- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
AMERICAN SAUSAGE STANDOFF (AKA GUTTERBEE) (Denmark 2018) *
Directed by Urlich Thomsen
Cabaret, sausage and small town American racism? What do these topics have in common? The answer: one silly film called AMERICAN SAUSAGE STANDOFF.
Narrated by one of the film’s characters, Sheriff Brown (Chance Kelly), the film begins with him giving a ticket to the town’s newcomer from Germany, German sausage maker and occasional scholar Edward Hofler (Scots actor Ewan Bremner who sounds more Scots than German, who is half the time too difficult to understand). The town is called Gutterbee, which also used to be the film’s original title when the filmmakers changed it to something as ridiculous as the plot. Gutterbee is a decaying western town where racism rules in the form of one of its main inhabitants and bully Jimmy Jerry Lee Jones (W Earl Brown). He is proud to have run off the previous foreigner, a chinaman, shown in scenes where he is ridiculed and occasionally naked. These scenes are unfunny and as racist as the Jones character and leaves bitter taste in one’s mouth, especially in this reviewer’s, me being Asian. Making fun of a racist does not automatically make the film anti-racist! And this film is too infantile to be classified as even mild satire.
So determined is Ed to spread the goodness of German sausage that he buys an old chapel building to open a restaurant he intends to call the Gourmet House of Refuge.
Besides these three characters, director Thomsen adds another 2 characters - one annoying and unfunny one, the local pastor (Clark Middleton). The other is a local thug called Mike (Antony Starr) who has recently been released from prison. Previously working for Jones, he now joins forces with Ed to become his new business partner, again with an incomprehensible reason.
There are too many characters that are given equal screen time that it becomes unsure who the main protagonist is or what the story is all about. The opening credits also names a rooster as one of its cast, the rooster (a handsome looking specimen, at least) appearing at different points and several times in the film. The story goes in 4 different directions without an apparent aim or goal. Besides being unfunny, one wonders the kind of comedy the film is being aimed at. It is too slight to be a parody or satire, or tongue-in-cheek or dead pan. Director Thomsen might have just invented a new brand of unfunny comedy.
“This our chance to show the world what we are made of….. to chase the American dream.” It is hard to swallow these words of idiotic characters, and the lead protagonist in the film is surely one. To add fuel to the fire is the worst dialogue: “All you have to do is make the sausage bigger.”
With idiotic characters, an idiotic premise and an idiotic premise of a story, it is not surprising the kind of film would result.
BEHEMOTH (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Peter Sefchik
The title of this low budget horror thriller BEHEMOTH comes from the biblical Book of Job. The Behemoth is a form of the primeval chaos-monster created by God at the beginning of creation; he is paired with the other chaos-monster, Leviathan, and according to later Jewish tradition both, would become food for the righteous at the end-time. Metaphorically, the name has come to be used for any extremely large or powerful entity. In the film BEHEMOTH refers to a large chemical company. The beast manifests itself at the end of the film as the culmination of the story’s incidents indicative of perhaps the wrath of God. There is nothing supernatural in the film’s main story, but the supernatural elements begin to rear its head slowly but surely at the film’s final climax.
The evil that men do for the sake of money. The worst can be said for corporations that poison the environment to make lots of money for its head honchos and its shareholders. One such company has made its head doctor lots of cash while he ignores the protesters of the evil that the company has done. The story centres on its whistleblower whose daughter, Nicole has succumbed to a mysterious terminal illness
Joshua Riverton (Josh Eisenberg) spent 10 years working for a global chemical Behemoth, notorious for their environmental negligence. When his daughter develops a mysterious illness, he steps forward as a whistle-blower, throwing his life into chaos. He is convinced that his company's negligence has made his daughter sick, and there are dark forces hiding the truth. When given the chance to confront his old boss, Dr. Woeland (Paul Statman), he allows a standoff to escalate into violence, and Josh is shot in the process. Now Josh is on the run, eating painkillers, and holding Woeland hostage. Josh demands answers about his daughter's illness, but with each passing moment around Woeland, Josh's grasp on reality begins to unravel. Director plays on Josh’s psychological torment while keeping the audience guessing as to what he sees may be real or his hallucinations.
The film pays a nod to several classic films. The kidnapping theme comes right out of the play DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, that Roman Polanski made into a film in which the tortured kidnapped is a Nazi doctor plays by Ben Kingsley. In fact Statman who plays the kidnapped Woeland looks very similar to Kingsley complete with glasses and moustache. Co-written by Sefchik, BEHEMOTH has its flaws (like the bodyguard breaking down the door of the motel room, though it is never explained how he knows which room his prey is in) but credit clearly goes to the immensely impressive results derived from the limited budget. The special effects are amazing, the production values superb with the film looking very professional and the monsters impressive looking. Sefchik has vast experience creating CG creatures for blockbuster films and it shows. The wry humour works well as in the drag queen motel manager giving the film a stranger and weirder look.
BEHEMOTH opens on digital platforms on August 27 - an impressive low budget film that is definitely worth a look.
CANDYMAN (USA 2021) **
Directed by Nia DaCosta
CANDYMAN is best remembered to be the creation of horror master Clive Barker. British author Barker created the CANDYMAN monster in his short story THE FORBIDDEN. If one stands in front of a mirror and says aloud the name CANDYMAN five times, CANDYMAN all appear, hook in hand and hand the caller a nasty and violent death. In the film, those around will also suffer a painful killing. Candyman has been so popular that it has spawned the hit film of the title CANDYMAN made in 1992 by director Bernard Rose (I thought his previous film PAPERHOUSE a much better and a classic) and other related films including this latest 2021 version that was plagued by development problems. Finally in 2018, Jordan Peele (GET OUT) signed on as producer for a new film using his company, Monkeypaw Productions. Later in November that same year, it was confirmed that Peele would produce the film with Universal Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and will partner with Rosenfeld to co-produce the film while DaCosta signed on as director. Principal photography for the film began in August 2019.
In this 2021 version of CANDYMAN, Oscar® winner Jordan Peele and director DaCosta unleash a fresh take on the blood-chilling urban legend. For as long as residents can remember, the housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighbourhood were terrorized by a word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer with a hook for a hand, easily summoned by those daring to repeat his name five times into a mirror. In present day, a decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, visual artist Anthony McCoy (Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II; Watchmen, Us) and his partner, gallery director Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris; If Beale Street Could Talk, WandaVision), move into a luxury loft condo in Cabrini, now gentrified beyond recognition and inhabited by upwardly mobile millennials.
With Anthony’s painting career on the brink of stalling, a chance encounter with a Cabrini-Green old-timer (COLMAN DOMINGO; Zola, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) exposes Anthony to the horrific true story behind Candyman. Anxious to maintain his status in the Chicago art world, and spurred on by his white art dealer, Anthony begins to explore these macabre details in his studio as fresh inspiration for paintings, unknowingly opening a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifying wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with destiny.
CANDYMAN has excellent production values. The details from the buzzing bees to the disgusting looking wound on Antonio’s hand are all captured vividly on film. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is excellent as the brooding and paranoid Anthony who drives himself and his girlfriend crazy. Well, is Anthony really crazy or are supernatural forces at work?
The film is also well paced with the horror escalating at the film’s climax. But director DaCosta’s film is at times too confusing to follow, especially at the beginning where the audience has to spend effort figuring the relationship among the characters. There is a little gay content inserted into this mostly black charactered film, which makes the film politically correct on all fronts, also with emphasis on the female roles.
THE COLONY (TIDES) (Switzerland/Germany 2021) **
Directed by Tim Felbaum
THE COLONY is a Swiss/German co-production of an Earth that has gone to bits due to war, climate change and war, as the titles inform the audience at the beginning of the film. The wealthy have escaped to colonize a distant planet Kepler but a spaceship is returning to earth to check up on what has been going on. The story centres on Blake (Nora Arnezeder) who survives the landing on Earth.
Nothing much is explained which makes one of the film’s big flaws. What is the purpose of returning to Earth? There is surely a better and safer way like using drones to find out what has happened to the home planet. The survivors on Earth form two groups - stupidly the good guys and the bad guys. Again, no reason is given. The other title of the film is TIDES because a lot of the Earth is supposedly underwater. Well, the earth was more water than land in the first place. Why the groups speak different languages (sounding a bit like German and with English) is unexplained. There is a flashback with Blake and her fatherland some sentimental rubbish about lighting matches, the last match to be lit to maintain contact. Blake has lost contact with her father from a similar expedition.
It appears that films today attempt to be politically correct or racially or gender diversified. Blake is a female. When the spaceship lands, the other aslant is Asian and the third black. Like many other films, the tactic seems too obvious to please the masses. Later on in the story, the other lead character turns out to be a coloured female warrior, nark played by Sarah-Sofie Boussnina.
There is nothing in THE COLONY that is fresh (uninhabitable planet; lots of wasteland - unlivale; food and water shortages) and has not been seen in sci-fi dystopian films before. The heroine looks as if she came right out of ALIEN, the human scavengers out of THE ROAD WARRIOR and the society out of WATERWORLD. The film is ultimately boring and there is nothing in the story to excite the audience or to father audience anticipation. Again, it does not help that much of the events that have occurred to Planet Earth are left for the audience to guess or figure out. On the positive side, the film’s art direction, set design and production values are impressive. The film looks convincing as an apocalyptic wasteland with the ragged left behind human scavengers and children looking all drawn and weary, like the kids in Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’.
Director Felbaum eventually steers his film to its logical end, not to be revealed in this review - except to say not to expect anything too spectacular or any twist in the plot. THE COLONY is a well made but ultimately boring exercise in sci-fi dystopian society where no one really cares about the characters or to the planet Earth for that matter.
The Colony opens In Theatres, on VOD, and Digital August 27, 2021.
FLAG DAY (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Sean Penn
Actor/director Sean Penn has been doing a lot of work publicizing his new drama FLAG DAY especially promoting his daughter, Dylan’s work in the lead role at the same time. FLAG DAY is clearly a worthy father/daughter effort. also visible from its theme which is the relationship between a successful journalist and her fast talking, con artist father. At times, she cannot stand her father’s bullshit and one wonders how much of what transpires on screen is also true for the Penn’s.
The film is bookended with an interview between a U.S. Marshall, Marshall Blake (Regina King) and Jennifer Vogel (Sean Penn’s daughter, Dylan Penn). Jennifer hears for the first time of her father's counterfeit money operation. This is the story of how a father (Sean Penn) lives a double life as a counterfeiter, bank robber and con man in order to provide for his daughter. But there are a few other stories emerging from the main one - that of the father/daughter relationship, Jennifer’s rise to the achievement of other dreams of becoming journalist because she wants to be a person that matters.
Performances are superlative in the film, expected because the director is also an Oscar winning actor who played Harvey Milk in MILK. His two children Dylan and Hopper Jack share their father’s talent for acting. Two excellent actors Josh Brolin and Eddie Marson (British actor putting on an American accent) have but one or two scenes but get star billing. James Russo, famous for his tough guy roles, makes a huge impression playing a biker.
There is a lot of smoking on display in the film, as Sean Penn is known to be an avid smoker. His character smokes throughout the film as do quite a few of his characters like the cops and other minor characters, very noticeable now that smoking is a no-no and rarely depicted in films these days.
FLAG DAY appears to be quite choppy in delivery especially in the segment where Jennifer grows to be a respected journalist. The father figure disappears for a lie as the father serves time in prison. Here little is said or shown of John Vogel except that he went in and came out in jail. Penn takes his time to tell his story, the good thing being allowing the audience to appreciate the cinematography and period setting of the story.
Director Penn resorts to quite a few confrontational segments to liven up the story. The film unfolds more as a family drama. There is little humour but the one funny scene seems to generate a lot of laugh-out loud laughs during the screening. As John pretends to be speaking business on the phone outside the house, Jennifer calls out her dad’s bluff by unplugging the telephone cord, showing him through the screen door. Caught in the act, John says to the telephone: “I will call you back later.”
FLAG DAY is so called as the date of the American flag was founded on the same day as John Vogel’s birthday. As in Jennifer’s words in the film: “He thinks the country owes him a living because of that.”
FLAG DAY is based on the memoir by journalist Jennifer Vogel about her career criminal dad, counterfeiter and con man John Vogel. What is clear in the film is Penn’s fascination with the dysfunctional family which can be seen to be the direct result of John’s inability to stop his bullshit, despite his genuine love for his daughter Jennifer and his family. Does art imitate life here?
THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES (Das geheime Leben der Bäume)
(Germany 2020) ***
Directed by Jorg Adolph
Can trees talk? Can they communicate? Do they have a social life? These are a few questions the new documentary on trees THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES, filmed almost entirely in German attempts to answer. Audiences who have seen nature docs before already know that nature allows them to connect with each other and to warn each other of dangers. So they do possess certain common human traits. But trees are NOT human. Making them like humans piques one’s interest in the subject. It is of no surprise then that Peter Wohlleben’s book THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES became an immediate best-seller when it debuted in 2015. His German book was translated to English in 2016. He opens eyes to the hidden world of the woods.
Wohlleben studied Forestry and was a civil servant at the State Forestry for over twenty years. As he grew more familiar with the woodlands he was overseeing, he became disenchanted due to the damage caused by the techniques and technologies he was expected to employ, including the felling of mature trees and the use of insecticides.
The film educates audiences through Wohlleben in an entertaining and enlightening fashion about the solidarity and cohesion of the trees and strikes a chord with his ever-growing community of readers. The film takes audiences across the globe to tell its story, making a greater impact when set in Vancouver Island, especially for Canadian audiences, Wohlleben also travels to Sweden to see the oldest tree in the world. Surprisingly this oldest tree is quite alone and does not look as if it survived that long.
In Vancouver, The film is brought down to earth as he talks to the loggers. The loggers only think short term to make money but do not care if the forests are self-sustaining. It is sad to see so many narrow-minded short sighted people. This is true too, especially in the fishing industry. Now, the cod population is close to zero in any seas. Director Adolph includes interviews and footage of many prominent environmentalists like David Suzuki who also creates a bit of needed humour in the doc. Wohlleben also sides with the Hambacher Forst demonstrators. Because he knows that we humans can only survive if the woods are healthy.
Director Adolph realizes the power of his source material. He does not resort to cheap theatrics like animation to emphasize a point. Instead he makes use of more relevant techniques like time lapse photography and camera workings with nature to tell his story. It is not surprising therefore to find the nature segments to be the most intriguing parts of the documentary. These are and there are many of these footages of insects and creatures that feast on decaying wood. These are creepy to watch but director Adolph makes his point.
THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES, the intelligent, quiet and insightful documentary will definitely make an impact on audiences. It will make one think twice when kicking a tree out of anger. The leaves of that tree might just emit chemical substances that will teach the kicker a lesson or two.
THE LOST LEONARDO (Denmark/France/Sweden 2021) ***
Directed by Andreas Koefoed
I doubt whether the doc about the lost painting THE LOST LEONARDO would interest non-art fans of the cinema. Firstly, the title might put them off. But there are lots to learn from this insightful documentary with director Andreas assembling a very impressive cast of experts to lend their say. The many interviewees comprise a wide range, from art critics to the
founder of the FBI Art Crime Team. The result is an often fascinating look into the expensive and elite art world that many would otherwise not be able to enter. Give the doc a chance or forever live in Da Vinci ignorance.
Unfolding like a thriller, Andreas Koefoed’s THE LOST LEONARDO is a riveting documentary. The film is the inside story behind the Salvator Mundi (humorously also called the male Mona Lisa), the most expensive painting ever sold at the current price of $450 million. From the moment the painting is bought for $1175 at a shady New Orleans auction house, and the restorer discovers masterful Renaissance brushstrokes under the heavy varnish of its cheap restoration, the Salvator Mundi's fate is determined by an insatiable quest for fame, money and power. As its price soars, so do the questions about its authenticity: is this painting really by Leonardo da Vinci? Why would a painting lost for a century suddenly be found, in all places in the United States of America? And in New Orleans.
Unravelling the hidden agendas of the richest men and the most powerful art institutions in the world, The Lost Leonardo reveals how vested interests in the Salvator Mundi are of such tremendous power that truth becomes secondary.
The film also looks at the undesirable aspects of human nature - power, politics and greed. It is only the elite and the wealthy who have excess to the art world. When the painting was exhibited at the National Gallery in London there were huge queues with single tickets going for $400. It is politics that allowed the National gallery to be able to grab the painting. It is greed that allowed the price to soar. But it is interesting that none of the prominent institutions in the story (the National Gallery, Christie’s, the Louvre, or the states of France and Saudi Arabia) wanted to be interviewed. Obviously there is something fishy around that these people are trying to hide. It is all about money and power.
Clearly the reputation precedes the painting, rather than the authenticity. The painting is now famous, and it does not matter whether Leonardo or his followers or someone else painted it. The doc is clear to state that it often takes a long period of time before a painting can be determined - if it is the real thing or a fake.
Shot over a three-year period, the film is directed by Andreas Koefoed, known for his character-driven documentaries (Ballroom Dancer, The Arms Drop and At Home in the World). Script is by Duska Zagorac, Andreas Dalsgaard, Mark Monroe, Christian Kirk Muff and Koefoed.
THE LOST LEONARDO opens August 27 in Toronto (Canada Square), Vancouver (International Village) and Montreal (Cineplex Forum).
ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING (USA 2021) **
Directed by various directors
Premiering on Disney+ (Hulu) streaming service, this murder mystery should entice viewers as everyone loves a good murder mystery and even more - a comedy murder mystery. ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING is an upcoming American comedy television series, created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman. The series consists of ten episodes and is set to premiere on Disney+ from August 31, 2021.
The series follows three strangers who live in the same apartment building, played by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. The three share an obsession with solving true crimes and suddenly find themselves involved in one.
The review is based on the first two episodes that this reviewer has watched. The first two were directed by Jamie Babbit and the third by someone else. Steve Martin co-wrote the first episode with John Hoffman. The other episodes are penned by various other writers.
The first episode is called TRUE CRIME and the second WHO IS TIM KONO?
Judging from the first two episodes, the series seems to be quite mediocre entertainment. The story seems stretched out to last 10 episodes and humour injected whenever possible, though the episodes are not really that funny.
The first episode introduces the three main characters, Mabel, Charles and Oliver. They are acquaintances who meet by coincidence in the apartment elevator. By chance, Tim Kono also enters the elevator after the three are in it. He is later murdered. The second episode spends some time explaining who he is - a basically much disliked person by everyone else in the building. The writers try to inject humour in the funeral service without much success. Charles is the straight man in the story, while Oliver the comedian, though quite the annoying one - i.e. annoying Martin Short plays an annoying character in the story. Gomez actually comes off the best of the three performers. The story reveals a fact that the other two characters are unaware of. Mable knows the murdered victim Tim Kono but does not want the fact to be known because of some misunderstanding between the two. It is a lazy script written by too many different writers with lots of fillers to keep the story last for 10 episodes.
Hopefully the third and further episodes will turn out more interesting than the first two. Despite heavyweights Steve Martin and Martin Short, everyone seems to be marking time in this sorry excuse for a apartment murder mystery.
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (USA 2021) ****
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
There is a new Marvel superhero to be reckoned with and he is Asian. Shang-Chi has been a minimal Marvel character until now. Spun out of licensed properties, Shang-Chi is a Marvel-owned character and has been firmly established as a part of the Marvel Universe with guest appearances in numerous other titles, such as Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Knights and X-Men. Shang-Chi is supposed to be one of the unknown sons of the famous villain Fu Manchu but this information is totally ignored in the film. The father of Shang Chi in this case happens to be the owner of the legendary ten rings who has the power of the Gods plus eternal life. So, no Fu-Manchu here The fatter is played by Tony Leung, immediately recognizable as the heart-throb in Wong kar-wei’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, again his character’s main flaw is his eternal love for his wife that possesses him to do evil.
SHANG-CHI surprisingly turns out to be one of the most entertaining Marvel outings. The super action movie has an action hero that is human with vulnerabilities, and a minority Asian. The setting is ancient Chinese, which is always a mystic paradise for fantasies. Western audiences have always been fascinated by asian folklore with films like the animated ALAKAZAM THE GREAT to SPIRITED AWAY. SHANG-CHI arrives with the spirit of Martial arts films like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and the King-Hu classics. The film turns out to be tamer and better, more restrained, more mystical, funnier and entertaining and less silly than any other recent Marvel or DC films. SHANG-CHI is a clear winner, more entertaining than any of the recent marvel films.
The film opens with Shang-Chi (Canadian Simu Liu from KIM’S CONVENIENCE) living in San Francisco under the name of Shaun, working as a parking valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). One day when Shaun and Katy are on the public transit, a band of thugs attempt to steal Shaun’s pendant. Shaun displays amazing Martial-Arts skills fighting them off. “Who is this guy?” Katy wonders. Apparently her best friend is keeping secrets from her The two end up saving the world from evil monsters that are waiting to be unleashed from being hidden in some mountain. The story is immaterial and the stuff Chinese legends are made of. Everything is still amusing with dragons and villagers that have to take up arms to fight for their livelihood. But what is important is that this Asian fantasy with super action heroes and monsters work extremely well with the director and co-writer in complete control of their material. The execution of this Marvel action blockbuster is also delivered with restraint. Awkwafina could have stolen the entire picture but Simu Liu manages to hold his own. There is also an amazing and impressive cast that includes Martial-Arts expert Michelle Yeoh (CRAZY RICH ASIANS, THE HEROIC TRIO and a one time Bond girl) and Ben Kingsley in lighter mode.
As a film critic, I am generally unimpressed with action hero films be it from d.c.or Marvel comics. But being of Asian heritage, this one kept being totally entertained from start to end. Apart from the overlong climatic fight between good and evil monsters at the end, this new Marvel Superhero action movie is a clear winner.
THEY WHO SURROUND US (Canada 2020) **
Directed by Troy Ruptash
“They will condemn us. They will beat us and try to destroy us. Some of us will be destroyed. But some of us will live on and continue to fight for our freedom. We will rebuild our lives and build the lives for our children. And for our children’s children.” These are now a few but quite too many words for the audience to read, not to say absorb at the beginning of this slow burn drama of remorse and redemption set in Alberta, Canada. These words, in case one has forgotten, are related once more at the midway point of the film. There are then sounds of gunfire with the titles indicating the time and place of the setting - Ukraine 1943.
The film moves on to 1987 in Alberta, Canada where a father is driving a car with his wife and son. “Sing, papa, sing,” cries the boy. Director Ruptash appears always keen to keep his audience at bay as to what is really happening on the screen. This is his technique of telling a story, offend in intercut flashbacks, revealing a little at a time but this method of storytelling is not only frustrating by a slow burn that might not be tolerated by some audiences
The actual story, revealed in flashbacks, is centred on Roman, while a young boy whose mother and younger sibling were killed during WWII-era Ukraine. Now in 1987 Alberta, the now grown-up and adult Roman (Ruptash) has just lost his wife Kalyna (Vera Graziadei) in a tragic accident ( stung by bees) and must now care for young son Mykola (Daniel Mazepa) alone. Roman is guilty as hell as he is unable to drive his wife to the hospital in time, partly due to having to wait for a train at a railway crossing he did not make in time. His web intentioned sister-in-law Natalia (Ali Liebert) (or sister, as it takes a while before Ruptash reveals whether Natalie is his sister or sister-in-law)can do to keep things from spiralling further.
The beauty of Alberta is in full display in the film. The sunset is stunningly captured in one scene. In another, a colourful truck drives along a rod flanked by green trees. As the car drives on, a deer can be noticed rising into the bush.
Director Ruptash is more interested in filming the scenery than developing the relationship of his characters or telling his story. It is a wonder the reason the boy still loves his father as all the father is to him, as depicted in the film is trouble. Roman is drunk all the time, if not driving when under the influence. There appears to be a large Ukrainian community in the small Albertan town, which is a surprise to me.
THEY WHO SURROUND US is a beautifully shot Canadian drama with a stunning Alberta on display but it ends up too slow and an often frustrating film.
VACATION FRIENDS (USA 2021) **
Directed by Clay Tarver
The big question is the worthiness of VACATION FRIENDS. I have gone at least a dozen times to an all inclusive vacation in the sun including Mexico but I do not have any vacation friends from any of these trips. There must be reasons couples do not keep in contact with those they meet while holidaying in the sun. The new American buddy comedy about two couples getting together after their Mexican trip shows why. Disaster! One couple thinks it cool while the other suffer the consequences. VACATION FRIENDS is a cliched occasionally funny forgettable movie aided by its four lead actors who at least display comedy chemistry together.
Wrestler John Cena and Meredith Hagner play the cool couple Ron and his girl, Kyla while Lil Rel Howery (the black cop from GET OUT dishing out Kevin Hart type comedy, but to his credit funnier) and Yvonne Orji the straight couple (Marcus and Emily) providing the laughs. Howery has the face of a man just waits for disaster to strike and to show his one of his many astonished ‘what the fuck’ looks. Orji does not deliver many laughs but provides a solid straight companion. Cena and Hagner are hilarious, Cena stealing the show with his “Oh my God, am I not really doing the man favours?” look while flexing his wrestling muscles. Cena proves himself better in comedy than Dwayne Johnson.
The couples meet while vacationing in Mexico. The first sign of trouble starts when Ron laces their marguerite glasses with coke on the rim. “This salt is not salty.” is Marcus’ first comment. When questioned about the reason, Kyla replies: “You mean you don’t do drugs on vacation?” Instead of heeding the warning signs, Marcus and Emily still hang around the couple, the attraction of coolness and wealth being the main attraction. What happens in the later part of the film is that Ron and Kyla crash the other couple’s wedding. A buddy or buddies gone wrong. VACATION FIENDS is a comedy which has a similar feel to John Landis’ NEIGHBORS and the John Candy, Steve Martin buddy comedy PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES.
Most films do their best to try to convey some sort of message. VACATION FRIENDS’ message is obvious. One must value the importance of friendship and do one’s best for one’s friends, despite the results and dire circumstances.
VACATION FRIENDS is a comedy involving drugs and sex, so parents should be aware that this is not a family film like the National Lampoon’s VACATION comedy franchise. It is an adult comedy more akin to THE HANGOVER. But swearing is minimal and there is no blood, gore or violence.
Director Clay Tarver demonstrates his talent in this ok comedy with the script he co-wrote with Tom Mullen, Tim Mullen, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley.
VACATION FRIENDS is a 20th Century Fox film, the company now owned by Disney. The film opens Friday August the 27th in select theatres and also on the Disney_ streaming service. The production and to be disrupted owing to the Covid-19 pandemic though the discontinuity does not show.
A WAKE (USA 2019) **
Directed by Scott Boswell
A Wake is supposedly a riveting family drama from Director Scott Boswell (THE STRANGER IN USE being his debut feature) centred around secrets, lies, and true love. The low budget indie filmmaking shows as the film has an amateurish look.
Driven by a desperate need to understand their loss, the children in a religious family clash with their parents as they prepare for the wake of their brother, Mitchel. Teenage Mason desperately tries to reach his lost identical twin through spiritual means. The word twin is not mentioned in the film and it takes a while before the audience figures out that the brothers are twins - though it is not that difficult to figure it out with the same actor playing the two brothers. The audience also need to figure who twin is the gay one. Precocious preteen Molly, the sister, meticulously organizes the event (the wake) expecting everything to go exactly as planned. Megan, their older sister, returns home after a long absence, no longer interested in repressing the truth. Their Baptist grandmother and parents attempt to maintain normalcy when an unexpected stranger, Jameson, arrives -- forcing the family to face secrets and lies around Mitchel's death.
The thing about pre-teen gay relationship themed films is that it is difficult to portray young lust and passion, for the fact that the actors are underaged. So kissing (without tongue) between two male boys is the only acceptable scene comfortably put on screen. Anything else should be put to the imagination.
The film looks extremely stagey and the actors speak their lines as if on stage in a play. Boswell’s direction also shows its amateurishness. Seasoned directors have scenes that are layered, with multiple things going on in a scene, for example with the forefront actor saying one thing that might mean another or something going on simultaneously in the background. There is also a lot of pauses between the dialogue and between acts and scenes. Little audience anticipation is present meaning that it is difficult to hold interest in the characters. More humour could also be provided, though that would not reduce the dramatic effect of the story.
Though the film is not very good, support for indie LGBT films is strong - a good sign as the film has gone on to win numerous awards during its festival run, including "Festival Favourite for a Feature Film" at Cinema Diverse, "Best LGBT Film" at the Big Apple Film Festival, and "Best Feature Film" at Gilbert Baker Film Festival.
In the press notes, director Boswell laments the tough job of LGBT indie filmmaking. ”A WAKE was the proverbial labor of love", said Boswell. "It had to be because independent filmmaking is a rocky road — even more so when you’re exploring tough themes around loss and queer identity. After years of planning, the first reward came when I finally got to work with the cast, and then later when I met audiences at festivals. Now I couldn’t be more excited by the film’s bigger release with Breaking Glass."
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