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This Week's Film Reviews (Nov 26, 2020)

06 Nov 2021

FILM REVIEWS:

 BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN

The film has been pulled out of a Toronto release. 

(Review to be posted weekend.)

CAPTAINS OF ZA’ATARI (Jordan 2020) ***1/2
Directed byAli El Arabi

 

CAPTAINS OF ZA’ATARI is a combination of sports/human rights/coming-of-age drama set in Za’atari, Jordan.  Besides the above, director Arabi who clearly is totally dedicated to the theme of his film is also a feel-good, inspirational film.  A bit of history is required to better appreciate the film for those who, like me, are not so familiar with what is going on or have  not heard of Za’atari.

Zaatari is a refugee camp in Jordan, located 10 kilometres east of Mafraq, which has gradually evolved into a permanent settlement.  Something not the world is to be proud of, it is the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees.  It was first opened on 28 July 2012 to host Syrians fleeing the violence in the ongoing Syrian Civil War that erupted in March 2011.  This is the time the film is set when teens who love the game of football (or soccer, as it is called in North America) follow their dreams of becoming professional football players.

Two best friends, Mahmoud and Fawzi trapped in the Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan have an undying dream of becoming professional football players.   When a world renowned sports academy visits the camp, they now have a chance to make this dream come true.

One of the best moments of the film sees the two friends united in a posh hotel room.  Fawzi had originally been declined to play because of his age but after some deliberation is allowed to play.  He joins his friend Mahmoud, surprising him at the hotel room.   They talk about having to return later to the harsh conditions of the refugee camp.  The contrast of the two environments emphasize the differences between refugees and the privileged.  Not only that, but as the film clearly points out, refugees are prevented from having the opportunity to pursue their dreams.  But as the words of the director clearly states during the closing credits of the film: Captains of Za’atari

 

When Mahmoud and Fawzi return to camp, they teach fellow footballers other neat lessons.  “Do you ever see us fight?” chastises  Fawzi to the players when they argue and fight in a game.

Director Arab paints a candid portrait of the Za’atari refugee camp.  He himself had visited the camp a decade before the film, thus being able to provide some insight on not only the conditions of the camp, but the conditions and ‘spirit’ of the refugees.   The main concerns in early days related to the lack of sufficient food supplies and better accommodation can be appreciated by what is seen on screen.

CAPTAINS OF ZA’ATARI is the third Season 2 title of The Impact Series. WRITING WITH FIRE will close out the season on December 3.  The film will open in select theatres on November the 26th.

 Trailer: 

DRIVE MY CAR (Japan 2021) ***
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi


 DRIVE MY CAR is a 2021 Japanese drama film co-written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, based on the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami from his 2014 short story collection Men Without Women.  It was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival where it won three awards - Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI and the Ecumenical Prizes for Best Film.  It was selected as the Japanese entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards.

DRIVE MY CAR follows the trials and tribulations of the life of Mr. Kafuku, a stage director.  He loves his wife  very much but their marriage takes a toll after their daughter dies from an illness.  They still enjoy sex but she takes in other lovers.  When the wife dies due to a brain haemorrhage, Mr. Kafuku moves to a different city for his new job.  He hires a young actor who he knows had an affair with his wife.  Because an accident had occurred in the past for an out of city employee, the company hires a driver for all nonresident employees  So, the director has his car driven by a new driver, who appears proficient but a little odd.  These are the several threads in the story.  The main theme of the film is death and living, which is mirrored in the Chekov’s play UNCLE VANYA that Mr. Kafuku is directing.

DRIVE MY CAR breaks many of the rules that are taken for granted in narrative films.  There are many examples.   There is nothing to stop the credits of the film title and the listing stars and cast from appearing at the beginning of the film.  That is the reason they are often called opening credits.  The credits appear here around a third into the film.  Also at this point in the film, one of the lead characters disappears.  Alfred Hitchcock did the same with Janet Leigh being stabbed in the shower in PSYCHO, and a similar fate awaits Oto, the wife of the protagonist, who is also having an affair behind his back.  The play Mr. Kafuku directs, UNCLE VANYA is also different in the way it breaks rules.  The play takes place in several languages - Japanese, Korean, English and sign language.  The play is executed in the language of the actor the actor is proficient in.  That said, whether this tactic works, the audience must surely be wondering.  In the same way, whether the entire film works also poses a similar question.  The audience of the play read the subtitles when the play is going on, from a big screen hung over the stage, with the actors communicating in different languages.

There is no doubt the audience will not get the message that one must go on living despite dire consequences, as the message is drummed a couple of times into the audience.

Weird, challenging and fresh, DRIVE MY CAR at least comes out distinct from other films.  The film moves at a leisurely pace, requiring a lot of patience to sit through its running time of 3 hours.

HOUSE OF GUCCI (USA/Canada 2021) ****
Directed by Ridley Scott

 

When the words ‘Inspired by true events’ splash across the screen at the beginning of HOUSE OF GUCCi, one can hardly expect such a camp treatment of the life and death of fashion magnate Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), especially from Ridley Scott, the director of  sci-oil films like ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER and the recent very serious THE LAST DUEL.  But this is a director with a sense of humour seldom seen, that occasionally emerges, the best example being at the conclusion of his 2012 PROMETHEUS.  In PROMETHEUS (following clues to the origin of mankind, a team finds a structure on a distant moon), it is  soon realized there are no answers - no meaning of life nor origin of mankind. Scott played the grandest joke of all by providing no answers at all.  For a film on Gucci with high fashion and big parties, the obvious director that comes to mind who might have been hired is Paolo Sorrentino, the man who made LORI, THE GREAT BEAUTY and the upcoming THE HAND OF GOD.  Sorrentino knows how to film lavish parties.  But HOUSE OF GUCCI turns out more like a film that comes from the hands of Adam McKay of THE BIG SHORT rather than from Scott, himself.

Many critics and audiences have already complained that the film is full of problems such as the English spoken Italian accents by the actors and the ridiculous set pieces.  That said, HOUSE OF GUCCI was never intended to be a serious biopic on Gucci.  It is camp treatment, totally outrageous, silly and poking fun at Gucci with truth and credibility stretched to the limit.  To this end, HOUSE OF GUCCI succeeds more than admirably, being the total hilarious entertainment that it was meant to be

The film follows Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), an outsider from humble beginnings, wedding Maurizio (Adam Driver) and establishing herself into the Gucci family.   Her ambition and zeal begin to unravel their legacy and trigger a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately…murder.   The story embellishes the power held by the Gucci family, by Maurizio’s father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and his uncle Aldo (Al Pacino).  Patrizia pits each family member against each other beginning with Aldo’s idiot son (Oscar Winner Jared Leto) against his father until Maurizio cannot take it any longer.

Pacino and Leto ham it up to the maximum.  In the one scene where these two, Gaga and Driver, go at each other with so outrageous Italian accents that I found myself never laughing out loud as much as I did during this scene.  The segment is the funniest thing in any film this year and worth the price of the ticket to watch it again.  But the story is brought down to earth by the performances of both Driver and Lady Gaga.  Gaga delivers an excellent  performance worthy of the Italian greats like Sophia Loren.  Driver looks sexy with his manicured looks and stylist outfits while Lady Gaga can be both trampy and gorgeous.   Salma Hayek as Pina, Patrizia’s fortune teller, is also an additional treat to watch.

It would be interesting to see how the general public would take this film and how successful it will turn out when it opens this week.  In the meantime, HOUSE OF GUCCI is presently the most camp and fun to be at the movies.

Trailer: 

 

THE HUMANS (USA 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Stephen Karam

 

THE HUMANS is a film centred on a dysfunctional family during a Thanksgiving dinner.  Movies on dysfunctional families during the Thanksgiving period are a dime a dozen, a few made every year and released during Thanksgiving.  As if that is not enough, more dysfunctional family films appear at Christmas.  However, before dismissing THE HUMANS as another one of the same, there are a few reasons not to give THE HUMANS a miss.

One is that it is based on the hit Broadway play of the same name by director Karam.  So, there is some merit in the play adaptation.  Secondly, it boasts a fantastic cast that includes multiple Academy Award nominees.  Thirdly, the film, though based on a play contains a few magnificent shot of the exteriors of the buildings surrounding the setting as well as some tight interior shots, credit going to the D.P., a BAFTA Award nominee for his work on the TV movie, The Crimson Petal and the White (2011).

The film opens with exterior shots of the buildings surrounding the one where the Thanksgiving dinner takes place.  One shot showing the sky as the sign of the cross is in itself worthy of the price of the admission ticket - as the cross is, of course, the religious symbol for the Irish Catholic family - the Blakes.

The Blakes are an Irish-Catholic family, long-time residents of Scranton, Pennsylvania.   Director Karam is from that state, thus drawing from his experiences.  Parents Erik (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her Tony-Award winning role) have worked at the same jobs almost all their lives.  Now Erik, Deirdre, grandma Momo (Oscar nominee June Squibb,) and older daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) are together in New York City to celebrate the holiday at the shabby Chinatown apartment of younger daughter Brigid (Golden Globe Winner for BOOKSMART, Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, immediately recognizable from MINARI) who have just moved in. 

  The Blakes laugh and banter.  Skeletons from the closet are revealed.  Everyone has problems. Deirdre has work woes, Momo has dementia and Erik seems to have something on his mind.  By dinner’s end, truths are laid bare.  But despite the glum nature of the evening, the Blakes give thanks, verbally, showing that despite life’s challenges, something is always there to look forward to and be thankful for.

  As for the production sets and sound, there are eerie sounds and failing lights that haunt the pre-war apartment.  With peeling paint and streaky windows, the place will seem familiar to anyone who has looked for a Manhattan rental on a limited budget.  The Blakes make do with what they have.

THE HUMANS is a very humane story,  Though slightly slow-paced, the film more than makes it up in terms of content, performance and setting.  THE HUMANS is likely one of the best dysfunctional family Thanksgiving films.

  THE HUMANS opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on November the 26th.  The film is also available November 26 to rent or buy on the Apple TV app/iTunes and other VOD platforms.

Trailer: 

 

INCITEMENT (Israel 2019) ***1/2

Directed Yaron Zilberman

 

Assassination has been frequently visited subject in many films - that have resulted in many notably excellent works.  Fred Zinnemann’s THE DAY OF THE JACKAL about the fictitious assassination attempt of Charles de Gaulle based on the Frederick Forsyth novel was one of the best films of that year while Mira Nair’s more recent 2012 THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST saw the rise of actor Riz Ahmed as a man coerced into terrorism by the political environment.  In the equally disturbing and compelling INCITEMENT, a young man Yigal plans the assassination fo Israeli Prime Minister Rabin.  Everyone knows already that Rabin was assassinated and killed just as in the DAY OF THE JACKAL, De Gaulle was never assassinated.

INCITEMENT places the audience in the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.   Prime Minister Rabin seeks peace with his counterpart, Arafat, under the direction of the then American President Clinton spearheading  the peace talks.  In the process, several Palestinian prisoners are released.  Israeli fundamentalists are angry calling Rabin a traitor, and an enemy worse than any Palestinian.  The political climate is rife with protests and anger.

The film is a serious one with just very few bits of humour. In one scene, when the protesters are arrested from blocking the road with rocks, a kid, humorously, does his part by kicking the tires of a police vehicle.

The story focuses on Yigal.  Yigal is not a reluctant fundamentalist but a decisive and dangerous one.  The story takes a personal slant as the film follows the daily routine of the man.  Yidal is shown to be a man also seeking romance and who studies for his benefit.  He falls for a girl in his University, apparently the most sought-of girl on campus, according

to one of Yidal’s friends.

One can see how immature Yigal really is.  He is all bent on taking out Rabin, but needs justification.  He seeks advice from various Rabbis but does not like what he hears.  “He who kills shall be rewarded,” says one Rabbi.  Yigal gladly takes this statement as his justification to kill, taking the statement clearly out of context.  The audience also can see how dangerous religious fanatics can be and the amount of influence that head of religion like the Rabbis bears.

The audience gets to see what a lowlife character Ali is at the start of the film.  At a protest, when he is about to be arrested, he pleads to be let go.  He claims to be a law student and an arrest would destroy his career.  He says that his girlfriend will never forgive him either.  When the policeman lets him go, he screams : “Death to the Arabs,” with no sense of remorse or conscience.   Yigal has no qualms at letting others including his parents know of his political stand, often running into major conflict.

The film runs almost 2 hours, but is a compelling watch.  INCITEMENT shows how easily  one can become a dangerous fundamentalist, leading to terrorist actions, all in the name of religious righteousness.

Trailer: 

JULIA (USA 2021) ***1/2
Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Not many outside North America would have heard of the first ever celebrity chef in the United States - Julia Child.  But her name is now a familiarity after Nora Ephron’s 2009 film JULIA & JULIA, which starred Meryl Streep winning her an Oscar Nomination for Best Actress playing the role.  Now comes a documentary on Child to get a closer glimpse of what that person really is in real life on and off camera.

Child is as towering a personality as her height, being one a 6 foot 3 female as tall as her other 2 siblings.

Julia Carolyn Child (August 15, 1912 – August 13, 2004) was an American cooking teacher, author, and television personality.  She is recognized for bringing French cuisine to the American public with her debut cookbook,  Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her subsequent television programs, the most notable of which was The French Chef, which premiered in 1963.   

The film opens with her first cooking TV show where she introduces, comically the chicken sisters, different feathered fowls all ready to be cooked, all in different sizes for frying, roasting, stewing etc.  Then audiences are served a delicious simmering beef bourguignon followed by awful looking servings of Spam.  As much as I still enjoy Spam on slices of bread, those scenes of Spam are enough to convert anyone from frozen and tinned food to home prepared meals from fresh ingredients.  It is an eye-opener how badly Americans used to eat back in the TV dinner days.  Of course, these are still available (no) thanks to Swanson and Hungry Man.

Directors Cohen and West have chartered a comprehensive journey on the life of Julia Child from her childhood, marriage, death of her husband and eventually hers at the age of 81.  She lived a happy and content life with a loving and supporting husband, coupled with a career she loved and dedicated her life to.  Indeed, what more could anyone else ask for?  It is good for a change to see a biopic of a person that is a complete success, one that does not do drugs or alcohol and also supports a good cause.  Not not an active feminist, Child showed by precept, what a woman can do.  When visiting restaurant kitchens during her fame, she would frequently ask where all the women were.  Child can be admired for both her strong will and her devotion to her husband.  Her father was strict and a Republican who was not too thrilled when his daughter fell in love with Paul, with little education, self taught and a Democrat.  But Paul is shown in the film and according to the words of Julia, an intelligent person.  He was a cartographer during WWII where she deems herself a spy.   The film narration comically corrects the fact that she was a typist for the OSS, working for the spy agency and not directly a spy.

There are lots of scenes of French cooking, many in slow motion to show the gastronomical delights of the cuisine.  And Lots of archive footage of France with nostalgic French melodies to accompany.

JULIA, a doc about a female chef might sound like a turn off, but turns out to be one of the most amusing and delightfully entertaining documentaries of the year, like a perfect soufflé.

Trailer:

 

Trailer: 

 

THE LAST RITE (UK 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Leroy Kincaide 

 

THE LAST RITE is a solid effective psychological thriller from writer directorLeroy Kincaide who was voted Screen International Genre Rising Star for this film, his directorial debut.

THE LAST RITE begins with paradise.  Lucy (Bethan Waller) wakes up in the morning to a loving husband, Ben (Johnny Fleming).  Before leaving for work, they whisper sweet nothings and he promises that they will go away together once his next project is over.  But as this is a horror film, things will not go as expected.  There is trouble in paradise.  Lucy sees an apparition of a man (Joe James).  When the husband returns after work and she tells him of it, he reads out at her with clearly what constitutes verbal abuse.  Nothing Lucy can say will be right and he keeps screaming at her.  The next evening, he makes a candlelight dinner as an apology but soon screams and verbally abuses her again.  They sleep separately.  She keeps seeing the man in the house.

At the 15 minute mark of the film, director Kincaide has made a solid thrill and captured he audience’s attention with a mystery figure and a story of a relationship that often is just too close at home.  How many have not had a spouse or partner scream at them that cool has been avoided with more sensibility?  One feels for Lucy.   The man in the house is said to appear to those with such problems.  Which means a visa circle.

The horror film is updated to include internet technology.  When Lucy seeks help on the mystery ‘man in the house’ or ‘shadow in the house’ (which would make better tiles for the horror film), she goes to the internet to search.  When she finds a webpage, her friend encourages her to pursue the information as there is nothing to lose.

From there the film progresses into demon possession.  “Whatever you do, do not let him in,” advises the internet man.  The demon is deemed a parasite that seeks a hit, one that is weak from mental abuse, the perfect host being Lucy with her relationship problems.

Once the film descends into exorcism of the spirit, it downward spirals into the already too familiar tarps of William Friedkin’s classic THE EXORCIST.  There is the mumbo jumbo religious exorcising dialogue (“Tell me your name” ;“Holy father. Mother of God” etc.)with the occasional quoting of the scriptures. 

The film shifts focus among different characters in the film, Lucy, Ben and the priest.  For a male director, his characters are well portrayed with both weaknesses and strengths of both females and males on display.

A message is seasoned into this story of how things change.  The relationship of the couple of Lucy and Ben changes constantly.  The bishop has also lost his faith after 30 years of religious devotion.  “Things change!” are the words loudly remarked.

Despite its flaws THE LAST RITE is a solid psychological horror worthy of its prize of Genre Rising Star won by its writer/director.

Trailer: 

NIGHT RAIDERS (Canada/New Zealand 2020) **
Directed by Danis Goulet


The first 15 minutes of the film’s opening displays the drab atmosphere of the future and a dystopian society where no teens or children (which is never made clear nor the reason for it) allowed to roam free.  They young are recruited into what is called ‘the Academy’ for a better society.  In the academy, the young are brainwashed to serve the elite.  If one thinks this is too incredible just think how many Americans were brainwashed by Trump.  These brainwashed people would do anything for Trump even storm Capitol Hill.  'One country, one language, one flag’ is the motto of the Academy.  It appears that there are two classes here - the elite who have all the food and control and money.  And then there is the indigenous oppressed.   This sorry film never bothers to explain the reason the world got to this state.  And what about the rest of the world?  If non-indigenous people made this film, it would be considered unacceptably racist but since they made it, it is deemed ok.

The immediate dread is that one has seen all that transpires on screen before. And this is true.  There have been countless films in this genre where a father and son or mother and daughter, in this case try to survive in a dystopian society where zombies rule or if not, some deadly virus is wiping out the population.  There is only one thing different in this film in that the oppresses and heroes of the story are indigenous people.

The future in this case is the 2040’s.  It could be any year for that matter- and that is how generic this film feels.  The elite are the villains who are given the term ‘jingoes’.  They police and watch over the indigenous people by using weapons, military style with the help of drones.  Into the picture comes a pandemic with a Meekaw (sounding like zika) virus where expectedly, there is no antidote.  

The hero or heroine of the story is a single mother, Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a resourceful single mom, who has survived in the wild for 6 years with her teenage daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart).  But things take a bad turn when the daughter gets her leg caught by a bear trap.  (Really?)  The leg becomes infected.  The mother leaves the daughter behind for the military elite for medical help as she is unable to get any on her own.  The film moves forward when the daughter is now in the Academy.  The indigenous people plan to liberate the children in the Academy.  The mother joins in hoping to reunite with her daughter.  The raid takes place at night and hence the film’s title.   The escape gets more ridiculous with females leading the raid and the fight against what they term ‘colonizers’.  

The night raid and the fight form the film’s climax and a very unexciting one at that.   There are too many loose ends in both the raid and in the story.  After a while, one would not care anymore for the characters or the film itself.

 

 

THE UNFORGIVABLE (USA/Germany 2021) ***

Directed by Nora Fingscheidt

 

THE UNFORGIVABLE is a Sandra Bullock produced and starred vehicle directed by Nora Fingscheidt and written by Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz and Courtenay Miles based on the 2009 British miniseries Unforgiven written by Sally Wainwright.  Sandra Bullock plays a woman, Ruth Slater who attempts to rebuild her life after serving time in prison for committing a violent crime. 

Director Fingscheidt does not believe in straight forward time linear storytelling.  When the film opens, Ruth Slater is released from prison after serving 20 years and processed by parole officer Vincent Cross (Rob Morgan).  As she is brought to her halfway house where the audience is treated to a dose of what a tough lady is like.  Ruth beats up another woman who goes through her things.  Flashbacks and intercutting reveal the history of Ruth.  The audience sees Ruth and her sister being evicted from their home when the sheriff enters the residence.  The sheriff is shot.  At the same time, there are intercut segments showing a car accident in which a girl is hospitalized and stays back with her parents in convalescence. 

The film could also work if the star is told without intercutting or flashbacks, but this tactic taxes the audience forcing them to think and invest in their entertainment.

The rest of the film shows Ruth dealing back with life, holding two jobs while searching for her sister.  Ruth has a romance with a fellow worker, Blake (Joe Bernthal).

Ruth tells Blake at one encounter after he hears of the death of her parents: “Life goes on.”  For Ruth the accidental cop killer going out of jail after serving time, life indeed not only goes on, but ploughs on, sadly for the entire town cannot forgive her.  She keeps her identity to herself.  Her parole officer dislikes her just as much and is probably waiting for her to break the rules, so he can drag her back to the slammer.

Oscar Winner Sandra Bullock pulls another solid role, delivering a dramatic performance that just begs for the sympathy of the audience.  There is rarely a smile on her face.  Joe Bernthal plays Ruth’s romantic interest, Blake, sporting  a moustache similar to the one he does playing the coach for the tennis Williams sisters in KING RICHARD, which is also currently playing.

THE UNFORGIVABLE is yet another film that celebrates the strength of the female.  The protagonist is a female.  When Ruth searches for her sister, the sisters adoptive parents argue whether to meet up with Ruth.  It is the mother that takes the right route and makes the correct decision to make contact.  Women play strong roles in the story, as is the trend in many films these days.

Though the story could be deemed predictable, there are sufficient twists and surprises at the film’s end.  The film benefits from superior performances from an all-star cast that also includes two strong black roles.  Ruth’s lawyer is married to a black woman (Viola Davis) and her parole officer is also black.

THE UNFORGIVABLE has a limited release in theatres on November 24, 2021, prior to streaming on Netflix on December the 10th.

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