  this and plays the same ex encounters for laughs.

Turturro is fine in his performance as Jesus but taking the director shoes as well might be too much for him.  Bobby Cannavale tries very hard too as Petey, Jesus’ main pal but Cannavale is not given much to do but to complain about being shot in the ass.  French actress Audrey Tatou  I(Best town fro AMELIE) does not fare too well either, demeaning her star status portraying a down and out lowlife sexually deprived accomplice.  Her sex scenes (see image inset) with both men turn out terribly embarrassing and silly.

There is also another lady in the story, Susan Sarandon as Jean who is also involved with sex with the boys.  Another Coen Brothers regular, Tim Blake Nelson (THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS) has a small role as a doctor whom Jesus and Petey rob.

THE JESUS ROLLS rolls all over the place and never settles down in any one place.  One wonders of the purpose of the film and what Turturro had in mind when taking on this project - except maybe showing off his talent in too many a trade.  Funny only in a few parts, THE JESUS ROLLS proves that it takes more than just an interesting character to make an entire film. 

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi4133273369?playlistId=tt5974030&ref_=tt_ov_vi


SEBERG (UK/USA 2019) **
Directed by Benedict Andrews

SEBERG is the bio-pic inspired by (as stated in the opening credits) 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).

Director Andrews really means it when he uses the words ‘inspired by’.  SEBERG is less  a bio-pic about Jean Seberg than the evil the FBI performs in the line of duty.

After hitting star status, Seberg return to America only to meet Black Panther activist, Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on the same plane.  Fascinating by the work of the Black Panthers as well as being infatuated with Jamal, she starts an affair with him while donating massive funds for the Panther cause.  This signals a red flag for the FBI who has Jamal under surveillance.  The FBI decide to come down on the Seberg and her destruction is the basis of this film.

One problem of the film is that it never digs into the reason Seberg is so dedicated to the Black Panthers. Their meeting between Seberg and Jamal is shown in a confrontational scene between a flight stewardess and him) 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 Panthers 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 Jamal.  But the script does not know what to do with the Seberg character so that Stewart looks amiss in the role.

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 Jack Solomon’s (Jack O’Donnell), the sound expert that has the task of bringing down Seberg.  His sympathy for her brings him into conflict with his FBI superiors.

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), where 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 the that does not do its subject justice despite Stewart's and Mackie’s strong performances.



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