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This Week's Film Reviews (Nov 20, 2020)

14 Nov 2020

It is not December yet and there are 4 Christmas movies opening this week.  COLLECTIVE, a thriller doc is the best film (from Romania) opening this week.  All the reviews indicate at the end how each film can be viewed. It appears thattehre are more film every week than before theatres were closed.

 

Also Cinefranco begins this week - the best of commeical French cinema.

 

FILM REVIIEWS:

 

 

THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES: PART 2 (USA 2020) **
Directed by Chris Columbus

THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES: PART 2 is a Netflix original movie, the sequel to the 2018 film which was also a Netflix original.

Part 2 as in the original, follows the adventures of Kate Pierce (Darby Camp), a True Believer of Santa Claus (played by Kurt Russell) who helps him save Christmas.   She has a brother Teddy (Judah Lewis) who only briefly in the second film.  Christmas is at stake as an ex-elf of Santa, called Belsnickel( Julian Dennison) attempts to steal the start of Santa Village and thus destroy Christmas.

Goldie Hawn plays Mrs. Claus thought the film.  Hawn was the surprise in the original movie appearing only at the end as Mrs. Claus, she being the real wife of  Kurt Russell.  It is good to see Hawn again after long absence on the screen , she still projecting her charm.  It is Russell as Santa Claus who again steals the show like the first film.  But he is not as winning.  He does not croon Rock n Roll songs in jail wearing dark shades or utter priceless hilarious one-liners (example: “I got fat eating all those milk and cookies”.)   Russell gets to sing an original Christmas song at the airport (bigger but not necessarily better) and that is nowhere as good.  The other actors in the original appear in the sequel. 

The film aims at political correctness by having a female (girl) protagonist died by a black kid.  The white brother only appears at the beginning and disappears with his new girlfriend.

There is always a message in the family flick and in CHRONICLES 2, it is a Christmas one at that.  Corny as it is: Christmas is to where you are, but who you are with. 

The good one surprise comes with time travel through a wormhole where Kate gets to meet a boy, Doug who saves the day.  No more should be said to spoilt the surprise.

Number 2 has sufficient special effects and magic to entertain the younger ones.  Animation of the elves speaking their elfish language, the Santa Village, the reindeers and slight racing through the skies should fascinate and entertain them.

The villain is Belsnickel, an envious elf, in the form of a fat Latino looking child sporting a British accent, turns out more silly than evil.  He wants to start a new village to rival Santa’s by destroying Santa’s and stealing the star from Santa’s village, the one that gets the Bethlehem’s light.

This Chris Columbus at sub-par level.  Columbus best works include GREMLINS (under instruction by Spielberg not to make a scary but fun movie), HOME ALONE and the first HARRY POTTER film of the franchise.  He also co-produced the first CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES.

THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES PART 2 can nowhere be compared to the original made 2 years ago.  The first half of it is rather ‘blah’ but the film improves during the second half.  The original CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES happens also to be currently playing on Netflix.  See that one again instead of this generally unfunny sequel.  It would be a nifty exercise to see why the first works so well and the second doesn’t.

Trailer:

CODED BIAS (USA 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Shalini Kantayya

Intelligence is defined by the military as ‘the gathering of information’.  Artificial Intelligence is defined by scientists and engineers as learning that can learn from itself.  The subject in director Shanlini Kantayya’s doc is face recognition, a form of artificial intelligence in which conglomerates by means of computers can examine the images of suspecting people and categorize them according to the information the computers already have on them.  This is not right for it infringes on the rights of human beings.  It is shown that in the U.K., people have been photographed and stopped from the pictures taken of them at random and identified, often wrongly that they identify with some criminal.   The other factor is that the information is biased, favourable to the white male.

The doc goes on to prove the point taking the audience around the globe from the States to the U.K. to China, Africa and other parts of the world.   The most insightful information about face recognition is that it is already widely used and the comparison is made of the U.S. and China.  In China, every citizen has a social credit score.  If someone says something bad about the government,  his score as well as his or her family’s goes down.  A girl in China says to the camera that she favours this, as she can find out the score of her potential date without having to find it out by first going on several dates with the person.  The Americans say that they wish they would never reach this state in China.  The doc states that there is a significant difference between China an the U.S.  In China, all this is totally transparent while in the States, it is not. The recognition is hidden and used by companies for commercial purposes whereas in China it is mainly used for positive use.

One wishes that director Kantayya would have allowed the big businesses like IBM, Amazon and Microsoft have their say to defend themselves.  The companies claim to be cooperative and it would have been eye-opening to hear what they have to say, whether true or false.

The doc follows two main characters.  One is Joy Buolamwini, founder of The AJL ( the Algorithmic Justice League) who at one point the film, wears a super hero cape like a crusader for justice.  The other is Cathy O’Neil, author of ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’.  The two who know each other, having met at a bookshop where Cathy was doing a book signing, have worked together or the identical purpose of exposing the threats to civil liberties posed by an increasingly data-driven automation.

CODE BIAS ends like most documentaries touting injustice do, with a positive note.  The U.S. has seen, as the film informs, many States banning the use of face recognition software with  with Amazon putting a hold on its Face Recognition for a year.  Still, there needs to be some federal approval on new algorithms as the film also informs.  The fight is never over.

CODED BIAS’s virtual launch will kick off community screenings, and a series of online conversations with scientists and citizens across the globe about the ethical use of artificial intelligence.  Coded Bias’s theatrical release is part of a national Science on Screen initiative, promoting scientific literacy through entertainment, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Coded Bias had its world premiere in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.  The film is a necessary watch  as everyone’s lives are impacted by this technology and even more so in the future.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/414917737

 

COLLECTIVE (Colectiv) (Romania/Luxembourg 2019) ****
Directed by Alexander Nanau

On October 30, 2015 a fire broke out at the COLLECTIVE club. 27 died and 180 were injured.  37 more died after 4 months in hospital. 

Unfolding in real time, Alexander Nanau’s COLLECTIVE (Colectiv) is a gripping documentary that follows a team of journalists who expose Romania’s health-care fraud in the wake of a deadly nightclub fire.  The images of the fire is even more disturbing being shown on the big screen in a block that represents a podcast taken by a cell phone.  The sounds of screaming can be heard before the screen goes completely white. Half way through, the doc switches the protagonist from the journalist to the health minister and the work he undertakes to overhaul the corrupt system.

The cause of the initial 27 dead is mostly due to the insufficient number of fire exits.  The press notes indicate the reason were the bribes taken by the authorities and cut corners during the construction.  The death of the burnt victims in the hospital was due to corruption on several levels,  The former was not investigated in the film but the latter to great detail.

The film begins with what appears to be a public hearing.  A man sadly and angrily stands up to complain against the rotten health system.  He says his son had died 12 days later after hospital admission due to a delay in the transfer to another hospital and that his son had been killed by bacteria.  “How can a communications error kill my son?” he complains.  The  complaint is quickly followed by several others that share death due to unfortunate identical circumstances.  The worst thing is that the officials keep reassuring the public that surviving victims will receive good care, as good as any other found in the rest of the European Union.       

The daily newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor (Sports Gazette) springs into action.  Intrepid reporters led by Catalin Tolontan discover corruption at a local firm that supplies disinfectants to hospitals.  The disinfected disinfectants were diluted and deemed useless in combating bacteria in the hospitals.

The film feels more like a mystery thriller than a doc when the disinfectant firm’s owner dies under mysterious circumstances and the health minister quietly resigns.  Another health minister is appointed and he works doggedly at changing the health system.

According to the news, the firm’s owner died from suicide.  The theory put forth by director Nanau is that he was murdered in order to silence him from revealing his conspirators.  His wife claimed that he was not one to take his own life.  The reason the health minister resigned remains a mystery.  The new health minister is Vlad Voiculescu, who is a former activist which the audience is told through the film titles. The corruption then revealed in Romania is unbelievable.  Trump looks like an angel in comparison.  The climax is the election where one hopes that the Social Democrats will lose their power.  The question of whether a new party would make a difference. is conveniently left out in the film. 

The doc also focuses on one of the burn victims.   A young woman,  Tedy Ursuleanu – with burn scars and amputated fingers – uses art to heal her trauma. Her image of her amputation and scarred body is scary.  (See image inset.) Director Nanau makes his point.

  What begins as a small doc turns out to be an ambitious voice reflecting the need for the world to change - from lying corrupt Governments (the Trump Administration) and the work that still needs to be done.  The Social Democrats again won the election at the end, but record numbers showed up at the polls.  Collective is Romania’s 2021 Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film (the old Best Foreign Film).  The short list will be announced in December and the nominees in 2021.  The film is available November 20 to rent on the Apple TV app!  The film also opens in select theatres – November 27 in Vancouver and throughout the fall in other cities.  It gets my vote for Best Documentary Feature of the year.

Trailer:

DOLLY PARTON’S CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Debbie Allen

Dolly Parton does her Christmas number in a comedy musical centred on a female Scrooge, Regina Fuller (Christina Baranski) about to sell the town of Fullerville so that some giant mall can be built in its place.  All the residents are given eviction notices and they have to move out by Christmas eve.  Why Christmas eve?  Because Regina has no heart.  She is called by Fullerville ‘the wickedest witch of the middle’ and the ‘Queen of Mean’.  So it requires a miracle to save the town.  The miracle appears in the form of an angel with spirit, played obviously by Dolly Parton.  Jenifer Lewis is in the musical too, leading a few of the musical numbers so expect a lot of spirited dances - Christmas style.  Lewis is Hollywood’s most recognizable face, having made more than 300 appearances on television.

Parton is generous enough to give the film’s spotlight to Baranski and Lewis.  Baranski has more screen time than Parton and Lewis has more outrageous songs and dances that her.  But Parton gets to play the angel.

The main story is of ‘Scrooge’ Regina seeing the light and changing her mind.  The film goes to having her change her heart and then her heart to change her mind.  The script includes subplots of a father and daughter, Violet, a pastor and his girlfriend, a love affair between Regina and an old flame, Carl (Treat Willimas) and an angle-in-training, Felicity (Jeanine Mason) who works for Regina but under the instruction of Parton as the Angel with No Name.  Director Allen directs the film like conducting a Gospel church choir. 

Call it the film’s most moving or the most sappy segment.  This is the one in which Regina has a change of heart.  After being put downy the angry residents at the town hall meeting, she goes into a bar to have a drink, only to be served by Violet, a child as all the adults are away at the meeting.  They sing the song “Life is not a fairytale”.  Regina learns that Violet lost her mother because the mother had gone to get medicine for her when she was ill and got into an accident in a storm.   Regina learn that she was responsible for closing the local drug store that made Violet’s mother have to travel out of town.  If that is not sappy enough, it gets worse, when Violet is hit by a car and is on her death bed in hospital.

Beware!  As mentioned, this Dolly Parton vehicle is extremely cheesy.  And extremely sappy.  Fortunately, the humour is hilarious and the script (by Maria S. Schlatter, no stranger to comedy) gives Baranaski the best lines, which she delivers like a top notch comic.  It is an odd blend of hilarity and sappiness.  One cannot help but cheer for the good spirit of the film.  And for Dolly Parton now at the age of 74, delivers her brand of Christmas magic in her rhinestones.

The film is a Netflix original making its debut Sunday November 22nd.  As Parton, the angel sings in the movie: “We all need a little Christmas.”

Trailer: https://tvline.com/2020/10/22/dolly-parton-christmas-on-the-square-netflix-trailer-video/

 

THE LAST VERMEER (USA 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Dan Friedkin

An artist, Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) is suspected of selling a valuable painting, a Vermeer, to the Nazis, but there is more to the story than meets the eye.  After the war (the film opens with the setting in May 29, 1945),  Lt. Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) becomes an investigator assigned the task of identifying and redistributing stolen art, resulting in the flamboyant van Meegeren being accused of collaboration — a crime punishable by death.  But, despite mounting evidence, Piller, with the aid of his assistant, Minna Holmberg (Vicky Krieps), becomes increasingly convinced of Han's innocence and finds himself in the unlikely position of fighting to save his life.   The film follows the relationship between the two men, the investigation and the resulting trial where van Meegeren is tried for death.

Director Friedkin’s dedication to the project, he himself a lover of the arts is apparent from the details of his film.  The research that goes into proving a painting’s authenticity is clear in the execution of the courtroom scene.  In reality, there were a total of seven Vermeer paintings Han van Meegeren sold to the Nazis between 1936 and 1942; every one of them was highly valued by Hitler’s top officers. 

The film examines the very nature of art is enigmatic — how it’s created, why it moves us, and what classifies it as great in the eyes of experts and in history.   In one segment, the failed van Meegeren gives his spill of how he has been wronged by the art world - how his work had been degraded by critics because he did not play the game.  The value a civilization puts on its art and its artists the film shows, reflects itself, and how it views its inner life and values

Though set in the Netherlands, the dialogue of the film is English with European accents.  It would have been more authentic if the film was shot in Dutch with subtitles.  In one scene, a character talks about redemption then saying that more importantly is survival being the key.  The word importantly is a word that has only been used in the last 4 years or so in the English language and certainly not in1945, after the Second World War.  It is just as if a character in the film made a mistake and says: “My bad!” or uses the word ‘mother fucker” again terms never used in those times.

THE LAST VERMEER is a handsomely mounted production with the departments of production design, costumes, hair and make up and even music deserved top marks.  The one scene where troops in their vehicles observed from a window before the camera moves to the outside is an impressive image to remember.

The two leads deliver top notch performances complementing each other.  Dane actor Claes Bang plays the Jewish investigator in a controlled intensity that contacts Guy Pearce outlandish artist.  Bang has been in recent films about art paintings like THE SQUARE and THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY including this one.  Pearce appears to have a fondness of playing weird outlandish characters as in his recent films such as the Reverend in BRIMSTONE.

For those who love courtroom drama, there is an excellent 15 minute piece that should satisfy fans.  And for those who love plot twists there is a solid discovery at the film’s climax, not to be revealed in this review.  It is really hard to believe that all these incredible events are based on a true story.   The film is adapted from the novel ‘The Man who made Vermeers’ by Jonathan Lopez.

THE LAST VERMEER opens November 20 in theatres (where permitted) across Canada!  It is an absorbing, handsomely mounted production of an incredible true story on art and the depths human beings go to achieve their goals.

Trailer:

LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST (US 2020) ****

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Swiss Director Alexandre O. Phillipe is best known for the documentary films DOC OF THE DEAD, THE PEOPLE vs. GEORGE LUCAS, and most important of all, the 2017 post-modern documentary examination of the Psycho shower scene directed by Alfred Hitchcock entitled 78/52.  LEAP OF FAITH is about the making of THE EXORCIST as told by its director William Friedkin.

LEAP OF FAITH is all about filmmakers and filmmaking.  It should delight and inspire filmmakers and cineastes and then some.   The name William Friedkin should be familiar to those and if not, it is probably time then it is time to sit up and pay attention.  LEAP OF FAITH is primarily director Friedkin sitting on his armchair with fire burning in the fireplace background speaking to the camera on filming his most famous work, William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST and his contemplation on life.  Though one might dismiss the latter as subjective nonsense, it is worthwhile examining what  influenced the man in directing the scenes in arguably the scariest movie of all time.  Friedkin’s talking to the camera is interspersed with scenes from THE EXORCIST as well as those form his/her works like KILLER JOE and THE FRENCH CONNECTION where he won the Academy Award for Best Director.

Everything has to do with fate or destiny.  These are the words of Friedkin as the doc opens.  He talks about how he got the job after famous directors like Mike Nichols turned the project down.  He ties in how fate got him into filmmaking as a child, when he entered a movie theatre for the first time at the age of 7.  He describes the unforgettable experience of the light going down and the screen illuminating.  “This is what I want to do,” he told himself.  He talks about the element of fate in Orson Welles CITIZEN KANE.  Besides this element in life, he talks about other incidents that greatly affected his life.  One is a visit to the temple grounds in Kyoto where he saw a display of isolated rocks in a sea of finely combed sand.  He explains how the display got him tearing uncontrollably.

But what most audiences will come to see are Friedkin’s thoughts on filming THE EXORCIST.  There are lots to satisfy here.  Friedkin also talks about how Jason Miller was cast as the Father Karras.  Miller had called Friedkin and told him that he was Father Karras, convinced him.  The studios had to pay off Stacy Keach full salary as he had already been signed on initially for the part. Friedkin also talks about key element in filmmaking and how they were utilized in THE EXORCIST.  One was music.  He had prepared the great Bernard Herrmann  to score his movie.  The score was not right.   Friedkin also talks about grace notes and other devices.  The most important segment of the doc is his take on the last scene in THE EXORCIST where Father Karras jumps out the window to his death with the demon inside him.

Firedkin also talks about images and the effect of paintings on his images.  The misty image of the priest outside the house below a street lamp with his figure illuminated from the bedroom light coming from the upper storey of the house in THE EXORCIST is a masterpiece.

This lyrical and spiritual cinematic essay on THE EXORCIST is exactly what the doctor ordered for ones faith to be restored in the cinema during these times when movie theatres are being shut down left and right.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5FXjdKxgrA&feature=youtu.be

 

THE LEGO STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (UA 2020) ***

Directed by Ken Cunningham

After 9 theatrical films including the first one directed by George Lucas and multiple spin-offs including TV and video games, comes yet another spin off made with Lego.  The Lego film franchise is also growing so tremendously that I myself cannot remember all the Lego films made so far.

The STAR WARS stories have already morphed into too many parts going back and forth in time so it could be good to know where in time this holiday special stands in terms of the series.

Directly following the events of  STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (the only STAR WARS film I have not seen),  Rey leaves her friends while preparing for Life Day and training young Finn, to set off on a new adventure with BB-8 to gain a deeper knowledge of the Force.   But before he is able to At a mysterious Jedi Temple, she is hurled into a cross-timeline adventure through beloved moments in Star Wars cinematic history, coming into contact with Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Yoda, Obi-Wan and other iconic heroes and villains from all nine Skywalker saga films.  But will she make it back in time for the Life Day feast and learn the true meaning of holiday spirit?  It is obvious she does as the film emphasizes the importance of family, even over saving the Galaxy.

   The filmmakers put outlandish comedy over action in the film and it works!  Even when the fight scenes occur, the villain says: “No more talkie talkie, more fightie  fightie!”   There are humour and laugh out moments every minute with jokes like the choice of an appropriate title ‘supreme leader’  or the plot of ‘tossing Skywalker down the reactor’.  The villain’s main ingenious plan: “Grab Skywalker and friends and toss them down the reactor!”  The LEGO films are fast and furiously funny compared to the STAR WARS films which are action packed.  The blend works as director Cunningham is clearly aware that one can only incite so much action or thrills from Lego figures.  So he correctly goes for hilarity.

It should be noted that this film is derived from a 1978 STAR WARS TV spin-off called THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL.  This was never rebroadcast nor released as a home video due to negative reception.   Directed by Steve Binder, it was the first Star Wars spin-off film, set between the events of the original 1977 film and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).   In the similar storyline that ties the special together, following the events of the original film, Chewbacca and Han Solo attempt to visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate "Life Day”. The characters in the LEGO version are changed due to the different time setting.

One might cringe at this collaboration between Lucasfilm and LEGO, but this short 44 minute works.  It is totally fun and entertaining.  It is also a good and safe idea that it is released on the Disney+ streaming service.

 THE LEGO STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL premieres Tuesday, November 17 on the streaming service.

Trailer:

THE PRINCESS SWITCH: SWITCHED AGAIN (USA 2020) **

Directed by Mark Rohl

As Christmas arrives, so do the Christmas movies - and Netflix has a handful of them.  THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES and THE PRINCESS SWITCH both Netflix original movies debuted in 2018 and both films 2 years later emerge with their sequels, both debuting on Netflix within one week of each other.  They share the same traits.  They are pale comparisons to the original.  PRINCESS SWITCH and SWITCHED AGAIN share the same director, Mark Rohl.

It takes 5 minutes at the film’s start to get the audience on par with the plot of the sequel - mostly done with voiceover.   The story follows Margaret Delacourt, the Duchess of Montenaro, who suddenly inherits the throne to her home country of Montenaro. As her Christmas coronation approaches, she and Stacy switch places once again so Margaret can fix her relationship with Stacy's friend Kevin.  Unbeknownst to both women, a third look-alike, Margaret's wicked cousin Lady Fiona, disguises herself as Margaret in a scheme to steal the throne.  Vanessa Hudgens plays all three roles.

The Duchess, Margaret is torn between two male suitors - the handsome Antonio (Tony), the chief of staff who has known her since childhood schooldays and in her employ in the palace and her old flame Kevin.  The audience is kept guessing who the one she ultimately choses - not that anyone would really care.  But the story plays like the typical but dressed up Christmas romantic comedy.  I would pick Tony - more handsome and more charming.  Tony is also more suited for the current State of Affairs.

The question is the excuse for Margaret and Stacy to switch again.  Is there a need to such and will they do the switch?   Obviously yes, or this movie will not exist, but it is a sorry not really credible excuse for the switch.  They switch so that Margaret can find out more about Kevin and their possible rekindling relationship.  At this point, the film goes downhill, not that it had been uphill at any point.  One knows for sure that Kevin is the one for Margaret and the other more handsome beau left to do menial State of Affairs duty for the fictitious Kingdom - again, not that anyone cares.  The problem of the audience distinguishing between Margaret and Stacy as they are both played by the same actress arises.  Before, one can tell the difference, as Margaret would speak with a British accent.  Now that they have switched, Margaret has to to speak that way to fool the other characters in the cast.

The production sets, costumes, music departments all do a solid job for the Christmas Kingdom.  One cannot help but recall that THE PRINCESS SWITCH is a rip-off of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, the last time I can recall made into a movie not too long ago in 1977 entitled CROSS SWORDS in the U.S. directed by Richard Fleischer with Raquel Welch.

At its worst, the plot is once again completely predictable, with the film going downhill into cliched territory (as most romantic comedies do).  Both Margaret and Stacy, during the switch, discover their true love while Fiona gets her come-uppance.  (Many years of Community Service.  Really?)  The only fun thing in the film is observing all the fake British accents.

The film is now playing on Netflix.

Trailer:

 

THE REAL RIGHT STUFF (USA 2020) ***
Directed Tom Jennings

One might think that Tom Wolf’s novel THE RIGHT STUFF has been adapted to death in film adaptations.  The best of this is the critically acclaimed but commercially failure THE RIGHT STUFF directed by Philip Kaufman in 1983 that went on to win 4 Academy Awards.  On October the 9th, Disney+ aired the Warner Bros. TV production series THE RIGHT STUFF with 8 different episodes that ends on November the 29th, the date this new doc from National Geographic opens. 

The series plays more like a soap opera concentrating on the families of the astronauts, their family problems, astronauts’ affairs and fights.  Directed by various directors, the series is all over the place, and interest is lost by the mid section of the episodes.  It is good timing that the doc starts after the series has ended, as who would want to watch a  dramatization of real events when one can watch THE REAL RIGHT STUFF as a documentary.

The doc could have arrived earlier.  It is now nearly six decades after NASA successfully sent its first astronaut into space, restoring the world’s faith in the U.S. space program.   THE REAL RIGHT STUFF ventures back to the very beginning of the high-stakes space race era, always emphasizing that American must beat the Russians in the space race.  It tells the remarkable true story of the nation’s first astronauts, the original Mercury 7, and pulls from hundreds of hours of archival film and radio broadcasts, interviews, home movies and other rare and never-before-seen material to catapult viewers back to the late 1950s.  The doc is clearly free  of modern day narration and interviews.  This is not surprising as most of the astronauts are gone  now.  John Glenn the first astronaut of the Mercury 7 to orbit the Earth died at the age of 95 in 2016.  Narration is done mostly by Tom Wolfe, the author of the novel as well as the various news broadcasters as archive footage of the launches and commentary are seen on screen.  Director Jennings has assembled a whole lot of archive footage together (with editor David Tilman) to deliver a cohesive narrative, to his credit.  Viewers are thus given unparalleled access to the early days of the space race.

The best parts are when the doc gets into action/thriller mode especially with the footage of the flights of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter.  Carpenter’s was the most thrilling as he lost communications between NASA during the last bout of his flight.  Not until his pod was opened was it certain that he had made it.  His wife Renee’ reactions, shown in the footage, add to the suspense.

The doc aims also to serve as a history lesson on the space program - on the urgency of the program (to beat the Russians; to maintain National Pride); its beginnings, challenges and successes and the politics that went on with it.

THE REAL RIGHT STUFF is a comprehensive examination of the Space Program as well as the Mercury 7 astronauts that serves as a more efficient watch than the 8-episode TV series.

Trailer:

 

SHAWN MENDES: IN WONDER (USA 2020) **
Directed by Grant Singer

Shawn Peter Raul Mendes is a 22-year old Canadian singer and songwriter.  He gained a following in 2013, posting song covers on the video-sharing application Vine. He has since released three studio albums, headlined three world tours, and received several awards.

To his credit, in 2018, he became the first artist to achieve four number-one singles on the Adult Pop Songs chart before the age of 20 as well. In 2019, he released the hit singles "If I Can't Have You" and "Señorita", with the latter peaking at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100.

The doc on Shawn Mendes can hardly be called a biography since it is hardly fitting for a biopic be made on someone who is only 22.  22 is less than a quarter the age that most artists live to.  When the film opens, the audience sees Mendes insisting that this is not about his ego, but the doc seems to show otherwise, with one scene with him spreading out of his arms like the Jesus figure in Rio de Janeiro and in the repeated scenes of him taking a shower displaying his chiseled youthful body

There is one main problem of this doc.  One is its subject.  Mendes, the subject is too young for a full biopic to be made of him.  Secondly, the target audience is likely to be young teen females infatuated with this singer, as evident by images of his huge base of young females fans during his concerts.   It is difficult for adults above the age of 25 to have Mendes as a role model, even more difficult when it is noted that Mendes had Justin Bieber as his career role model.   Not to put Mendes down, I do like his songs especially his hit “Treat You Better”.  At best, the doc shows the artist at his self-discovery and with his family and friends and at his most vulnerable.

Mendes is talented.  He learnt the guitar by watching YouTube videos.  He learnt how to survive in the music industry.  His only downside in life, well he is only 22, is when he had medical problems with his vocal cords and had to cancel his Rio concert.

Besides showing Mendes in the shower, his huge number of female teen fans screaming or crying when one of his concerts is cancelled, there are shots of him with his girlfriend, Camila and his family.

Time Magazine listed Mendes as one of the most influential 100 people of the year.  This may be true.  One can hope that this teen will grow up to be a good citizen, make a difference in the world and not fall into the traps of fame.  In the doc, Mendes did confess that the enjoys hanging around with family and friends and smoking the odd joint.  I have nothing against drugs - in fact joints are not longer illegal in Canada - I do wish the best for this undoubtedly talented and influential singer.  The doc does bring back for adults good memories of youth, especially for me when I was once young and pretty, but in the later years, one can only look back at what good one has done to make a difference in the world or in others.

SHAWN MENDES: IN WONDER is available on Netflix from Monday November the 23rd.


Trailer:

SOUND OF METAL (USA 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Darius Marder

SOUND OF METAL is an American drama of a drummer who loses his hearing.  A first time feature, it is aptly directed by co-written by Darius Marder, and by the looks of the film is a director to be reckoned with.

The film goes through the typical story line expected of a drummer losing his hearing.  First, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is introduced, first when performing as a drummer with his singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke).  The performance involves very loud music and sound, as is such when a live band performs.  Personally, I hate live band performances, especially in an enclosed bar or club due to this reason of overloud music.  I am glad that era has passed, and it is DJ mixed music that prevails.   This loudness is hinted as the cause of Ruben deafness.  The film goes through the usual denial and then acceptance by Ruben. The doctor’s advice to Ruben says it all and explains the hearing problem.  Of course, Ruben, being the person that he is - wants a quick cure.  Which is not possible.  The hearing could be improved by the eliminated exposure of loud noises; implants that will help.  But they are costly at $40 and $80 thousand a pop.  It is revealed later that Ruben is a rehabilitated drug addict who has done the hard stuff like heroin.  But he is sober and his girlfriend Lou is very sympathetic and loving.  His sponsor makes him go meet Joe (Paul Raci), who leads a deaf community. With the help from them, Ruben struggles to accept his situation.

It is in the deaf community that the film takes a more sombre turn.  Ruben is taken away from the world of loud noise and immersed in a totally different world of quiet, where the deaf community accepts their predicament and do not consider it a handicap.  Ruben struggles with this, always hoping to get mishearing back again.  As such, he does not fit in the community.  The actors in the deaf community are genuinely deaf, giving the film the feel of authenticity.

One must give credit to the sound engineers (led by sound designer Nicolas Becker) working on the film.  The film alternates among silence, muffled and distorted sounds and normal sounds so that the audience feels what Ruben goes though.

This is Ruben ’s story which looks very much like a true biography of many a drummer or band performer.

Riz Ahmed (THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, his best film) is in real life a rapper and acted as a rapper in the upcoming 2020 film MOGUL MOWGLI.  His passionate performance in this film shows.  For the film, Ahmed took six months of drum lessons and also learned American Sign Language.

It is interesting to note that heavyweights Dakota Johnson and Matthias Schoenaerts were initially signed on to play the duo but Ahmed and Cooke perform admirably.  Ahmed, an actor demanding more recognition, gets my vote for best actor of the year.  An actor going all out with research and study for a role in a film should be respected.

SOUND OF METAL opens in select theatres including Virtual TIFF Bell Lightbox and digitally and on demand Dec 4th.

Trailer:

 

TEAM MARCO (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Julio Vincent Gambuto

If the premise of a grandfather moving into the grandson’s room, invading his space and privacy sounds familiar, it is the identical one for TEAM MARCO and the recent Tim Hill Comedy THE WAR WITH GRANDPA, the latter being more heavyweight featuring Robert De Niro as grandpa.

In TEAM MARCO, the script co-written by director Julio Vincent Gambuto adds in the sport of bocce ball, something that I have not heard of before.  Apparently bocce, of Italian origin is an extremely popular sport quite similar to the French pétanque that I know of, as I studied French at the Alliance Francaise where they had pétanque matches on the weekend.  Similar but different.  Marco forms a team to challenge his grandfather’s in a bocce match.  Unlike boxing, football or hockey, bocce is a quiet game where one can hardly get terribly excited screaming from their seats while watching the game.  So, director/writer Gambuto has other tricks up his sleeve during the confrontational bocce match, not to be revealed in this review.

The story involves the typical precocious 12-year old boy obsessed with video games, his cell phone and his iPad.  Marco (Owen Vaccaro) hardly leaves the house and his mother, Anna (Anastasia Ganias) has to ration him screen time.   It is currently just the two of them as the father, Richie (Louis Cancelmi) has apparently left the household for some new woman.  But when Marco's grandmother dies and his grandfather moves in, Marco's life is turned upside-down and he's forced…   to go play outside.    Nonno" (Grandpa) introduces him to bocce ball and to the neighbourhood crew of old Italian men who play daily at the local court.   With sport, laughter and love, Marco finds connection to other people and rounds up a team of neighbourhood kids to take on Marco's grandfather and his pals.

Both THE WAR WITH GRANDPA and TEAM MARCO are funny enough.  Though there is no Oscar Winner in TEAM MARCO, Anthony Patellis (well-known actor from THE SOPRANO) holds his own.  But it is Owen Vaccaro who plays 12-year old Marco steals the show.

Despite the familiar storyline, director Gambuto thankfully holds back the sappiness and lets the charm of the script follow through.  The inclusion of an Italian family with Italian jokes adds a little spice to the story.  The film is set in present day Staten Island, New York City.   The film side-tracks a bit with Anna and Richard, when the father suddenly shows up at Marco’s birthday party.  Director Gambuto has also done his homework on game technology and what appears on screen would be fully appreciated by young teens hooked on gaming.  Nothing really surprising occurs in the script so charm is Gambuto’s weapon which he  uses quite effectively together with a few nostalgic songs like “Till There Was You” the 1957 song from the musical THE MUSIC MAN.

TEAM MARCO is a harmless family comedy with a message that is a bit too obvious - real friends is more important than gaming. Perhaps a film, parents should force their kids to watch!

 

Trailer:

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Canada 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Matthew Rankin

In Mathew Rankin’s feature debut THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, he draws his inspiration from the old movies in terms of German impressionism and from more recent fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Madden’s gothic surreal films.  THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is closest to Madden’s THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (2015) in which both films share chapters on weird competitions taken by the film’s characters. 

The film is an epic of Mackenzie King, or more accurately his quest to become Canada’s Prime Minister, told in 10 Chapters set in the Toronto of 1899.  Chapters titles go like these…  Chapter 1 is entitled :In how Mackenzie falls in love; Chapter 2: Dominion School of Brotherhood; Chapter 3: The Solitary Vice (of boots) and so on.  These are chapters that affect and are part of Mackenzie’s life, though not necessarily connected with each other.  But they serve to tie the various segments of the film, disconnected though they may seem into a narrative whole. 

The film has a refreshing humour and it a laugh-out loud moment every minute or so, that is both fresh and surreal.  Toronto looks like a Kafka-is society with its oddly shaped architectures and weird goings-on.  Rankin includes some sexual kinkiness with Mackenzie developing and  indulging in  his boot fetishes that eventually lead him into some trouble.  He is warned by a Dalai Lama looking priest who gives him a cactus plant that symbolizes a warning from him.  When Mackenzie masturbates to the boots, the cactus spurts gooey liquid at the top.  In short, the film is a bizarre biopic of William Lyon Mackenzie King (David Beirne), which reimagines the former Canadian Prime Minister’s early life as a series of abject humiliations, both professional and sexual.  Though cartoonish in its looks, Beware! - as there are segments of S&M, violence, sex, humiliation and other assorted nasties that should all be taken with a grain of salt. 

Director Rankin dresses his lady characters with moustaches or have them performed by males in hideous drag.  The dialogue is equally strange.  Mackenzie’s proposal of marriage to his mother’s nurse, Nurse Lapointe includes taking advantage of family discounts.

The film, set in Toronto with many Torontonian references like the Baron of Mississauga (aka Lady Violet) and Ossington Apartments that might go over the heads of audiences not living in Toronto.  Mackenzie’s gifts include a log from Hyde Park and a bouquet of sticks from the Cabbagetown Ravine.  Still the film is a most original delight.  Canada is described as one failed orgasm after another by Lady Violet.

Politics, as would enter into any film abut a Prime Minister rears its head in terms of contests like races replacing world wars.  The race forms the film’s climax.

Winner of the Best Canadian First Feature Film Award at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, THE TWENTIETH CENTURY set in both English and French opens in virtual theatres this week.  With the aim to shock and surprise with weirdness of images, dialogue and characters, the film gets my vote for Best Canadian feature of the year.

Trailer:

VANGUARD (China 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Stanley Tong

Director Stanley Tong and action comedy star Jackie Chan team up once again (RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, FIRST STRIKE) in their 9th collaboration in what they do best - ridiculous tongue-in-cheek martial-arts action comedy.   Asians, especially those in Hong Kong are familiar with this genre of action comedy, most films making the big bucks in the Asian box-office.  For westerners, this might be a first and unfamiliar look at the genre.  VANGUARD, like other films in the genre, is entertaining guilty fun with superior choreographed action sequences.  Just don’t underestimate the artistic excellence in other departments.  Editor Chi Wai Yau does a remarkable job splicing together the action scenes during the Chinese New Year celebrations in London.  VANGUARD has a much larger budget than most similar films with shooting taking place in 9 cities across 5 countries including London, Dubai, Zambia, India, and China.

VANGUARD, the head of which is played by Jackie Chan, is a covert security company made up of ex-military and mercenaries who supply protection and security services for the very rich and famous.  One of their employers is an accountant who had unknowingly made money for an evil villain who seeks weapons for mass destruction.  Omar, who is affiliated with the world’s deadliest mercenary organization, wants money from the accountant due to him or he will kill any of his family members, one of whom is in Africa supporting animal rights.  The African segments with the wild animals are especailly cheesy.

The plot or story in this kind of film hardly matters.  It is just an excuse for action comedy in which Jackie Chan is an expert of.  He is joined here by other younger fighters to provide the excitement and entertainment expected of his fans.

VANGUARD has a wide theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada including drive-ins and IMAX theatres on November 20, 2020.    Link to find theatre nearby screening this film: 

https://vanguardmovie.com

 

Trailer:

 

 

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