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A HERO (Iran 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

A minor hit at Cannes this year (the film won the Cannes Grand Prix) but not as good as his previous films, Iranian director (who so far has two of his films winning the Oscar for Best International Film) returns with another suspense unfolding drama worthy of the best  of Hitchcock.  Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is a calligrapher who was imprisoned when he could not repay a mounting debt.  While Rahim is on a two-day release from his medium-security penitentiary, his girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoust) presents him with a golden opportunity that will secure his release.  Once he becomes a so-called free man, Rahim is flanked by his family — including a vulnerable son from a previous marriage. Whatever the theme of his films, Farhadi plays on the anticipation of his audience, a style that is now characteristic of this talented filmmaker.  A HERO unfolds occasionally like VERTIGO where the truth is finally exposed at the end and where nothing is what it seems.  Farhadi depicts his hero as a human being complete with human failing like a bad temper and desperation.

 

LAST OF THE RIGHT WHALES (Canada 2021) ***1/2

Directed by Nadine Pequeneza

 

THE LAST OF THE RIGHT WHALES is as environmentalist and conservationist as such films go and succeeds in making its point.  The doc contains many authentic and rare segments that miraculously are captured on film to make it insightful, relevant and compelling.

Before watching this doc, audiences should be aware what right whales are.  Right whales are different from normal whales.

There are north and south right whales.  The doc looks at the northern ones.  North Atlantic right whales are dying faster than they can reproduce.  With just over 330 remaining, these great whales rarely die of natural causes. Instead they are run over by ships or suffer lethal injuries from fishing gear. If humans do not stop killing them, in 20 years they could be extinct.

Right whales were a preferred target for whalers because of their docile nature, their slow surface-skimming feeding behaviours, their tendency to stay close to the coast, and their high blubber content (which makes them float when they are killed, and which produced high yields of whale oil).  Today, the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world, and both species are protected in the United States by the Endangered Species Act.  The North Atlantic right whale has a single surviving breeding population in the western North Atlantic, and is classed as critically endangered, with a total population best estimate of 411 individuals remaining alive as of 2017.  The film mentions the fact repeatedly.  The North Pacific right whale population is classed overall as endangered and has two surviving populations, eastern and western, with the western Pacific population much larger at an estimated 1147 individuals in 2016. The eastern North Pacific population has fewer than 50 individuals remaining, and this population is considered critically endangered.  The doc is dedicated to all the right whales that died recently.

The doc follows a group of people that is a wildlife photographer, a marine biologist, a whale rescuer, and a crab fisherman who are united in their cause to save the North Atlantic right whale.  The three are inspirational in the way they have put so much for the right whale.

One of the film’s most difficult to watch segments involves the pain and suffering of one right whale going through trying  to untangle itself from the ropes left over from fishing lines.   The rope is caught through its mouth and runs through its body and tangles its tail.  The whale is filmed splashing up and down trying to untangle itself.  The marine workers do their best to try to aid the whale but it is also a dangerous task.  It is mentioned that they manage to untangle most of the rope but not all of it and the whale has to live with the discomfort and injury.  Besides the danger of rope, the other main danger is collision of the whales with huge sea vessels.  There are shots of injuries sustained by such collisions.

LAST OF THE RIGHT WHALES will be opening soon in Canadian theatres.  

(Review will be again posted on the film's week of release end of Feb.)

Trailer: 

MARIONETTE (Netherlands/Luxembourg/UK 2019) 

Directed by Elbert van Strein

 

MARIONETTE begins as a mystery with an unknown man setting fire to himself at the top of a building.  He is later known to be the man with the messy hand. The person is revisited later on in the film, the scene piquing the audience’s curiosity.

The new European mystery thriller MARIONETTE tells the story of Marianne Winter, a doctor child psychologist who arrives from upper New York to take up her new post in Scotland.   Why would anyone want to leave the beautiful Upper state New York to work in damp and miserable old Scotland?  Because I like the rain, answers Dr. Winter when she is asked by a fellow doctor who shows her around upon her arrival.

Arriving at a new place of work or new country is stressful in itself but Marianne Winter seeks to find a new universe after an old one has closed in on her.  A freak accident has left her husbandless and a widow and she wants to fort and lead a new life.  The audience sees her with two child patients under her care, a girl and then a boy.  Both are quizzed and keep to themselves.  But the boy, Manny is the more troubling one.  When finally deciding to break the silence , he tells her that it is because of him that she is then in Scotland.  This 10-year old claims that he can control her future, as the tote of the film MARIONETTE implies. This makes her think as she has been wondering the ‘what-if’ questions, if they had taken a different road or started their journey a bit later that the car accident would not have happened.  Marianne seeks Manny’s past medical records but is unable to secure any, as she is informed that the last doctor dealing with Manny was ‘mad’ and that she should treat the boy anew.

MARIONETTE is a well paced mystery with flashbacks and incidents revealed and explained without much confusion while always invoking the audience’s curiosity.  “Why are you always drawing accidents?”  Marianne asks the boy.  When she visits the boy at his home, he has a drawing that he refuses to show Marianne, who forceshimt show it, revealing a pig head shooting himself.  And there is the drawing with the bottom writing of Kieran drowning.  When Marianne goes to meet Keiran at the dock, he does not show up.

Director van Strien clearly has a fascination for Scotland.  The rainy and cold weather are beautifully shot.  The locals speak with their gorgeous Scots accent and the county is also beautiful.

Van Strein’s film is well paced, building accelerating into a climax when everything is explained.  Though all has appeared to have been figured it all out in the end, there is an ambiguity that exists that makes the film even more mysterious.

Definitely worth a look, MARIONETTE that was made in 2019 is finally available January 21 on VOD and Digital.

Trailer:  

NIGHT BLOOMS (Canada 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Stephanie Joline

 

 

A small indie production from the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, NIGHT BLOOMS the film captures a certain spirit, reflected by the spirit of its two main teen school girl protagonists as they progress through puberty while forming ideas on the world and their ambitions in life.

“I cannot wait to get out of here.”  says one, which reflects how everyone in the small town feels.  For many, family life does not matter much either.  No money, not much love, single parenting all help little to elevate the woes.

The film is a coming-of-age story of 17-year old Carly (Jessica Clement).  Like all 17-year olds in small towns, the world is a small and an enclosed one, bound by school, home and a little ambition.  Carly lives with her single mother, and is frustrated that her absent father has never bothered to connect with her.  Carly does drugs with her schoolmates and hangs out a lot with her best friend, Laura (Alexandra McDonald).  Carly’s ambition is to be in a band with Laura, which they agree to name ‘Burnt Angel’.   This world, small as it may seem to the audience but it is the only one Carly knows.  But it soon comes crashing down as she is forced to face the consequence of her actions. Carly starts hitting on Laura’s dad (Nick Stahl).

The film unfolds at a leisurely pace - not a slow-burn, but at a speed that allows the story’s characters as well as the incidents to develop credibly.  The small town mentality and claustrophobic surroundings can also be felt.  The coming-of-age of the lead character is not forced, trivialized or dramatized unnecessarily - all good things.  And the story builds effectively to an explosive climax.

Nick Stahl (IN THE BEDROOM) is the most famous actor in the cast.  He has been relatively absent recently, working mainly in smaller films and TV and it is good to see him in an important role again  Here, he plays Laura’s father, Wayne, who has an affair with her daughter’s classmate, resulting in an explosive situation when she becomes infatuated with him and will not let him go.  The news of the affair eventually comes to light with disastrous effect.

Responsibility is far from the minds of the school girls.  When Carly gets arrested in school, as she is handcuffed and escorted down the school hall, the bell rings and everyone is in the hallway witnessing the arrest.  All she can do is smile smugly, as if proud to be the source of attention of all her schoolmates.

The film contains a few confrontational scenes - Carly and Wayne and Cary and Laura’s mother.  The scenes are executed with restraint with little screaming or shouting but have greater effect, making the movie more credible and gut wrenching while lifting this coming-of-age story above the typical ones.

These are rebellious independent girls.  Do their mothers care at all?  In one scene, the mother of one of them suddenly discovers her daughter’s ears had been pierced.  “Did you use rubbing alcohol?”  She asks.  “Then they will get infected.  Have fun!”  comes the response.

NIGHT BLOOMS showcases a lot of fresh talent.  Both writer/director Joline and her young star Clement shine and it will be an eager wait for their talent to bloom.

ONE SHOT (UK 2021) **1/2

French Title: SOUS LE FEU ENNEMI (Under Enemy Fire)

Directed by James Nunn

 

An elite squad of Navy SEALs on a covert mission to transport a prisoner off of a CIA black site island prison are trapped when insurgents attack while trying to rescue the same prisoner.  Zoe Anderson (Ashley Green) is the woman who accompanies the SEALs with the paperwork and who appear to have the information that the prisoner is a terrorist who knows the location of a bomb that is about to go off in D.C.  The SEALs are led by Jake Harris (British actor Scott Adkins putting on an American accent).

Though every character speaks with an American accent and that the theme is American, ONE SHOT is a British production, shot entirely in an area north of London.  It is interesting to note than in American action films, the bad guys often than not, speak with English accents.  In this British production, the bad guys speak French or English with a French accent. ONE SHOT the movie is shot entirely at "Bentwaters Park" in Suffolk (UK).  Royal Air Force Bentwaters or more simply RAF Bentwaters, now known as Bentwaters Parks", is a former Royal Air Force station about 80 miles (130 km) northeast of London.

Performance-wise, the actors who can speak with a French accent, shout and make ugly faces seem to have gotten the part.  The most famous actor in the cast Ryan Phillippe seems to be having a field day with his dialogue.  At one point, he puts the flame of his lighter close to the eye of a terrorist and asks him:  Ever read the Bible?  It says ``an eye for an eye.” as he tries to extract information from him.  The segment too where the terrorists convince a fellow member that his suicide bombing stunt is all worth it is also quite funny - hilarious in he way the premise is taken so seriously.

The dialogue is occasionally bad, the writers assuming that the audience is ignorant.  In one scene, the female analyst, when told that she does not approve of the torture methods replies: “When tortured you get to hear whatever the tortured thinks you want to hear… bad intel.  You can get more information from a plate of hot food and a pack of cigarettes.”  The reply: “You sound less like an analyst than a field operative.”  This implies that the entire audience could be field operatives with that age old understanding everyone has , already about the effects of torture.  In one scene the SEALs have Mansour, accompanied by Zoe.  There is a shouting match argument.  A soldier: “Give Mansour up.  If not, they will kill us all.”  Zoe: “No, I have to bring him back alive.”  Mansour (lying): “I am innocent”  The same banter goes on, hilariously with no decision made as to what to do.   And here is more:  The bad guys have this lesson summarized in one line: “Listen and obey even if you have to die!”

ONE SHOT is the kind of cheesy action thriller that, like most cheesy films, is so watchable because of the fact.  It means that ONE SHOT is not necessarily a good movie, but an easy film to watch, especially when getting a good giggle from its flaws.

Trailer: 

SALT IN MY SOUL (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Will Battersby

 

If you want a good cry and feel good film at the same time SALT IN MY SOUL will do the trick.  

Mallory suffers from Cystic fibrosis.   (CF) is a genetic disorder that affects mostly the lungs, but also the pancreas, liver, kidneys, and intestine.  Long-term issues include difficulty breathing and coughing up mucus as a result of frequent lung infections.   

Based on the posthumously published bestselling memoir of the same name, this documentary takes one inside the mind of a young woman, Mallory (playing herself in the  film) who tries to live a full life while dying. Mallory Smith was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of three. In her twenty five-year battle with the deadly disease, she carved out a life that most of us don’t come close to. Using Mallory’s posthumously published 2500-page secret diaries, hundreds of hours of newly discovered footage, and audio recordings, the film offers Mallory as the narrator of her own extraordinary chronicle.

The emotional film follows Mallory’s life quite closely - made even more emotional with the red person playing herself.   There is archive footage showing her to be looking really fit and normal, tall and  athletic doing swims and athletics. Mallory also has the typical boyfriend, trying to lead the typical normal.

It is sad to see photos of Mallory in hospital when she contracted a severe infection causing her to be hospitalized for weeks, close to death.  With dedicated nurses on her side and a very diligent Thai doctor who tries everything, she miraculously survives, just before entering Stanford University.  The film centers on a medical trial that turns out so successful that she stayed out of the hospital for 16 months.

Mallory burns bright.  Her friend says on camera that she wishes Mallory would not burn so bright as brighter lights burn out faster.  Mallory was diligent, never wasted time and lived her life to the fullest.

The film offers some important lessons for audiences.  One is the importance of keeping a journal.  It is from Mallory’s journal that her life can be inspirational to many.  Another lesson is good heartedness.  Mallory was always smiling and had immense positivity in her dealings.  Yet every decision Mallory makes has a life or death implication.  But she does not want this to show in her dealing with others.  Mallory wants to give something back to life and to be able to make a difference in her life.

The film is also quite technical in terms of medical terminology.  But there is a lot to learn about c.f. like c.f. patients cannot be close to each other as they can infect each other.

It is also touching to see Mallory fall in love.  With a guy called Jack who she had met at a party.  A musical interlude is inserted at this point, pointing to optimism.  

SALT IN MY SOUL may not win the Best Documentary award but this is one film that is made with heart and perhaps the most inspirational documentary to be seen this year.

Trailer: 

 

A SHOT THROUGH THE WALL (USA 2021) ***

Directed by Aimee Long


An ambitious feature from writer/director Aimee Long,  A SHOT THROUGH THE WALL can be admired for the racial issues it addresses, though not always successfully.

The focus of the story is racism, particularly of cops dealing with blacks.  The story centers on an American Chinese officer, Mike Tan (Kenny Leu). Mike Tan is an extremely common Chinese name (Tan is the most common Chinese last name in Singapore) which could mean to indicate that this unfortunate accident could happen to anyone.  Tan’s life unravels after he accidentally shoots an innocent Black man.  Facing trial, he wades through his guilt as he navigates the complicated worlds of media, justice, racial politics, and his own morality.

Director Long paints a bleak picture for Tan.  Not only is he made to suffer from the accident of his gun going off accidentally, but the shot kills an innocent black man through a wall.  The media and police force follow up by making Tan a scapegoat for black prejudice against blacks by indicating Tan.  To make matters worse, Tan makes, as verbally expressed by his father (Tzi Ma), wrong decisions.  His decision to purchase a gun, not quite believable here, results in later consequences.  This is not the only bad decision Tan makes.  He makes more than his fair share of mistakes.

The portrayal of the typical Chinese family can be observed with the reaction of Tan’s parents.  Tan’s mother is always nagging, also wanting grandchildren at all costs while the father is the quieter, more tolerant yet wiser one, who has his say only when called for.  Ma, a seasoned Chinese American actor, does wonders in his role.

The one intimate scene between Tan and his black girlfriend, Candace (Ciara Renee) deserves mention.  Both Tan and Candace are emotionally exhausted.  Their tempers are at edge.  Tan’s parents have moved out for safety reasons and Candace has spent effort cooking for him.  Candace expects to have one sex with her boyfriend,  But it does not initially happen.  One can see Tan’s point of view.  After being indicted and having the public go against him, one understand that he is in no mood for sex.  Candace feels rejected and this moment creates even more tension.  One can feel for both sides and both are right and basically have to be tolerant and care more for the other than for himself or herself.  However, this precious moment is destroyed with them having sex in the end.

For the insurmountable problems and complications that result, it is difficult to see a satisfactory resolve - in fact one would be seen as totally unbelievable.  The only option for director Long is the ending (not to be revealed in the review) that she has chosen which feels like a cop-out.  Yet, after that, Long has another surprise segment which almost saves her movie - though one may argue that the dramatic buildup of the film does not qualify for an open ending.

But the main flaw of the film is the muddled message.  The final message seems to be put forward is that systematic racism is here to stay and that all cops are stupid.  But there is a more latent message in this entire story which is the problem of weaponry.  If Americans were not allowed to bear arms, all of Tan’s problems would never have surfaced.

A SHOT THROUGH THE WALL opens in Theatres and On Demand January 21, 2022.

Trailer: 

 

 

ZEROS AND ONES (USA/UK/Germany/Italy 2021) *

Directed by Abel Ferrara

 

Abel Ferrara made his name as a director in the film industry with BAD LIEUTENANT.  He has not had a hit for a while.  The prologue of his latest film ZEROS AND ONES has actor Ethan Hawke offering praise for his director Ferrara and what an honour it is for him to be working with this director.  Hawke talks briefly about Ferarra’s vision and craft before revealing that he plays two roles in the film - of two brothers on opposite sides of the law; one given the task of preventing a terrorist attack and the other a terrorist in prison.

So, Ethan Hawke (TRAINING DAY, GATTACA and director Abel Ferrara join forces for this gritty, tense political-thriller set on one deadly night in Rome.  Called to the city to stop an imminent terrorist bombing, soldier J.J. (Hawke) desperately seeks news of his imprisoned rebel brother, Justin (also Hawke), who holds knowledge that could thwart the attack.  Navigating the capital's darkened streets, J.J. races to a series of ominous encounters, hoping to keep the Vatican from being blown to bits.

After Hawke’s introduction of the film, the first 20 minutes is a muddled mess with the camera following J.J around Rome in the darkness of night.  The lighting is poor as if anything can be deciphered and there are mumblings of dialogue that would surely test the patience of any viewer, less a fan of Ferrara.  It is at this 20 minute point, that one realizes this is not the typical terrorist action thriller, but a pondering atmospheric piece, making little sense that comes from the mind of a  disgruntled director.

There is much dialogue (script is written by Ferrara) that has Hawke ranting and raving about truth and justice and evil - not that it makes any sense.  Hawke looks and sounds like a deranged character, which is a good description of J.J. -  a deranged soldier.  He also scores coke from some lesbians making out.

There is one scene where J.J., Hawke’s character is forced (though he does not seem to need much coercing) to have sex with a beautiful lady in bed and shot on camera by the enemy.  As the scene progresses, the shot dissolves into saturated colours of red and yellow before a coloured test pattern can be seen filling up the screen.  What is this?  A masterpiece or piece of shit?  The answer is quite obvious.

There are a whole lot of sayings about God and the fate of man and the relationship - all from the pen of Ferrara that makes little sense.   Not to mention the abrupt and odd ending, which of course, makes no sense at all

Kudos to anyone who is able to sit through this one in one complete viewing without having to take a sanity break.  Awful, boring, incoherent and blurry, ZEROS AND ONE is a pure zero.  No wonder the film had to begin with Hawke’s introduction summarized as: “Please see this film.  I am in it.”

Trailer: