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This Week's Film Reviews (Mar 5, 2021)

01 Mar 2021

FILM REVIEWS:

AU POSTE! (KEEP AN EYE OUT) (France/Belgium 2018) ***1/2

Directed by Quentin Dupieux

(emabargoed Marcg 3rd)

Trailer:

BOOGIE (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Eddie Huang

(embargo March 3rd)

 

Trailer:  

THE END OF THE STORM (UK 2020) ****
Directed by James Erskine

Director/Writer Erskine (THIS IS FOOTBALL, ONE NIGHT IN TURIN) is fortunate to be given exceptional access to Liverpool Football Club that enables him to make this excellent authentic sports documentary drama.  THE END OF THE STORM is the gripping inside story of the club’s 2019/20 Premier League winning season, despite the huge hiccup of Covid-19 lockdowns.

The doc plays as exciting as any fictional sports drama.  With archive footage of games played with Liverpool scoring the goals, director Erskine captures the euphoria of many a match., around a dozen or so exciting ones captured on camera.  Then most monumental is Jordan Henderson’s replacement of the goalie midway during the 2018 Chelsea match.   His saving of the goals is nothing short of phenomenal.  Henderson went on to become the team’s captain and was the one finally honoured to receive the trophy cup after winning the Premier League.

The film is also pretty much Jurgen Klopp’s success story.  This is the man that has devoted his entire life and love for the game - the manager of the Liverpool Football Club.  Klopp says he does nothing but football and even if they did not pay him, which they do, quite handsomely, he confesses, he would still do it.  He says his wife considers I’m a workaholic, but it is what he loves doing. With a tactical mind, he is shown analyzing every game, training and inspiring his players and blaming himself if a game is lost.  Klopp is in pretty much the majority of the film’s scenes and can always be seen on the side of the field prancing up and down , guiding his team on.  The film also focuses on a  ew of its eclectic layers like Mohamed Salleh from Egypt, Sadio Mané from Somalia and Roberto Firmino from Brazil.  But what is football without its fans?  The camera again focuses on a ew from other countries, a diehard who watches a Liverpool Club latch every week from Wuhan where the Corona Virus initially hit, an Indian father and two  football loving daughters and of course, a Liverpool fan and his young son.

The film is shot from all corners of the globe from the U.K. to New Zealand, China, Africa and Brazil.

The film is bookmarked by the club’s anthem, the beautifully rendered song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” performed by Lana Del Rey from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL, where the words END OF THE STORM form part of the lyrics and the title of the film.  The lyrics are particularly meaningful as football binds the world together as the doc filmed in many countries attest.

THE END OF THE STORM is a timely doc, that ties in the effects of Covid-19 as well as the police killing of Rodney King as can be seen with the Black Lives Matter T-shits won many times by fans in the film.  THE END OF THE STORM is one of the year’s most entertaining docs, even if one is not a football fan.  One can see, from the film, the reason football is the world’s most popular sport.

Trailer: 

FTA (USA 1972) **

Directed by Francine Parker

This week sees the arrival of the new 4K IndieCollect restoration of F.T.A.  The film will be released in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee on March 5.

The first question is what the abbreviation FTA stands for.  As one of the songs in the documentary goes, FTA does not stand for Free the Albanians nor Friends and Teachers Association.   Though it generally stands for FREE THE ARMY, the song goes with the lyrics ‘Fuck the army, and the marines and Navy as well.’

In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War,  Academy Award-winning actor and activist Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and fellow performers mounted the F.T.A musical comedy tour across Southeast Asia as a response to Bob Hope's USO tour.  They redubbed the original Army recruitment slogan “Fun, Travel, Adventure” to “Free The Army or F*** The Army”.   After the Army tried to limit the troops' access to performances, it became known as “The Show the Pentagon Couldn’t Stop!”

Fonda and Sutherland’s co-stars include writer/actor Michael Alaimo, singers and activists Holly Near, Rita Martinson, Len Chandler, and comedian Paul Mooney.  Despite being highly controversial, the show was a huge success amongst enlisted men and women, many of whom appear in the film expressing their disillusionment with war, imperialism and racism.

FTA is a Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda idea and realization way back when.  The film was released and pulled out of circulation after a week, likely more due to censorship than anything else.  Sutherland and Fonda had just worked on Alan J. Pakula’s KLUTE, which won Fonda her Oscar for Best Actress.  The doc begins with a spirited introduction by Jane Fonda herself.  It is clear too that the film could not have been made without the influence of the Hollywood Foreign Press.  Fonda herself, was recently honoured during the last Golden Globes for the lifetime achievement award.  From her speech, it is clear that this lady deserves our respect for doing what she believes is right.  And it is right - not to send Americans to bomb the hell out of a foreign country for the likes of then President Nixon.  Personally, there is only one ex-President that is worse than Donald Trump, and that is Richard M. Nixon.  The most important segment in the doc is when a soldier, puzzled, tells the camera that when the Americans landed in Vietnam, they were greeted by the throwing of rocks and bottles.  When the Vietcong arrived in the village, they were greeted with cheers instead.  He says how the Americans can be told that they are fighting this Communist monster when it is seen differently in Vietnam.

The doc shows part of the variety performances played to the troops, with Sutherland and Fonda participating.  Fonda says then the show is for underground disagreeing G.I.s that do not support the Vietnam War.  But the variety show on display in the doc is ok and watchable but nothing exceptional.   It is either you had to be there to enjoy it or the show is already rather dated.  But kudos to all the effort put in.  And the troupe's spirit is catching!  

The doc’s greatest achievement is not the display of the Variety Show, but the demonstration of the power of protests - and how they can be used to send messages that change the world.

Trailer:  

 

JUMP, DARLING (Canada 2020) **
Directed by Philip J. Connell

Nothing really new or insightful in the Inside Out opening movie JUMP, DARLING that moves like a limp.  A rookie drag queen, reeling from a break-up, escapes to the country, where he finds his grandmother in steep decline yet desperate to avoid the local nursing home.  The drag queen, Russell is played by Thomas Duplessie who was hired for the role for his two drag performances on video that he had sent to the casting director.  Acting-wise he delivers an ok performance, especially in the company of Hollywood legend and Oscar Winner Cloris Leachman (now at the age of 94) as the grandmother.  It looks like Duplessie was hired based on his drag performance rather than his acting ability.

The film contains two of Fishy Falters (Russell’s drag name) performances which are not bad, but the lightning is pretty dim for what is supposed to be a breakout performance.  The predictable story goes on as expected and the humour could have been better.

JUMP, DARLING is a sad last film for Cloris Leachman who recently passed and will surely be missed by movie fans everywhere.  If only this film would have been as good as her last farewell swan song. The film is just horrid though one can see Cloris Leachman trying her best to up the film another notch.

Point to note is that I previewed the film at the INSIDE OUT’s drive-in opening, which is not the best surroundings to watch a film.  The car ahead had his back light on the full time causing a whole lot of distraction before an usher came and told the idiot to be more mindful of others.  I would likely have had a better critique of the film if I had previewed it normally in a theatre.

Trailer:  

 

 

LUCKY (USA 2020) ***

Directed by Natasha Kermani

In the new horror outing that premiered at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, LUCKY finds its debut on Shudder March the 4th.  The film is almost a one-hander in which a suburban woman, called May (Brea Grant) fights to be believed as she finds herself stalked by a threatening figure who returns to her house night after night. When she cannot get help from those around her, she is forced to take matters into her own hands.

The film begins with the home invasion of an intruder (Hunter C. Smith) wearing a mask, while May and her husband, Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh) confront him.  Ted’s remarks surprise May.  “He is here again, we better go down before he kills us.”  Ted implies that the home invasion is a recurring thing nightly but May does not appear to recall it.  The police arrive but the unconscious man disappears.  After an argument the next morning, Ted leaves abruptly only to return many days later after the intruder keeps attacking May every night despite a police watch.  May is angry and wonders, like the audience, what is going on.

LUCKY depends fully on the performance of its lead actress Brea Grant as she is in almost every scene.  She has to show both the strength of a female self-help book author as well as vulnerability as the victim of a serial slasher.

Though advertised as a thriller/horror, LUCKY  comes off more as a neat little satire thriller on female issues.  During the book signing segment of the film, a reader asks May whether there is a difference at the way males and females deal with a big threat in their lives.  The answer is forwarded that females usually huddle together compared to their male counterparts.  In the  story, May tries her best not to seek outside help but to solve the recurring problem on her own.  The irony is that she does not seem able to deal with the problem on her own.  Perhaps women need to work together, if not huddling together, which could be the hidden message.

The marriage is on the rocks.  One had committed infidelity, and it is the woman and not the man for a good change.  May is  sorry and takes responsibility but it is a problem that is difficult to resolve for them or any couple.

The script is written by actress Brea Grant.  To her credit, it is quite an ingenious story, that few can guess where it would lead.  Commercial filmgoers expecting the typical horror slasher flick will be disappointed at the somewhat open ending.  It is odd that there is hardly any humour in LUCKY.  After this outing, Grant went on to write and direct another horror little satire called 12 HOUR SHIFT which she does not act in.  I have seen 12 HOUR SHIFT during the Fantasia 2020 Film Festival and that movie is a hilarious send up on the medial system and the opioid epidemic.  LUCKY is not too bad but watch for the upcoming 12 HOUR SHIFT where Grant proves her worth as a writer and director. 

Trailer: 

MY SALINGER YEAR (Canada/Ireland 2020) ***
Directed by Philippe Falardeau

J.D. Salinger or Jerry, which is what the film’s protagonist refers to him as, is the too-well respected, famous but reclusive author of the young adult rebellious best-seller THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.  The film’s protagonist is Joanna Rakoff (Margaret Qualley) who spends a year taking a job as an assistant to the literary agent for J.D Salinger, and hence the film’s title.  The agent is no-nonsense Margaret (Sigourney Weaver, reprising her bitch boss role she made famous, in Mike Nichol’s WORKING GIRL where she received one of her 3 Oscar nominations).

MY SALINGER YEAR  is based on Raokff’s memoir of the same name, a notably poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny tale.  Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s film is more on the lines of serious drama as in his Award winning MONSIEUR LAZHAR and with less humour than his notable CONGORAMA.  Falardeau gets his message across in the film about a coming-of-age writer who does write and follows her dreams with more seriousness than humour.

The film begins with Joanna at twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet.  Joanna moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger.   She only meets him (Tim Post) at the very end, but spends much time speaking to him on the telephone when he calls while inspiring her to write.  She spends her days in a plush, wood-panelled office, where dictaphones and typewriters still reign with no computers.  At night she goes home to the tiny apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend, Don (Douglas Booth).  Joanna’s main job is answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail.  But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from all his fans, she finds herself unable to type out the agency’s decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger’s devotees, she abandons the rules and begins writing back.  One of these devotees is played by rising star Theodore Pellerin (LEAN ON PETE), who she risks being fired by communicating with him.

Falardeau makes it clear at several points that the film is about emotions. One character even asks: “What should we do with emotions?” to which Falardeau gives the answer: “if not to reveal these (emotions) to the world.”

Falardeau uses the famous Claude Debussy’s piece “Clair de Lune” in a segment.  This is a tune, wonderful as it is but already too often used in too many films, here again to evoke the audience’s feeling for quiet emoting and peace.  Joanna as well as Margaret go through almost the entire film suppressing their emotions.  It is as if this piece frees them to express their emotions.

Of course, the film also emphasizes, as the script is written by director Falardeau, the obvious which is the testament to the universal power of books to shape lives and to inspire.   MY SALINGER YEAR is not bad, not the best of Falardeau’s films, but one that could have had more surprise and humour.

Trailer: 

 

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.

 

Trailer:

 

NOTTURNO (Italy/France/Germany 2020) ***

Directed by Gianfranco Rosi

The opening one is a silent and beautiful scene of a boat on a river with the sun either rising or setting in the background.  The background is red in colour.  It is a man navigating thick marshes in order to fish at night.  The scene moves to the next, where a troupe of play performers raise their voices over liberation and dignity in their society.

Other activities captured in the film include: A group of women pray at the location of previous atrocities; A young boy wakes up early each morning and waits by the side of a road hoping to find work for the day: and others.  It is clear that in all the activities, all the people are surviving the psychological trauma of the effects of war on their daily lives.

The opening credits announce that this film has been shot over the period of 3 years around the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon.  It is a lyrical film, with gorgeous images replacing a narrative storyline, depicting the routines of people trying to survive in the war-torn region

The film is directed by Gianfranco Rosi who often takes years to craft each of his works. While he has been creating powerful portraits of people and places for over 25 years, it was his award-winning 2016 film FIRE AT SEA — a harrowing and humane account of migrants off the Sicilian coast on Lampedusa — that brought him wide international acclaim.  Rosi returns with Notturno, a delicate new film that brings light to the darkness of war in the Middle East.

NOTTURNO is currently available on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox starting March 2nd.

Trailer: 

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (USA 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López

Co-directed by John Ripa and Paul Briggs

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, the new Disney animated feature follows a girl heroine, Raya  (Kelly Marie Tran) who originates from the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony.   But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity.  The present setting of the film is 500 years later when that same evil has returned.  It is up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.  However, along her journey, she learns important life lessons, and so will the audience that it takes trust and teamwork as well.

Golden Globe Winner Awkwafina who has been in a lot of recent movies, lends her voice to the dragon.  The dragon is a fiesta and playful one.  Awkwafina is an ideal choice for the dragon’s voice.  Being in so many films, her voice is immediately recognizable. 

One thing immediately noticeable about RAYA is the detailed animation of the set background.   The flowers look miraculously real, especially in the scene where Raya places flowers on to the river.  The insects and animals like Ray’s pet beetle are also well designed and animated.  There is one scene, where some insect transforms into another colourful form.

A lot of work, often unseen goes into an animated feature, much more than a regular live action one.  In many of the featurettes now available on Disney+, a few of the filmmakers stories are told.  An example is the work of co-director Kemp Powers who is credited as co-director for SOUL (which I am sure will win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature) working with more famous animated director Pete Docter.  Powers visited the black barbershop in his town that inspired him the awesome barbershop sequence in SOUL.  For this reason, I now credit co-directors in my reviews, where I previously did not.

The film draws from Asian countries.  The rivers look like those in Vietnam and the beetle that Raya travels on rolls around and is called the tuk-tuk, the identical name given to the three wheeled taxis in Thailand.

The film plays well with a message.  Raya warns her dragon: “The world is broken, you cannot trust anyone.  The dragon’s reply: “The world is broken because you cannot trust anyone.”  The message of trust comes up a number of times in the film, and with some humour.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON works like an oriental fairy tale and everyone loves a good fairytale, especially the kids and including the adults.  The film contains all the elements of an entertaining fairy tale - a journey, a quest, heroics, monsters and magic.  RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON should be an ideal family watch at home before restrictions on Covid-19 are lifted.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is now available on Disney+ with Premier Access in most Disney+ markets, at the same time as it is released in select theatres on March 5, 2021.

 

Trailer:  

 

US AGAIN (USA 2021) (Short)

Directed by Zack Parish

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Us Again” will screen before “Raya and the Last Dragon” in theatres. It will be available on Disney+ in June 2021.

  The short is set in a vibrant  city pulsating with rhythm and movement, an elderly man and his young-at-heart wife rekindle their youthful passion for life and each other on one magical night.  The years fade away as the joy of dancing propels them across the exciting cityscape of their youth and revives fond memories and ambitions. Director/writer Zach Parrish (head of animation on “Big Hero 6,” and director of Disney Animation’s “Short Circuit” film, “Puddles,” now airing

STRAY (Turkey/USA 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Elizabeth Lo

The film opens with a 360 b.c. quote from poverty Turk philosopher Diogenes. “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and the world would do well to study the dog.

STRAY is a documentary on start dogs, concentrating mainly on one female dog aged around two years, as she moves around the city of Istanbul.

The film is dotted by several other quotes by Diogenes.  Diogenes was a controversial figure.   After being exiled, he moved to Athens and criticized many cultural conventions of the city.  He modelled himself on the example of Heracles, and believed that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory.  He used his simple lifestyle (reflected by the life of stars in this doc) and behaviour to criticize the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt, confused society.  Director Lo, similarly uses stars to criticize society.  There are shots of Turks protesting on the streets on February the 14th, an annual protest day.  The film also follows a few homeless Syrian refugee kids, who sleep on the streets and who have taken a few strays to own. Diogenes had a reputation for sleeping and eating wherever he chose in a highly non-traditional fashion, and took to toughening himself against nature.  That is likely the reason director Lo uses his quotes.

Turkish authorities have tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century. But widespread protests against these killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog. Every free-roaming dog today is an emblem of resistance — living manifestations of compassion in the face of intolerance.  The Turks appear kind to the strays int he doc, never abusing them but treating them well.  The strays look quite healthy.

Among the few dogs director Lo’s camera follows, the main focus is the female dog, named Zeytin.   Zeytin is often joined by Nazar, another street dog.   They are shown to be on the heels of a group of young men from Syria — Jamil, Halil and Ali — who were living on the streets as refugees in Turkey.  Together the humans and canines find shelter in construction sites and quiet sidewalks. Despite the harshness of their circumstances, the dogs and boys had formed a makeshift family unit. The warmth and love emanating from their interdependent bond is deeply moving.

Director Lo’s doc will inevitably be compared to the doc on farm animals. GUNDA that follows a pig, chicken and cows on a farm with the sole purpose of discouraging meat eaters.  START has no such divine purpose, but Lo’s camera following a start fro 90 minutes is such as affecting a film, where he draws parallels between the canine and human species.

Credit to Lo for her creation of an emotional journey.  Following  Zeytin around the city must have been an arduous task, she must be crouching down at pooch level, most of the time as her camera films at pooch-eye level.  An unforgettable documentary revealing the life of poverty stricken strays, both canine and human. 

Trailer: https://www.slashfilm.com/stray-trailer/

 

UNDERPLAYED (Canada 2020) **
Directed by Stacey Lee

UNDERPLAYED features women (and women of colour) in the electronic music scene. DJs like Alison Wonderland, Sherelle, and Canada’s own REZZ are featured with much emphasis on REZZ.  There is a segment on her in her Canadian home in Niagara Falls working very hard in the basement before getting famous and becoming a headliner in music festivals and clubs.  But the emphasis of the doc is to highlight the under-representation of females in the industry. 

One wishes the doc has more music on display more than the artists complaining about females being underrepresented in the electronics music world.  The fact is obviously true as 5% of the top 100 DJs were women, in a survey recently, but the film just goes on too much about it. 

Director Lee’s doc is quite shallow without going into the depth of the problem and perhaps a possible solution.  The doc is a series of one complaint after another and this gets really tiresome and boring.  Myself, going to the clubs weekly and partying in my younger and prettier days, it made no difference to me whether a DJ is male or female as long as they play good, cool tunes, whether with vocals or without, electronic or non-electronic.   I am sure the public, like myself could not care less of the DJ.’s gender.  In fact, me and my mates have two favourite female DJ.’s but the doc is right in that the clubs never hired that many females.  The doc does not examine the issue - if 5% of the top DJ’s were women, what is the real percentage of female to male DJ’s?   

At its best, the doc shows the realistic 2019  summer festival season, criss-crossing around the world.

The doc premiered this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is available on demand March the 8th, Monday.

Trailer: 

 

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