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This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 18, 2020)

17 Sep 2020

A hidden gem opnes this week and is availbale on VOD.  A family film, but don't let the label out you off - H IS FOR HAPPINESS.

 

FILM REVIEWS:

 

ANTEBELLUM (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Gerard Bush and Christophe Renz

The word ANTEBELLIUM means ‘the time before the American Civil War’.  ANTEBELLIUM is also the name of the new movie advertised as an American psychological horror (movie) opening this week.

The film begins with the impressive camera panning a huge plantation farmhouse with stables and soldiers riding horses.  The soldiers are wearing American civl war uniforms.  The camera moves around the surroundings for a full 10 minutes before culminating with a shack housing that is soon to be revealed as the residence of the slave workers of a cotton farm.  The first half of the film works like a film about slavery akin to the films like 12 YEARS A SLAVE or even THE COLOR PURPLE.  There are slave beatings after attempted escapes, a slave pregnancy, suicides and rape, high and drama that seems out of a place of a horror film.  The horror is only turned on around the half way mark.

The subject in the film’s first half is a slave woman named Eden (Janelle Monae).  Eden has just been beaten and branded like cattle.  She has been warned against any future escape attempts.  The movie moves around her daily chores before she awakes from what appears to be a nightmare.  When she awakes, she is Veronica Henley, a successful and prominent author and one that fights for the rights of black people.  This is the part that does not make sense in the story.  She now lives the life of a successful writer.

Before you know it, Veronica is abducted and taken back into what appears to be the Antebellum South, where she is held as an enslaved person at the same plantation (which in fact a brutal antebellum reenactment theme park).

Eden is the more sympathetic character compared to Veronica.  Veronica appears rich and over-spoilt in her success, which spoils the mood, as the audience should be rooting for both characters instead of wanting Veronica to be humbled.

The film has a weird feel as it plays as both a slave drama and a psychological horror.  But all the puzzle pieces come together towards the end, except for the aforementioned part of Eden waking up as Veronica.  Bush and Renz who also wrote the script could have come up with a better explanation.

Directors of films like Bush and Renz as well as others who pioneer original and strange films like ANTEBELLUM should be given credit.  The scene in which a cell phone goes off ringing in the saddle of a horse is an example of one that has never or likely ever be used or found in any film.  It is just too bad, the film does not match the potential it had carefully built up to.

Those who might think ANTEBELLUM is a slasher horror flick similar to the demon doll film ANABELLE and its sequels, beware - it is not, or you will be leaving the theatre within the first half hour.  ANTEBELLUM is completely different, and in a good way.  

The film is released though VOD on September 18th and in select theatres in countries allowing, which is a pity as the film contains stunning panoramic visuals, courtesy of D.P. Pedro Luque.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beLkVB_T3uw

BLACKBIRD (USA/UK 2019) **
Directed by Roger Michell

Brit Roger Michell (PERSUASION, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE) directs Christian Torpe’s script adapted from his own script he wrote of Bille August successful family Danish drama SILENT HEART back in 2014.  The film boats an impressive cast of well known actors led by Kate Winslet in this chamber piece (Winslet appears to love starring in chamber pieces, such as Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE) that involves the close family of a design architect gathered together to grant her, her last wish of suicide in her gorgeous seaside house all taking place in a few days. 

Lily (Susan Sarandon) is terminally ill.  She and loving husband, Paul (Sam Neill) invite family members and close friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan) for one last gathering before she takes a pill to end it all instead of going through the agony of suffering.  The family includes the two daughters, Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska).  Jennifer’s husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son, Jonathan (Anson Boon) tag along as does Anna’s of and off girlfriend, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus).  The gathering allows old skeletons in the closet to resurface as do new ones.  All this is plenty of fodder for high melodrama, which if one is not into this sort of thing, should avoid at all costs.

With a feisty dying Lily comes ‘the dying’ jokes.  Calling her daughter down for breakfast, Lily yells: “Coming down?  I’m dying soon.” Or when Jonathan tells her grandmothers that he wants to be an actor, Lily replies: “I will take the secret to my grave.”   With these expected humour on death also comes the Lily’s sarcastic life’s messages: “Give lie your best shot.  Being on time does not hurt.”

Of all the players, Winslet outshines the rest, as can be witnessed in the confrontational scene with her charter and her sister.  The role of Lily could have been played by many veteran actresses that one could think of - Shirley Maclaine and Diane Keaton, the latter who was offered the role.  Sarandon, still pretty at her age as is evident in the scene where she dons a red dress also proves her acting chops here.

For a script written by a male and directed by a male, the film surprisingly delivers heavy and effective female content.  The male character like Paul and Jonathan serve as second fiddle to the stronger female roles.  Lily is more of the family matriarch than Paul is of the patriarch.

The script seems too perfectly written and the characters all utter perfect responses and they have answers to every problem.  Life has never all the answers.  The result is the feeling that the audience is watching a play than experiencing a real life drama.

Certain things are left unexplained in the film.  Liz sports a slight Brit accent because the actress playing her, Lindsay Duncan is Scots, but this is just brushed off.  Why Anna’s girlfriend Chris, who is clearly out of place in the gathering wishes to come is also a mystery.

As much as Torpe’s script tries to be clever, all that transpires seem staged.  The Danish version fared better as one expects something different from foreigners like the Danes.   As odd as it seems the other Winslet chamber piece CARNAGE where two families meet to discuss an altercation between their sons at school is much more interesting than this supposedly more pressing than this chamber piece on suicide, lie and death.  BLACKBIRD ends up as a sort of a grin-and-bear it bore with just a little bit of lift, aided by the cast.

BLACKBIRD opens in theatres September 18th.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9kb6ZJre78

H IS FOR HAPPINESS (Australia 2020) ***** Top 10

Directed by John Sheedy

H IS FOR HAPPINESS, based on the novel ‘My Life as an Alphabet’ is all about the world as seen through the eyes of a 12-year old, Candice Phee (Daisy Axon).  The special thing about this girl is that she has boundless enthusiasm but her honesty often leads her into trouble.  There are 3 worlds she lives in, one where she tries to fix things that are wrong, the one that is on centre, with her kid romance with the new boy from school, Douglas Benson (Wesley Patten) who thinks he is from another dimension and the third depressing one at home.  The home is in disarray after Candice’s young sister died and her parents are at odds with each other.  Candice wishes to bring happiness back into the home.  Candice is up for a formidable task.  But she has, as mentioned boundless enthusiasm.  She wants to bring happiness to the family again but realizes it takes time.  Candice will plant the seed.

Among all this, Candice is given a project headed by Miss Bamform (Miriam Margoyles) in school which involves a presentation by each student in the class of an event that has happened in the past that must begin with a letter of the alphabet that she assigns to each one of them.  Miss Bamford is a colourful character, as are most of the people in the film.  Miss Bamford has a wandering eye that bobbles like a maniac.  The scene where Candice gives her a present to correct this problem is the funniest scene in a film I have witnessed this year, clearly already worth the price of the ticket.

Director Sheedy has a lot of the scenes shot in saturated colours, as would be appropriate to emphasize Candice’s super optimistic view of life.

The town of Albany is filled with quirky characters from the shopkeepers including an old dandy who wears a pirouette costume 24/7.  He also gives Candice advice on happiness.  Other characters are Candice’s rich Uncle Bryan (Joel Jackson) who has a falling out with his brother, Candice’s dad and the mother of Douglas from another dimension.

The film contains many priceless hilarious scenes.  Another is the dinner table scene where young Douglas Benson from another dimension asks Candice’s hand from her father, and yet another involves the super strict, no-nonsense supply (relief) teacher in place of Miss Bamford who insists on total silence from all her students.

The climax of the film is, as expected, Candice’s presentation at the school hall with her parents attending.  She obviously presents the letter H, which is for happiness, together with Douglas from another dimension and a white pony that could very well be a unicorn without the horn.

H IS FOR HAPPINESS pays tribute to America’s western and country songs and music, with great success.  The other really funny and great Aussie comedy that has this element is the 1997 Chris Kennedy’s DOING TIME FOR PATSY CLINE, another hidden gem.

H IS FOR HAPPINESS is the perfect film to cast aways the Covid-19 pandemic blues.  Despite the family film label, this is one of the best films I have seen this year - Top 10.  The film was shot around with the people from the city of Albany, in south west Australia though the film was financed by the Melbourne Film Festival project fund.

The film is now available VOD.

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

 

I’VE GOT ISSUES (2020) **
Directed by Steve Collins

Everyone is hurt these days.  The fact has inspired writer/director Steve Collins to concoct an absurdist film entitled I’VE GOT ISSUES on the subject.   His previous films, GRETCHEN and YOU HURT MY FEELINGS focussed on the inner struggles of supposedly sensitive people.  His film is supposed to be therapy since the world has gotten worse.

Collins’ minimalist looking film begins with several scenes of people struggling.  The first has someone pushing a car up a hill.  Another has a person who has locked his keys in the car.  Another is unable to get his can of pop from the vending machine.  Another is pushing a broken grocery cart and a lady has broken a heel.  The voiceover goes: People struggle.  Why?  What is the point?  What do they do when they get hurt?  How do they heal?  Collins follows the scenes with a healer and two men, one seeking help for another who will is apparently unable to eat or speak.  It turns out to be a silly absurdist exercise.

One then wonders too why Collins has put his audience through all of this.  Is there a purpose? Should the audience go through with this?  Is there a solutions?  Collins puts his audience through the same set of questions he poses to them..

His characters and the situations appear again under different circumstances.  But the questions are still left unanswered.  The answers are finally delivered at the end of the film (which will not be revealed in the review) if one cares to sit out the film.

I’VE GOT ISSUES has been described by the Austin Chronicle as stage and wonderful.  Think the film as a much sillier and more senseless film with the same tone as WAITING FOR GUFFMAN.  Strange yes, but wonder is in the eyes of the individual viewer.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyC5mk8Eu-M&feature=youtu.be

NADIA, BUTTERFLY (Canada 2019) **
Directed by Pascal Plante

NADIA, BUTTERFLY begins with a lengthy 20 minute training session that shows Olympic play swimmer Nadia (Laterine Savard) ending with the race itself when her team if four  won the bronze medal.  The segments shows her doing laps, her arms plunging into the pool water; her arguments with her trainer and interview with the press.  Nadia is definitely under stress, as her coach confirms.  At the stage, Nadia wises to retire after he Games at he age of twenty-something, because as she says, she wants to retire victorious.  The real reason is never made clear, but one sees Nadia in tears, again the catalyst for the outburst unexplained, in the privacy of hr changing tent.  Director Plante clearly understands and deomonstarets the rigours of competitive sport, he himself being a competitive swimmer at an earlier age.

As the film progresses, the audience sees, after her very last race, Nadia drifting into nights of excess punctuated by episodes of self-doubt. 

NADIA, BUTTERFLY has its setting in Tokyo 2020 where the Summer Olympics is held, according to the film.  With all of Plante’s efforts to give his film the feel of authenticity, the efforts fall flat since the Olympics in Tokyo has been postponed indefinitely.  Plante could have changed its setting to the Olympics to the 4 years prior but did not.  This would have incurred understandable additional production costs including script re-writes, in fact practically a whole different movie.  With Covid-19 not on Plante’s side, the film unfortunately fails to make its authentic impact it was supposed to.  On the other hand, one must admire Plante for creating an Olympic film set in Tokyo.  if the event was not cancelled, one would never guess that parts of the film were never shot during the Olympics if it has happened.

Plante’s film is a series of vignettes that have been put together to form the narratvie.  Thee is no voiceover or flashbacks.  The vignettes are written to tell the story.  Plante must have his actors rehearse each segment throughly and likely mercilessly.  The opening sequence showing Nadia in training and the filming of the Olympic relay event is executed in long takes which add on to the urgency of the story.

Plante also captures the Nadia dilemma’s of whether to continue or quit swimming.  If she quits, she goes against the grain of her teammates and coach and if she continues, she will be untrue to herself.  It is a difficult life changing decision that Nadia eventually has to decide for herself.  It also becomes the main problem for the film to resolve, which to Plante’s credit (Plante also wrote the script) is done credibly and admirably.

The success of the film also rests on the lead performance by Svard.  Fortunately, being a Bronze medal swimmer herself, she looks the part and also must have given a lot of consideration to her role.

If only the Tokyo Olympics were held and there was no Covid-19, the film would have worked much better.  But as they say, we can only do our best during these difficult times.  

The film ends up a sort of a grin-and-bear it bore (the film's technique already made too familiar by Laurent Cantet) with just a little bit of lift, aided by the cast.  NADIA, BUTTERFLY, a Cannes official selection, is filmed mainly in French.  The film will open theatrically in Canada.

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

THE NEST (UK/Canada 2019) ***1/2

Directed by Sean Durkin

THE NEST in the U.S. is uprooted and the family of an entrepreneur and his American family begin to take a twisted turn after moving into a huge country manor in Sussex in England.  This is the typical story that follows.  Trouble will brew in the new nest with the family falling apart.  The boat is rocked.  The family eventually puts their differences apart and re-unit with a message ob life thrown at the audience.  And true enough - this is the basic premise of THE NEST.

But as they say, the devil is in the details.  Though the film follows that fixed pattern, the unfolding of events is intensive enough to warrant any audience’s attention. 

Writer/director Durkin also loves to tease his audience as to what is going on.  The opening scene picks the audience’s curiosity as to whether the initial setting is - the U.K.or the States as the main actor playing Rory O’Hara, the entrepreneur who appears is Jude Law speaking in his native English accent.  Then the camera reveals a TV set that is not the huge screen that the modern world is sued to see.  The radio announces some news on Ronald Regan and Europe.  So it is a period piece set int eh Reagan years before the use of the internet and cell phones.  The soundtrack confirms the era.

Rory has a wonderful family comprising of his beautiful wife, Allison (Carrie Coon) and children, Samantha (Oona Roche) and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell).  Rory is dissatisfied with the States and moves back to his Arthur Davis (Michale Culkin) company spending much more that he can afford.  His business projects do not impress Arthur Davis and financial problems arise.  It does not help that Rory is full of shit.  The story takes the point of view of the wife, Allison who is going through a hell of a time with her horse dead and a daughter who is getting more rebellious.

Again Durkin tears with little things that something really ominous is about to happen to the family.  For example, the horse is shown to be uneasy held the time Allison rides it.  Trouble at school for the kids also signify that the family has much to deal with in settling in.

Dirking covers all the details of the story including a visit of Rory to his mother (Anne Reid) whom he had abandoned as she tells him “galavanting around the  world’.  The behaviour of children and Allison’s unhappiness are also documented in detail

Law is conniving in his role of the suave liar who wants always to be ahead at all costs.  Yes, the message in the story is expectedly revealed in the words of the cab driver who takes Rory home after a company dinner.  And then abandons him after he realizes that hispassenger probably has no money for cab fare.

THE NEST succeeds as a family drama with psychological overtones.  Durkin works well with his written material and actors creating a solid fable on the importance of a contented nest.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9TjWiqiF8

 

SUMMERLND (Canada 2019) ***
Directed by Lankyboy

SUMMERLAND is the site for an American rock/music festival and the destination of three friends in this queer an also straight coming-of-age story.  It is a Canadian film shot in Alberta with the vast land on display standing in for the American roads.

Lankyboy is a filmmaking duo comprised of Noah Kentis and Kurtis David Harder.  One of them can be seen at the end of the film’s outakes.

The film follows three friends embarking on a road trip to attend the Summerland music festival fresh off of graduation.  Bray (Chris Ball) at first plans the trip with hi roommate, Oliver (Rory J, Saper, who in real life is really a Brit) a Brit on a student visa to study in the States. Die to a few mishaps, the two are joined by Oliver’s girlfriend, Stacey.  Bray is planning to meet up with Shawn (Dylan Playfair), a boy he met on a dating site who he's convinced is questioning his sexuality.   Bray but when Oliver's girlfriend Stacey (Maddie Phillips, TEENAGE BOUNTY HUNTERS) joins last minute, things get complicated as Bray has been using her photos to get close to his crush.  The big question is how Bray is going to explain everything to Shawn, who thinks he is meeting his girlfriend.  Bray, up to the very end of the ilm thinks Shawn is not only a closet queen but his should mate.  The meeting is left right up to the very end of the film, serving as the story’s climax.

SUMMERLAND works also as a road trip comedy.  Lankyboy’sfilm takes 30 minutes or so to get on a footing.  Before that the film seems lacking in direction, and the antics of the two friends look meaningless and uninteresting.  During the raid trip, the three stop at various places for no real reason.  Surely but slowly the relationship of the three falls into place.  Oliver and Stacey are quite very much in love, though they do not really know how to deal with the situation.  Thethree also take partake in an assortment of drugs that they had planned for the music festival but end up consuming them during the trip.   Lankyboy uses fuzzy n distorted images, hallucinations and silly talk to illustrates the effects of the drugs.  in one town where the three visit, they see a street performer dancing to his music.  “What was that?” asks Stacey.  “I don’t know but I like it.”  she adds.  That is pretty identical how Lankyboy’s film feels at this stage.

But as the film progresses, Lankyboy pulls off a few neat tricks.  In the film’s best segments when Oliver loses Stacey as a girlfriend, he freaks out and blames Bray.  Bray remains silent and looks on.  The scene demonstrates how a bit of quiet allowing the audience. to absorb the material can do for the movie.

The film also goes agains cliches.  The typical message of “Be yourself,  He will love you fro the person you are…” for a film with this theme is instead played for laughs.

What initially began as an uneventful road trip turns out a few neat surprises.  Overall - a solid coming-of-age comedy not restricted to the enjoyment of queer folk.

SUMMERLAND is available on iTunes, Vudu, GooglePlay and Amazon in all English-speaking territories on September the 14th.  Well worth a look.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCj4jkeoFrs&feature=youtu.be

 

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