AMUNDSEN - THE GREAT EXPEDITION (Norway 2020) ***
Directed by Espen Sandberg
AMUNDSEN is a film on the Norwegian explorer of polar regions, Roald Amundsen. AMUNDSEN was a key figure of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. The film begins with his plane crash in the Arctic. While missing, his brother, Leon and Roald's lover Bess discuss the explorer’s life which tells the film’s story.
Born in Borge, Østfold, Norway, the film follows Amundsen’s career as a polar explorer as first mate on Adrien de Gerlache's Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897–1899. From 1903 to 1906, he led the first expedition to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage on the sloop Gjøa. In 1909, Amundsen, tricking his King and his financial backers, began planning for a South Pole expedition. He left Norway in June 1910 on the ship Fram and reached the South Pole placing the Norwegian there in December of 1911. It was a race for him against the British as emphasized in the film, which implies the film should have been called THE GREAT RACE. His party established a camp at the Bay of Whales and a series of supply depots on the Barrier (now known as the Ross Ice Shelf) before setting out for the pole in October. The party of five, led by Amundsen, had become the first to successfully reach the South Pole on 14 December 1911.
For a film set in the snowy white icy south, the cinematography, as expected is nothing short of breathtaking. The scenes of the snow storms, the ship stuck in the ice and a sled full of goods almost plummeting into a gorge are all worthy of mention.
The story unfolds all through flashback as the adventures are recounted. Amundsen and 15 other men in the airship Norge became the first explorers verified to have reached the North Pole. Amundsen disappeared in June 1928 while flying on a rescue mission for the airship Italia in the Arctic. The search for his remains, which have not been found, was called off in September of that year.
Roald is depicted in the film as a tough man who will put up with no nonsense in order to achieve his expedition or race goals. He risks the lives of his fellow men while putting them down when challenged. Director Sandberg leaves the audience to decide whether Amundsen is a likeable character.
As it is a Norwegian film, it as expectedly praises the Norwegians for their bravery and courage while putting down the British particularly Scott, Roald’s competitor in the process. The British claim after Roald’s victory that the real heroes are the dogs referring to the Norwegians, though the dogs are actually the ones who pull the sleighs and are eaten when food runs out. There is one segment where the men eat dog stew, which looks pretty delicious on screen.
There is always something in human beings in wanting to discover new worlds and to be number one at that. The film acknowledges this and watching the film is entertaining while a bit tiring due to its length, verifying man’s need to learn more about themselves and the world they are living in. But the film has been criticized by Norwegian critics as boring and inaccurate.
AMUNDSEN opens digital/VOD April the 6th.
BETTER DAYS (少年的你) (Hong Kong 2019) ****
Directed by Derek Tsang
BETTER DAYS (Chinese: 少年的你 which translates literally as ‘in your youth ’) is a 2019 Chinese romantic crime film that is nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature. Banned from the Berlin Film Festival last year for reasons unknown, the film is directed by Derek Tsang and starring Chinese heartthrobs Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee. The film is adapted from the popular Chinese YA novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty by author Jiu Yuexi, went on to become a box office and pop cultural phenomenon in China and ended up grossing a total of US$230 million. It is an excellent film, and is Hong King’s official entry, not China’s which was terrible.
The subject is bullying and how it devastates everyone involved - the bullies, the bullied, their families and school authorities. What makes this film stand out are the other issues that come with the film’s subject - the craziness and stress of the college entrance examinations; the Chinese culture of school and living and even the way authorities deal with bullying. Though bullying is bullying whether in North America or in China, the China setting makes everything different as well as interesting. The film also goes into detective investigation suspense mode at the end with a murder involved with a doomed teen romance, Romeo and Juliet style.
The film begins with Chen Nian (Zhou) teaching her class English getting them to repeat after her: “This was my playground; this used to be my playground.” She goes on to ask the class the difference between the two saying that the latter denotes a sense of loss. This might be true but it could have a different implication as well, but let's not go there. The film then moves back to when Chen Nian was a 12th grader preparing for her college entrance exams which is considered the most important and hence stressful part of a student’s life. The entrance to the best universities will determine one future not only for the student but for the family as well. The stress is heightened when she is picked upon by Wei Lai (Zhou Ye) and her friends. Things improve a little when Chen Nian gets protection from a local gangster, Liu (Jackson Lee). But with the protection comes major complications. They fall in love. Wei Lai is murdered and Chen Nian becomes prime suspect of young police detective Zheng Ye (Yin Fang). This is when the film moves into a romantic and Hitchcockian mood. But the tactic works. One can tell as the film’s lengthy 2 and a quarter running time moves fast.
Director Tsang does not skimp with the raw emotions involved with the bullying, together with the physical scars that go with it, making the film at times quite an often unbearable watch, but in a good way.
A few flaws on the way involve the sudden disappearance from the scene of Chen Nian’s mother when detective Zheng Ye arrives at the house to confront Chen Nian in her home and an ending where one expects the lovers to go free but the credits say otherwise, as if the film is based on true events.
BETTER DAYS is now playing at Virtual TIFF Bell Lightbox.
CONCRETE COWBOY (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Ricky Staub
The rare image of two blacks (a father and his estranged teenage son) riding horses is likely to draw one attention to CONCRETE COWBOY, a city western set in Philadelphia where blacks run abandoned stables housed with horses. A rebellious son, Cole is expelled from school in Detroit and left by his fed-up mother to his father played by Idris Elba. CONCRETE COWBOY based on the novel ‘Ghetto Cowboy’ is a well acted and executed father and son drama (including the expected confrontation scene) with some excellent filming of horses and humans. Despite a rather cliched plot and cliched though quite biting dialogue, CONCRETE COWBOY still has enough pull due to the unfamiliar setting of horses in the city. Much of the humour involves the boy learning discipline especially when he is cleaning up the stables hauling horse shit.
The Netflix original film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year is now available on Netflix.
THE CONDUCTOR (De Dirigent)(Netherlands/Belgium 2018) ****
Directed by Maria Peters
THE CONDUCTOR is a handsome period piece about a girl who dreams and will stop at nothing to achieve her goals of being an orchestra conductor. It is the true story set in the 1920’s of Antonia Brico (Christanne de Bruijn) but she isn't taken seriously because she is a woman. In the meantime, she falls in love with a handsome beau, Frank Thomsen (Benjamin Wainwright) who at first gets her fired from her job. All this is established in the film’s starting 10 minutes before the opening credits are done. Antonia meets Frank in the gentlemen’s toilet of the theatre as she pretends to conduct the orchestra with a chopstick, hearing the music from the thin walls of the gent’s toilet. But before one can dismiss it all knowing the entire story, it is often how the journey is fulfilled rather than the result of the journey.
“I detect a slight accent, where are you from?” asks a guest to Antonia at the dinner table. When she confesses that she wishes to be a conductor, the guests respond unanimously with scornful laughs to which Willy retorts: I thought America was the land of opportunity,” to which the reply comes: “not to everyone.” The last phrase is so true, especially for immigrants and even more so for women immigrants. By the phrase, the film re-ascertains itself as a feminist film.
The conflict between love and ambition forms the heart of the film’s drama. Director Peters uses this to the best of her ability, inflicting the film with its best moments in the scene in Germany when Frank visits Antonia unexpectedly and asks her to marry him. She mentions an acquaintance’s wife mentioning she is a perfect singer but she does not sing any more. It is clear what Antonia will choose and sacrifice. Director Peters’ decision to intercut the two segments of Antonia’s first stint at conducting an orchestra (though not very convincing) with Frank’s wedding to another woman emphasizes the conflict.
But THE CONDUCTOR is also a film that shows the enormous influence of fate and how man or woman cannot escape its clutches. Karl Muck (Richard Sammel), Antonia’s teacher has an excellent spill on it and how the higher one rises, the harder one falls, to which Antonia realizes she is doomed either way.
The LGBT and #MeToo movements are brilliantly sneaked into the story giving the film an unexcited lift. Credit goes to the exceptional subtle performance of Scott Turner Schofield as Robin Jones.
The question that obviously arises is how Antonia supports herself in Berlin. But she receives money from America from an anonymous source. The bank is not at liberty to reveal the name of Antonia’s benefactor safe to say that the benefactor is a female and a supporter of the arts. Here, there are shades of Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS though the similarity might be looked down upon.
A co-production between Belgium and the Netherlands, the film is shot mainly in English but with a little Dutch and German. A handsome period epic (that feels like one) with a solid story, well directed and acted. Though not flawless a piece of filmmaking, THE CONDUCTOR still comes with my high recommendations.
FRENCH EXIT (Ireland/Canada 2021) ***
Directed by Azazel Jacobs
FRENCH EXIT is a film directed by Azazel Jacobs (THE LOVERS, 2017) based on the novel and adapted to the screen by Patrick DeWitt. DeWitt wrote the book THE SISTERS BROTHERS, a period western black comedy that was an excellent film directed by Jacques Audiard in 2018, that did terribly at the box-office due to poor marketing. FRENCH EXIT sports similar quirkiness of THE SISTERS BROTHERS.
FRENCH EXIT is a leave from a situation or event without proper notice. The film’s plot centres on the relationship between an odd-ball mother, 65-year of Manhattan socialite, Frances Price (Michelle Pfeifer) and her son, Malcolm (Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA). Pfeifer had played a socialite before in Martin Scorcese’s 1993 AGE OF INNOCENCE.
When the film opens, Frances takes her young son Malcolm out of boarding school in the middle of a term to go on a trip with her on a whim, with total disregard of the school rules. The film moves on years later when she is being advised by her lawyer of her dire financial circumstances. Frances is smart-talking which makes her character less likeable, akin to a spoilt child who had been living the good life for too long. With almost nothing left, she sells her jewelry and paintings and moves with her son and pet cat to Paris, staying in a flat owned by her friend. They believe the cat is possessed by Frances’ late husband. At the same time, Malcolm is saying goodbye to his fiancée (Imogen Poots) in a really irresponsible way that no-one would be comfortable with. Starting a film with two annoying, dislikable and reckless characters is indeed a risky undertaking, as it requires the audience to be able to root for the two for the movie to be likeable. The first 20 minutes is set in the U.S. and they then embark on a cruise to France at the 20-minute mark.
Mother and son land in Paris at the film’s 30-minute mark. It is Christmas eve. They know no one. The depressing situation is made even more pressing from the fact that Christmas is practically cancelled for the world due to Covid-19. One high spot is the restaurant scene, where the two get their own back at a lazy French waiter.
The film, fortunately picks up tremendously after they settle in Paris. The quirkiness turns endearing. The story turns the unlikeable characters to become real human beings that need to be understood. Dialogue like: “You father was an emotional moron. But he was not evil.” This is the explanation given by the mother to Malcolm who hated his late father. Other interesting characters show up, like Madame Reynald (Valerie Mahaffey) who desperately needs a friend and a private detective, Julius (played by Isaach de Bankole, who I first seen as a prissy effeminate maid feather dusting in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES).
The script and director Jacobs steer the film towards a good turn with FRENCH EXIT ending up quite the great finale. A few loose ends are left unresolved as to what the mother and son will do now that their more has run out and whether Frances has accepted the son’s engagement to Susan.
NO ORDINARY MAN: THE BILLY TIPTON DOCUMENTARY (Canada 2020) ***
Directed by Aisling Chine-Yee and Chase Joynt
To those, like me, unfamiliar wit Billy Tipton, Nilly Tipton was a trans jazz musician. He also a bandleader, and talent broker. For decades, Tipton assumed a male gender identity. Tipton's female birth sex was not publicly revealed until after his death, and the revelation came as a surprise to both family and friends. Tipton's music career began in the mid-1930s when he led a band for radio broadcasts. He played in various dance bands in the 1940s and recorded two trio albums for a small record label in the mid-1950s. Thereafter, he worked as a talent broker. Tipton stopped performing in the late 1970s due to arthritis.
The film can be divided into these parts: Billy’s life; Billy’s career and primarily his transgender issues, the latter given the most screen time. One wishes the doc be given the most emphasis on Billy’s talent with more performances (the one audience hearing “The Nest Things In Life Are Free” is simply astounding) shown, as this would be the point of the doc - to show Billy’s talent rather than discuss his transfer identity.
What is most troubling that the doc reveals about people is their constant insisting of finding out whether the family knew of Billy’s sexuality - not knowing that the man was essentially female. Billy’s biographer who wrote the book “Suits Me” comes across as the worst of these people. Also guilty in part are the directors of this doc who spend a lot of time on the issue. On the other hand, it can be argued that the purpose is to bring the issue into light of the un-acceptance of transgenders.
Several parts of Billy’s life is left out in the doc, like the fact that he was married a couple of times. It is also recorded that one of Billy’s sons William did not know that he father was female. The first thing that would come to mind is the question of William’ was conceived, which is entirely left out. The answer though is quite obvious, that William was adopted, as were the rest of Bill’s children. The fact that Billy’s marriages were illegal are also not mentioned.
The doc references to the trans drama BOYS DON’T CRY where the trans and her partner were murdered.
One wishes there would have been more archive footage of Billy and perhaps more of his performances in his band. A reason could be the unavailability of such footage.
It can be seen the directors aim (again to show how difficult it is to portray Billy, especially of a man trying to conceal his femininity) of showing the auditions of various actors trying for there of Billy Tipton but these segments take too much time and over stay their welcome.
It would be fair that the title NO ORDINARY MAN would imply that the story to be told w that this man was female - no ordinary man. One could still do with less trans issues and more of Billy’s tremendous talent.
QUO VADIS, AIDA? (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Norway, The Netherlands, Austria, Romania, France, Germany, Poland, Turkey 2020) ***
Directed by Jasmila Žbanić
The film is staged so well, the film, based on true events, feels so real and relevant. The setting is the United Nations military base free zone operated by the Dutch. The local city has evacuated there though most of the people are outside the base, the base being too small to house everyone. The Serbian general, Mladić (Boris Isaković) and his troops have occupied the town and are forcing the people to relocate from the base. The film narrows into the protagonist,Aida (Jasna Ðuričić), a middle-aged English teacher and translator taking shelter in the base. She tries to save her husband and two sons by having the family travel together with the U.N. forces but with little success. The narrative is simple and clear enough with the rest of director Žbanić’s efforts left to manage the logistics of the film. Many of the scenes involve hundreds of people and the filming must have been quite the effort. Žbanić makes her point clear, showing how Aida’s trauma results from ethnic and war violence.
SENIOR MOMENT (USA 2020) *
Directed by Giorgio Serafini
After drag racing his vintage convertible around Palm Springs, a retired 72-year old NASA test pilot, Victor (William Shatner) loses his license. Is he guilty? Guilty as hell but the film treats it as ok and to Victor this is a joke. Never intending to take a bus (taking a bus is for losers and old people), taking one gets him to meet the woman of his life. Forced to take public transportation, he meets Caroline and thus learns to navigate love and life again. Christopher Lloyd from BACK TO THE FUTURE plays his side-kick, Sal who is just as annoying.
There are many political and morally incorrect things projected in the movie. For one, it is deemed cool that someone races his or her car at top speed risking the lives of innocent people. One of the characters who helps Victor out is a hispanic who has saved time - bad stereotyping of races. There is more!
What is worse than a movie about old bogies trying to be young? Answer: a movie about old bogies making sexist comments throughout the film, thinking it funny and getting away with it. William Shatner (STAR TREK) plays this dirty old man who goes around googling young beautiful comments making comments like (looking at a policewoman’s bum): “like 2 hard boiled eggs doing the salsa.” The film also legitimizes driving fast cars dangerously. Showing off and risking lives are ok as long as the inconsiderate male is having fun.
Films can be remembered for excellent dialogue. SENIOR MOMENT can be remembered for the worst. When asked the reason a man of his age still chases beautiful women, Victor replies it is because they are so beautiful. He adds that he does not want to be a male chauvinist pig. The girl’s reply: “Pigs are so smart.”
The script is also full of shit. In one segment, Caroline tells the story of he cuckoo clock designed by some 102 year old and is the embodiment of love. In truth, no one ever knows the origin of the cuckoo clock. (My family and a cuckoo clock which was terribly noisy and annoying.)
Beware! There is an after sex morning scene. At least the audience is spared with Shatner keeping his top on.
For a film about fast cars, SENIOR MOMENT goes nowhere, and nowhere fast!
SUGAR DADDY (Canada 2020) *
Directed by Wendy Morgan
SUGAR DADDY is a low-budget Canadian indie coming-of-age story written and starring Kelly McCormack and directed by Wendy Morgan that deals with the topic of getting ones dreams despite certain risks. The story unfolds in three stages from her growing from timid to joyous and to finally atrocious.
If one wants a date with a SUGAR DADDY as the protagonist, Darren in the film does, there are sites which state that they can hook a girl up with successful men who they are attracted to. Of course, there is the other known fact that girls can also hook up with men for the sake of being pampered by money. That is the premise in the new artsy drama SUGAR DADDY in which a singer/songwriter Darren wishes to fund her so professed singing talent. She claims that she creates music that no one has heard before - or perhaps that no one wants to hear ever. She sings screech-like musical notes that not everyone might appreciate in the film’s opening segment.
Darren (Kelly McCormack), a young talented musician, dreams of making music like nobody has before. But she is broke. She cannot afford a pair of proper shoes, thus wearing dirty sneakers for her catering job that gets her fired. Desperate for cash, she signs up to a paid-dating website, throwing herself down a dark path that shapes her music with it.
SUGAR DADDY is filmed with the camera often close-up to Darren’s face. This shows and highlights her immediate emotions. The film therefore looks very similar to the other recent, low-budget Canadian indie ANNE AT 13,000 FEET (voted by the Toronto Film Critics Association as Best Canadian Feature 2020) but is slightly more versatile in that director Morgan pulls her camera back more often than the director of ANNE does.
It is neat to see tables turn during the first meeting between the sugar daddy, Gordon (veteran actor Colm Freore, BON COP, BAD COP) as the attraction is immediate but not from the old man but from Darren to Gordon for his intelligence and experience and advice.
The issue of how far a girl should go in being paid for a date is discussed in the film. The subject of paid dates is discussed thoroughly during Darren’s birthday celebration. A friend compares it to prostitution though Darren insists that there is no sex solved while another argues that the man in from t of her definitely would have sex in mind. The guy says he would never allow his girlfriend to do this.
There is nothing really wrong with SUGAR DADDY but the main flaw is the audience being able to connect with Darren’s character. This is a difficult point especially if one is a male. Being a male critic, I can see the effort put in by the water, director and actress in a female centred film that I can hardly relate to or have any emotions for. Unless one can care for the future of Darren, or what she goes through, the film can be a real bore. It definitely does not help that her character comes across as terribly caustic and that she does not care what any of her friends think or do. I would not like to put down this film for this reason, only to say, to each his or her own.
SUGAR DADDY is available digital/VOD form Tuesday April 6, 2021.
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.