4x4 (Argentina/Spain 2019) ***
Directed by Mariano Cohn
As concise as its title, 4x4 is a film that takes place, for the greater part within the confines of a car. It has been a while not since David Cronenberg’s CRASH that a film has been shot within such a small space, which must have been arduous work for the camera crew.
It takes only 5 minutes before the protagonist is locked in a car. When petty thief Ciro (Peter Lanzani) tries to rob an ordinary-looking car, he finds out that his target is actually a high-tech machine - one that's determined to trap him inside unless he can find a way to escape. To make matters worse, someone on the outside who is sick of the polio system and thieves, is in control of the car, and he seems to have a plan. Ciro communicates through the phone in the car. It is hard to believe but the film’s poster claims the film to be based on true events.
There is only so much one can do with such a basic and simple plot. To director Cohn’s credit, he makes it work by keeping the interest of the audience going all the time, by never slowing the pace of his movie. Every few minutes or so, something new happens.
First first minutes, Ciro is locked in the car. Ciro spends the next few minutes trying to get out of the vehicle by various means that include kicking out the windows, firing at the windshield and taking apart the doors. But as expected, none of his attempts work - or the film would have come to an end within 15 minutes. The bullet from his gun ricochets from the windshield, wounding him in the leg. If one can think director Cohn would have run out of ideas, think again. Cohn then has the owner of the vehicle communicate with Ciro. Then the air-conditioning, controlled by remote, goes on full blast, with Ciro freezing.
Would the audience root for Ciro, the protagonist who also happens to be a low life thief? It is natural that anyone watching would wish no harm on a protagonist. But Ciro is shown to be a bad dude. After stealing dismantling the car stereo and putting it in his knapsack, he does something horrible that makes him a bad person. He pisses on the back seat of the car. Of course, Karma comes back often to bite one in his ass, and Ciro has to lie on his urine in an attempt to get out of the vehicle.
Actor Lanazani, playing Ciro, is a decent looking chap, requiring him to take off his top for a bit of the movie. He is convincing enough as a badass who has few scruples, often having to display various emotions like anger, frustration, fear and desperation.
The film does not all take place in the car. There is a good twist to the story and an ending that makes all of the 90 minutes of the running time worthwhile.
4x4 which premiered at various film festivals in 2019 like Sitges International Film Festival and Fantastic Film Festival Red Hound Films is currently available on Digital and VOD as of February 2, 2021.
ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD (Wszyscy moi przyjaciele nie zyja) (Poland 2020) **
Directed by Jan Belcl
The film opens with a detective and his new young partner answering a call at a house on New Year’s day. Entering, they discover a slew of dead bodies, all after a night of partying. The new partner gets sick a few times and the seasoned older detective tells him he has completed his first lesson when they leave the house. The scene is not very funny, and neither are the detective or his partner. It sets up the stage for the Netflix Polish horror comedy ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD. No spoiler here - everyone dies in the movie. This can be observed from both the beginning of the film and the film’s title itself.
The film then goes back in time ‘earlier’, to explain and show all the events that led to his supposedly horrid state of events. Unfortunately, the film is neither scary or funny. It is predictable what these youngsters do and watching this silly exercise of drinking, sex and partying is a total bore, though it picks up a little two thirds into the movie. There is also a suds water scene where water from a washing machine floods the house, obviously copied from the Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers flick THE PARTY. The film steals a lot from American teen party films, as evident in many parts of the film. If a mediocre American teen movie is the model for the flick, then the flick has very low standards.
The film contains many characters that are relatively interesting. Marek throws the party. There is the pizza guy who does not get paid by Marek and spends the length of the movie trying to find Marek to get paid, while his boss is calling him to take another delivery and his dementia-ridden mother is burning down the house. Anjelica is about to be proposed by her boring boyfriend who is awful in bed. The party photographer, who has just come out of drug rehab is offered weed and sex by a nutty girl who delivers in Karma and universal signs. A boy brings a much older woman to the party, the woman turning out to be the photographer’s mother. Then, there are the slut sisters. More could have been done with these characters.
The film’s soundtrack contains many American hit songs like “Gloria’ which is instantly recognizable. The film’s characters are made up of a bunch of annoying teenage partygoers with typical Polish names like Marek, Kamil, Pawel and Bogdan. (I have Polish friends with all these names.)
On paper, the film’s teen theme doesn’t seem that bad an idea. In the hands of a more competent director with a sense of humour, say John Landis (NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE) or John Hughes, the film could have become a big hit. Teen movies can also be great movies as witnessed in 2019 in Olivia Wilde’s party film BOOKSMART,
The film’s climax is the last 10 minutes where the mass killing takes place - one person killing another and so on. It is what the audience has expected given the series of events. Thank God this party is over! Or is it? The film goes on.
BEFORE/DURING/AFTER (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Stephen Kunken and Jack Lewars
As the title implies, the film is a comedy drama on the before, during and after of a relationship. Written and starring Finnerty Steeves, the film clearly comes across as a man-hater as can be observed in many scenes. It is surprising that the film was directed by 2 males who allow Steeves to get away with it.
There is one obvious man-hating scene where the protagonist Jennie (Steeves) sits down with three girl friends and they bitch about their ex’s. One of them describes her ex as a heinous arsehole or ‘heinhole’ for short. They go on and on how they have been wronged by their ex’s without thinking for a second that it takes two to make an argument. One of the girls also remarks to Jenn: You are a beautiful soul; men are always in the wrong.” Jennie and David (Jeremy Davidson) the couple see no fewer than 5 marriage therapists. The final one that makes sense is obviously the female. She says and gives the perfect advice, which closes the film. Though the other four, two males and 2 females are not the right ones, the males are portrayed as the bigger idiots.
The film’ script must be based on Steeves own experiences, life and relationship or relationships. Steeves used to live on a boat in real life for a period in time, and she has her male character, David live on a boat.
The film follows the relationship of Jennie and David from Jennie’s point of view. Both love each other. Their wedding segment shows the intense love David has for Jennie and one assumes the same on her side. Their relationship begins to falter after a full 15 years of being together. The script makes it clear the two reasons the marriage is not lasting. One is Jennies’ decision to have a child. She loses the child, bringing her great duress. David is not really shown to be that sympathetic. The second is David’s fling with another girl, that Jennie discovers. The girl is never showing the film. Jennie often looks sadly out the window to see a girl, she assumes she will have a daughter, playing with her mother. The two eventually split up over something silly David says, that is pretty serious to Jennie. Most of the story takes place during the ‘during’ of their relationship, with them visiting 5 therapists trying sincerely to sort out their marriage problems. There is a bit of repetition of them going to see no less than 5 therapists and the humour grows thin after they visit the second. One male therapist’s advice:”Your homework is to go home, not to talk too much to each other and have lots of sex.”
BEFORE/DURING/AFTER is not a bad movie. It is occasionally smart and funny. Females would love this film while men can only shrug and wish they had been portrayed in a more positive light.
The film has earned accolades around the festival circuit and makes its release on February the 9th.
BLISS (USA 2021) ***
Direct by Mike Cahill
Writer/director Mike Cahill directs another alternative universe film entitled BLISS, not to be confused with the Australian Ray Lawrence classic BLISS, also a weird alternate universe (sort-of, anyway) film. Cahill made ANOTHER EARTH and I, ORIGINS but BLISS is ambitiously put together hoping to deliver more punch.
It is a mind-bending love story following Greg (Owen Wilson) who, after recently being divorced and then fired, meets the mysterious Isabel (Salma Hayek), a woman living on the streets and convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is a computer simulation.
Playing with the audience’s mind, it takes a while before writer/director Cahill reveals what is really going on in his film. He offers a bit of plot spaced at regular intervals in his well paced first half of the story.
In the first 10 minutes. There is an accident killing. Greg is summoned into his boss’ office and fired for doodling at his desk half of the time instead of working. Upset, he pushes his boss, killing him by accident. Greg rushes out of the office after hiding his boss behind the curtains and heading to the nearest bar. In the next 10 minutes, Greg meets a mysterious woman at a bar who promises that she can clear Greg of the accidental killing. Isabel surprises Greg that she knows his name (which is comically explained by her later that she heard the barman calling his name out) but she entices him a way out of his dilemma. Director Cahill then has got his audience hooked. Isabel takes Greg to her shelter insisting that she is not homeless but off the grid. The plot thickens. It gets better. Isabel takes a yellow crystal giving her special powers. Greg tries it too.
In all the craziness, the story needs something or someone sane to ground the story into reality or the story would fall apart. This character is Greg’s daughter,Emily (Nesta Cooper), who is in school, loves her father and tries to help him out. She is also the one that grounds her father, Greg.
The film works really well this far and one wonders how far director Cahill can keep this up. Unfortunately, at the film’s half way mark, things start to fall apart, just like a faulty simulation that just is not real enough. Real or situated, Greg has to decide. All this has been seen before, even the confusion between a real and game world as was seen in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. The romance between Isabel and Greg is forced and unfeeling.
It is a pity that Hayak is nothing short of perfect as Isabel, in this kind of role. Hayak has played and specialized in roles of weird women as in BEATRIZ AT DINNER and THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT but the role of Isabel takes the cake. Wilson matches her part well as the Cary Grant guy caught in the middle of the intrigue.
For all that it is worth, BLISS is a solid trippy film when it works. Just too bad Cahill took in too much on his plate without able to tie things neatly together. Still credit goes to Cahill for his most ambitious and expensive project.
DEAR COMRADES! (USSR 2020) ****
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
DEAR COMRADES! as the title implies, is a Russian political film with a huge criticism of the ruling communist party at the time, which is the year 1962. The film is not a satire, though actual events depicted in the film reveal more harm and destruction the party had done in what they believed served the good of their comrades. DEAR COMRADE! is both an entertaining and critical piece of work, shot in black and white that clearly creates the feel of political films set in the 60’s. Full marks to the DoP Andrey Naidenov.
DEAR COMRADES! plays like a political thriller reminiscent of the classic Costa-Garvas classic Z (1969) that starred Yves Montand. Based on a true story that happened on June 1st and 2nd, 1962 in Novocherkassk, the film depicts events that were kept secret until the nineties. The first official investigation was only initiated 30 years later, in 1992.
In June 1992 Yuri Bagrayev, who was Assistant of the Chief Military Prosecutor at the
time, was assigned as the head of the investigators’ team to clarify the reasons and circumstances of the death of people in the Novocherkassk events and to locate the remains. By that time, he was one of the most experienced and respected investigators in the country. The purpose of the investigation was to figure out the reasons and circumstances of the events and make a legal assessment of the actions the officials had taken. The case was closed in September 1994. Since major culprits were dead at that time, they were never convicted. These are the important events behind the film.
That is the history behind the film. Now, 60 years after the Novocherkassk massacre, Major General of Justice Yuri Bagrayev acted as the consultant in the process of writing the film’s screenplay.
Even at the screenplay stage Andrei Konchalovsky was thinking about ways to achieve
a special and particular perception of the film. Director Konchalovsky shot his film
in black and white, with 1:33 aspect ratio common for films of the time to create a more realistic feel of the film. It pays off. All the actors playing the politicians were all non professional non actors picked because they looked like their real characters. The result is an amazing looking and realistic film.
The exception is the film’s lead role was performed by professional actress Julia Vysotskaya. She plays a member of the Central Committee who is faced with questions on her beliefs when her daughter goes missing after protesting the government.
Director Konchalovsky uses her character to personalize his otherwise political film.
What is most amusing in the film is the observation of how the top brass in the Communist Party work. They claim glory as their own personal victory but mostly so quick to blame others when things go awry. They steal when they can, and are all out to cheat the system even though they are part of it. They have no scruples, and they do not care or know how the other people live. (Like Trump?) And they go ape shit when they think they are going to be in trouble from a higher authority.
DEAR COMRADES! is a most amusing realistic looking political drama with lots of humour injected from the behaviour of the Communist top brass. As in most Russian films, quite depressing but again usually excellent filmmaking.
A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX (USA 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Rodney Ascher
A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX is a disturbing and thought provoking documentary based on the life simulation concept proposed in THE MATRIX films. What if we are living in a simulation, and the world as we know it is not real? To tackle this mind-bending idea, acclaimed filmmaker Rodney Asher (ROOM 237, THE NIGHTMARE) uses a noted speech from Philip K. Dick (the author of many sci-fi books including the inspiration for BLADE RUNNER) to dive down the rabbit hole of science, philosophy, and conspiracy theory. Leaving no stone unturned in exploring the unprovable, the film uses contemporary cultural touchstones like THE MATRIX, interviews with real people shrouded in digital avatars, and a wide array of voices, expert and amateur alike.
Director Ascher has assembled impressive and important footage of conferences. Besides Dick’s speech that serves as the film’s narrative structure, there are many others including participant electric car Tesla’s Elon Musk.
Cine-buffs will be pleased to watch footage from dozens of films besides THE MATRIX franchise with simulation as a theme. These include, among others, THE CROW, THE DARK KNIGHT, THE MINORITY REPORT, TOTAL RECALL, THE TERMINATOR, THE TRAIL, THE TRUMAN SHOW, THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR, VIRTUAL SEXUALITY, TRON, WORLD WAR Z and also old classics like VERTIGO and THE WIZARD OF OZ. One standout film that had been left out is David Cronenberg’s underrated eXistenZ which was released the same time as the first MATRIX film. Cronenberg’s film (he wrote and directed it) had a game designer on the run from assassins who must play her latest virtual reality creation with a marketing trainee to determine if the game has been damaged. I consider eXistenZ (where often in the movie, the characters cannot distinguish whether they are in the real or simulated world) superior and a more adult look at games and simulation than THE MATRIX.
As for video games, the most famous of all, MINECRAFT is given prime coverage. This is the perfect game that explores life simulation. Director Ascher shows the game in motion illustrating a total simulated world. The core gameplay revolves around picking up and placing these objects. These blocks are arranged in a 3D grid, while players can move freely around the world. Players can "mine" blocks and then place them elsewhere, enabling them to build things. Players can start a new simulated world, choosing one of five game modes, as well as one of four difficulties. Minecraft is a 3D sandbox game that has no specific goals to accomplish, allowing players a large amount of freedom in choosing how to play the game. However, there is an achievement system, known as "advancements" in the Java Edition of the game, and "trophies" on the PlayStation ports. Gameplay is in the first-person perspective by default, but players have the option for third-person perspective. The game world is composed of rough 3D objects—mainly cubes and fluids, and commonly called "blocks"—representing various materials, such as dirt, stone, ores, tree trunks, water, and lava. The core gameplay revolves around picking up and placing these objects. These blocks are arranged in a 3D grid, while players can move freely around the world. Players can "mine" blocks and then place them elsewhere, enabling them to build things. Players can start a new simulated world, choosing one of five game modes. If a player spends all his time playing MINECRAFT, this simulated world becomes his real world.
Director Ascher poses mind boggling questions. If a human being is in reality in a simulated game world, who is God? Is God the kid playing the game or the game’s designer?
At its most disturbing, the film follows a disturbed 19-year old teen who shot his mother and stepfather, the teen being influenced by the MATRIX films. The doc re-enacts Joshua Cooke’s killings moving Joshua like a character in a video game. In real life, Cooke said that he had bought the rifle at a sports store. If he had an assault rifle like an AR-15, he said he would have killed more people in a mall. Americans should think again about their ridiculous right to bear arms.
A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX can either be an extremely compulsive watch if one is well versed in the area of video games and simulation technology or a complete bore if one is completely on the other side.
JOHN WARE RECLAIMED (Canada 2020) ***
Directed by Cheryl Foggo
As the month of January comes to an end, new free-streaming content is being added to the NFB.ca (National Film Board of Canada) catalogue, with more to follow in February. Heading the selection of works from NFB studios across the country is the award-winning and profoundly human feature-length documentary in celebration of Black History Month: JOHN WARE RECLAIMED directed by Cheryl Foggo.
John Ware is arguably the best and most famous cowboy in Canada. Born into slavery on a plantation in South Carolina, USA, Ware worked his way up to Canada driving cattle from Texas to Montana and then into the great plains that would eventually become Alberta. John Ware arrives in Alberta. He is revealed to be a man who is smart and has an intuition for the matters of raising cattle. During a snowstorm, the white ranchers left their herds that froze to death. Ware stayed on with his herd, and his herd survived the move. In another brave decision, he convinced the ranchers to move to higher ground, the reasoning that eventually saved lives and livestock as if they stayed on level ground, they would have been swept away from flooding waters.
He eventually became one of the most well-respected figures in frontier Alberta, crossing race lines thanks to his good nature and hard work. Though it was reputed that he was never tossed from a horse being a master horseman, John was killed in the fall when his horse tripped in a badger hole crushing its rider and breaking his neck.
The black cowboy has never been properly represented - anywhere. The is the raison d’etre of the film. Though a book called John Ware's Cow Country by J. W. Grant MacEwan had been written already on John Ware, this is not enough, as the book only shows the black cowboy from the white man’s point of view.
JOHN WARE RECLAIMED follows the star told from the director’s point of view, hence the word ‘reclaimed’ of a cowboy who settled in Alberta prior to the turn of the 20th Century. The cowboy is black. Director Foggo provides a lot of images of Ware on a horse, with a stand-in for Ware. He arrives from The United States at the time slavery was not fully abolished. The newspapers of Canada are quick to say that they do not want any blacks in the country. Seeing this, one can only say that times have changed and for the better. Director Foggo’s research which she displays on film, uncovers the mystic of Ware, and what legacy he had left behind - one with strong roots in anti-black racism of the past and present.
As expected, the topic of racism is brought up. Director Foggo (who always looks so angry when on screen) discusses how Ware and his son had trouble finding work for this reason. She hopes that this awful legacy will not carry down. In her documentary, she appears that she is looking for trouble - for any racism to be uncovered. Thankfully, these days, companies are regulated and forced to have equal opportunity employment with a larger number of black and other minorities employed.
The film is dotted with songs, songs taken from the musical based on John Ware.
The film had premiered at the Calgary International Film Festival where it won the Audience Choice Award for an Albertan feature.
LOST GIRLS & LOVE HOTELS (USA 2020) **
Directed by William Olsson
There is normally a reason a film is made. It could be the subject, a message or an obsession but in the case of this film, it makes one curious what that reason is. For one, this is a film about a dislikable characters who leave home, goes about having sex, getting drunk with little work etiquette. Margaret (Alexandra Daddario) is a total train wreck. She is stuck in a huge city in Japan where she is one of thousands of people. It comes as no surprise that there is little to like in this somewhat dislikable film. There is a message actually, one regarding redemption though one has to quietly figure it out.
The film is a psychological drama film directed by William Olsson from a screenplay by Catherine Hanrahan, based on Hanrahan's novel Lost Girls and Love Hotels. It is a female themed film. The men are not portrayed too badly in the story, implying it a good thing that the director is male, giving the film a male perspective to the story as well.
Margaret is an American expatriate living in Tokyo, Japan. She works at a Japanese flight academy during the day teaching prospective flight attendants (in her own words) how to pronounce words in spoken English. She spends her nights getting drunk with fellow expatriates Ines and Liam and seeks out submissive sexual encounters with random men in the city's numerous love hotels. Her nightly misadventures cause her to show up to work in a daze and disheveled, drawing the concern of her instructor Nakamura (Misuzu Kanno). One day, Margaret crosses paths with a Yakuza enforcer named Kazu (Takehiro Hiraas) and the two begin a relationship.
As the title implies, the story revolves around sex. Margaret’s sexual practices include bound, tied and bound and suffocated. In one sexual encounter, her lover tells her: “I will kill you now.” which she replies: “Do it” She finds sex too, in public places. At one point, she tells her Yakuza boyfriend: “I love you.” Margaret obviously has no idea what love is and is confusing love for sex. How can one love someone one barely knows. Margaret knows nothing of the Yakuza’s family, background or character.
The lazy story does not offer the audience any of Margaret’s background. This could be the fault of the book. The excuse given is that Margaret, as she confides to Kazu, does not have a family: her father left when she was a child, her mother passed away from cancer, and she has a schizophrenic brother. But Kazu’s background is left blank as well.
Olsson’s film paints a sad, non flattering image of Japan. One will feel the loneliest in a busy bustling city where hundreds of people are passing by, lost in their own worlds. Such is the way Margaret feels.
The ultimate question is to whether Margaret can rise above all these trials and tribulations in this barely interesting drama, who arguably had brought on herself. Fortunately, the film does provide a credible answer.
MALCOLM & MARIE (USA 2020) **
Directed by Sam Levinson
MALCOLM & MARIE is a 2 hander starring Zendaya and John David Washington (son of Denzel and who was in the recent Christopher Nolan futuristic epic TENET). Zendaya and Washington play a Hollywood couple already in a caustic relationship. The action takes place in the span of one night after an Awards gala sparked by an incident involving film director Malcolm forgetting to thank Marie in his acceptance speech for an award given to his new film. His new film is expected to be a success, both critically and financially. Malcolm had his film based on Marie’s previous drug addiction.
It should be good to note that the film was shot during Covid-19 restrictions. The cast and crew were under lockdown in closed sets during the shooting. The script is based on director Levinson’s experience when he himself had forgotten to thank his partner during an acceptance speech.
MALCOLM & MARIE, with its screaming matches between the couple, is reminiscent of Mike Nichol’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? based on the play by Edward Albee. Both films were shot in black and white. But Levinson is no Albee in terms of script writing and neither is he Nichols in terms of directing plays. It is hard enough to watch a film during Covid-19 and even harder to watch a 2 hander film with lots of depressing fighting.
One difference between the two films is that MALCOLM & MARIE has black characters. The question for Levinson is how to bring in the issue of race into the picture. To Levinson’s credit, he does it quite well, as the same issue is raised in one of the scene’s segments. People watching a film with black characters or black filmmakers expect black issues or bring these issues when watching and criticizing the film. This rests in a huge argument between Malcolm and Marie.
Washington and Zendaya both put in their 100% worth into their performances, evident while watching them. If only Levinson’s material was worthier.
Levinson’s material based on his real experience is often self indulgent. There are too much arguing going on and over-written dialogue. Levinson writes about what he knows, which is the film business. Levinson also attempts to direct the complexities of a relationship - the extremes a couple will go through in their individual fight - how dirty they can be and how much they will dig up from the past. One thing is clear, which is is true for many couples fighting, what is said cannot be unsaid and what is done cannot be undone Even the opposite. When Malcolm forgets to thank Marie in his acceptance speech, no amount of apologizing can right the matter. What is missing in the relationship between Malcolm and Marie is tenderness, forgiveness and care. These elements are not laid out but can be seen as missing in their relationship. Malcom and Marie are both not prepared to sacrifice their own feelings to make the other feel better. In the end, their exhaustion is what makes them give in, which is the case for many couples in a fight. The audience can draw parallels between their own relationships and the couple display here.
MALCOLM & MARIE is a Netflix original movie that opens Friday. The film works more like a play and is recommended if one likes this sort of thing.
M.C. ESCHER: JOURNEY TO INFINITY (Escher: Het Oneindige Zoeken)
(Netherlands 2020) ****
Directed by Robin Lutz
Who is M.C. Escher? Not many have heard of him, myself being one of them. On the telephone when praised as an artist by an admiring follower of his work, Escher replied” “I am not an artist. I am a mathematician.” This very entertaining documentary on the life and work of Ecsher explains his statement.
Maurits Cornelis (M.C.) Escher was a Dutch graphic artist who made mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints. Despite wide popular interest, Escher was for long somewhat neglected in the art world, even in his native Netherlands. He was 70 before a retrospective exhibition was held. His work, many of which are wonderfully displayed in the doc, features mathematical objects and operations including impossible objects, explorations of infinity, reflection, symmetry, perspective, truncated and stellated polyhedra, hyperbolic geometry, and tessellations.
Escher once said that only he could make a film on himself. The reason he says this is soon realized in Lutz’s doc. Lutz has used his camera and special effects to show the illusion of infinity in Escehr’s work. It is a dizzy and exhilarating experience. Escher drew inspiration from nature, making studies of insects, landscapes, and plants such as lichens, all of which he used as details in his artworks.
The film is narrated by articulate British theatre and film actor Stephen Fry. The narration is based on Escher’s writings - of his letters, diaries and notes. Escher, the subject is full of humour and Fry does a wonderful job narrating, bringing into the dialogue, insight, depth, humour and drama, turning this doc to be one of the amusing docs, totally unexpected of a doc on a graphic artist.
As in many biopic documentaries, director Lutz follows the usual path of describing the subject’s life from child to adult, through travels, marriage, downfalls and fame. Lutz has managed to assemble Escher’s children now in their late 80’s to talk about their beloved late father and their often ill mother. Escher was brought up by wealthy parents, entered a privileged school where one of his teachers got him out of architecture to pursue his love for art. He got married, was torn by WWII and survived with his family before eventually reaching the height of fame at a late age. The film also explains his travels to Italy and Spain where he did and obtained much inspiration for his work. In the artist’s latter years, he suffered cancer and the treatment caused him to be extremely weak, preventing him working at his full capacity. His wife suffered mental illness, partly brought about by the war with Hitler. The artist enjoyed wealth as a child but also poverty later on in his life.
The film springs to life when Fry narrates with spirit, humour and insight explaining Escher’s works. Not to spoil one's entertainment, one has to look at Escher’s paintings while it is being explained and described.
THE MIMIC (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Thomas F. Mazzotti
The film opens with the words of Martha Stout, author of ‘The sociopath Next Door’: “One in 25 individuals are sociopaths and will believe his own direct lies.” These words ring true in Richard Nixon’s Presidency. Nixon said these words proving him to be a sociopath: “I am not lying….I said things that later on seemed to be true.” Now the word sociopath might be too lenient a word used to describe perhaps the biggest sociopath of them all is obviously the twice-impeached ex-President Trump. One can learn already the fact that sociopaths are also extremely dangerous to society as they can evoke violence and damage when in positions of high powers. Those who believe what sociopaths say are even worse - those who have no backbone, believing losers (like Trump) and all their lies.
That said, THE MIMIC, looks at a milder sociopath nicknamed THE MIMIC. The story centres on a man, known as the narrator (Thomas Sadoski) throughout the film, because he also narrates the film. The man owns the local newspaper operated by older women, and is a very well known man about town. Into his life enters a new neighbour, Peter (Jake Robinson) who he called ‘the kid’. Peter is a strange one. Besides wearing red pants, he keeps showing up wherever the narrator goes, hence he is the mimic. “We are of the same wavelength.” are the words the kid says whenever they encounter whether it be at the gym, jogging, at a restaurant. Against his better judgement, the narrator invites Peter for dinner and an odd relationship develops.
The dialogue is fast and is believe it or not both witty and silly, if one can forgive writer/director Mazziotti from occasionally trying to be too clever. If there is a film that piques an audience’s anticipation, THE MIMIC is the one. What story will evolve from the new developed relationship of the weird mimic and the equally odd narrator?
20-year old actor Jake Robinson looks like the perfect fit for the role of the mimic. Handsome but looking particularly quirky, he can be bother charming and a little bit creepy at the same time. His performance is perfectly balanced by the equally odd and curious one delivered by Thomas Sadoski. The film also contains an impressive cast of supporting actors that includes Austin Pendleton, Gina Gershon, Jessica Walter, Didi Conn, Marilu Henner, Tammy Blanchard, Matthew Maher, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Josh Pais, Steve Routman, Doug Plaut and Emmet Walsh.
The narrator (and the audience as well) is so curious about his new neighbour, also wondering about Peter’s wife who he has never met.
THE MIMIC is occasionally smart but at the same time occasionally silly. There are equal parts of both giving the film an uneven feeling. The film is made upon little skits with the identical theme of the two awkward characters just barely tied together. Whether one would find this film entertaining is complete up to the individual taste in comedy and in film.
MORE THAN MIYAGI: THE PAT MORITA STORY (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Kevin Derek
The name Mr. Miyagi is practically a household name. That was the nickname given to me by my students when teaching a mathematics class, as I was considered a wizard at math a sort of know-it-all. My responses : “Wax on, wax off.” To those unfamiliar. Mr. Miyagi is the name of the karate teacher who teaches Ralph Macchio in John G. Avildson’s THE KARATE KID how to fight, using repeated techniques to strengthen his muscles as when he is asked to polish the teacher’s car using the motions of wax-on and wax-off in circular motion. THE KARATE KID was so popular that it spun 3 sequels.
This doc on the Japanese American actor Pat Morita is a tribute to the work and talent during his lifetime. The doc follows the regular path of a biopic, starting with the subject’s childhood, followed by his inspiration and life, and how he shot to fame and a downfall. Most subjects have a downfall including Morita. But in most cases, they recover and return to some stage of their popularity. Unfortunately and sadly, Morita did not.
Writer/director Kevin Derek ’s doc benefits from a lengthy interview given by Morita’s last and 3rd wife, Evelyn with whom stood by his side when he was ill with liver and kidney failure due to alcoholism. The film mentions Morita’s drug use but does not go into detail. The film contains quite a few shots of the couple together and in Evelyn’s words: “You cannot stop loving someone when they are sick, referring to alcoholism as a disease.” The closing credits state that his 3 daughters denied to be interviewed for this documentary, so one can assume they are not too happy with their father or with the way he is portrayed in the documentary.
Morita was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his most famous role as Mr. Moyagi in the original THE KARATE KID. Director Derek provides site an exhaustive collection of Morita’s roles from TV to film, as shown in many archive TV footage.
What is most amazing about the doc which many are unaware of was Morita’s alcoholism. He was drunk almost everyday of his life, beginning the drink at an early age of 12. He could show for work and perform his acting duties while under the influence. Unless he overdo it, which he did at the end. Morita was not a great man who did unforgettable deeds to change the world but it is important that director Derek showed Morita to be a kind man. When Thomas Chong was in prison for drug related offences, Morita was the only friend that called him. What is also amazing is the fact that he was unable to walk with a spinal TB disease for the whole of his childhood. He miraculously got better from an experimental drug.
The doc teaches audiences that man is fallible. It is the little things that men do that make people like Morita be remembered like the deeds of kindness, besides his fame.
A NIGHTMARE WAKES (USA 2020) **
Directed by Nora Unkel
A NIGHTMARE WAKES is a period piece centring on the story during a period of the life of Mary Shelley, best known as the author of FRANKENSTEIN. Her life was already filmed most recently in the 2017 film MARY SHELLEY but director Nora Unkel’s version plays like a ghost story/horror movie. The film (also written by Unkel) is a narrative mess.
It is hardly accurate to call A NIGHTMARE WAKES Shelley’s biopic. The film opens with a woman, pregnant with a child walking into the sea, thus taking her life. The film then goes on to reveal a gathering of friends, as the audience is introduced to the subjects of the film - Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan), her lover and later husband, Percy Shelley(Giullian Yao Gioiello), Lord Byron (Philippe own) and Mary’s sister, Claire (Claire Clairmont).
The audience soon learns these true facts about Mary. The three are visiting and staying in a mansion under the auspices of Lord Byron. The estate is in Geneva, but nothing is said in the film. So, it becomes quite confusing - and even more so that this is an American film about British people, sometimes in Britain but more often, in Europe. Director Unkel never lets her audience know by titles, where the characters are. She is also fond of using hallucinations, that Mary suffers from seeing. She sees Percy while Percy is not there, again giving rise to some confusion, though one can eventually figure the muddle out.
Lord Byron challenges his friends one evening to write a horror story - the impetus behind Mary writing her gothic masterpiece. But Mary is shown to be disturbed most of the time. In real life, she edited Percy’s poems and other literary works. This fact is totally left out in the film. She looks mentally incapable of doing any real work either.
Mary is shown to have a lot on her plate - perhaps too much to handle. It is not helped by her lover Percy who is occasionally too demanding. Mary is for one, riddled with guilt. She is Percy’s mistress. Percy’s wife had drowned herself with the baby by walking into the sea and disappearing, as seen in the film’s opening shot. Mary suffers from hallucinations. She sees a monster baby in the cradle. She bleeds blood as well as black stuff. This leads her to often wander in the dark of a mansion lit only by a candle on a candlestick. Mary is surrounded by friends or acquaintances that are volatile in personality. Being pregnant and writing a horror story is not in her best interest. Mary is also prone to nightmares.
The film’s art direction is to be commended, particularly Lord Byron’s not so humble abode. The mansion is magnificently laid out with antique furniture, paintings and carpets.
In real life, Mary suffers two more child deaths, that are not mentioned in the film. Her last son lived, and she spent her life looking after him. Percy dies from a sailing accident and she has a brain tumour. All these facts are left out and could have and should be made lawn during the closing credits to make the film more of a complete whole. Director Unkel seems more content to have her film play as a psychological thriller with images reminiscent of ROSEMARY’S BABY. The film gets its release on Shudder.
RAMS (Australia 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Jeremy Sims
If the title of this movie RAMS sounds familiar, it is the same title of a 2015 Icelandic film of the same name RAMS directed by Grímur Hákonarson which this Australian version is based on. The director Hákonarson also serves as the film’s executive producer, The opening titles give credit to the Icelandic original, which I had reviewed in 2015, an intriguing film primarily for the reason that it was filmed in Iceland. The Icelandic landscape, the Icelandic way of life, their language were what made that film unique. I had just visited Iceland a few years after, after being so fascinated by the film.
The story of the Australian RAMS is identical - that of two brothers who own a sheep farm next to each other, but who have not spoken to each other for 14 years. They also have a thing going about who can raise the best ram. When the film opens, the protagonist, Colin (Sam Neill) loses the competition to his brother. He holds second place, the cup going to his brother for first position. On his way back he discovers that his brother’s ram has symptoms of OJD and panics, getting the new vet (Miranda Richardson) in the region to look into the matter.
Ovine Johne's disease (OJD) is a serious wasting disease that affects mainly sheep, and to a lesser extent goats. It is caused by the sheep strain of the bacteria Mycobacterium paratuberculosis. The bacteria affect the intestines, preventing absorption of nutrients, and the bacteria are shed in the faeces of infected animals. Sheep infected by the OJD bacteria may take three to six years to show signs of the infection. Once the disease is seen, affected sheep progressively lose condition and die over a six to 12 week period. Scouring may also be seen. In the film, it is said that Australia is seldom affected by OJD but Australia has a vaccination program for the OJD sheep already in place.
2015 to 2021 - a period of 6 years is a long time to remember a film and its details. Watching around 400 films a year, I hardly recall much of the Icelandic RAMS, so watching this Aussie version still seem pretty fresh to me. Also, it is a universal tale that deals wth several issues like a ship pandemic, sibling rivalry and sheep farming. The re-setting of the story from Iceland to Australia makes it possible for the film to be more available to English speaking audiences. Again, the Australian landscape can be just as captivating as the Icelandic landscape, that can look quite barren in many sheep farms. The inclusion of the wildfires, a nasty occurrence in Australia is added to the story distinguishing the film from the original. The fires fighting scenes are extremely well executed.
This film also benefits from having veteran actor Sam Neill in the lead role. Neill is a great actor and always puts his all into his role.
This in one of the best remakes of an original film. Recommended even for non-sheep farmers.
SATOR (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Jordan Graham
A slow burn of a low budget horror movie if it can be considered burning at all. The film written and directed by Jordan Graham is in itself a slow production taking him a number of years, while building the sets on his own, resulting in a very low cost production. Despite its slow pace, the film requires a lot of concentration, even though there is not much of a story to follow.
The film begins with the inscription “In loving memory of June Peterson” It goes on with who appears to be that June Peterson saying the person in charge of her life should have been herself but as it turns out, there is another person who emerges. This ‘person’ turns out to be SATOR, the name of that being and the title of the film. Peterson mumbles a lot, so one has to listen very attentively in a very quiet surrounding. She says SATOR speaks to her and she records not only SATOR’s sayings to her but what images she sees. Director Graham’s film intercuts between the present and the past while setting his film in different locations. These techniques can infuriate the less patient horror fan. Director Graham also alternates his film between black and white and colour. The former indicates repast with scenes of the grandmother while the coloured ones represent the present. The black and white segments are more eerie.
The story centres on a loner living in the woods. He is haunted by SATOR from his grandmother’s musings, who he believes exists in the woods. He still does his daily routines while waiting for his brother to visit. The hours slowly unfold with catastrophic results. More is revealed on the mental illness of the family.
SATOR feels at times like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Several scenes are shot in the darkness of the woods with little light. If there is light, it flickers and perhaps a face or a few objects can be seen - just as in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. But the eerie atmosphere is meticulously calculated and created which exists for the film’s most part, sometimes made even scarier by the sounds in the woods, like the barking of the dog, that goes missing.
The story is taken from the true experiences of director Graham. He has madness running in his family with the existence of the being also named SATOR that appears in the film. Graham’s great-grandmother was mentally institutionalized that eventually led to her suicide. His grandmother insisted on SATOR existing, and despite her losing all her memory of her family including the director during the film’s inception in 2013, she still remembers the ‘being’ SATOR.
SATOR turns out more like an art horror movie than the usual slasher horror jump in your seat flick, though there is no skimping of the gore. Also, do not expect any twist in the plot. What one sees on the screen, if the scenes can be deciphered is what one will get. But if one remembers that what is seen on screen is based on the director’s experiences with his family’s imaginations and madness, this is a really scary experience.
SKYFIRE (China 2019) ***
Directed by Simon West
Finally coming from China - JURASSIC PARK with volcanoes instead of dinosaurs.
SKYFIRE contains the standard cliched storyline for a disaster movie. Has China stolen American trade secrets here?
Little Meng Li loses her mother (Alice Rietveld) escaping a volcano eruption. Estranged from her father (Wang Xuegi), adult Meng Li (Hannah Quinlivan) is now working as some volcano scientist expert at the island of Tienhoa, which in English means SKYFIRE. Father, also an expert in the field, now comes to the island to warn Meng Li of impending danger. Lo and behold, surprise, surprise! Volcano erupts, a big disaster movie in the making with big box-office receipts exploding. The island contains a luxurious tourist resort owned by a white developer, Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs). People need to be saved! And I need to go to a resort like this after Covid-19.
To give director West and the film crew credit, the heavy CGI and special effects are quite impressive. The most impressive on the list is the look of the tourist resort with expensive cable cars going through the mountains, structures and mountain scenery. When the volcano erupts, the stunts where the escapees have to jump from one moving cable car to another is exciting as in the one with a truck having over the cliff, held only by a rope. Some scenes are one the top, like the fireballs shooting out from the volcano crater like bullets and tossed hand grenades.
The women engineers appear to have all the answers to solve the problem of the erupting volcano and save the city. Here is another one up for the female presence. But here, it all seems too obvious when the women talk about solutions and all the male counterparts just stare in disbelief.
The music is hilarious in that it tells the audience how to feel at any point in the film. It crescendos during the action sequences and moves to quiet and dialogue in the sad scenes.
The young actors in the film are perfect specimens of human beings - all looking drop dead gorgeous - both male and female. Lots of eye-candy to distract from the nonsense disaster at hand.
The villain of the piece appears to be the rich developer of the resort, Jack Harris who at one point in the film, assures the vacationers at the resort that the place is completely safe and no eruption has occurred for a very long time. But at least he is not shown to be all bad. He gets to save a crying young Chinese girl, when the volcano erupts.
Extremely tacky, silly, cliched and outlandish made worse by white people speaking Chinese with incorrect accents, SKYFIRE is exactly what is expected in a blockbuster disaster move from China. It is best to take it all in with a pinch of salt and be prepared to laugh a lot.
Director Simon West moves from Hollywood to the east shooting his first big Chinese disaster blockbuster. West owns the title of being a director making more than $100 million for his first 3 movies - THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER, CON AIR and LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER. But wait, THE GENERALS DAUGHTER and well as LARA CROFT both won awards for the worst movie of the year.
At least the film runs for only 90 minutes, which is as much anyone can take.
If one stays for the closing credits, there are some neat scenes that reveal how a few of the disaster sequences are shot. But beware! The closing credits also come with a music video of a new song sung by Quinlivan's husband, Chinese pop star Jay Chou, performing as if he was God’s gift to mankind. If this doesn’t give one the goose pimples, nothing will! The film gets three stars for cheesiness.
SPACE SWEEPERS (South Korea 2020) **
Directed by Jo Sung-Hee
What will Netflix up to next? Already the numero uno streaming service with original series and films from all over the world, Netflix is hard to beat. With their new Korean film SPACE SWEEPERS, Netflix scores another point in the streaming subscription wars.
The Korean film PARASITE took the film world by from making lots of money and winning major awards including the Oscar for Best Picture. Premiering this week on Netflix is a space opus aiming at making a dent in the world of STAR WARS, STAR TREK and BLADE RUNNER sci-fi/space territory. One thing noticeable during the first 20 minutes of the film 2 and a quarter hour running length is that there are no old people in the cast, only young ones, thus the film aiming at a younger movie paying crowd.
SPACE SWEEPERS also called junkers in the film are a group of desperate youngsters who sweep space or junk, selling whatever they can get to pay their daily meals. They steer the ship, Victory. They hardly make any money at all. The big organizations are dumping space trash all over space. The film looks technically amazing with a space fight occurring with lasers and explosions, worthy of any STAR WARS movie.
The setting is the year 2092, with an existing dystopian society. The audience is told the forests have vanished and that deserts have spread. With the fading sun and acidic soil, plants have dried up so harvesting food takes place in the orbit where society now must vacate Earth to live in the Orbit, . But only for a selected few, not everyone can ascend to this Orbit as 75% will perish on a destroyed Earth. Then the story introduces a lost humanoid in the form of a little Korean girl, that could be a ticking bomb. The space plot thickens.
After the crew discover the humanoid robot named Dorothy that is reported to be a weapon of mass destruction, they get involved in a risky business deal. This also the film starts wandering a lot, dragging it out though its already too long over 2-hour running time. With the 4 characters on the junk sweep, called the Victory (Tae-Ho, Robot, Tiger Park and Captain Jang), director Jo does his duty among the 4 like a traffic cop, but never really engaging any single one of the characters. The villain of the piece , Sullivan (Richard Armitage from tTHE HOBBIT films) does not have much to do but do his usual nasty bit, like destroying the Planet Earth. Despite all the ambitious goals of the film and besides all the good-looking special effects, SPACE SWEEPERS will only entertain the die-hard sci-fi/space fans of films in this genre.
SPACE SWEEPERS is shot primarily in Korean with some English spoked in outrageous miscellaneous accents. Streaming now on Netflix.
TEST PATTERN (USA 2019) ***
Written and Directed by Shatara Michelle Ford
TEST PATTERN is a film to be praised for covering several urgent world issues all at one go. The film is a female themed film with a female director and female protagonist. She is black covering equitable employment and the story involves a rape thus including the #metoo movement in its sphere of filmmaking. The film also touches on the topic of health care and policing, thus scoring full marks as a relevant film of the times.
Writer/director Shantara Michelle Ford tells her story from a strong feminine viewpoint while not putting down the masculine gender as is the trap a lot of female oriented films fall into. The black woman’s white boyfriend is considerate, kind and likeable, despite having an occupation most people would look down upon - that of a tattoo artist. The film scores yet another point playing against stereotyping.
Ford’s film begins with the meeting of the couple, him drunk getting his Dutch courage to ask her for a phone number while she is chatting wth her girlfriends. A simple date leads to an invitation to her place, and a rather posh one at that, an apartment with a view. Sex follows.
What is remarkable about Ford’s film is the seemingly effortless flow of her story. There is a certain uneasiness when the two first meet, just as one is uneasy on a first date with a stranger. Ford taps the audience’s uneasiness as well as their curiosity as to how the relationship will unfold. There is a feeling of something ominous about to happen.
The trouble occurs during a girl’s night out. Renesha (Britany S. Hall) leaves her boyfriend, yes, they are now a couple, Evan (Will Brill) at home while she meets Amber (Gail Bean) at a bar. Two men entice them with drinks and dance and before long, both have taken edible gummies. Renesha wakes up in Mike’s (Drew Fuller) bed, not remembering what had happened. She return home to her boyfriend, who insists she get tested at a hospital to determine if she was date-raped.
It is at this point that the story takes a different turn. The couple’s relationship takes a different turn as well The first signs of a strained relationship is the couple’s problem in being able to get a rape kit test.
Getting tested with a rape kit is tremendously important for both Evan and Rashida. A rape kit is a package of items used by medical personnel for gathering and preserving physical evidence following an allegation of a sexual assault. The evidence collected from the victim can aid the prosecution of a suspected assailant. DNA evidence can have tremendous utility for sexual assault investigations and prosecution by identifying offenders, revealing serial offenders through DNA matches across cases, and exonerating those who have been wrongly accused
Revealing much of the story would spoil it for the film, safe to say that the film changes from a romantic to a psychological drama.
THE WANTING MARE (USA 2020)
Directed by Nicholas Ashe Bateman
The big question posed at the start of this confusion and dreamy fantasy is “What is the film all about?”
The film begins with several lines on the screen that say: In the world of Anmaere lies the city of Whithren. The wild horses north of the city are the city's most valuable export and so they are hunted, trapped, sold and shipped, once a year, across the sea to the continent of Levithen. While Withren is a world of eternal and unrelenting heat, Levithen is in a constant state of winter. Each year, when the horses are shipped off to Levithen, the ship will also take passengers who have tickets. Unfortunately, the tickets are not only an incredibly rare commodity but they are also highly coveted.
Meanwhile, in a small house just north of the city (though the birth looks as if it took place on board a ship), a young woman dies in childbirth. Her last words are an attempt to tell her daughter of the life she'll have and her inheritance of a recurring dream that must be kept secret -- for it contains the memories of another age long before us, one where magic and myth were alive in the world.
The next scene shifts to a woman, Moira (Jordan Monaghan) waking up on a mattress on a floor in what seems to be a warehouse. She is interrupted by a man, wounded. She cares for him and brings him to a shack by the sea. Moira asks him for a ticket. The man says he will not get her a ticket because he does have one.
If the above is enough to try your patience and enough is enough, best to skip the movie entirely.
“Have you ever wondered what was before?” Before what?” “Before it was all here.” The film’s dialogue can be more ambiguous, so it is better not to ask questions and the film as presented - as a fantasy, a fantasy that often makes little sense.
Moira and her other generation of women, her mother, grandmother et al. have this same recurring dream. They’re unable to sleep at night, waking up in a sweat, obsessed by the same dream.
Many critics have praised THE WANTING MARE for its sheer beauty and accomplishment in terms of visuals, sounds and other artistry. They find the film dizzy, delightful and unforgettable. On the other hand, like many others on the other end of the spectrum, this is not the kind of film one would like to sit through during Covid-19 times, visually beautiful or not. A film must have more substance to it than ecstatics. Love it or hate! These are the two extreme reactions that many will have for this film. For this reason I have not rated the film.
Director Bateman has created THE WANTING MARE as the first, intimate chapter in a long line of films about the people, places, and legends of Anmaere. Yes, there is more to come!
THE WANTING MARE arrives in U.S. cinemas and on VOD nationwide Friday February the 5th.