76 DAYS (USA 2020) **
Directed by Hao Wu, Wei Xichen and Anonymous
To the credit of the directors, 76 DAYS is the first documentary on Covid-19. It is directed by New York filmmaker Hao Wu (PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE) and two China-based journalists, Weixi Chen and “Anonymous,” someone who took enormous personal risks to film at four different hospitals and does not want his or her name known. It provides a vital look at the earliest days of the COVID-19 Outbreak in Wuhan, China. That is about it!
Now almost a year has passed and people around the world would have been saturated by the news of the awful toll of Covid-19. Among these are the deaths of the elderly, distress of the front-line workers, lockdowns and the hope of an effective vaccine.
The title of the doc comes from the 76 DAYS, the period of time Wuhan, China remained in lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 virus that is still affecting the world today. Wuhan was the first city in the world to be affected. The film records life in the city of Wuhan for the 11 million people who lived there while focusing on the local hospital. There, dedicated staff, the front line workers go beyond their duty to care for the infected, mainly old people, some who recover and others that do not. A segment shows a hospital staff informing the family of those who passed away. It is a raw look at the stress and trauma in a lockdown but the film, which does not contain a voiceover, does not inform or educate what many already know from the news that has saturated the media. Unfortunately, the hospital scenes are nothing that audiences have not already seen in the news.
Wuhan has contained the virus. The film does not provide any insight of how a lockdown works and how the virus is contained. It does not address the issue of residents refusing to obey the lockdown rules or what would happen to them if they don’t. There is no voiceover or narrative indicating any head or tail of the documentary. One would expect some comparison between how the virus is handled between China and the U.S. or perhaps Europe. No such luck!
A major disappointment! One would expect after watching the film to come out wiser or more insightful on the Covid-19 virus, at least from the Wuhan point of view. The doc has received a lot of praise everywhere, but it is the film’s content that people are praising, not this lazy doc.
76 DAYS premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival when I first saw it. The doc looks dated at present. The doc launches in Virtual Cinemas Nationwide Beginning Friday, December 4
BLACK BEAR (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine
One wonders the reason the film is called BLACK BEAR. Will a black bear ever show up in the film or affect the film’s story? Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine makes the audience sit out his entire film to find out.
Director Levine has two stories told in his fourth feature film. The stories are weaved together in quite an ingenuous way. Whether this works is up to the individual to determine, but definitely credit should be given to him for the attempt.
The film is a three handler. There are two stories. In both stories, all three characters are unsuccessful in their careers. In the first, Aubrey Plaza plays the role of Allison, the actress turned awkward director with the kind of disdain and sarcasm she is famous for. Allison cannot decide half the time what to do, less whether she is serious or joking when she has a conversation. When the couple begins a heated argument upstairs, all Alison does is to grab the packet of weed on the table. The other leads are Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbot.
The first story begins with Allison, a single female who comes to stay at a cottage by the lake. One assumes she has paid for the airbnb type residence. A couple, Blair (Gadon) who is pregnant and Gabe (Abbott) is there to greet Allison. It becomes apparent during dinner that the couple argue a lot and have significant different opinions on the female role in a family. The end result is Blair catching Gabe and Allison having sex.
The second story has a troubled actress directed by her boyfriend. The actress’ name is Allison and the boyfriend is Gabe. The third person is Blair. During the difficult shooting of the last scene, Allison catches Blair having sex with Gabe. The same actors Plaza , Gadon and Abbott play Allison, Blair and Gabe respectively.
A recurring scene is Aubrey Plaza sitting in her swimsuit on the dock looking out into the lake. She then gets up, picks up the towel, wraps it around herself and walks to the cabin where she enters the room to open a notebook to do some writing. This scene occurs a number of times. The framing scene separates the two stories. The scene also serves to reset the events within the same story. It is a clever device devised by Living and one that offers a fresh look at the telling of a story. Of course, the film could be done in the ordinary way with the film split into 2 parts with each character played by different actors.
Like any new device, the novelty wears out after a while. The same can be said here but still this tactic works for the most part, offering a fresh look to the telling of a story. It is the device that eclipses the story which takes a secondary role.
Sarah Gadon shines in the first act while Aubrey Plaza shines in the second. Abbott forms good support in his secondary role.
An overall fresh and intriguing drama of discomfort.
DEAR SANTA (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Dana Nachman
The doc begins with kids talking to the camera of what they know of Santa. It is generally believed, as they say on camera that bad kids get coal while good ones get presents on Christmas eve. They also believe Santa loves milk and cookies and that he somehow knows what they want Therefore it would help that they wrote Santa. All this is going on while an uppity Christmas song is played on the soundtrack. “Everyone needs a little Christmas’.
DEAR SANTA shines a light on the 100-year-old Operation Santa Program of the United States Postal Service. What really happens to all the letters that children write to Santa? Each year, hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa arrive at Post Offices around the country. Through Operation Santa, the United States Postal Service makes it possible for the public to safely adopt these letters and make children’s dreams come true. The film invites audiences along for the magic of this massive endeavour. Traveling the country, much like Santa does on Christmas Eve, the film focuses on select Operation Santa centres: some in metropolitan areas like the massive operation in New York City and others in small towns where the post office is the heart of the community.
The doc records all of Santa’s helpers from the children who could themselves be recipients, mini-elves, to other elves to the big chief elf who all do their part to get all the presents delivered to the children throughout the country.
Writer/director Nachman’s film has limited research and concentrates its efforts on a few of the Operation Santa Centres, again, narrowing in on a few kids who receive their dream presents. Nachman, to the film’s benefit, includes a slant with the LGBT community. A gay child asks in a letter to Santa for some love for being gay. The voiceover goes on to add that everyone is different, noting that Rudolph the reindeer was made fun of (according to the song for being different with his red nose).
The camera follows the reactions of a number of children who receive their presents from Santa, after writing to him, thus registering their great surprise. The parents must know what is forthcoming and allowed the film crew into their houses to shoot the kids’ reactions when Santa or his elves come through the door with their Christmas presents. Hopefully, these are not re-enactments.
DEAR SANTA is a flawed but well-intentioned doc that aims relentlessly at audiences heartstrings to hammer in the message of the importance and need for Operation Santa. The end credits shamelessly praise Americans and solicit additional help for the cause for Operation Santa. The film could have included a note on what happens when letters to Santa are written in other countries, other English speaking countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. Are there similar networks that do similar good works? Even if not, mention would be good. Audiences are encouraged to follow the link at the end of the closing credits to do their part.
DEAR SANTA documentary will be released in theatres and Video on demand on Friday 4th December. https://www.dearsanta.movie/watch-at-home/
DEEP IN VOGUE (UK 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Dennis Keighron-Foster and Amy Watson
Not the first documentary to be made on the subject of Vogue, but certainly the first to show light on Vogue from the northern England points of view of Manchester and Liverpool. Running only around an hour, DEEP IN VOGUE, as its title suggests - plunges the audience into the deep world of Vogue that is both dark and dazzling.
The doc is quick to inform audiences of the Vogue culture - its houses and balls before entering more personally into the views of the individual Vogue members. The film also looks at Vogue, from the coloured perspective, which is essential, since black Vogue has more than overtaken the Vogue world by storm.
The Vogue house is made of members that do Vogue. Each is led by a House Mother. There is definitely competition and of course, and drama between the houses. The houses are engaged in competition balls where the Vogue members compete against each other. The film looks in detail at a few of these houses - primarily in Manchester and Liverpool - the House of Decay; House of Suarez; House of Cards and House of Ghetto. As evident from the members speaking on screen, each house is different for the other, each specializing in perhaps ethnicity or other attribute.
The film stresses the fact that one should not label the Vogue artists. They are not all queer. One mother is quick to establish the fact that members could be transgender, male, female , straight and of course, queer. Directors Watson and Keoghron-Foster allow a few of them, notably the house mothers to talk to the camera. “Its telling a story of who we are.” All of them share a fresh and lively sense of humour that rubs across to the audience.
The best segments of DEEP IN VOGUE are the runway performances. It is here that the audience see the best of Vogue performances - from the costumes, makeup, props and of course the fabulous dance moves. One of the house members also speaking demonstrate the differences of the performances - the north (of England) being more theatrical while more hardcore in the south.
On the less bright side of things, the dark side is also mentioned. The Vogue artists talk about their individual loneliness - how they were bullied when they were younger as a teen or a kid in school and when they went on for years without any friends. The Vogue houses allow these lonely souls with the common element of glamour and fabulousness to come together not only to perform but to be a support group. The film all includes a fund-raising performance for a friend that was murdered. “Celebrate life and what you get and what you are..” is the message from one of them.
Whether watching the performances, learning about the Vogue world or hearing the Vogue artists talk about their lives, there is not a dull moment. Bright, lively and totally exciting, one wishes this documentary would never end.
GODMOTHERED (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Sharon Maguire
(psoted Dec 10)
It is only the first week of December and there have been more than a dozen Christmas films that have opened, quite a few of them being from the Disney Studios. GODMOTHERED is yet another, set during Christmas and in the fairy tale land where dreams can come true - with the help of fairy Godmothers. A fresh take on fairy tales, the film opens in a place called Motherland, where Godmothers-in-training takes place in a school run by an ultra strict headmistress, Moira (Jane Curtin). The school is about to close unless a godmother assignment can be completed.
In the school is an over-enthusiastic Eleanor (Jillian Bell). She is the youngest in the class of elderly godmothers, always with her hand up to volunteer answers, as she has always done all the reading prior to class. But she is unskilled. She tries to save her profession by helping a Mackenzie Walsh who had once written to her fairy Godmother. Determined to show that fairy godmothers are still needed, Eleanor leaves Motherland without permission and without the knowledge of Moira to help a girl whose wish was ignored, only to discover that she grew into a woman named Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) who, having lost her husband years ago, grew disillusioned with the idea of a "happily ever after" grown woman. If Eleanor can save Mackenzie, she will save the school. But she is running out of time.
Gillian Bell is ideal to play the naive and over-enthusiastic godmother-in-training. In Boston, she moves around still wearing her Godmother frock, which everyone thinks is part of a costume, being the season of Advent. Bell has proven herself able to carry a full length feature comedy which she did in the 2009 comedy BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON. I cannot imagine anyone else better than Bell playing the part. Handsome Santiago Cabrera plays Mackenzie’s Prince Charming who works with her at the TV station. To complete the more eclectic cast, Utkarsh Ambudkar plus the head of the TV Studio who is always on Mackenzie’s case.
Despite the fresh premise, the story heads towards cliched territory whenever any chance arrives. Prince Charming gets Mackenzie at the end, but not after a Harlequin-styled obstacle. Mackenzie’s elder daughter has stage fright and finally gets to perform her solo song on stage because her mother finally believes in her. Needless to say, the godmother school is saved at the end. The obvious message is that everyone should believe in themselves and the magic is inside oneself. One fresh take in the script is the lack of a villain.
The film’s soundtrack is a welcome mix of a variety of song types from Christmas carols (Jillian Shea Spaeder performs two songs for the film's end credits, titled "Rise Up (Joy to the World)" and “Hero”) to old tunes like YMCA and Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin' of Me” first heard in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Three songs from THE SOUND OF MUSIC, “Do-re-mi”, “My Favourite Things” and “The Hills are Alive” are also played emphasizing the fact that the part Eleanor plays is similar to Julie Andrews’ role in the film.
Special effects take the form of Gary the racoon, Eleanor’s helper in the house.
Despite the flaws, GODMOTHERED is still an entertaining watch thanks primarily to Jillian Bell in the title role. The film streams on Disney+.
LUXOR (Egypt/UK/United Arab Emirates 2020) **
Directed and written by Zeina Durra
Written and directed by Zeina Durra, LUXOR follows the interactions of Hana (Andrea Riseborough) and Sultan (Karim Saleh). On leave from working as a doctor in neighbouring war torn areas, British aid worker Hana returns to the ancient city of Luxor, meeting her former lover Sultan by chance. Sultan is an archaeologist staying in a grungy hotel much cheaper than at the Winter Palace where Hana resides. As Hana wanders, haunted by the familiar place, she struggles to reconcile the choices of the past with the uncertainty of the present.
At best the dialogue goes like this:
Hana: I've heard this thing: The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born - now is the time of monsters.
Sultan: Who said that?
Hana: Do you know, I've actually forgotten!
They both laugh.
The dialogue does not get better than this.
The film’s most exciting scene is when Sultan is asked by hotel security to get out of the hotel swimming pool for swimming in his boxers.
LUXOR is a very slow burn, if it burns at all. It demands a considerable amount of patience to watch this movie, to watch Hana travelling in and out of cabs, walking around, smiling, not smiling, in the same unflattering clothes. “When I am walking, I kind of feel something,” she says. Hana does not portray the personalities of a doctor. A doctor is scientific and should not be believing in tombs and Egyptology. The script does have her attend to a fellow tourist who faints during one of the tours.
The magic question is whether Hana and Sultan will rekindle their relationship and become lovers again. This question is toyed around for the entire first half of the movie. Hana’s body language says no, but she is always smiling and leading Sultan on. Sultan is a consistent smiler, smiling too much that he appears a bit of a weirdo. Yes, they finally go to bed, only seen with covers. So, that puts an end to the big question and suspense to the drama.
To the film’s credit, LUXOR is a beautiful film to look at. Luxor, the city located on the east bank of the River Nile in Egypt, has frequently been characterized as the "world's greatest open-air museum", as the ruins of the temples complexes at Luxor stand within the modern city. Immediately opposite, across the River Nile, lie the monuments, temples and tombs of the west bank which includes the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. The film occasionally plays like a travelogue taking the audience on a field trip to the historic sites. Luxor has also been the site where a large number of tourists had been killed and injured in a political attack.
LUXOR is available December 4th VOD/EST.
MANK (USA 2020) ***** Top 10
Directed by David Fincher
MANK is short for Mankiewicz and there are two of them, brothers, both appearing at the start of the film. There is Joseph, a director of many films, his last being the Henry Fond western THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN and Herman, the protagonist of this highly anticipated film from David Fincher. David’s late father, Jack wrote the script in the 90’s which David directs into this stunningly beautiful black-and-white film, MANK. MANK is a Netflix original film and indeed one of the year’s best films, if not the best film of 2020. For cineastes, the pleasure is greater with the story unwinding around the major film studios, particularly MGM in the 1930s.
1930s Hollywood is re-evaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Oscar Winner Gary Oldman) as he races to finish the screenplay of CITIZEN KANE for Orson Welles (Tom Burke). The story centres on the life of Herman J. Mankiewicz as he writes the screenplay for Citizen Kane, as well as on his personal relationships with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
The film is not a biopic but narrows the story of Herman Mankiewicz from the time he was involved with the script for CITIZEN KANE and the trouble that went with it. Mankiewicz ended up winning the Academy Award, together with Orson Welles for Best Screenplay, the only Oscar the film won. CITIZEN KANE went on to win the number one film on many critics Best Film lists for many a number of years. The off ceremony reactions of both Welles and Mank are re-enacted humorously where they deliver their speeches with a sly hint of sarcasm.
The writing of the script is just one of the subplots of the movie. MANK also goes deeper into the workings of the big studios in Hollywood particularly what went on at MGM. Man disliked the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) immensely and was unafraid to show it. He calls Mayer ‘the most disgusting thing he had ever seen’. Mank is known in Hollywood for both his honour and sarcasm and the script is clear to emphasize these qualities. The story also goes into Mank’s politics how he was rooting for Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) thus going against the wishes of MGM. Other important characters of the day include Mayer’s second hand man, Irving Thalberg (Ferdiannd Kingsley), Mank’s wife, poor Sarah (Tuppence Middleton) and secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins).
The audience is informed of the different settings of the various segments by typewriter print on the screen with the sound of the clicking of the keys as they appear letter by letter.
Of the performances, Oldman and Howard excel as Tank and Mayer respectively. Mank is seen smoking all the time and drinking whenever a bottle is in reach. One wonders how he got any work done.
Just as the original CITIZEN KANE was praised for Gregg Tolan’s cinematography, Erik Messerschmidt’s black-and-white cinematography for MANK is equally stunning, clearly making the film the marvel that it is.
With just the correct amount of dramatization, MANK with its stunning cinematography and near perfect delivery in all departments makes every cineastes’ ‘dream come true’ movie.
MINOR PREMISE (USA 2020) **
Directed by Eric Schultz
(posted Thursday Dec 10)
Co-written and directed by Eric Schultz, MINOR PREMISE is a sci-fi horror with nods to films like THE FLY and FRANKENSTEIN where the brain is manipulated supposedly for scientific gain. Ambitious University professor Ethan (Satha Sridharan) attempts to surpass his father’s legacy by continuing his brain experiments and hopefully make a dent in history in the right direction. Fans of the sci-fi horror genre can correctly guess that there is an accident just waiting to happen.
Pressured by an old colleague (Dana Ashbrook of Twin Peaks), a reclusive neuroscientist becomes entangled in his own risky experiment. Ethan (Sathya Sridharan) has now locked himself in his home with his ex-girlfriend Allie (Paton Ashbrook) and the two navigate trauma, ambition, and missteps of the past.
MINOR PREMISE is an example of a case where the filmmaker takes his project too seriously. Director Schultz goes into detail of how memories from the brain can be recorded, distorted or even changed, so that problems like PDST and drug addiction could be eliminated. Also, his protagonist is entangled with his own experiment and finds himself split into ten fragments of consciousness, with each ‘section’ of his consciousness active for only a limited time each hour, So Ethan and ex, Allie must figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. A bit of humour would have been welcome to lighten this really morbid exercise that gets tedious with all the scientific jargon, which is all sounds flowery in the scientific language but all made-up nevertheless.
Another flaw is the credibility of the couple, Ethan and Allie. They are ex-lovers but they get back together. One scene requires Allie to get tender with Ethan, which she does. But Ethan after several days of experiments, is a complete mess - all unshaven and sweaty with a sweat soaked shirt and zits about to pop up from his face. Ethan looks totally smelly and disgusting and more realistic would be Allie telling Ethan to go shower first. But disgusting as Ethan looks all through the movie, actor Sridharan does come across as an obsessive and crazed workaholic, to his credit.
On the plus side, director Schultz creates a claustrophobic atmosphere (untidy room; strewn clothes and objects around a cluttered basement) filled with Ethan’s obsession to succeed, and at all costs. This is in contrast to clean white labs depicted in other movies of this genre. The inclusion of the old colleague into the story that pressures Ethan on, could have been eliminated, but that would make the story, as thin as it, is even thinner.
Unlike the FRANKENSTEIN and THE FLY films, MINOR PREMISE has a happy ending, tacked on by Schultz, which goes against the grain of the rest of the movie. This is a simple one idea thought of a movie, and one that soon turns out to be a boring and bad experiment.
MINOR PREMISE opens in theatres, virtual cinemas, and Digital & On-Demand December 4th, 2020.
NOMADLAND (USA 2020) ****
Directed by Chloe Zhao
The film opens with the date setting of January 21, 2011. The plant that operated for 88 years in Empire, Nevada has been closed because of the low demand of gypsum sheetrock. A lot of people in the town are out of work and by the month of July the town’s postal code, the audience is no longer existent.
The film focuses on one affected woman. Fern (twice Oscar Winner Frances McDormand), now out of a job, takes to the road in her van like a nomad. She manages to secure a bit of work at an Amazon facility packing deliveries until work runs out. What is Fern to do? What are the options for similar people who have run out of money and with no job?
NOMADLAND does not necessarily offer the answers but examines the plight of the unfortunate. Based on the novel by Jessica Bruder and adapted to the screen and directed by Zhao, best remembered for her excellent THE RIDER, Zhao captures the difficulty of living on the road like a nomad (the 10 commandments of stealth parking ; how to shit on the road) with some humour while dishing out a charming, heart-warming (including songs and line-dancing) and moving film with several messages on life to boot. “Home is something you take with you.” or “Don’t waste anytime waiting.” But it is not the messages that make Zhao’s film but the observations of the nomads in the film. They might not have plenty, just sufficient to survive, but they are happy. The resilience to survive and to be free and to enjoy America are all these people need. Director Zhao is Chinese born who went to boarding school in London before studying in the U.S. where she made films.
McDormand delivers an excellent performance totally different from FARGO and 3 BILLBOARDS IN EBBING, MISSOURI - that of a tired sixty-something woman who has lost everything including a loving husband. As Fern says: “I am not homeless but helpless.” She might not be loveless, as she discovers the possibility of another romance (David Strathairn) in the works. McDormand is brave enough to pose with full frontal nudity in one scene where she relaxes in the water by a waterfall. She has Fern in one scene with really bad hair.
The script also tells a bit of Fern’s background - her sister, who is quite different from her. The sister settled down with her husband. Fern moved away with hers, and continued moving around after his death.
NOMADLAND features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West. One can see Fern or McDormand for that matter, impressed by their way of living and with reason.
Joshua James Richards serves as the d.p. capturing some magnificent scenes of rural America.
NOMADLAND was one of the most anticipated films at TIFF. It is bound to take in a few Academy wards on the way, maybe even a third Oscar for McDormand.
SPRING TIDE (China 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Yang Lina (Tian-yi Yang)
SPRING TIDE is an accomplished piece of family drama that spans three generations. It moves leisurely with reason, as many of the incidents unfold in the course of the time the audience learns and absorbs the individuality of writer/director Yang’s characters.
Three females. All three living in the same flat. The film opens with a journalist Guo Jianbo (Hao Lei) questioning a teacher who has been accused of sexual abuse of his students. The teacher brazenly denies the accusations while calling himself an exemplary teacher. He is met with a tight slap across the face by Guo who then storms out of the room. Her mother, Ji Minglan (Elaine Jin) at one point in the film is so angry that she throws her daughter and granddaughter out of the flat. The granddaughter, Wanting (Junxi Qu) in a fit jumps on the top of the piano and stamps her feet on the piano keys. These three are family - daughter, mother and granny all hot-tempered with fiery dispositions. Living together is a formula for explosive disaster, as director Yang’s film shows.
But despite their ages, each still has a lot to learn. In a way, SPRING TIDE is a coming-of-age story for each of the three females. The film shows that one can learn and grow into a more mature human being regardless of age. Granny falls in love illustrating the fact that it is never too late to do so. Her new husband is loving and caring, so different from her previous one, who was a sex pervert. This is the pleasure of watching SPRING TIDE, where the surprises come unexpectedly.
Jianbo is a journalist specializing in social news. Much of the reporting she does on social issues causes her great pain and agony. Her retired mother helps out in the local co/director Yang’s community. She is warm and friendly to all the residents and people in that community and regularly organizes singing competitions. But there exists an invisible barrier between Guo Jianbo and her mother. Jianbo’s daughter bears the brunt of this and grows up and develops her character amidst the family squabbles.
SPRING TIDE like the recent Ron Howard film HILLBILLY ELEGY shows the power of family. As the Glenn Close character in HILLBILLY ELEGY claims, that is totally applicable in SPRING TIDE, ‘If not for family, what becomes of us?’
It often takes a tragedy to bring a family together. In the case of SPRING TIDE, this comes from granny Ji who gets sick and admitted to hospital. It is then that conciliation begins and peace is once again retired to the family.
Though unknown to western audiences, the lead actress How Lei and Elaine Jin are accomplished talents. Elain Ji is a Taiwanese actress with a film career spanning 45 years. Director Yang began her career in documentary (OLD MEN, THE LOVE STORY OF LAO AN and WILD GRASS.) with SPRING TIDE as her second fictional feature.
SPRING TIDE is released on premium VOD platforms December the 4th.
SURVIVAL SKILLS (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Quinn Armstrong
SURVIVAL SKILLS as defined by Wikipedia are techniques that a person may use in order to sustain life in any type of natural environment or built environment. The environmental in concern in this new comedy is a built one, the police force, where the audience follows the path of a rookie police officer by the name of Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell).
SURVIVAL SKILLS the film, concerns a lost training video from the 1980s. In it, Jim is the perfect policeman, but he gets in over his head when he tries to resolve a domestic violence case outside the law.
The video is played, all scratchy as are the displays coming from old VCR cassettes, from the start to end of the film. The video is narrated by Stacy Keach, who has been made famous by playing a cop in one of his first films, THE NEW CENTURIANS opposite George C. Scott. The narrator offers the knowledge of how to survive in the police force by following simple lessons, 7 in all as outlined in the video. The main character who appears in the video, Jim unfortunately gets out of hand, while being too eager to do good as a good Samaritan.
The character of Jim Williams is a decent one. He is the best intentions of everybody he encounters while trying not to to offend anyone in the process. He is extremely polite while at it. The trouble is that he is too naive in people’s goodness, which he discovers is nonexistent in many. His naiveness comes across to may as inexperienced, dewy-eyed and simple-minded. It is both his naiveness and good intentions get in the way of his survival skills in the Middletown Police department.
Keach delivers his lesson tongue-in-cheek style, showing his mettle as being a comedian. Half way through the video, he has to warn Jim not to do what he is about to do but to follow his instructions. When he fails, he screams, “I am the narrator.” The film balances on the line of absurdist and deadpan comedy.
One problem the ilm faces is whether to go serious or silly. The problem occurs a few times. One is when Jim tries to convince an abused mother, Allison (Ericka Kreutz) to file charges on her husband and to leave the family home with the daughter This is a pretty serious material for a comedy. Director Armstrong bravely attempts both.
The film also pokes harmless fun at the Christian faith. When seeking advice, he encounters twice the same message in the scriptures about faith, which says that faith is able to move mountains. At this point, the blend between comedy and drama is achieved effectively.
Subtly, the film delivers the message of whether one is to follow ones heart or to go by the rules. Jim undertakes the first to the detriment of the video’s narrator. When Jim’s wife leaves him, it is a very touching scene when Jim cries, pleading with era “Please don’t go!” The narrator scolds him on video: “You stupid fucking, naive child! What have you done?”
The novelty of the unrealistic over documented training video delivered deadpan style runs its freshness quite early in the film. But it is thanks to both actors O’Donnell and Keach for putting in their 100% in believing in the material and saving the comedy.
YES, GOD, YES (USA 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Karen Maine
After an innocent AOL chat turns racy, a Catholic teenager in the early 00s discovers masturbating and struggles to suppress her new urges in the face of eternal damnation. Alice (Nathalia Dyer) who attends a strict Catholic school enrols for a 4-day Retreat under Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) to cleanse herself and save herself from what she believes is from her going to hell.
The ironic thing about the 4-day retreat is that there are good looking hot boys and girls grouped together in an environment that is supposed to discourage pre-marital sex or sex in general. This is like putting all the arrested drug dealers together in the same cell waiting for their court hearing. What they do is obviously to share notes. When Alice first lands in the retreat and alights her bus, the first thing she sees is the big hairy arm (shown in close-up) of one of the hunky camp councillors, Chris (Wolfgand Novogratz). One can imagine her drooling and waiting to go to some quiet place to do some serious masturbation. And as it turns out, the hot guy with the hairy arms, Chris is Alice’s group leader.
“You are here because it is God’s plan. ” “You do not need a watch (Alice’s watch is taken from her, but she hides her cell phone) as we are on Jesus’ time.” are part of the Christian crap Alice is indoctrinated with. Her odd smirk indicates that she is taking all this in stride, and maybe she realizes what she is going through might be a travesty.
Director Maine loves to use closeups of facial expressions to make a point or to inject humour into a situation. When Alice’s paper on expressions is collected by one of the elders, her grimace as she collects Alice’s paper as she tries desperately but unsuccessfully to remove the emotion ‘turned-on’ on her paper, is hilarious. Another scene during a group outdoor walk in the woods, has Alice feigns falling down and spraining her ankle. Chris, just behind carries her as Maine’s camera focuses on the grimace from one of the boys behind them, as if saying: ‘ Ahem, ahem.”
Funny too is the part when Alice’s phone is discovered. “We have to punish you,” says Father Murphy. Next scene has the nun instructing Alice: “You have to empty the trash here. There are 4 receptacles…” Maine gets her message across in her film with smartness and humour, a combination that can not go wrong.
Director Maine has a message amidst all the mayhem that goes on during the 4-date Retreat. The message is delivered when Alice goes up to the podium to share her experience and what she had learnt during camp. One wishes that father Murphy, the biggest hypocrite of them all, caught watching porn by Alice, yet deems himself perfect would get his comeuppance. No such luck, these 4-day retreats will keep going on and unless one is resourceful enough like Alice, that person will remain confused and worst still steered in the wrong direction. Alice has come of age during her 4 days, learning ultimately and hilariously, that masturbation is not wrong as she demonstrates in the film’s closing scene. Director Maine’s message is to follow your heart though it might include chatting online and masturbation.