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This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 25, 2020)

09 Sep 2020

Two films open this week starring 2-time Oscar nominnee Ricahrd Jenkns - KAJILLIONAIRE and THE LAST SHIFT.  Also, two awe-inspiring docs on what an individual can do to save the world also open - WE ARE MANY and PUSH.  8 new films reviewed.....

 

FILM REVIEWS:

 

THE ARTIST’S WIFE (USA 2018) ***

Directed by Tom Dobly


In the recent film HOPE GAP, the Bill Nighy character finally has had enough after more than a decade of marriage and decides to leave the wife played by Annette Bening.  The film shows the greater the pain that is suffered, the longer the marriage.  When Nighy finally tells his wife his decision, she displays denial of the situation.  But Nighy is firm in his decision.  The wife/husband roles are switched in THE ARTIST’S WIFE.  Again, this is a strained marriage especially when the husband, Richard (Bruce Dern) is, in the words of his wife, Claire (Lena Olin) a brilliant, create and crazy (He questions the class he teaches in University by beginning with degradation questions like “Why do we paint?” before getting personal insulting with the individuals in the class.) individual.

At the film’s start, Claire’s friend tells her that a divorce is when the two decide at the same time to separate.  She continues to say that she has never been so happy since the separation.

There is no surprise what the film is about.  As the title implies, the story centres on the artist’s wife.  Claire is much younger than Richard, the American famous painter.  The film centres on Claire’s own artistic ability to paint, which is dwarfed or rather put to a halt by her husband’s success.   

The film’s sub-plots involve Richard’s slow succumbing to Alzheimer’s, the relationship between Richard and Claire, Richard’s troubled relationship with his daughter, Claire’s need for fulfillment both sexually and artistically.    It is a slow and painful process to watch such a character in any film, less more depressing during this time of Covid-19 self-isolation or lockdown, depending where one is.  Still, Claire manages, while Dobly’s script also does not neglect Claire’s flaws and vulnerability.

The film’s benefits from Swede actress Lena Olin in the title role of the long-suffering wife.  Olin has just turned 65 with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY but it is Philip Kaufman’s 1988 THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING that shot her to fame.  She is still incredibly attractive with a model’s body at her age.  This is Olin’s film for sure, aided aptly in the acting department by veteran, twice Oscar nominee Bruce Dern (NEBRASKA and COMING HOME).

For a film that deals with the demise of old age, THE ARTIST’S WIFE dispenses with nostalgia and false comfort.  It rises above above films that have old age as its theme, despite it being a difficult watch.

The paintings on display in the film are from no fewer than half a dozen different painters.  They look convincing enough to fool the audience to the fact that these might be masterpieces.

THE ARTIST’S WIFE was supposed to be theatrically released on April the 3rd, but the release date has not been unset due to the Convid-19 Pandemic.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wh1DD0b7Wk

 

KAJILLIONAIRE (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Miranda July

From writer/director Miranda July comes comes what the press notes describes as a moving and wildly original comedy.  The theme involves a family of not so successful con-artists made up of parents Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) and their awkward daughter, named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood).  Why she is called that is explained in the film.  The parents have spent 26 years training their only daughter, to swindle, scam, and steal at every opportunity.  Actually she is most of the time, forced to do all the dirty work.  During a desperate, hastily conceived heist, they charm a stranger (Gina Rodriguez) into joining their next scam, but things, as expected, do not go as planned.  Not only does this Puerto Rican stranger change things but brings Old Dolio to her senses.

Unlike other con artist films, like Peter Bogdanovich’s PAPER MOON, the scams here are not so clever.  Neither is this family.  The family are so desperate that they steal bits and pieces at very opportunity. 

Director July goes all out to ensure her characters are shown to be eccentric crazy - a little too much and a bit too obvious in her attempt.  This is most noticeable after the scene in the dark toilet after a tremor when Old Dolio believes she had been dead.  When the tremor stops and she comes out of the toilet, she freaks everyone out with her surprise happiness after what she deems as a  near death experience.  “I would buy everything in the store just once and then buy again the things I like,’” she tells the puzzled gas convenience store cashier.  Another example of July trying too hard is making the character of the family’s landlord a man who has problems controlling of his emotions.

Evan Rachel Wood’s nuances, like her odd mannerisms to signify her dysfunction ability  from society is annoying and really does not do much for her character.  Worse still since she is the main protagonist and the audience has to watch her most of the time.  Of all the actors, Oscar nominee (THE SHAPE OF WATER) Richard Jenkins fares best.  He is given the script’s funniest lines, and spurts them out hilariously, giving the film’s funniest and best moments.  He is as funny here as in the Coen Brothers’  BURN AFTER READING.  Winger is too serious in this comedy.

The climax is a bit too calculated with the playing of the Bobby Vinton’s song “I’m So Lonely”, the lyrics of which describe both how Old Dolio feels and the situation at hand.

As a  coming-of-age themed movie or as a comedy, the film hardly succeeds in either.  It does not help with the sudden tacked on ending that leaves things open ended.   The result is a film that is as odd with itself as with its the weird characters.  Not a total failure though, with the occasional  surprises and funny parts, credit to director July for trying hard with something that is at least quite original.

Universal Pictures Canada will release KAJILLIONAIRE in theatres on September 25, 2020

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiMPCevu8Wk

 

THE LAST SHIFT (USA 2020) ***

Directed by Andrew Cohn

THE LAST SHIFT is a comedy drama about opposites.  The two protagonists are complete opposite in character and in their outlooks on life.  Stanley (twice Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins) is a follower the rules, a live by the book employee.  He has worked all his life at Oscar’s chicken and fish and has made his job his personal pride and joy.  The other protagonist is a young father, just out of jail, Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie) who has to do the job at Oscar’s as part of his parole requirements.  Jevon hates the job and thinks the job is a joke.  He has no respect for his work and for  Stanley who is supposed to train him.  Jevon tells Stanley that he has spent his whole life being a trained monkey.  In response, Stanley thinks Jevon is not a right fit for the job.  Other opposites include the shift being Stanley’s last and Jevon’s first.  Jevon is black and Stanley is white.  The list goes on.

So inevitably, there will be a scene of confrontation, so the audience has some fireworks to look forward to.  Thankfully, director Cohn who also penned the script and is one of the executively producers, tones down the shouting and makes the confrontation about black lives.  In their town, a black kid, Ricky Paul was murdered and they both share different views on the tragedy.

THE LAST SHIFT is Andrew Cohn’s first narrative directorial debut.  Cohn is a script writer and he has made verite styled documentaries.  He must be pretty good and respected for his work to get director Alexander Payne (ELECTION, DOWNSIZING) to produce this film.

As far as the two characters go, Stanley is the more interesting one.  For one, he is the kinder human being.  He is quitting his job doing the last shift as he is going to leave town to look after his mother in Florida, by taking her out of the retirement home.  Stanley is a sort of loser, working his whole life in a fast food place, not to mention the graveyard shift.  He is in his old age and has not achieved anything.  Even the town he is living in, Albion is described at the start of the film to be a shit hole.

Unfortunately the second character of the shit disturber is a cliched ridden stereotype.  The black youngster is a gifted writer.  He has a son who he seldom has seen being in jail, for a reason the script never mentions.  His girlfriend has given up her law studies to look after their son.

The film takes a different twist in the second half - whee the story becomes incident driven instead of character given.  Money is stolen from the safe at Oscar’s.

THE LAST SHIFT is an entertaining drama on solid human issues with some good humour written in and is worth watching.

THE LAST SHIFT had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2020. It is scheduled to be released in theatres on September 25, 2020.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPis-FiBLS0

 

PUBLIC TRUST (USA 2020) ***1/2

Directed by David Garrett Byars

PUBLIC TRUST is a documentary about the fight for America’s public lands.  And it is an ugly one.

PUBLIC TRUST begins slowly and surely like a tortoise entering a race.  The name Robert Redford is flashed on the screen as one of the film’s executive producers so one can imagine this to be a film that matters.   The issue at stake is the ownership of public lands.  During the present, Americans still share something in common: 640 million acres of

public land.  Held in trust by the federal government for all citizens of the United States, these places are a stronghold against climate change, sacred to native indigenous people, home to wildlife and intrinsic to the American national identity.  But today, despite support from voters across the political spectrum, the lands face unprecedented threats from extractive industries and the politicians in their pockets. 

The film includes lots of stunning landscapes on screen including the Utah desert, a and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge among others that make a case for their continued protection.

The film soars when it features the ranchers and farmers talking about their land.  One has a lady talking to the camera as to whee she got married and whee her grandfather got buried on the land.  The segments show genuine Americans who live off public lands.  Their horses and cattle graze the grasses on public lands.  They pay only a small amount for rent which would not be affordable or them if the lands were privately owned.  They also talk about the responsibility everyone has over the land - the streams and the woods.  It is incredibly moving to see an hear these people speak from their hearts.

The film gets most heated when dealing with The Antiquities Act of 1906, an act that was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906.  This law gives the President of the United States the authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features. The Act has been used more than a hundred times since its passage.  Former President Obama has used the act a record number of times.  But President Trump has reversed a number of these.  Trump has invoked much anger among the indigenous people as well as many Americans.  Hopefully the heinous act will cause him his Presidency during the November election.

PUBLIC TRUST is the angriest doc seen this year and it is clearly aimed to be that way.  The film’s last 10 minutes show the reversal of all the good that past Presidents have done to protect public lands.  Here comes President Trump, bragging that American shall dominate the old and gas industry in the world, thus giving the public land to oil and gas companies.  One scene showing Trump wearing a mine’s helmet pretending to shovel coal must surely be the most disgusting image of any President ever displayed on screen.

The film ends clearly with the message not to vote for Trump.  And with reason!

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/411446912

PUSH (Sweden/UK/Canada 2019) ***

Directed by Fredrick Gertten

PUSH the doc is so-called because many low income earners have been pushed out of their residences in big cities when rent becomes unaffordable.

During these difficult time of Covid-19, many renters are unable to cover their rental expenses and when many homeless in Toronto are mounting make-shift tents around the city, this new documentary on the housing crisis which premiered at this year’s 2020 HOT DOCS can only be too relevant.

Housing prices have skyrocketed in cities around the world.  Incomes have not. PUSH sheds light on a new kind of faceless landlord, in our increasingly unlivable cities and an escalating crisis that has an effect on us all.  Cities that director Gertten examines and takes his audience to include Toronto and London.  In passing, it should be noted that his year again, Canada has been named the best country in the world to live in.  One note of mention, I moved from Singapore to Toronto and though Singapore does not fact the same problems as Toronto with regards to absentee landlords flipping properties for a profit - the government prevents that by law, it is still impossible for the average Singaporean to but a new home.  This was one of the reasons I  moved to Toronto, Canada.  One point that the film does not address is that it is often the simple question of supply and demand that establishes the price of housing in cities.  In Singapore and in large cities, demand supersedes price and the result is unaffordable housing.  So the eventual migration of the poorer people to the suburbs is inevitable.  Government intervention, though encouraged by the film and by me as well, despite the comments above, can only help so much.  the film addresses the fact that it takes 10 years or so for someone to own a home in say, Toronto.  In Singapore, it takes an entire lifetime.

The film begins with the city of Toronto where poverty stricken low income retirees talk to director Gertten’s camera.  The film then moves to London, England showing the identical problem of inadequate low income housing.  The London borough targeted here is Nothing Hill, famous fo he Hugh Grant film of the same title.  Notting Hill is a wealthy neighbourhood that houses different peoples of various races living in harmony.  But as the rent in the borough escalates to unaffordable heights, a global problem exists.

The film then settles on the subject, Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing.  She lives in Canada but she is travelling the globe, trying to understand who’s being pushed out of the city and why. “I believe there’s a huge difference between housing as a commodity and gold as a commodity.   Gold is not a human right, housing is,” says Leilani.  It seems an almost impossible task especially with just one woman trying to change the world.  The film shows that she can make a difference as she organizes meeting around the world to combat the villains like Blackstone Funds. 

The last third of the film is encouraging as it shows what one 5’ 2” female from Ottawa can do.  She has assembled mayors or planners from all over the world including London, NYC, Barcelona to address the problem.

PUSH ends up an encouraging doc that shows that a single individual can do wonders to help solve a global crisis.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/324962587

QUEEN OF THE MORNING CALM (Canada 2019) ***
Directed by Gloria Ui Young Kim

The indie feature shot around the streets of Toronto shows the difficulty of a mother  raising a kid while dealing with poverty and other hardships.  The mother, Debra (Tina Jung) is Korean and she could very well be a single mother, for the father is more of a burden to the her, coming in and out of her and the daughter’s life and making false promises of a comfortable home.  Better no promises than broken promises.

Queen follows the life of the 29-year old Debra, a stripper looking after her 10-year old daughter Mona (Eponine Lee).  The father, Sarge (Jesse LaVercombe) nothing is mentioned in the film of them being wed, was one of her clients before becoming the father.  But Sarge is a gambler (though he wins occasionally) who fails to keep  his promise of looking after the family.  Sarge often disappears for a time.  When rent cannot be paid, mother and daughter are evicted from their apartment.  A kind soul  helps them out before Sarge returns.

QUEEN is reportedly based on the experiences of the film’s writer/director Gloria Kim.

There is nothing really surprising in the story.  What happens in the film could very well happen in real life and one wonders which part of the story is reflected in the director’s life.

Director Kim spends a lot of screen time developing the personalities of each character.  This is what is the most commendable of Kim’s film - that she shows both the strengths and weaknesses of each of her characters, making them very human.

The films works so that the audience feels sympathetic to Mona and Debra.  The same cannot be said for Sarge.  Despite being a female film with strong female characters with the protagonist also being female with a daughter, the role of the Good Samaritan, the owner, Ian (Shaun Benson) of a local thrift shop who helps them out is beautifully written.  Here, Ian is shown as a sympathetic man who deserves more that what dished out to him.  He deserves love that has somehow eluded him.  The opportunity of helping Debra offers him a chance.

Debra’s race does not work against her but for her in the script.  Her Korean looks serve to highlight the fact that orientals are more favourable for the reason that they are both pretty and more obliging.  The other time race is used in the script os Debra’s mother disowning her for her past deeds.  Debra was caught as a child by her mother having sex with the father.  In white culture, the father would be blamed, but in Korean culture, the mother blames the kid instead. 

QUEEN was screened at the Canadian Film Fest and came away with awards for Best Indie Film and director and a prize fo Eponine Lee playing 10-year old Mona.  QUEEN is not super excellent but it is a sincere film made with care and thought.

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

 

SOFTIE (Kenya 2020) ***
Directed by Sam Solo

Rare is a film from Kenya.  SOFTIE is the first film from Kenya ever to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and it went on to win a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing

SOFTIE is the nickname of a daring and audacious photojournalist.  His full name is Boniface Mwangi and is played in the doc by no less than the man himself.  He decides to run for political office in an effort to change the corrupt political system in Kenya.  Soko’s film highlights how misinformation in politics can have long term effects on a voting population, a problem that is also facing in America.  False news propagated by false prophets like Trump.  This is the story of how one person trying to make a change in a system he finds does not work for all people.   It also question on what should come first - family or politics?

The film begins with a protest.  In it, pigs are used in the demonstrations, that of course turning violent and bloody.  The pigs are painted and used to represent the rich politicians - the MPs who bleed Kenya dry.  In 2007, Boniface Mwangi was assigned to cover the post election violence.  What follows is the story for the doc.

Eventually Mwangi decides to run for office.  His opposition is someone called Jaguar who engages in ‘dodgy’ tactics.

The doc’s main issue that director Solo centres on is the conflict between family and country.  Both the wife and Boniface have their say, and they both make sense separately.  But they cannot agree, in what soon becomes a trial separation between the two.  It is obvious that a compromise is the only solution.  It is not who is right or wrong that counts but who compromises.  It is a serious film but not without humour.  At one of the film’s lighter moments: Boniface tells his wife: “I am going to run for office.  But I can change my mind.”  “Is this how you are telling me?” replies the wife.

Director Solo takes his film past the election date.  Whether Boniface wins or not seems to be the climax but Solo shows that this is not that important in his movie.

Solo’s SOFTIE turns out to be an emotional ride.  What makesSOFTIE the most interesting is the view of  the political climate of Kenya on full display.  Example: voters expect to be bribed for their vote counts. The election process is likely similar to many African States and other countries around the world where they are are often rigged and unfair. 

The film is shot partly in English.  The English portion comes with full English subtitles as it is difficult to decipher the Kenyan accent.
SOFTIE opens September 18th and expands to more on September 25th.  Following its successful World Premiere at Sundance this year, the film was named an official selection at CPH:DOX, Full Frame Film Festival and the Opening Night Film at Hot Docs Film Festival.  And it just won BEST DOCUMENTARY at the DURBAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL!   A story that needs be told and a doc worth seeing!
Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7jWeXqWJy8

Film website:  https://www.softiethefilm.com

TESLA (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Michale Amereyda

 

Being an electrical engineer by profession before I indulged in my passion for film and film reviewing, my first encounter with the word Tesla was in my electrical course on magnetic induction.  The Tesla is the unit for Magnetic flux density which was equivalent to 1 weber per square metre.  The name is now synonymous with Elon Musk’s electrical car company that has taken the world by storm.  This information would seem terribly boring for those not versed with electrical engineering and a film on the biography of Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla who invented the alternating current motor would also be mostly uninteresting to many.  Thus, the concept of integrating the past with present with the film intercutting between Tesla’s championing of his revolutionary design and a lady, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) who googles Tesla and Edison (who Tesla worked) for information might generate more interest.  One also wonders how well versed director Amereyda (NADJA, HAMLET) is on the a.c. machine, whether he himself got most of his information from Google searches.

Director Amereyda’s film TESLA therefore requires lots of effort and it shows.  The period setting from the clothes, make up and sets, sets an accurate feel of the times of the 1880’s.  Tesla is played by Ethan Hawke, complete with period moustache and mannerisms that indicate a troubled inventor with financial problems.

The technical aspect of electrical energy and machines is briefly described at the film’s start, in layman’s terms to be similar to the static electricity caused when one pets the fur of a cat.  Is nature a gigantic cat? The voiceover asks.  To satisfy engineers and scientists in the audience, the working of the a.c. machine is explained, but only briefly so as not to bore the non-technical audience.  The script also written by Amereyda brings in the issue of prejudice and Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) pokes fun at Telsa’s immigration status.

The story also takes a turn to make Tesla a more human person with feelings and emotions.   Tesla eventually meets Anne, the daughter of JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz).  A romance begins.  But Anne is the daughter of JP Morgan one of Edison’s biggest investors.  It is a well known fact in history that Edison and Tesla never got on well together, as Edison believed in the direct current instead of Tesla’s alternating current machine.  The story also goes on with Tesla’s investor’s Westinghouse.  Business is also brought into the picture, showing that invention is not enough for success  - just as the fact that in order to make a really good film, investors must come on board.

TESLA still proves a hard sell as a biography of an inventor of a very technical machine, though one that changed the course of industry and the lives of everyone.  Still, credit goes to Amereyda for trying and his efforts are not all that bad in an otherwise watchable film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQ7U_pft3Qw


WE ARE MANY (UK 2020) ****
Directed by Amir Amirani

The words of the 1819 poet Shelley who wrote the following words in the Masque of Anarchy that inspired the title of my film is splashed on the screen at the film’s start:

“Rise, like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you:

Ye are many - they are few.

WE ARE MANY is an inspirational documentary meticulously put together that has an all important message for everyone.  In the middle of the film, the cover of TIME magazine’s person of the year is revealed as ‘the protestor’.   The protestor often is one in millions who believe strongly enough that the protesting issue at hand is urgent enough for him or her to do a part part and that it will make a difference.  Director Amir Amirani who has never protested before in 2003 and who protested for the first time has made a doc to prove the point.

After the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in NYC, the then American President George W. Bush enlisted the help of then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair to begin a war on Iraq.  The war was based on two false points - that Iraq was somehow responsible for the attack and that Iran had accumulated weapons of mass destruction. 

It all led to the very important date of February 15th, 2003.  On that day, up to 30 million people, many of whom had never demonstrated before, came out in nearly 800 cities around the world to protest against the impending Iraq War. WE ARE MANY is the never before told story of the largest demonstration in human history, and how the movement created by a small

band of activists changed the world. This fearless, thought provoking documentary is the

remarkable inside story behind the first ever global demonstration and its surprising and unreported legacy. 

The first two thirds of the film documents the events that led to the global protest of February the 15.  As everyone knows, this did not deter Bush and Blair (appropriately called war criminals) from bombing Iraq and killing thousands of innocent people including women and children.  This is made worse for the fact, that is mentioned in the film that Bush never had his twin sons enlisted but cowardly sent other Americans to be killed in the War.  Trump looks like a saint compared to Bush and Blair.  This is the power of Amirani’s documentary.

Amirani has assembled an impressive list of interviewees.  These include: :Noam Chomsky  (Philosopher and Activist), Ron Kovic (Veteran and Author of Born on the Fourth of July), Medea Benjamin(Code Pink Co-founder), Bill Fletcher Jr.(Activist and Author of They’re Bankrupting Us!), Mark Rylance, John le Carré (World-Renowned Author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Dr. Hans Blix(formerUN Weapons Inspector), Lindsey German( Stop the War Coalition Founding Member), Jesse Jackson (Founder of Rainbow/PUSH), Danny Glover and a few surprises like the image of Pedro Almodovar (uncredited).

But it is what happened after the Iraq War during the last third of the film that makes this movie.  The effect of the global protest was not a failure but it ignited the world’s conscience.  To say more would spoil the effect of this doc.  Safe to say, this is one doc that should be on your must-see list.

Opening on Monday, September 21 is a virtual theatrical event in celebration of International Day of Peace including musical numbers and a live panel and then going to physical theatres on Friday September 25. Full details here: www.wearemany.com 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgxlMJnxUl4

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