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This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 23, 2020)

19 Oct 2020

FILM REVIEWS:

 

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S LETTER TO YOU (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Thom Zimny

As the title BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S LETTER TO YOU implies, the singer/songwriter speaks to the audience on his love and loss and musings while crooning his famous songs the best he can,  As he says in the film’s introduction of his E Street band, the band is not a job, its is a vocation, a calling.

The film title is also the title Springsteen's new album.   The film captures Bruce Springsteen recording his new album “Letter To You” live with the full E Street Band, and includes final take performances of 10 originals from the new record.  The feature-length vérité documentary features full performances from the E Street Band, in-studio footage, never-before-seen archival material, and a deeper look into “Letter To You” from Springsteen himself.  Written by Springsteen himself and directed by his frequent collaborator Thom Zimny, the film is a tribute to the E Street Band, to rock music itself, and to the role it has played in Springsteen's life.

He introduces the 9 members of the band and the two members in absentia.  And with great respect.  The 9 are Bruce Springsteen, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa,  Garry Tallent, Stevie Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, Charlie Giordano and Jake Clemons.

Springsteen brings meaning to his performed songs.  He explains being the last one alive in his previous band before performing “Last Man Standing” making the song more intimate and sad.  Another song he explains is “The Power of Prayer”, dedicating the song to his father.

Now Springsteen is with the E Street band which he boasts is  a unit of 45 years in the making and decades in the tuning, like a finely tuned racing engine .  The audience, Springsteen claims is the reason the band is there, committed to perfection with the motto of do or die.  Such is the dedication of ‘the boss’.

It is clear Springsteen is religious, often talking about God and prayer.  There are scenes of him as a boy staring at death in the face as he looks down into coffins at funeral services, experiences that he, as a man can never forget.  His principles of love, liberty, fraternity and ancient ideals are reflected in his songs - in both the lyrics and heavenly melodies.  He then croons “House of a Thousand Guitars”.

One might find it a bit much to hear Springsteen’s musings.  But the doc is written by him, so expect quite a lot of his musings.  But the best thing about the doc is the performance of his songs, the live recordings of him and his band and the hard effort that goes into getting out a hit song.

The film premieres globally on Apple TV+ October 23.

Trailer: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/bruce/FMfcgxwKhqmjqzCqxLBWPfWZpTNgKvSB?projector=1

 

How to get Apple TV+:

It is available on the Apple TV app in over 100 countries and regions, on over 1 billion screens, including iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch, Mac, select Samsung, LG, Sony, and VIZIO smart TVs, Amazon Fire TV and Roku devices, and at tv.apple.com/ca, for $5.99 per month with a seven-day free trial.  (For a limited time, customers who purchase a new iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac, or iPod touch can enjoy one year of Apple TV+ for free. This special offer is good for three months after the first activation of the eligible device.)

FISHBOWL (USA 2018) ***1/2

Directed by Stephen Kinigopoulos and Alexa Kinigopoulos

An indie film true and true, this small budget gem is directed by sibling team and shot on location in the house up the street from where they live, a spooky house that they discovered were owned by the nicest people, allowing the film to be shot there.  Not that there are many big Hollywood films opening during these times of Covid-19, more of indie films, but this one stands out as an indie mystery thriller.  At 92 minutes, it is attention grabbing from start to finish.

FISHBOWL is an absorbing and disturbing tale of sin and redemption.  The setting is small-town Bishop, filled with secrets.  The story focusses on the Simon sisters (Emily Peachey, Caroline Coleman, Belle Shickle) who are trying to cope with the absence of their mother (Judith Hoag) and maintain a normal life, while enduring Catholic school and typical teen struggles under the watchful eye of their demanding teacher, Mr. Barnes.  Silently repressing the sisters to the point of abuse is their damaged father, Rick (Rick Kain) who, quite adrift himself, is growing increasingly obsessed with The Rapture that he believes is imminent.  He pays $1000 for a ‘save your soul’ kit.  For the girls, home is anything but a refuge.   In the midst of rebellious acts, punishments, and religious imposition, the sisters must cling to one another to survive. On the night that Rick believes to be The Rapture, he will attempt to take his daughters to the second coming.

The Kinigopoulos siblings film their drama in deadpan style with still frames with little movement of the camera.  Often, the characters enter the frame, and when they do there is not such movement either.  The tactic allows the audience to stare at the screen and wonder what is going on, and ponder what might happen next in the film.  Often the silence can be overwhelming.  So over whelming that when a character suddenly speaks, it may cause the audience to jump or laugh at its unpredictability.  Example is the scene at the party where a bit turn tone of the sisters shouting over the music playing:”What is your name?”

The dialogue often contains deadpan humour.  “I don’t know how to say it, but I will say it.” the local church pastor tells the father.  Or when after one of the sisters having accepting Jesus Christ during the service returns to the pews and asks the father: “Can we go now?”

The film pokes fun out of religion, particularly Christianity and particularly TV evangelists who ask for money.  Hopefully, this film will help put these evangelists out of business.

The word fishbowl besides its literal meaning can refer to a large number of hinge including a debate method, a software server and even a song.  What the title refers to is not explained in the press notes, nor can I determine for sure where the references come from.  My best guess is that the title is the metaphor of a real fishbowl where the Simon sisters are entrapped.

FISHBOWL will opens in select theatres and be available on demand October 27. 

Trailer: https://www.dropbox.com

HIS MASTER’S VOICE (Az Úr hangja) (Hungary/Canada/USA/Sweden/France) ***
Directed by György Pálfi 

HIS MASTER’S VOICE begins impressively with the shot of an astronaut sleeping in a metallic vessel.  The camera zooms backwards to reveal the vessel to be a spaceship and then pulled back even further to show the spaceship stationed in outer space.  Using computer generated imagery, the spaceship looks like part of a snowflake that could be part of a branch of a tree that could be part of another snowflake and so on and so one.  It is a 10-minute or so sequence that sets the tone for what the audience is to expect -  a journey that cannot be explained but one that could be quite terrifying yet fascinating if one wishes to sit through the duration of the film.  Otherwise walk out!

The above segment eventually settles on the film’s protagonist, Péter (Csaba Polgár) who is asleep beside his girlfriend Dóra (Diána Kiss) on a flight.

HIS MASTER’S VOICE takes the title from the novel of the same name by the Polish author Stanslaw Lem –  whose worked became Andrey Tarkovsky’s classic film SOLARIS (1972), another long largely incompressible film.

The premise is Péter’s journey to the United States to solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance.  His father had been working for a U.S. top secret facility.  His brother, Zsolt (Ádám Fekete) in a wheelchair is the one that keeps pushing him in the quest.  Don’t expect the film to explain how the brother came to be in this state.  “When you find our father, do not tell him I am in a wheelchair”, Zsolt makes Péter promise.  The audience is told of the horrific explosive accident in Colorado where many had died.  At the same time, two people in a canoe disappeared and an explosion in a kitchen that occurred after a couple’s argument resulted in the guy’s disappearance.  All this appears on a TV show program of some kind of conspiracy theory that these remote incidents are somehow connected.  Péter interviews the host of the TV program to find out more of his father’s disappearance.  The narrative makes sense once Péter finds his father who is now in the States working as a reputable professor.

Director Pálfi’s sci-fi flick is full of arresting imagery from wild computer images to nude orgies to a nude giant who gobbles Péter up at one point in the film.

The master of the title likely refer’s to the creator.  His words are narrated to the audience of perhaps the meaning of life or some meaningless chatter, depending on how one wants to take it.  “It is in the quest for such knowledge that science is bringing us closer to an understanding of who and where we are,  You were born into chaos. Those first days were a blur. But then, by the power of your mind you resolved that chaos into a universe.  A small universe at first, but a supreme act of learning, acquiring knowledge at a rate that will never again be achieved (referring to a baby’s rate).

Mesmerizing, spectacular, confusing and frustrating are words that can be used to describe HIS MASTER’S VOICE.  But the film is an unforgettable experience regardless.

Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4H8UyFv0SdM

 

 

OLIVER SACKS HIS OWN LIFE (USA 2019) ***1/2

Directed by Ric Burns

OLIVE SACKS HIS OWN LIFE is a document on the life and career of the renowned neurologist and author, Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Wolf Sacks (9 July 1933 – 30 August 2015) was a British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author.  Born in London at Golder’s Green, and mostly educated there, he spent his career in the United States.  He believed that the brain is the "most incredible thing in the universe". He became widely known for writing best-selling case histories about both his patients' and his own disorders and unusual experiences, with some of his books adapted for plays by major playwrights, feature films, animated short films, opera, dance, fine art, and musical works in the classical genre.  Sacks was the author of numerous best-selling books, mostly collections of case studies of people, including himself, with neurological disorders.  His book AWAKENINGS would be remembered as the film that starred Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

The film opens with Oliver Sacks talking to the camera amidst his workers and colleagues.  To those unfamiliar with Oliver Sacks, it will be slowly revealed through his words that he is an important neurologist and author of many important works.   15 minutes into the picture, director Ric Burns reveals Sacks to be diagnosed with cancer and that Sachs wishes to tell all before he is gone.  The film opens, as indicated by the titles, in February of 2015 in NYC.  Sacks passed away that same year in August.

Director Ric Burns follows the normal path of a documentary on a famous or important subject.  But Burns is quick to have his audience know that they’re watching a doc on no ordinary man, but one with an enormous heart and one that would inspire the audience without  limits.  Burns then goes on the route, showing Burns as a child and with his family members, his life as a child and young teen, how he grew up, what influenced his work and then the important stuff itself, revealing the life of this important man.

What influenced Oliver to get into his field was the condition of his brother Michael, who was with him in a horrid boarding school in the Midlands a result of the War.  Hyperactive, Michael would be standing his feet, hallucinating and have nightmares, unable to sleep.  Oliver also suffered from migraine as did his mother.  Oliver wrote his first book on the subject.

If the doc sounds dull, it is not.  Far from it - as Oliver from the first frame he is, demonstrates an active sense of humour.  The funniest part shows Olivier’s fascination with the Periodic Table of Elements.  Oliver has a Periodic Table bed spread, T -shirt and even socks.  His orange-jello joke is priceless.

Every subject in a doc has a low point in life.  In the case of Oliver, he had to deal with his homosexuality and his addictive drug use.  He overcame the latter and had a harder time with the former because of its unacceptable during those times.  Oliver finally finds true love after the age of 70.Sacks has spent time as a neurologist physician where he pays detailed attention to each patient regardless of illness.  He is sure that there is something going on in the minds of his patients and takes great care with each one of them.  Director Burns captures the marvel of the man.  On his last days suffering with cancer, Oliver writes… “I am face to face with death.  I am finished with living.”  He realizes  that he then has to make the most of the rest of his life and to make every moment from them count.  Burns’ inspirational doc, encompassing enormous sadness and  happiness simultaneously is both a love story and a study of the miracle the human condition warts and all.  The film title HIS OWN LIFE is also the title of his final book.

Trailer:

 

ONCE UPON A SNOWMAN (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Dan Abraham, Trent Correy

The second short on Olaf the snowman after OLAF’S FROZEN ADVENTURE that ran 22 minutes, ONCE UPON A SNOWMAN is only 8 minutes in length and traces Olaf's first steps as he comes to life and searches for his identity in the snowy mountains outside Arendelle.  He searches for a name too. 

The animated short can stand on its own though there is an appearance of the princess and her beau from the FROZEN features.  It is the magic from the Elsa’s cloak as she sings “Let It Go”  that gives the snowman life. “I can think, I can talk, I can sing”  he shouts in delight reminding audiences how much of a gift life is.  Olaf is once again voiced by Josh Gad.

Delightful and charming as expected!

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi268222745?=tt13061790&ref_=tt_ov_vi

 

 

 

OVER THE MOON (USA/China 2020) ***
Directed by Glen Keane 

If China and the United States can unite in film making as in the Chinese American co-production, then Trump should take a lesson or two here.  By including China in the production, the target audience is automatically increased, also aided by the fact that the plot is a Chinese-based fairytale.  This means big bucks for Netflix, when it opens on October 23, making shareholders of Netlflix like myself even bigger bucks.

Disney has invested with Japanese (the animated ALAKAZAM THE GREAT) or Chinese folklore (MULAN) be it animated or live action.  OVER THE MOON, looking like a complete Disney product is sappy-charming and part musical with embarrassing though catchy songs, a death element and cutesy animal creatures.  The story follows a little girl protagonist trying to achieve some quest requiring a long journey.  The film is produced by Pearl Studio and animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

The film’s music is composed by Brit Steven Price with new original songs by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park.

Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), despite scoring the best grades in her class, still believes that the Moon Goddess exists.  Her late mother has told her about the legend of the Moon Goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) who has been banished to the moon after a failed romance.  Fei Fei decides to build a rocket to fly to the moon to meet Chang’e, which she does.

The first 15 minutes or so of the film works really well, especially as a fairy tale family picture, reminiscent of classic animated works like SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and CINDERELLA.  But once the story goes into space the film starts to lag.  Once Fei Fei and her future step-brother enter the rocket and land on the moon, things start to fall apart, and I do mean the rocket.  First credibility is stretched to the limit as one knows there is no such thing as a Moon Goddess.  And it sharply believable, animated film or not that a little girl less a brilliant engineer can build a rocket on her or his own.  The sappy songs do not help either, nor the silly other moon creatures that appear.  The film works well at the start with Fei Fei grounded Earth in her mooncake she with Ba Ba.  It is all predictable stuff, with widow Ba Ba (John Cho) courting a new girl (Sandra Oh) with Few Fei’s disapproval, but despite predictability, it is still fun due to the spirited delivery of the material.

Super corny is the song sung by Chang’e, something that could have been right out from a Lady Gaga concert.  The film’s best moment is the ping-pong match between Chin and Chang’e which is both inventive, hilarious and fluently animated.  This segment is worth all the trudging through the dull parts.

The film is voiced by a host of celebrated Asian American stars like Ken Jeong, John Cho, Margaret Cho, and Sandra Oh.  Got to just love the animation with the faces of the characters resembling the actors who voice them.

The film will first be shown at the Montclair Film Festival on October 17, 2020,  followed by its Netflix and select theatres debut on October 23.  The film’s release coincides with the Chinese mooncake festival.  Go try a mooncake, if you have never had one in your life - and get the expensive one ( a box of 4 can put you back $50) that has a duck’s egg yolk in the middle.

The film is dedicated to the loving memory of the scriptwriter Audrey Wells who died of cancer in October of 2018.

Trailer:

 

REBECCA (UK 2020) **

Directed by Ben Wheatley

Opening on Netflix is director Ben Wheatley’s new adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance REBECCA which every cinephile knows was made by Hitchcock in 1940 winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Wheatley says in an interview in November’s Sight & Sound that his film is an adaptation of the book and not a remake of the Hitchcock film.  “Why would anyone want to remake a film that won so many Oscars?” he says.  An excuse to make a sub-standard movie?  True enough, his film, from the script by Jane Goldman with 2 others, is vastly different and the new filmmodernizes the period setting with brief nude scenes and the humanizing of many charters particularly the villains of the piece, Mrs. Danvers, here played by Kristin Scott Thomas.

The film opens with the waves of the sea thrashing the rocks in Cornwall near the Mr. De Winter’s (Armie Hammer) fictitious estate of Manderlay where the action is set.  The waves are shown in slow motion in Wheatley’s film compared to normal speed in the Hitchcock’s REBECCA.  Hitchcock was not fond of slowing down his film, saying that, that device would slow down any suspense that came with the scene.  The short narration is voiced by the second Mrs. De Winter (Lily James) after all the events have occurred in the film.  The introduction is short.  Though one wonders why Wheatley would have bothered, since he moves straight into the story after that when the couple first meet in Monty Carlo.

The story follows the couple’s whirlwind romance.  They marry and move back to the estate mansion.  The second Mrs. de Winter meets the head of the household, Mrs. Danvers.  The new Mrs De Winter has trouble assimilating into high society, made even worse by her fear of Mrs. Danvers.   It is made known that Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter was an extremely beautiful high socialite that everyone loved.  Tension mounts.  Things have got to give and they do.

To Wheatley’s credit and Goldman’s script, more care is given to make the story more authentic.  In Monty Carlo, the waiters speak French or at least English with a French accent.  Mrs. Danvers is given a chance to explain herself.  The script allows the second Mrs. de Winter to give Mrs. Danvers notice at one point in the story, which makes sense.  Hitchcock’s version totally dismisses this possibility, which I questioned when I saw it.

Wheatley teases a number of times in the film.  When Maxim tells his new bride “Every marriage has its secrets”, the audience is warmed up for something sinister in the plot.  As is indicated in another scene where Mr. de Winter is  found sleepwalking.  Yet in another segment, the audiences sees a very sinister looking Mrs. danvers and Mr. de Winter remarks: “She is not as evil as she looks,” which of course implies in every suspense film, that she might very well be.

Wheatley also puts the film into current times despite the films period setting.  There are sex scenes between the married couple, though short and with only fleeting nudity.  When the couple look through the a lens at a couple on the yacht, they see a nude couple having sex.

Wheatley, as  evident in the film, is trying very, very hard with his Du Maurier adaptation of REBECCA.  As much as I dislike comparison to Hitchcock’s version, the comparison is inevitable.  Hitchcock’s version is much funnier (the Master using injecting his brand of dark humour whenever he can).  Wheatley’s film is gorgeous in is production sets and costumes while he makes the incidents more real, to today’s standard. 

I watched both REBECCA’s back to back.  Hitchcock’s REBECCA, I could not stop watching.  Pity as Wheatley’s film ends up boring in caparison despite some merits, allowing me to take breaks in between.

Trailer:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFVhB54UqvQ

 

THE RIGHT STUFF (TV Series/Film - 8 Episodes)(USA 2020) ***
Directed by (Various Directors)

 

THE RIGHT STUFF is a Warner Bros. TV production series that premieres on Disney+ beginning October 9th.  On October 9th the first 2 episodes premiere followed by a new episode every week till November the 20th. 

This review is for the first 2 episodes only.  The article will be updated each week, with an additional review for the additional episode screened.  Each week, the new episode can be read under ‘This Week’s Film Reviews’.  Only this first article appears as a separate article.

THE RIGHT STUFF 2020 is based on the famous Philips Kaufman 1983 film THE RIGHT STUFF and the 1979 Tom Wolfe novel of he same name.  Kaufman’s film was the rave of the time, and was indeed an excellent film, as I recall, though I do not remember much of it after close to 40 years.   The film was a financial flop though it received excellent reviews while winning 4 Academy Awards in the process.

That movie runs 192 minutes, 2 hours shorter than the 8 episodes combined.  With 5 minutes or so credits and recap of the previous episode, this means 30  - 40 minutes additional material, which is not that much.

The series is quite different from the film.  The film began with one of the greatest pilots of all time Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the first test pilot to break the sound barrier who refuses to be in the NASA program.  The series goes straight into the NASA program with the recruitment of the 7 astronauts starting in the year 1961 then moving back 2 years earlier.

As expected, there is different emphasis to the adaptation of the book.  The Kaufman film is a minor masterpiece so dabbling with the best is prone to asking for trouble.  But it is what it is and the TV series should be examined on its own merits.

Please read review of each episode for more details. 

Trailer:

 

Review of Individual Episodes

EPISODE 1: SIERRA HOTEL

Directed by Chris Long   

Teleplay by Mark Laffery and Will Staples

(release Oct 9)

The words at the start inform (warn) that the series is a dramatization of fictional events that are based on true events.  The first episode totally omits what occurred in the original film, the brief story of pilot Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier.  That part of the story depicted in Kaufman’s film was not really historically accurate, so omitting that section, one can assume that the filmmakers of the new series are attempting a more accurate account.

The episode is called Sierra Hotel because that is the venue of the briefing of the pilots that have been picked for selection for the Mercury 7.   The pilots are subjected to rigorous scrutiny both physically and mentally while their family background also examined to determine whether they have THE RIGHT STUFF.  The 7 are eventually selected at the end of the episode.

Of all the candidates, the episode concentrates on John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) and Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman).   The two are depicted as totally different personalities - Glenn the ore stable one with Alan as the troublemaker.  But both are treated as white heroes, making American great and putting down the Russians.  The emphasis on this fact would likely upset many viewers. 

It appears that the episode is gearing up for the pissing contest between Glenn and Shepard.  The episode lets the viewers take which side they prefer as the teleplay is generally impartial between the two, though favouring Glenn just a little.

The first episode is an introduction and plays as one.  Th aim is to show the rigour these men have gone through.  Whether they have THE RIGHT STUFF is primed to be determined in the next few episodes.

EPISODE 2: GOODIES

Directed by John Coles

Teleplay by Lizzie Korder   

(release Oct 9)

The first thing to note is that this episode was written by a female.  The episode shows more  of the astronaut’s wives points of view and how their lives are affected by the sudden fame, which might not be their liking.  When a reporter repeatedly shows up on one of their doorsteps, things turn ugly.  A deal is reached with LIFE Magazine to give each astronaut $25 grand and they keep all other reporters away in exchange for exclusives with LIFE.  This references to the GOODIES of the episode’s title.

The soundtrack is full of 60’s tunes though it is quite annoying that the songs are picked to tell the audience exactly how to feel at each point in time.  For example, when an astronaut purchases a brand new fast car, the song “Call me Irresponsible” is heard on the soundtrack.

The astronauts are moved to Florida in this episode.  There is nothing really outstanding in this episode which concentrates on just three of the men - and their wives. 

Again the episode lauds America, how great it is, how this astronauts are heroes etc.  Americans will love it! 

So far, flaws and all, the first two episodes are extremely watchable.

(next)

EPISODE 3: SINGLE COMBAT WARRIOR

Directed by Louise N.S. Friedberg

Teleplay by Howard Korder

(release Oct 16)

The third episode is kind of egoistic in approach.  It is America being number 1, all the astronauts trying to be number 1 and the most important thing in the world is to prove America is number 1 with their first man in space.  Helping poorer countries in need or even  poverty in the U.S. are ignored.  The only time the episode talks about teamwork, the segment ends with the boss being hit on the head by a volleyball and the launch exploding, emphasizing the failure of teamwork and again lauding individuality. 

The case is made stronger by the episode concentrating on Alan Shepard, the most obnoxious and loud-mouthed of the Mercury 7.  He is the ‘single combat warrior’ of the episode title, which shows that one can overcome adversity which in this case is his ability to succeed in one of the anti-gravitational test units by sheer perseverance. 

If the episode is to show how self-centred America can be, it succeeds dutifully.   The third episode is the wrong stuff!

EPISODE 4: ADVENT

Directed by Nick Copus

Teleplay by Vinnie Wilhem

(release Oct 23)

A boring episode that runs longer than the first 3.  The setting is the advent of 1959.  The first half of the episode recounts all the troubles of the space program, highlighting the fact that the Americans cannot get a rocket off the ground.  In contrast, the Russians have taken photographs for the far side of the moon.  The worse worry is the funding of the program by the upcoming President.  The episode that takes a switch to the families of 3 astronauts, John, Alan and Gordy, looking like some family drama, giving the feeling as if the narrative needs some guidance.  Director Copus has the role of a traffic cop deciding who moves into the next scene.  It all ends with the New Year party ushering 1960 where everyone seems to be happy and having a good time.  Lets hope the next episode improves.

(other episodes to follow)

 

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