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THE AUTOMAT (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Lina Hurwitz

 

The automat, the film claims, is a staple for New York and demonstrates the democracy of the U.S.  These are statements difficult to dispute, but are clearly used to convince possible audiences of this doc of the relevance of the automat.  It will be an even harder sell for non-Americans.

The doc tries it's hardest to make its subject interesting and current.  Mel Brooks lends his hand at making the doc.  Brooks goes so far as to write an original song, which is heard during  the closing sequence.  Brooks can be remembered for writing and crooning the song he wrote for his hit comedy HIGH ANXIETY - not a great song, but hilarious in the way he performed it.

A few of the tactics work and some do not, the success depending on the individual watching the doc.  The doc goes into the mechanical aspects of the automat.  The material used was sometimes brass and sometimes other material.  There is a pipe that goes behind the snot of the dolphin that dispenses the coffee and milk, with the dolphin spewing out coffee and milk.  It is mentioned that the design came from the fountains in Italy.  These are good points to note but they are hardly sufficient incentive for many to want to go to the theatre to see this documentary.  Mel Brooks, who the filmmakers got to talk about the automat at different points in the film, admits this at the film’s start.  Who would want to see this?  You’ve to make a doc at least an hour to be screened in the theatres.  Brook hits the nail on the head with the problems of making this doc.

The doc devotes a fair amount of time on the history of its founders - the Horn and Hardarts.  These moments form the least interesting aspects of the doc with their various relatives talking about the glories of the business.  It goes down to a buyer of the machine parts once those  retardants close down.

More interesting however, is the operation of the automat.  The marketing skills used are still relevant today.  The owners made sure that the public got what they wanted.  The owners cared and respected the employees, who were in turn happy to work for the company.  They had food tasters test the food on  daily basis though the food was often mass produced in large quantities using machines.  The automat would probably be a good case study (as McDonalds and Burger King are) in Marketing courses.   (McDonalds and Burger King were case studies in my MBA Marketing course.

The film touts the importance of the automat in the history of New York City.  It also claims that the automat is the idea behind coffee places like Starbuck. 

The film does have a few charming moments, the most notable being the ones narrated by the late Ruth Ginsburg and comedian and actor/director Carl Reiner.  There are clips of famous stars like Bob Hoe, Jack Benny, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day among others at the automat.  Other best parts will have one’s saliva flowing for simple dishes like meat yes and mac and cheese shown in their full glory.  Also informative was the pondered show called The Children’s Hour where many stars like Gregory Nines, Bernadette Peters, Frankie Avalon and Rosemary Clooney first performed.

THE AUTOMATE could have turned out to be a tiresome documentary on a glorified vending machine, but director Hurwitz has steered it into a charming and insightful slice of nostalgic history, entertaining at the same time.

Trailer: 

BIG GOLD BRICK (USA 2022) **1/2
Directed by Brian Petsos

 

BIG GOLD BRICK is the story of two loners.  Samuel (Emory Cohen) is a fledgling writer who has yet to see his potential.  He is a social outcast unable to fit well in society and as a result has very low esteem.  Samuel says: “People are scared of me.  I like it.”  By chance he gets to meet another loner, but one who will change his life completely.  He is hit by Floyd’s car while Floyd (Andy Garcia) is eating his dessert, frozen custard. Which by chance is made by the factory that is owned by Samuel’s uncle.  Samuel ends up in hospital.  Floyd is there by his bedside.  “Would you consider writing my biography?”  Floyd offers Samuel while he is recovering.  “I got a feeling that this was meant to be.”  And as the story unfolds, it was meant to be.

This weird  film recounts the story of fledgling writer Samuel Liston and his experiences with Floyd Deveraux, the enigmatic, middle-aged father of two who enlists Samuel to write his biography.   But the circumstances that lead up to this arrangement in the first place (Floyd invites Samuel to stay in his home and meet his family)  are quite astonishing-and efforts to write the biography are quickly stymied by ensuing chaos in this darkly comedic, genre-bending film.

One can see that this  arrangement of sorts benefits both Floyd and Samuel.  They form an odd bond.  Samuel, while recovering from the accident, suffers hallucinations, like hearing advice from the Santa Claus gnome ornament in his room in Floyd’s house.

Floyd has trouble relating with his family but not with Samuel.  Floyd justifies his infidelity by saying that his relationship with his wife is undergoing choppy waters.  “When there is no food at home, you go out for dinner.”  This is his rationalization.

Unfortunately, the novelty of the film’s genre-bending wears off at the film’s half way mark.  Director Petsos can be seen to be trying really hard to up the ante, but the tactics like putting Samuel in a fantasy sequence involving space and his assumed death are all too forced.

The film begins with two weird people meeting up by chance and then having a working relationship.  But every other character being just as mad, from Floyd’s sex starved wife, Jacqueline to his daughter Lily who is seen smashing her violin during her performance just do not cut it.  There should have been  more stable characters that would put the main two characters into perspective.  Everybody being crazy derails the film from its foundations.  But Oscar Isaac’s limping and over the top portrayal of Anselm, wheezing out threats, matched by his outrageous tie, are at least, totally hilarious.

Surprisingly, the film’s most endearing moment is a more serious one.  The scene in the library where Samuel gives Lily a red silk rose to apologise for screaming at her is sweet and affecting.

Writer/director Petsos keeps the secret of a twist in the story at the end, to bring his ok, bearable film to a satisfactory and more sombre closure.

Trailer: 

 

CAGED BIRDS ( Bis wir tot sind oder frei) (Switzerland/Germany 2020) ****
Directed by Oliver Rihs

 

CAGED BIRDS is a Swiss/German co-production filmed many with German (the film does contain catchy French song on is soundtrack) directed by Oliver Rihs and written by Oliver Keidel, Norbert Maass and Ivan Madeo, a film, that follows and exposes the pluses and flaws of its two main protagonists, warts and all.  It is a very accomplished film, a dramatic re-enactment of a true story, brilliantly and dramatically performed by its two leads and needless to say, also brilliantly directed and well paced to its awesome climax.

The theme of the story is dignity.  The film demonstrates the extreme lengths the two protagonists will go to keep their dignity.

One protagonist is  a young female radical lawyer, Barbara “Babs” Hug (Marie Leuenberger, THE DIVINE ORDER)  fighting Switzerland’s antiquated prison system in the 1980s, and finds it to be an endless, draining battle.  The other is the country’s most wanted criminal, Walter Stürm (Joel Basman), who is in a public square. Intelligent and sensitive, “Walti” –nicknamed “The Jailbreak King” -- isn’t your average criminal, as he’s recently escaped from prison for the seventh time. He’s also a Robin Hood-like figure and Swiss counter-cultural icon, taunting the establishment with outrageous thefts and media savvy. Babs quickly sees an opportunity to use his popularity to reform the penal system, and they form an unlikely alliance.  The question is how far she would go to reform the criminal system.  That plan, however, goes awry when the unpredictable Stürm uses his newfound freedom to commit another crime, and soon finds the authorities closing in.  Using her connections, she finds the charming criminal temporary refuge with a militant organization, and takes him on as a client. Stürm, however, has a very different ideology of freedom, and proves to be far more difficult to manage than she ever realized.

Babs is a person shown to be cursed with poor health.  She has kidney disease but refuses a kidney transplant despite advice from her physician.  She has to use a cane and limps around throughout the film.  Yet she maintains her dignity in the fight over injustice in the Swiss penal system.  Walti on the other hand, would also go to extreme lengths, such as go on a hunger strike to the point of death to stay for his rights and not lose his dignity.  The two have a love/hate relationship with Babs. clearly falling for him romantically.  Walti however, settles for a younger model, a radical protester who demands too much from Walti.  Walti finally gives up on her too.  The film contains multiple stories which director Rihs bends together to keep his film intriguing and a compelling watch.

  CAGED BIRDS had its premiere at the 2020 Tallinn Black Nights International Film Festival, where Leuenberger deservedly captured the Best Actress Award.  She is clearly a fantastic actress and one that will move her audience.  The film premiers via Virtual Cinema on February 25th, 2022. 

Trailer: 

 

CYRANO (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Joe Wright

 

Based on Edmond Rostand's classic 1897 play of the same name, The story focuses on a love triangle involving the large-nosed poetic Cyrano de Bergerac, his beautiful cousin Roxana, and his classically handsome but inarticulate friend Christian de Neuvillette who, unaware of Cyrano's unrequited passion for Roxana, imposes upon him to provide the romantic words he can use to woo her successfully in mid-17th century Paris.

CYRANO is yet another adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, the famous Famous French play about a man, not so good-looking (this time a dwarf instead of a man with a large ugly nose) who falls in love with a beautiful woman who finally falls in love with Cyrano’s words rather than his looks.  Jose Ferrera is the actor who popularized the role and French actor Gerard Depardieu was also nominated for Best Actor for his role in the French version of the film.  Save Martin also portrayed Cyrano in a comical version called ROXANNE.  Cyrano has also been adapted as a musical.

Joe Wright is an award winning British director responsible for minor masterpieces like ATONEMENT (his best film), ANNA KARENINA, HANNAH but who also made a few flops.  Speaking to fellow film reviewers after the film’s screening, it appears that one would either love Wright's film or hate it.  The main reason is that the title lead role is now performed by Peter Dinklage, who also has ‘looks issues’ as he is a dwarf.  But Linklage is an extremely good and apt actor, and I personally love to see him in a variety of roles, the last one I CARE A LOT, really showcased his talent for comedy.  Still, one’s credibility would be stretched to the limit though in real life, Linklage is married to Erica Schmidt and has had two children with her.  Schmidt plays Cyrano’s girl in CYRANO in the play, so what you see on screen does happen in real life.  In this film, Roxanne is played by Haley Bennett (TRUE GRIT).   Cyrano’s best friend who he writes the words for is here spayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr. a black actor.  But this looks too obvious, filmmakers trying too hard to be politically correct.

It is reported that Linklage is an extraordinary actor and a very kind and excellent man to work with.  Dwarfism is still a prejudice in current times.  Personally, I thought his supporting role in last year’s I CARE A LOT deserved him at least an Oscar nomination.  This year, his name has been bypassed already, so hopefully, Linklage would eventually get the Oscar he deserves, if not for his body of work.

But as a musical, CYRANO is awful with equally unforgettable songs.

The one reason to see this (and failed musical) version of CYRANO is actually Dinklage who delivers an Oscar winning performance.  His eyes convey deep emotion and his words are expressed unbelievably.  But mostly, the romance is made believable because of him and he makes the film all worthwhile.

CYRANO is planned for a theatrical release on February the 25th.

 Trailer: 

 

 

 

 

THE DESPERATE HOUR (LAKEHOOD) (USA 2021) **
Directed by Phillip Noyce

 

It has been done before - a low budget film where the majority of the film concentrates on the taking of a 9-1-1 call.  Jake Gylleanhall was in a similar THE GUILTY, a recent very forgettable thriller.  In THE DESPERATE HOUR, which I had seen at the Toronto International Film Festival under a different title but same film, LAKEWOOD, the action takes place in a neighbourhood of that name.   Like they say, this is the typical Pandemic film which can be made without any actions coming in close contact with each other.

The film has a mother (Naomi Watts) going for a run in the woods while on her mobile trying to find the safety of her son, when she learns that his school has been on lockdown.  A shooter at the school has taken several hostages and the cops have been called in.  The film is pretty much the mother on the phone, talking to several people including the car mechanic who she persuades to ding out more information, several teaches friends and the like.  Yes, it gets  monotonous and boring fast.  Despite some solid acting by Watts, this is all manipulative stuff not helped with a cliched and predictable storyline complete with lots of unneeded melodrama at the end.  Aussie director Noyce has made much better films in the past like his other thriller DEAD CALM and his newsreel drama NEWSFRONT which I consider the BEST Australian film of all time.

This latest offering from Noyce is boring, forgettable with a stale one person on the phone premise.
Trailer: 

GASOLINE ALLEY (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Edward John Blake

 

Bruce Willis has been co-starring in many films of late, portraying older veterans in action flicks that have all turned out forgettable.  In his latest film, Willis again plays not only second but third fiddle to co-stars Devon Sawa and Luke Wilson.  As usual, Willis plays a sombre, muttering and disgruntled character.  GASOLINE ALLEY is not too bad, but it is still another forgettable Willis venture.

Bruce Willis, Luke Wilson and Devon Sawa star in the chilling story of a savage Hollywood murder (four innfact, all at the same time; throats slit) set in present day Los Angeles. Jimmy Jayne (Sawa), a reformed ex-con, is the prime suspect who will stop at nothing to prove his innocence.   The reason he is prime suspect is that Jayne owns a bar called GASOLINE ALLEY and a lighter with those words was found in the murder scene.  Homicide detectives Freeman (Willis) and Vargas (Wilson) are close on his tail as Jimmy takes on his own investigation, risking his life in the dark underbelly of L.A.  Jimmy has to clear his name for the obvious reason he is prime suspect though Vargas tells him to let the cops do their job.

The smart talking dialogue is left to Vargas and Wilson proves he can mutter as well as Willis any one-liners in the script, funny or not.  He tells Jimmy at one point: “As the Gospel says: You will never walks alone, promising him that he and Freeman will be accompanying him s he walks down for the death penalty.  “You know something you don’t even know you know, you know,” is another smart talking line used by Vargas.

As far as action films go, GASOLINE ALLEY contains a customary car chase, though one really wonders if there is a need to be one.  Even Jimmy says: “This is not the smartest way to kill a guy.”   The car chase is not too terribly exciting either.

GASOLINE ALLEY, with the L.A. underbelly setting is a film with a tough male target audience.  The three main characters all talk tough and act tough.  Their dialogue is no-nonsense crude and rude while they often have a tough stance - like standing with their  hands on their hips.  “Things are tough,” says Jimmy too at one point in the film.  “What do I do, I do motors and tattoos, “ replied Jimmy.  The segment with Jimmy tough talking a cop this car for a favour is a prime example, and actually turns out to be one for the film’s more amusing segments  The cast is filled with pretty young females and ugly men.

Not that this is a family film parents would want to take their kids to, but this film is quite violent, 3specilaly towards the end, and there is smoking and lots of drug use.

GASOLINE ALLEY, which turns out to be quite entertaining at the end, is in theatres, Digital, and On Demand February 25, 2022.

 Trailer: 

 

 HELLBENDER (USA 2022) ***

Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser

HELLBENDER is as weird a film as its main character, a lonely and secluded hardly alive 16-year old.  Izzy is home schooled by her mother and lives an isolated life in the mountains away from civilization.  She is sick and her mother keeps her away from others.  The first third of the film establishes Izzy’s life and her surroundings.   Still, Izzy has dreams of being in a band as a drummer.

Things take a turn.  Fed up, she escapes and finds a fellow teen named Amber.  Amber and her friends are independent, hippie like and wild.  The way the teens behave looks like something right out of a 60’s movie, all of them talking and behaving like hippies.  They break into the private residence where they enjoy an outdoor pool.  Izzy plays a drinking game with her three newly found friends, if they can be called friends.  She is dared to eat the live dew worm in her tequila drink.  “I am a vegetarian,” se says.  Then you can be a wormtarian comes the retort.  After the gulps down the worm and tequila, Izzy starts acting really strange.  The entire mood of the film changes.  Trippy as it already is, the film gets trippier.  Director Bill is pt at creating this’d sense of wonder and horror.  The audience is aghast and wonders what will Izzy do next.  She looks as if she is going to puke buckets or murder whoever is in her way.  ‘Are you stoned?’  asks the owner of the residence once he catches up with her.

The soundtrack consists muffled heavy music coupled often with insect sounds.  Director Bill is round of overhead shots with trippy background patterns like hundreds of coloured autumn leaves.

The film is called HELLBENDER because Izzy and her mother are called Hellbenders, because they fear neither heaven or hell.  People are scared of hellbenders because they are powerful, instructs Izzy’s mother.

For s small budget horror movie, and despite its rather slow burn of a pace, HELLBENDER makes an absorbing watch owing to its weirdness and accompanying freshness.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3643261721?playlistId=tt14905650&ref_=tt_ov_vi

OUT OF THE BLUE (USA 1980/2019) ****

Directed by Dennis Hopper

 

OUT OF THE BLUE was made in 1980 and largely went unreleased back in 1980.  The film has been described as: Shocking. Controversial. Unforgettable - and as Dennis Hopper’s brilliant punk rock/Elvis minor masterpiece of adolescent rebellion of the hippie times and teenage rebellion.   With a re-release now after having a 4K reservation in 2019, new cinema-goers can take a new, long overdue close-up (it can hardly be termed nostalgic because of its content) of those turbulent days.

The film begins with a man and a daughter in the rig, with them goofy around and the man obviously drinking.  They are unable to stop in time and crash into a schoolboy full of kids in a segment that shows sparks on the road, deformed metal, screaming children and dismembered limbs.  Yes, the viewer gets the point that this is a disaster that someone needs to be punished for.

Don Barnes (Dennis Hopper) is a truck driver punished for 5 years in prison for drunkenly smashing his rig into a school bus.  Linda Manz (DAYS OF HEAVEN) plays Cebe, his daughter, a teen rebel obsessed with Elvis and The Sex Pistols.  Her mother (Sharon Farrell) waitresses, shoots up drugs and takes refuge in the arms of other men. Cebe runs away to Vancouver’s punk scene after witnessing her mother shooting it up in her arm.  She ends up on probation under the care of psychiatrist Raymond Burr.  After Don’s release, the family struggles to re-connect before the revelation of dark secrets leads to a harrowing conclusion.   Mother loves Cebe but is torn between her employer lover and her bad habits.

There is punk music, songs sung by Elvis with theme music by Neil Young.  Music aficionados should be pleased.

The film, besides being a toxic family drama, contains very authentic scenes with special effects that make them look so real.  Besides the rig/bus crash, there is the tractor destruction of a shack and the climatic dynamite blowing up at the end.  How the dynamite is obtained in the story is just inserted in like a cop-out.  The cinematography is also stunning even when showing the decripicity of the huge garbage dump where Don is working - covered with seagulls feeding on the rubbish - disgustingly beautiful.

Both Linda Manz and Sharon Farrel are nothing short of superb in their performances.  Hopper does Hopper speaking in the way he is always heard with many sentences beginning with the word ‘man’.  Good to see veteran Raymond Burr (REAR WINDOW and TV’s Perry Mason) as a good guy for a change.

Working from the original 35mm negative restored by Discovery in 2010, John Alan Simon and Elizabeth Karr’s Discovery Productions undertook the digital scan and mastering of Out of the Blue to premiere as an official selection at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, preserving Hopper’s landmark film to make it available to new audiences. The New 4K restoration has been shown for the first time on the big screen theatrically at Metrograph in November, 2021 in New York and opens this week in Toronto at the Revue Cinema.

 Trailer: 

 

THE PINK CLOUD (Brazil 2019) *
Directed by Luli Gerbase

 

When the film begins, there is an introduction that mentions the film being written in 2017 and shot in 2019, the year the Covid-19 Pandemic began.  It is clear that the film is using the pandemic to promote the film - I would say done in poor taste.  The film seems to go in all the wrong directions from here, resulting in a really bad fit that is not only boring but meaningless and tedious.

The appearance of the pink cloud is obviously akin to the Covid-19 Pandemic.  When the pink cloud appears, people in cities around the world suddenly die from breathing in the pink smoke.  The film gives no explanation for the cloud or the origin of its toxicity.  Like the pandemic, the characters in the film have to stay home, isolating or breathing in the poison if they go out which means death.  The story centres on a couple that are forced to stay together, after first meeting a day ago.

Thus life changes for them and everybody else when this toxic and mysterious pink cloud appears across the globe, forcing the world indoors immediately and indefinitely.  In Brazil, Giovana (Renata de Lélis) finds herself stuck in her apartment with the man she just met (Eduardo Mendonça). But their carefree one-night stand grows into a years-long relationship complicated by a child and increasingly divergent worldviews as they try to imagine a future from the depths of a potentially never-ending lockdown. Written in 2017 and shot in 2019, this stunning, slow-burn sci-fi debut from writer/director Luli Gerbase is both an eerily prescient reflection of our reality and a cathartic exploration of hope and despair, love and fear, and the boundlessness and limits of our ability as humans to adapt. 

It is obvious that this film is written and directed by a woman. The colour ‘pink’ already indicates the fact.  Also, the female in the film always has the right words to say while the male is not only saying the wrong things but behaving like an asshole.  When they decide to separate, while living in the same place, Yado engages in internet sex.  Director also reverses the roles of male and female,  The male wants kids and the female does not.  The is an awful childbirth scene that involves lots of irritating groans from the actress playing the mother giving birth. - not to emote her awful acting.  The question is whether males want to watch this kind of shit.

As the world recoils from the pandemic, who would want to watch a couple in a Pandemic type situation where they are confined, argue and engage in a  toxic relationship?  No doubt, what transpires on screen is realistic to what has happened to many during the pandemic but one wants escapism not to be entrenched once again in a miserable situation.  The film contains a few songs that lift the mood a bit.

The film premiered in January 2021 at Sundance and opens virtually March the 1st.

Trailer: 

SCARBOROUGH (Canada 2021) *

Directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson

SCARBOROUGH is a borough in the east of the Toronto GTA (Greater Toronto Area) known for its diverse and poor income minority population.  This reviewer lived in Scarborough (the wealthier part) for a good 20 years before moving downtown, so he does know the area.  I was robbed there when my cash was snatched from me after trying to deposit it into an ATM one evening.  So I am glad I am out of there.

Three kids in a low-income neighbourhood of Scarborough find friendship and community in an unlikely place - their morning school program.  Taking place over the span of a school year, directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s debut narrative feature follows three interwoven families fighting an uphill struggle against debt, addiction, and job insecurity.  

The three subjects are: Bing, a Filipino boy living under the shadow of his father’s abuse and mental illness;  Sylvie, an Indigenous girl whose family struggles to find permanent housing; and Laura, afflicted by her parents’ neglect.   The school is run by Ms. Hina.

The film is adapted from the supposedly critically acclaimed novel by Catherine Hernandez.   The aim of the film (and book) is clearly to demonstrate the love and perseverance communities can foster, lifting up families to overcome the obstacles placed in their way.  But like the famous saying goes - the road to heaven is paved with good intentions.  But good intentions do not necessarily translate to a good move.

If there is such a thing as reverse racial bias, SCARBOROUGH is definitely guilty.  The parents of Laura are white and the only ones with fully bad parents where the other two the Filipino and indigenous mothers are nothing short of perfect.  Laura’s mother smokes crack in front of the daughter while the father loses his temper in front of Laura, scaring her and also not feeding her properly. The caring teacher Ms. Hina is a clear Muslim minority and in this story can do no harm.  Directors Willamson and Nakhai show her to be the perfect human being and teacher who can do no wrong, even when she hugs Laura.  Touching a child or a student is prohibited for obvious reasons.  When Ms. Hina hugs Laura, the directors treat the misconduct as all right behaviour, even condoning it with emphasis when Laura’s father scolds Ms. Hina.  The majority of the population of Scarborough is Chinese, which are under-represented in this film

The film treats the audience as kids informing the obvious that the system is not working while really failing to show the reasons why or providing any solutions.  It does hint that the possibility of the system failure due to bad administration.  This is trivialized in one scene where Ms. Hina is visited by an Administrator requesting her to attend some workshop instead of a funeral.  The fact that the days of the two events must fall on the same day is too manipulative and obvious, not to mention the fact that the administrator has to be white.

The film ends with the Filipino boy singing onstage in a talent contest attended by the parents of the school.  A talent contest to form the climax of a film has been used before, the most notable being NAPOLEON DYNAMITE.  Again, the climax trivializes the film, assuming that the audience connects the success of the boy’s performance with the success of the centre.

The film is a low budget project and it shows from the horrid soundtrack, often telling the audience how to feel, to the lighting and camera work.  This is indeed a pity that the film fails as it is clear that the writer and directors have good intentions trying to tell a story that needs to be told.

To add fuel to the fire, this awful film stretches a full 136 minutes that one is forced to sit through.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt12890988/

 

SERVANTS (Slovakia/Romania/Czech Republic/ Ireland 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Ivan Ostrochovský

 

SERVANTS opens in stark black and white with a doctor warning a secret policeman, by the name of Ductor (Tomas Turek) of his health and that he should become a traffic cop getting out more.  This type of Kafka-ish humour makes the politically conscious film more watchable for its subtle humour and entertainment.  Add to it, weird camera shots (overhead of the seminary students placing soccer or sideways of the priest having a snowball fight), often giving the film a German impressionism look.

In Czechoslovakia, 1980, the totalitarian Communist regime demands allegiance from all its subjects, including the clergy.  SERVANTS follows Michal and Juraj, two conflicted novices whose seminary is under increasing pressure by the Party to mold its students into satisfactory citizens. With the school on the brink of dissolution, and its head priest a target for blackmail, Michal and Juraj will have to choose between collaborating with the government as informants, or becoming targets of the secret police. 

The events in the story unfold with great sinisterism and intrigue.  But even more sinister and intriguing are the reactions to the several characters to the incidents.  The behaviour of Ductor is the strangest.  When diagnosed with health problems, the correct political state allows him  power that he now yields.  To offset his uncontrollable medical ailment, he enforces his police powers over those under him, as if to satisfy his inadequacies.   The two students react in their own ways.  One succumbs to the system while the other rebels.  Director Ostrochovský shows that the two are not honest to their true selves and as a rule, forced to bear consequences.  Another is that mentor priest who now has to do what his conscience decides, and this puts a test to his faith.  Then there is also the head of the school who finds his power deteriorating.

The film, like many coming from Communist regimes like China, are quick to condemn the system and depict all the evils that come with it.  Films from China have been banned by the communist party and the filmmakers forced to reckon for their actions, often including doing jail time or being banished from the country.  It is surprising that this film has been allowed to be exhibited even though the communist regime is now over.

Despite the cast of unknowns, the actors perform their duties to the utmost credibility, especially the young ones who portray the two students.

Everything is eerie and creepy in the film too, including the decor, set design, camerawork and also the music on the soundtrack.  The most quotable line in the film: “We are not here to be happy!” the students are told near the end of the film.  The same can be said for viewing this film - yet viewing this film is not without its rewards.

SERVANTS has understandably (because it is a very good film) garnished accolades of praise, particularly at festivals around the world where it has been shown.

 

STUDIO 666 (USA 2022) **

Directed by BJ McDonnell

 

STUDIO 666 stars the renowned rock and roll band, The Foo Fighters.   Foo Fighters are an American rock band formed in Seattle, Washington, in 1994. The band was founded by former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl as a one-man project following the dissolution of Nirvana after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The group took its name from foo fighter, a nickname coined by Allied aircraft pilots for UFOs and other aerial phenomena. Over the course of their career, Foo Fighters have won 12 Grammy Awards, including Best Rock Album four times. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, their first year of eligibility.

The story involves legendary rock band Foo Fighters move into an Encino mansion steeped in grisly rock and roll history to record their much anticipated 10th album.  David Grohl thinks the move will be the inspiration needed to complete the album.  The more evil there is in the mansion, the better.  As they say, be careful what you wish for!  They encounter more evil in the form of demons than they can ever imagine.  Survival rather than finishing the album turns out to be the priority.  Once in the house, Dave Grohl finds himself grappling with supernatural forces that threaten both the completion of the album and the lives of the band.

STUDIO 666 (called 666 - the sign of the devil in the Bible during the second coming) is promoted as a horror comedy by the rock group the Foo Fighters.  But it is an uneven, non-serious horror film that can hardly be considered a comedy, since it is not really funny.  The Foo Fighters seems to think that cursing half the time and goofing around is funny.  Or phrases like bucket of frozen shit are inventive and funny.

The segments involving the band playing their music are not bad.  This is understandable as the Foo Fighters are an excellent band and watching them perform is the film’s real treat.  The film demonstrates the madness that goes into the creative process with the leader often going off the rocker.  He wakes everyone else in the middle of one night claiming that he has an idea and to practice right away less he forgets the idea.

David Grohl who stars as himself plays the rock band head who is also possessed by the devil and also possessed in finishing the group’s new album.   In the process, he kills off a few of the members, in gruesome ways, reminiscent of horror.  There are also other demons that look like the dark creatures with inna-red eyes from ATTACK THE BLOCK.

STUDIO 666 is not a very good horror film.  It relies on blood and gore and various forms of killing to invoke the horror.  The story is all over the place and the ending climax is too stretched out for the film’s own good.  The story does not make much sense and the explanation of the devil being the one in charge of rock and roll does not cut it.   There is too much swearing in the film, the actors thinking it is funny when they swear.

STUDIO 666 is distributed by MK2 Mile-End, with early preview screenings taking place February 24 in select cities.

 Trailer: 

 

THE UNKNOWN MAN OF SHANDIGOR (Switzerland 1967 ) ***1/2

(L’INCONNU DE SHANDIGOR)

Directed by Jean-Louis Roy

 

THE UNKNOWN MAN OF SHANDIGOR is a largely unknown black  and white Swiss spy thriller that made cinematic history when it opened.  I have not heard of the supposedly long-Unseen 60s Cold War Spy Thriller that stars Marie-France Boyer, Ben Carruthers, Jacques Dufilho, Daniel Emilfork, and Famed Singer-Songwriter Serge Gainsbourg.  But seeing its re-release, the film has whetted my appetite and it is a strange spy film, as strange as say Joseph Losey’s MODESTY BLAISE that came out around the same time.

The story is simple and typical of the spy genre of films that polluted theatre screens in the 60’s and 70’s.  These days, it is the Marvel action super-heroes that have displayed the super spies like James Bond, OSS 117, Mata Hari, Matt Helm and Flint, just to name a few. In eta age of nuclear bombs, a scientist has invented a device called the cancelor, as it cancels or stops the atom bomb.  Just as important as the atom bomb is the cancelor.  Whoever gets hold of the cancelor device can control the world - typical of spy films.  The inventor is in a wheelchair.  A host of spies, all bald and clad in suits and wearing dark glasses are given the task of stealing the device.

The film bears resemblance to many classics.  It feels like a Godard movie, for the one reason that the dialogue is in Swiss French and the other is that it has the look and feel of Godard’s futuristic film ALPHAVILLE.  It also looks like Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE as the inventors in that film, played by Peter Sellers is also in a wheelchair and bth films dealt with the atom bomb.  The building that housed the War Room in STRANGELOVE looks similar to the residence of the inventor of the cancelor.  In addition, both films are in black and white.

Director Roy’s humour is so dead pan that one has to really observe the humour to see its hilarity.  One is the segment of the training of the bald spies.  They are instructed that to be effective they must don different disguises like being a Chinese or a Black man.  The film features a Chinese later on, which is funny because that spy might have realized the same lesson.  This spy successfully steals the reel containing information on the cancelor.  The inventors assistant is an albino, giving the film a more weird feel, who is murdered in a cubicle in beach and dying in style.  Roy’s film is incredibly stylish with super looking production design, wardrobe and props.

The legendary French pop singer plays one of the spies eager to get their hands on the cancelor.  He gets to groom his deranged jazz-lounge song in a funeral parlour, which makes it one of the best and weirdest set prices in the movie.

This spy film might not be for the current film audience but for those who grew up with the  60’s and 70’s spy film, they will be in for a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

The 4K restored version of the movie is out on VOD in the US + Canada Tuesday March 1, 2022

 Trailer: 

 

 

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