The film of the week is Steven Spielberg's long anticpated remake of the 1961 classic WEST SIDE STORY. Spielberg is in top form here. WEST SIDE STORY 2021 and the upcoming THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH are the two best films of the year.
AGNES (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Mickey Reece
As the adage goes: God works in mysterious ways. And more so in movies. The last few weeks saw three god related films, BENEDETTA about a frivolous nun and the God intervention Italian THE HAND OF GOD. AGNES, a demon possession film set in a convent is an even stranger one. AGNES opens near Christmas but is not one’s average family Christmas movie.
The film starts with the unthinkable. Mother Superior (Mary Buss) gathers the nuns for a birthday dinner at their Carmelite convent. But at the party, Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) goes wildly out of control, hurling foul-mouthed words while tea cups levitate in the air. This is similar to the possession of Regan the child re-set in a convent this time. Once again a rookie priest and an experienced one, both of whom have problems of their own are sent to do the casting out of the demon. This is a priest-in-waiting (Jake Horowitz) and his disillusioned mentor (Ben Hall). Mother Superior takes an instant dislike to the young rookie, thinking him a temptation to the young nuns. Unlike THE EXORCIST their methods backfire, leaving a wake of terror and trauma. Included is a nose bitten off scene during the first exorcism attempt which should delight fans who love their horror with lots of blood.
If one wonders about the accuracy of the film, it should be noted that Reece co-wrote the script with a Catholic expert, John Selvidge who has collaborated with Reece in the past.
If one is unfamiliar with the film’s director, Oklahoma-based Reece has made 25 features in just over a decade. AGNES is the third in a loose trilogy
of women-centric psychological melodramas, including Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart and Climate of the Hunter). A side plot involves another nun, Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn), a friend of Agnes, who is apprehensive of what is going on. She is forced, nonetheless, to care for Agnes. “You don’t have the luxury to be scared,” scolds Mother Superior.
As much as possession films are mostly dead serious, director Reece injects much of his tongue-in-cheek humour into his entry. Take the following line used for exorcism: “You might fool men, but God will not be mocked. Go to hell, you cocksucker!’” Or the possessed nun asking the priests to touch her wee-wee.
Ben Hall and Mary Buss spice up the show with their tongue-in-cheek performances, playing characters that are constantly ill at ease with each other and connoting bantering.
Director Reece balances the horror and humour in his brand of filmmaking that is seldom seen. AGNES is no classic, but it is good for a few laughs in what might be more comedy than horror delivered.
AGNES opens at the Carlton Cinemas in Toronto and is also available December 10 to rent or buy on the Apple TV app/iTunes and other VOD platforms.
BEING THE RICARDOS (USA 2021) ***1/2
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
BEING THE RICARDOS is the tumultuous story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz who became household celebrities with their hit TV show I LOVE LUCY. Writer/director Sorkin intercuts the drama with real people who have worked with the Ricardos to talk about their show and about the couple. The semi documentary semi non documentary blamed works well to enhance the story’s credibility.
“Lucy I’m Home!” These are three words almost every household in America are familiar with - the words of Desi Arnaz to Lucille Ball, when he comes home from work. But at the start of this film, Lucy (Nicole Kidman) replies: “Where have you been all this time, you Cuban dimwit.” The film promises a lot to come including a never before known or seen Desi (Javier Bardem) and Lucy, and the controversy that comes with the announcement by newscaster Walter Winshell that Lucille Ball is a communist.
BEING THE RICARDOS is the highly anticipated Amazon Original Movie premiering on December 21. It has theatrical release on December the 10th. Directed by Aaron Sorkin, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are threatened by shocking personal accusations, a political smear and cultural taboos in Being the Ricardos. A revealing glimpse of the couple’s complex romantic and professional relationship, the film takes audiences into the writers’ room, onto the soundstage and behind closed doors with Ball and Arnaz during one critical production week of their ground-breaking sitcom I Love Lucy.
Academy Award Winner Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are two of the best actors around and are the ideal choice to play the titular couple. The question is whether the Academy will give these two Oscar nods for their performances. Bardem and Kidman both deliver stellar acts but this year the competition is really tough in a year where superior films abound.
The film covers a few things few know about Lucille Ball. The film talks about her wanting to be a serious actress, maybe starring in ALL ABOUT EVE. But in reality, her films never did well. Her YOURS, MINE AND OURS with Henry Fonda turned out a non-funny comedy and her musical with her in the lead in MAME was a disastrous flop. But her I LOVE LUCY and THE LUCY SHOW were huge successes that I had watched religiously as a kid. In America, when the show was televised Monday, the shops were empty, as everyone stayed home to watch, there being no recording means to tape the show at the time.
Fans of Lucy might be disappointed by the fact that this is a drama and not a comedy on the couple’s life. Director Sorkin, known to make films on controversial subjects (best known for penning THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but a director as well - MOLLY’S GAME) undertakes the difficult task of balancing the drama and comedy to keep fans at least comfortable. Sorkin stages a solid climax (not to be revealed in the review) that proves that the power couple is more intelligent and talented than the couple they portray in the series.
THE BOATHOUSE (Canada 2020) **
Directed by Hannah Cheeseman
One wonders the reason many directors keep the audience in the dark with the plot before revealing plot points to them. It can be extremely frustrating as can be witnessed in THE BOATHOUSE. What is the relationship between Tom and Anne? It is left ambiguous till half way through the film. At first thought, Anne could have been Tom’s eldest daughter. Nothing is said except the facts that she is at THE BOATHOUSE with Tom and his son and daughter. When Anne and Tom engage in sex, it becomes apparent that the assumption that they are father and daughter are wrong. And what is the relationship between Tom’s wife Alisha and Anne? Again it is revealed after half the film has passed that Alisha is Anne’s piano teacher and mentor for her music studies at the University.
The film begins with a doctor concerned about Anne’s mental health. Anne is sleeping badly, sleepwalking and having passing out spells. The reason given is the car accident, but one is never sure as there is no flashback on any car accident and the accident supposedly never happened. And again an ambiguity and loose end is the reason the doctor believes it to be so.
Director Cheeseman provides a good dark and moody atmosphere in what is a psychological horror with lots of character study but her slow plodding requires patience while waiting for things to happen.
Despite the calculated pacing of what turns out to be a sexual psychological thriller, the result is total frustration at having to guess what is happening throughout the entire film. The director and writer thinks this makes up a good mystery and perhaps heightened suspense. Whether it does, could very well be. but an extremely frustrating slow burn. The film feels like an over pretentious form of the old 1970’s film ONCE YOU KISS A STRANGER where Carol Lynley played the disturbed sexual fling, with again the familiar theme of film classics like Clint Eastwood’s PLAY MISTY FOR ME and Adrian Lyne’s FATAL ATTRACTION.
THE BOATHOUSE has a one night screening on December the 13th and opens VOD/Digital on the 14th.
DEATH VALLEY (Canada 2021) **
Directed by Matthew Ninaber
(embargoed till Monday)
Director Matthew Ninaber’s latest film is a Shudder original horror film, his PSYCHO GOREMAN, a kiddies horror film also picked up by Shudder. PSYCHO GOREMAN was not impressive primarily for the reason that it is a kids and not adults oriented film. That said, DEATH VALLY is not that impressive either as an adult horror film. The trouble is that what transpires on screen is nothing new, and has been seen time and again in one horror film or another. The monster puts the monster in a war setting, but nothing fresh really comes out of it. Director Ninaber does double duty playing the monster, not that anyone can recognize him, unless he looks that ugly.
The premise follows mercenaries or soldiers with nothing to lose. They are hired to rescue a bioengineer, a female, imprisoned in a cold war bunker. Upon entering the ominous facility, they find themselves in a fight for their lives when they come under attack from an unknown and deadly creature. The creature is apparently some alien frozen in the ice waiting to spawn with humans - a rip-off creature from the classic film THE THING and its remake by John Carpenter.
The film also stars the director’s brother Jeremy Ninaber (ESCAPE THE DARK), Ethan Mitchell (ESCAPE THE DARK) and Kristen Kaster (IF I SHOULD DIE).
When a secret experiment goes horribly wrong, bioengineer Dr. Chloe (Kaster) becomes trapped inside a secret underground facility. This is what happens in the beginning scene at the film's start. With only 24 hours before a fatal decontamination protocol destroys the entire laboratory, Chloe deploys an emergency distress signal before a terrifying creature (Matthew Ninaber) of unknown origin can consume what’s left of her. Alerted by the distress beacon, battle-weary guns for hire, Marshall (Mitchell) and Beckett (Jeremy Ninaber) are commissioned to carry out a covert operation to extract the imprisoned scientist. Upon deployment, the team is ambushed by another heavily armed militia hell-bent on finding a way into the compound themselves. Now the film becomes a war/mercenary film.
Severely outnumbered, the mercenaries find entry to the bunker through an unsealed emergency hatch only to find themselves in a horrific fight for survival. With time and ammunition running out, the team must locate Dr. Chloe while also navigating the underground maze of corridors before they are hunted down one by one.
To director Ninaber’s credit, the battle scenes look authentic enough - which means plenty of gunfire and some foggy scenes which one can hardly see, with soldiers in uniform who can hardly be able to distinguish one from the other. All this is an excuse for the horrid monster, who once appears turns the war movie into a mother horror flick.
It does not help that there are no personalities written into the characters. The soldiers are just there in DEATH VALLEY. No background, nothing! There is also little interesting banter, hardly any small talk and humour between the soldiers and other characters. Nothing is invested in the characterizations meaning that none really will care who will live or be killed by the monster.
Best given DEATH VALLEY a miss as it gets too boring only too quickly. The film's ad reads - the mission has gone to hell. Apparently the mission is not the only thing that ended up in hell.
THE HATING GAME (USA 2021) *
Directed by Peter Hutchings
Based on the Harlequin-type novel (it might as well very be one), the title HATING GAME implies just one thing - that the hate can be turned to love and that love conquers all. Written by Christina Mengert based on the all popular romantic novel by Sally Thorne, this is the romantic comedy of romantic comedies. What this means is that one would expect total kitsch, a film full of cliches and predictability and total boredom. It would not be surprising that romantic comedy addicts will also find this film totally ‘blah’.
Based on the best-selling book, THE HATING GAME tells the story of ambitious good girl Lucy Hutton (Lucy Hale) and her cold, efficient work nemesis, Joshua Templeton (Austin Stowell, looking like Dennis Quaid or Ben Affleck). Committed to achieving professional success without compromising her ethics, Lucy ultimately embarks on a ruthless game of one-upmanship against Josh, a rivalry that is increasingly complicated by her mounting attraction to him.
Lucy Hutton has always been certain that the nice girl can get the corner office. She is charming and accommodating and prides herself on being loved by everyone at Bexley & Gamin. Everyone except for coldly efficient, impeccably attired, physically intimidating Joshua Templeman. And the feeling is mutual.
Trapped in a shared office together 40 (OK, 50 or 60) hours a week, they’ve become entrenched in an addictive, ridiculous never-ending game of one-upmanship. There’s the Staring Game. The Mirror Game. The HR Game. Lucy can’t let Joshua beat her at anything—especially when a huge new promotion goes up for the taking.
Committed to achieving professional success without compromising her ethics, Lucy ultimately embarks on a ruthless game of one-upmanship against Josh, a rivalry that is increasingly complicated by her mounting attraction to him.
Maybe Lucy Hutton doesn’t hate Joshua Templeman. And maybe, he doesn’t hate her either. Or maybe this is just another game. Or maybe they will fall in love and the movie will be over quickly.
There is no reason that director Hutchings could not have lifted his film about the bar of fully ‘blah. If at least the characters are endearing or the film funny (there is hardly any laugh-out-loud moment in the film), then a fun film might have been OK. The entire paint ball segment generated zero number of laughs. The recent romantic comedy that opened on Netflix last week is SINGLE ALL THE WAY. By making it a gay rom com with characters and actors that are only too funny with a great supporting cast that included Jennifer Coolidge, SINGLE ALL THE WAY turned up a winner all the way unlike THE HATING GAME, a detestable piece of commercial moviemaking at its worst.
“Don’t judge the book by the cover, but in this case it is plain awful.” says Lucy’s friend to her at the bar. The same can be said about the film.
THE HATING GAME opens December the 10th in select theatres and on Demand.
JOY WOMACK: THE WHITE SWAN (Russia/UK/USA 2021) ***1/2
Directed by Dina Burlis, Sergey Gavrilov
(Full review to be posted weekend)
JOY WOMACK is the story or biopic doc on a remarkable person. As the film opens, the audience hears her voice saying that she has worked and trained not be special, not normal.And she has worked in a broken Russian system.
Joy Annabelle Womack is an American ballet dancer. She is the first American woman to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s main training program with a red diploma, and the second American woman to sign a contract with the Bolshoi Ballet. She was a principal dancer with the Universal Ballet and Kremlin Ballet, and is currently a prima ballerina at the Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre. The film is her story.
Besides being an inspirational story, the film includes lots of brilliantly choreographed ballet that should satisfy both ballet and non-ballet fans ready to be converted.
MEETING THE BEATLES IN INDIA (Canada 2020) **
Directed by Paul Saltzman
The Beatles did not go to India to perform. In February 1968, the English rock band the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in northern India to take part in a Transcendental Meditation (TM) training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The visit followed the group's denunciation of drugs in favour of TM and received widespread media attention. The band's interest in the Maharishi's teachings was led by George Harrison's commitment, and it changed Western attitudes about Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of Transcendental Meditation. The visit was also the most productive period for the Beatles' songwriting. In India they met Paul Salesman, the director of this film. The film MEETING THE BEATLES IN INDIA focuses on this meeting and its outcome.
Filmmaker Paul Saltzman retraces his journey of 50 years ago when he spent a life-changing time with the Beatles at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram on the banks of the Ganges River. In 1968, he discovered his own soul, learned meditation, which changed his life, and hung out with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Fifty years later, he finds "Bungalow Bill" in Hawaii; connects with David Lynch about his own inner journey; as well as preeminent Beatles historian, Mark Lewisohn; Academy Award nominated film composer, Laurence Rosenthal.: and Pattie and Jenny Boyd. And much of this is due to Saltzman's own daughter, Devyani, reminding him that he had put away and forgotten these remarkably intimate photographs of that time in 1968.
The doc does not contain much archive footage or current interviews. Most of the shots on the Beatles are from old photographs. The main interview is with David Lynch, immediately recognizable from his fluffed up white hair, hairstyle.
Like most religious organizations, there is always the fall from grace, The doc should have examined the Yogi’s fall, which would have at least made the doc a bit more interesting. rumours of the Maharishi's inappropriate behaviour towards Farrow (other celebrities also attended the meetings including Mia Farrow, Donovan, Mike Love and Paul Horn) and another of his female students. Dirty Yogi! The divisive influence of the Beatles' Greek friend Alexis Mardas, financial disagreements, and suspicions that their teacher was taking advantage of the band's fame have also been cited by biographers and witnesses.
To note, there is also a documentary called THE BEATLES AND INDIA. That is a 2021 documentary film directed by Indian author and political journalist Ajoy Bose, based on his 2018 book. It covers the Beatles' immersion in Indian culture and philosophy during the 1960s and the band's influence on India.`
The only plus of the film is to observe The Beatles in a more relaxed light.
MEETING THE BEATLES IN INDIA is a very slight film - more of a curiosity piece than anything else - lasting less than 90 minutes on the Beatles. Not much about the music of the Beatles but more on Saltzman and TM. The results in a boring piece unless one is interested in Yogis and TM.
OFF THE RAILS (UK 2020) ***
Directed by Jules Williamson
Three best friends from college recreate their post-graduation trip across Europe to honor the memory of their friend Anna. Joining is Anna's 18-year-old daughter Maddie fulfilling her mother's last wish to have them take this trip with her. When lost passports, train strikes and romantic entanglements get in their way, they put old feuds aside to complete the journey and remind themselves that they are still at their peak.
OFF THE RAILS is a journey of 4 ladies to a place in Spain to honour the life of a recently deceased. Three of them Kate (Jenny Seagrove), Liz (Sally Phillips) and Cassie (Kelly Preston) and the deceased were the best of friends when young and had their best times in Europe when they were young. (Who ever does not have a good time when in Europe?) As an apt gift, the deceased leaves the three with 4 interrail tickets for them and her daughter to relive the memories. And off they go on the train. But distractions cause them to go OFF THE RAILS. The distractions include various romantic interests and flings on the way, drinking parties and mishaps like the losing of their passports. One needs a passport to travel on the train using interrail, as those who have backpacked in the continent know.
The three women behave badly, wherever they go. They are loud, obnoxious and only care about themselves. At a street festival, one of the Spanish onlookers says to the other: “English women are so vulgar.” “They could be American” replies the other to which the retort comes: “Even worse.” (One of the 4 is actually American.) While Americans might be offended by this remark, any English speaking non-American who has been to Europe can attest to this truth - of how awful Americans can behave - mainly for the reason that all they think of is themselves and that American is so great! This one of the bright observant spots from the film.
The segment of arrest at the Spanish police station might not be that funny but it comes across as quite charming. This statement applies to much of the film. The quartet of females have a jolly time, that might be personal but the happiness is contagious.
“We want to be drunk. We want to dance. We want to have a good time. Make it happen, Dan! is one of the film’s lines.
It’s a female movie all the way - with female camaraderie that includes an unnecessary side plot involving the delivery of a baby after a train breakdown. The delivery does lead, however, to a fling with one of the girls with the Italian town’s mayor, the grandfather of the baby daughter.
The film beats two superstars Judi Dench and Franco Nero. Dench delivers one to the best eulogies in film while Nero, the Italian gunfighter in the old spaghetti westerns and now husband of Vanessa Redgrave again makes a welcome cameo. The four actresses hold their own, providing a good contrast of different characters.
OFF THE RAILS should satisfy the non-demanding filmgoer, with a little charm and humour despite some clunky pacing, story and lots of late menopause type humour.
It should be noted that this is Kelly Preston’s (John Travolta’s spouse) last picture, she, playing Cassie, one of the four ladies in the film. The film contains nice location shots, being filmed in the U.K., Spain and France.
THE ONLY ONE (USA/Canada/France 2021) **
Directed by Noah Gilbert
Written by Seth Gilbert and directed by his brother Noah, HORSE LATITUDES, THE ONLY ONE is a romance drama about love lost and love re-found. Tom (Caitlin Stasey) just turned thirty. She has spent her whole life chasing her wanderlust, collecting passport stamps, experiences and stories to tell her grandchildren one day. Now, contemplating the question of the biological clock, she arrives on a vineyard in the south of France, when the film begins, to revisit the only man she has ever considered settling down with. The man, David(Jon Beaver) has been in love with Tom since the first time he met her, but he's spent the six years since she disappeared dedicating himself to the backbreaking art of making wine. When David decides to cancel all the plans he's made and pursue the relationship he's never been able to forget, Tom has to decide whether to commit to a conventional life or continue her life of adventure. Director Gilbert moves his film at a slow pace, meaning that the audience have to be very patient to see the couple’s love develop and whether their love will survive. Gilbert must love France as he devotes a lot of time showing the beauty of the vineyards and French countryside.
Why was the film initially called HORSE LATITUDES? The horse latitudes are located at about 30 degrees north and south of the equator. It is common in this region of the subtropics for winds to diverge and either flow toward the poles (known as the prevailing westerlies) or toward the equator (known as the trade winds). These diverging winds are the result of an area of high pressure, which is characterized by calm winds, sunny skies, and little or no precipitation.
According to legend, the term comes from ships sailing to the New World that would often become stalled for days or even weeks when they encountered areas of high pressure and calm winds. Many of these ships carried horses to the Americas as part of their cargo. Unable to sail and resupply due to lack of wind, crews often ran out of drinking water. To conserve scarce water, sailors on these ships would sometimes throw the horses they were transporting overboard. Thus, the phrase 'horse latitudes' was born. One can imagine that Gilbert likely changed the course of his film to lessen the influence of horses in his story.
The film requires the audience to care for the characters Tom and David. But the film does not invest enough effort for the task. Instead, there are too many distractions in the love story (France, horses, past history of the couple, winemaking …) for one to really one to be interested in the film.
WEST SIDE STORY (USA 2021) *****TOP 10
Directed by Steven Spielberg
If one wonders the reason Hollywood has decided to remake the Robert Wise musical 1961 classic WEST SIDE STORY, wonder no longer. Watching the Steven Spielberg version gives the answer. The 2021 American musical romantic drama film directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner is a sprawling extravaganza that completes what the original never achieved. To be truthful, aside from the songs, I never really liked Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY, as I never liked a film that did dance play fighting (between the two gangs). There was no urgency in a supposedly violent doomed love story. All this is corrected in this raw, violent and emotional new version, again with all the original songs and dances by Jerome Robbins intact.
The film opens in the 1950’s New York where a sign reads that the slums will be taken over by the city and new buildings erected. The irony is that the soon to be reclaimed territory is fought over by two rival gangs, the Jets made up of Caucasian Americans and the Sharks formed of Puerto Rican immigrants. They fight because they are different. They plan a ‘rumble’ at midnight to battle the fight of all fights, in which the winner gang gets to rule the soon to be gone territory. Like the Shakespearean ROMEO AND JULIET tragedy, a romance buds between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) from the two different gangs. Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy) tries to stop the violence, but no one will cooperate.
The best thing about the film is obviously the Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein songs. The musical’s best songs “Maria”, “I Feel Pretty”, “A Place for Love” and “Tonight’ provide enough nostalgia for audiences everywhere. And if that is not enough to bring tears to one’s eyes, the romance between Maira and Tony will.
Director Spielberg and writer Kushner bring relevant updates to the story including a trans character of the Jets that is eventually accepted for his bravery. The racial tension between the two gangs can only be too relevant today than in the 1960s. The resolve of conflict only after no other course is available only shows that deep down every human being has the capacity to forgive and love.
The 1961 version made stars of the then young newcomers George Chakiris and Richard Beymer. This one should make a star out of newcomers Mike Faist (who is already a well known entity after DEAR EVAN on Broadway) and Rachel Zegler who plays Maria. Zegler is nothing short of phenomenal in her role, her eyes radiating passion while she speaks her lines with conviction and flair. Rita Moreno, who was in the original cast of the film stars as Valentina delivering a performance that should win her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
But the cinematographer by 2-time Oscar Winner Janusz Kaminski is a sight to behold from the dusty and haze interiors of the salt factory where the rumble takes place to the night sky when Tony journeys through the night singing “Tonight” looking for Maria, never mind that people still have their washing hanging out on clothes lines at night, is stunning.
Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY should have everyone applauding by the film’s last reel, a sprawling musical epic that is one of the best films to come out of Hollywood during the Pandemic.