Three must-sees open this week. Have a great week at the movies beginning with ALI & AVA; then MY OLD SCHOOL and VENGEANCE.
ALI & AVA (UK 2021) ***** Top 10
Directed by Clio Barnard
The latest from acclaimed British writer-director Clio Barnard (THE SELFISH GIANT, one of the best films made that year) is a tumultuous, fiercely affecting working-class love story between a British Pakistani and an Irish lady. Both are middle-aged and carry baggage from the past.
Before one can dismiss the premise of an inter-racial love story between a mature couple as one that has been done time and time again in films, one should bear in mind that this film is from Clio Barnard. And true to form, she takes the romance to the next level.
Ali (Adeel Akhtar), is a working-class landlord who forges close bonds with his tenants. One day, while picking up one of his tenants’ children from school, he offers a lift to Ava (Claire Rushbrook), an Irish-born teacher and single mother of five. They bond almost instantly through their love of music, though Ali favours the high energy of Buzzcocks and hip-hop while Ava takes country and folk music. Despite their divergent backgrounds and music preferences, differences in their stages of life, and the colour of their skin, despite the fact of Ali’s failing marriage and Ava’s fraught relationship with her adult and adolescent children, each finds themselves irresistibly drawn to the other.
Barnard is one of the best British directors and she does not disappoint here. Her use of music as in the one scene where Ali drives a load of kids in a car, all doing hip-hop is one of the most spirited pieces I have seen in a film this year. This eclipses the best scene in THE SELFISH GIANT where a sold sofa is being removed from a house with the kids still on it). It is here that director Barnard turns a situation into one of fun and unity. Barnard shoots her film in Yorkshire, with her characters on people she has met. This is a wonderful love story celebrating differences and what a great movie!
ALI & AVA opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. An absolute delight and definitely one of the best 10 films of the year.
DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS (USA 2022) **
Directed by Jared Stern
Warner Brothers and Disney have discovered the secret of money making movie success by tapping in the action superhero genre. All the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) movies have made big bucks as did WB’s DC comic book film franchise. The action superhero genre has now invaded teen movies (the latest Prime Video series - PAPER GIRLS) and now kids’ animated features as in DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS. This is a sure fire money-maker, never mind the quality of the film. As far as Warner Bros’s latest 3d computer-animated superhero comedy, based on the DC Comics superhero team Legion of Super-Pets, the film is a tired, unimaginative and lacklustre affair, though kids may find the adventure cute and charming.
DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS is directed by Jared Stern in his theatrical debut, who co-wrote it with John Whittington. The film boasts the voices of a stellar cast that includes the voices of Dwayne Johnson as Krypto, the main protagonist, Kevin Hart, Kate McKinnon as the main villain, Lulu the hairless guinea pig, John Krasinski as Krypto’s owner, Superman, Vanessa Bayer, Natasha Lyonne, Diego Luna, Thomas Middleditch, Ben Schwartz, and Keanu Reeves as Batman.
One distasteful thing that WB loves to do in the DC franchise is to change the order of things - things that should be taboo and not be altered. In the Batman movies, for example, Batman’s secret identity of Bruce Wayne is known by many other characters and Batman gets married to Catwoman. In the SUPERMAN films, Lois Lane knows Superman’s secret identity. Batman never meets Superman but does in SUPERMAN V. BATMAN. In DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS, Superman marries Lois Lane and Green Lantern is a female.
The film begins with Superman as a baby put into a spaceship by his parents and sent to the planet Earth in order to escape the destruction of the planet, as in the original Superman comic book. But his faithful and loving dog enters the spaceship with the baby, thus both entering Earth with super powers. A pink kryptonite that Lex Luthor uses gives the other animals from a pet store their human powers.
The rest of the premise goes: When the Justice League is captured by Lulu and Lex Luthor, Superman's Labrador, Krypto, who was de-powered in the process, forms a team of shelter pets who were given superpowers to save his owner and Superman's friends: a Boxer named Ace (Hart), who becomes super strong and indestructible; a potbellied pig named PB (Bayer), who can grow to giant-size; a turtle named Merton, who becomes super fast; and a squirrel named Chip, who gains electric powers.
The film stresses the companionship of humans or superheroes with pets. The pairing goes: Superman has Krypto, Batman has the boxer dog, The Flash has the turtle and so on. It is neat to be able to guess which animal is paired with which superhero. The film ends with a clip that begs a sequel to be made, which means more mega bucks for Warner Bros.
ENDANGERED (FOX HUNT DRIVE) (USA 2022) ***1/2
Directed by Drew Walkup
ENDANGERED is a 2019 low budget but effective thriller written by Adam Armstrong and Marcus Devivo directed by Drew Walkup that finally gets its debut this week.
ENDANGERED begins with a woman climbing out of a crashed car laying on its side. As she looks around the car holding a gun, she is suddenly bashed with a large stick and she falls to the ground. Many films these days begin with an exciting segment like this one and then goes back in time relating all the events leading to the said segment. ENDANGERED follows the same path leading to the beginning segment some 15 minutes near the end. But there is a neat surprise in that the audience soon realizes that nothing is what it seems to be.
The film devotes quite a bit of screen time developing the woman’s character. Her name is Alison. The voiceover mentions that it is important to strategize and once a plan is in action, nothing can go wrong. (Or will it?). Alison has got two job rejections in the film’s first few minutes. It is soon revealed that Alison (Lizzie Zerebko) is an aspiring architect, who spends her evenings trying to make ends meet as a ride-share driver, similar to Uber or Lyft. While wrapping up her shift, she decides to take on one last passenger who reveals his name as Mike (Michael Olavson) - only to find herself in unexpected danger when she discovers the mysterious stranger is not who he appears to be.
Alison is cajoled into taking the fare against her better judgement. When she discovers blood-stained jewelry and a gun in her passenger’s bag, she begins to fear that she may not make it out of this trip alive. Through a twisted and unsettling turn of events including a hit-and-run, Alison appeals to her enigmatic passenger for help. In over her head, she fights to get through the night by covering her tracks, avoiding the police, and ultimately discovering who her inscrutable passenger truly is.
The two lead actors Olavson and Zerebko deliver top-notch credible performances that involve the audience to their plight. Director Walk-up proves his skill in the buildup of the mystery surrounding the story, while creating a sinister night that never seems to end. Alison’s character is well written, getting the audience on the side of a single lady who has been wrongly dismissed by her boss, and unable to get another job in her profession. There is one slight unbelievable flaw in the fact that the boss who had ditched her romantically would suddenly go out of his way to help her.
The less said the plot the better though what has been described will not spoil one’s entertainment or surprise of the plot. It does also point out a true fact of the story that any human being might go all out at taking revenge at all costs if one can get away with it.
Despite the unexpected plot twist ENDANGERED does have a cliched climax. The film opens on VOD July 26th, Tuesday.
HANSAN: RISING DRAGON (Hansan: Yongui Chulhyeon)(South Korea 2022) ***1/2
Directed by Kim Han-min
HANSAN: RISING DRAGON is a big budget South Korean war film that aims to break box-office records in South Korea and the east.
HANSAN: RISING DRAGON is a prequel to THE ADMIRAL: ROARING CURRENTS—the most-watched film in Korean cinema history, which unfortunately for North America, is hardly heard of. HANSAN: RISING DRAGON depicts the historical Battle of Hansando. In 1592, admiral Yi Sun-sin and his fleet faced off against the might of the invading Japanese navy and its formidable warships. As the Korean forces fall into crisis, the admiral resorts to using his secret weapon, the dragon head ships known as geobukseon, in order to change the tide of this epic battle at sea.
The Korean film is a historical war epic depicting the Battle of Hansan Island, in which the hero of the film Admiral Yi Sun-shin executed his daring battle tactics in fierce spirit rallied that rallied the Joseon navy against advancing Wae (foreign islands) invaders five years before the Battle of Myeongnyang. On April 13, 1592, Joseon’s Busanpo (Busan Port) fell to enemy invaders, precipitating the Imjin War. As the Joseon army had been unprepared and caught off guard by the invasion, enemy forces overtook the capital Hanyang within fifteen days.King Seonjo fled to Pyeongyang while the main enemy forces pressed northward to complete their conquest of Joseon.Those invaders relied on the strategic delivery of army supplies vi aland routes, but their plans were repeatedly thwarted at sea.Admiral Yi Sun-shin was the central figure blocking the enemy’s northern advance. Securing shipping routes at sea was paramount to the enemy’s inland army supply, but Admiral Yi of the Left Jeolla Navy made this an impossible task. In June, Admiral Yi led his naval fleet in the Battle of Danghangpo, an attack that sank twenty enemy ships off the coast of Goseong, Gyeongsang-do. However, despite his naval victories, the Joseon army as a whole was on the defensive.
Hansan: Rising Dragon depicts the month-long period that followed the Battle of Danghangpo, following the events and aftermath of the Battle of Hansan Island.
The often trouble with films dealing with asian history is the unfamiliarity of North Americans and westerners of the history. Admiral Yi is a brave, courageous and wise warrior who existed in history and yet unknown to the west. It will be a hard sell for the film though it definitely deserves a look. The special effects and the battles are nothing short of stupendous on screen with the war shirt like the sea monster head and turtle ship on full display. The film reminds one of William Wyler’s BEN HUR with Charlton Heston in chains rowing his ship into war.
HANSAN: RISING DRAGON opens in theatres Friday 29th of July and is a foreign film that should be seen on the big screen with all its splendour.
MY OLD SCHOOL (UK 2022) ****
Directed by Jono McLeod
Jono McLeod’s My Old School tells the true story of Scotland's most notorious imposter Brandon Lee. The time is set in 1993 and 16-year-old Brandon Lee is the new kid in school. Soon he is the top of the class, acing exams and even taking the lead in the school musical, SOUTH PACIFIC. He is the model pupil, until he is unmasked, which happens right around the halfway mark of the documentary. If one does not know the details of the deception, there would be more to enjoy while watching the film.
This documentary stars internationally renowned actor Alan Cumming as both the face and the voice of Brandon. The real Brandon, at the start of the doc, refuses to have his real looks revealed on camera. But what Brandon looked like in the past during his school days are shown on screen, but only after the film’s half way mark.
At the film’s halfway mark, it is revealed that Brandon is not 16 years old like his other classmates but 32-years old. That is the deception. Because of his age and experience, he is able to excel in class as well as to charm his classmates and teachers. Apparently, Brandon enrolled in school when he was 16 and re-enrolled again at the age of 32, in order to enter a prestigious Scottish Medical University, in Dundee. Director McLeod interviews Branson’s schoolmates and teachers who talk about his school activities. One fo the doc’s highlights is his lead role in the school’s musical SOUTH PACIFIC. He got the main role and charmed everyone, transforming himself from a weirdo to the school’s most popular pupil. Girls loved him and bullies sucked up to him. A black classmate of his has his say in the doc, as Brandon’s friend. Being his friend during Brandon’s newly found popularity, he was no longer bullied. Filmmaker McLeod is wise enough to tap on the feel-good element for this doc.
One point in the doc is the issue of whether Brandon’s mother was in on the deception. Most of the students interviewed said no, believing that the deception was totally Brandon’s idea. But director McLeod says then that if the classmates were invited to do homework at his house, the mother must have known about the deception. “Good point!” says an interviewed classmate. This is what makes MY OLD SCHOOL smart and funny.
MY OLD SCHOOL is a doc about a subject who is an imposter for his own personal purpose in life - of going to a medical university and to become a doctor. The subject is not one that is world famous or one that would change the world but filmmaker Jono McLeod has honed in one of the most entertaining and feel good documentaries of the year. Definitely smart and funny, director McLeod has created a very amusing and fresh comedy. MY OLD SCHOOL is the best doc I had previewed at Hot Docs 2022 and definitely the most watchable and entertaining.
PIPA (RECURRENCE) (Argentina 2022) ***1/2
Directed by Alejandro Montiel
PIPA is an Argentinian thriller movie directed by Alejandro Montiel, starring Luisana Lopilato. One of the best things about the premiere streaming service Netflix is the surprise the service offers in terms of foreign gems. PIPA is one of these surprises. The film unfolds like a classic thriller noir that benefits from excellent camera work, cinematography and a brilliant soundtrack.
Manuela Pipa (Lopilato) lives isolated from the world, escaping her stormy past as a tough cop. She lives with her aunt. As the film opens, she goes to the town’s public celebrations, coming out for the first time in a year. But the past always comes back, and she cannot stay isolated forever.
The film begins with an aerial and stunning shot of a car travelling along a long and winding road in what turns out to be rural Argentina. A mining company appears to be in control of the town in which the wealthy rule. A corpse is found on the property of Pipa. The corpse is a maid of a wealthy family that is throwing a huge decadent party. The party is shown in full swing, well shot with rhythmic beats and a soundtrack to die for. The maid is found to have stolen a necklace by the host’s gay and good-looking brother who has brought his lover from Madrid. The plot thickens. The beginning of the movie grabs the attention of the audience, though a little concentration is needed to follow the otherwise straight forward plot, but with lots of details.
PIPA which is retitled RECURRENCE for English speaking audiences (as the past recurs for the protagonist) is the third installment of the trilogy ‘Los crímenes del sur’, following ‘Perdida’ (2018) and ‘La Corazonada’ (2020). It is based on a novel implying that the film has a solid storyline, which it does, covering multiple issues like the gap between the wealthy and poor, police corruption, politics, romance and family. Besides being a thriller, the emotional drama is fierce and brings the audience to connect with the characters of the story.
The less of the story disclosed the better. The film opened on Wednesday and comes with high recommendations.
RESURRECTION (USA 2022) ***
Directed by Andrew Semans
The film begins with an introduction to the protagonist of the film, Margaret played impeccably by Rebecca Hall. Margaret is tall and pretty, does excellent work at her job, even counselling a fellow-worker on her personal problems. Margaret is herself fit and has a daughter, Abbie. Margaret is a single mother and Abbie is about to leave for university. Margaret loves Abbie and sometimes too much to the point of, in Abbie’s words - suffocation. Margaret’s idyllic life is soon to be threatened dramatically. Margaret begins to fall apart.
Margaret (Rebecca Hall) leads a successful and orderly life, perfectly balancing the demands of her busy career and single parenthood to her fiercely independent daughter Abbie. Everything is under control. But that careful balance is upended when an unwelcome shadow from her past, David Moore (Tim Roth) returns, carrying with him the horrors of Margaret’s past. Hence the film title RESURRECTION. Battling her rising fear, Margaret must confront the monster she’s evaded for two decades who has come to conclude their unfinished business.
In stories like this one, there is always a common flaw of non disclosure. The mother knows that her ex will endanger both her and her daughter Abbie. Abbie wonders why her mother is acting so strangely and becoming so suffocating. Abbie is leaving her mother for college soon. Why won’t the mother tell Abbie the truth about her abusive ex-boyfriend of 22 years and what he might be capable of doing? In RESURRECTION, Margaret tells Abbie about David but Abbie thinks her mother is crazy, not believing the danger David is capable of.
The cliched part too, is that she has gone to the police and there is nothing the police can do for the fact that the ex has not started anything, but show up at her conference, a public park and a restaurant.
The question is once again posed in the film: what a parent would do the protect her family. Any normal parent would kill to protect the family. Margaret confronts David at one point in the film to do the same.
Hall and Roth deliver excellent performances. Hall is herself a director, her film PASSING receiving much praise. Roth is perfect as the snarling villain. The only problem is the last 20 minutes of the film. When Margaret confronts David, she starts believing that her baby boy is till alive in David’s stomach. David had, in the past, ate the boy. The part of Margaret believing her boys is still alive and communicating with her is over the top and stretches he script’s credibility. This is where the film begins falling apart. All the mystery and buildup of danger and menace cannot be matched in the film's last 20 minutes - a great pity!
RESURRECTION will be released by IFC Films in theatres on July 29th and on Demand on August 5th. Shudder will be the exclusive streaming home on October 28th.
PAPER GIRLS (Streaming Service Series 2022) ***
Four young friends’ paper routes are disrupted on Hell Day 1988, when they unknowingly time travel to 2019. While searching for a way home, they clash with members of two time-jumping factions at war, and must come face-to-face with their adult selves and learn how to work together to save the world.
PAPER GIRLS follows the stories of four highly different and independent girls who are so called because they do a paper route. The selection of the four characters covers a diversity of races, as expected, placing the film in correctness in terms of racial diversity, female strength while tapping on the success of action superhero movies saving the world. The girls are the superheroes in this case. And they have to save the world. This is a sure fire way to pique interest in viewers of streaming services. And this 8-episode series is not bad, interesting enough to have 4 stories to tell, each of each character blending the stories together when they bond together to save humankind.
The four relatively well-known girls, who have acted before, are convincing enough to carry the series. The four actresses are Sofia Rosinsky, Riley Lai Nelet, Fina Strazza and Camryn Jones
Rosinsky plays Mac Coyle. She is a working-class Catholic girl, who has inherited the paper route from her older brother. Mac is arguably the main and most interesting character of the 4 as Mac is tough, smart and has a scar tongue. But Mac I can be seen to be vulnerable though she is the leader of the paper girls.
Jones portrays Tiffany Quilkin. She is the daughter of successful mixed race parents. Tiffany has big plans for her future and no intention, being valedictorian and going off to college to perhaps change the world, but her future self advises her otherwise.
Lai Nelet is Erin Tieng. She is Chinese and on the other hand more American than anyone of the other 3. Like all Chinese , she is respectful of her parents. A more interesting role could have been written for this character.
Strazza plays KJ Brandman. To make the racial diversity complete, she is Jewish and very wealthy at that. She enjoys the paper delivery job more than the others as this allows her freedom.
Interesting characters, interesting premise, makes an interesting series. The first few episodes are slow, but be patient for the action picks up. Worth a look! The 8 episodes debut this week.
THIRTEEN LIVES (USA 2022) ***
Directed by Ron Howard
THE RESCUE is a UK/USA 2021 documentary directed by Oscar-winning directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin that detailed the famous headline-making rescue of a Thai soccer team and their coach trapped in a cave for 16 days. THIRTEEN LIVES is a Prime Video production also detailing the rescue directed by Oscar Winning Ron Howard who has made memorable flicks like APOLLO 13, A DANGEROUS MIND and PARENTHOOD.
THIRTEEN LIVES recounts the incredible true story of the tremendous global effort to rescue a Thai soccer team who become trapped in the Tham Luang cave during an unexpected rainstorm. Faced with insurmountable odds, a team of the world’s most skilled and experienced divers – uniquely able to navigate the maze of flooded, narrow cave tunnels – join with Thai forces and more than 10,000 volunteers to attempt a harrowing rescue of the twelve boys and their coach. With impossibly high stakes and the entire world watching, the group embarks on their most challenging dive yet, showcasing the limitlessness of the human spirit in the process
The one advantage Howard’s film has is that he is able to assemble together a more exciting rescue. The cinematography of the dark cave and murky waters and the horror of the claustrophobic narrow and enclosed spaces is nothing short of spectacular and makes the movie. The film also puts less attention on the expert divers and the purpose of the film is the rescue and not these men, brave and dedicated though they are.
The film stars three heavyweights who play the divers. Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen play John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, two dedicated amateur cave divers from Britain who were brought over to Thailand at the prompting of resident British national and experienced diver Vern Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). John dies while rescuing the boys. Joel Edgerton plays another diver, Australian anaesthesiologist Richard “Harry” Harris who places each boy under sedation and floating their sleeping form through the narrow cave tunnels, periodically topping up the dose, with death an ever-present danger for the boys. Sahajak Boonthanakit plays Governor Narongsak who gives government permission for the foreigners’ bold and dangerous plan while taking the blame if things went wrong.
THIRTEEN HOURS runs a lengthy 2 hours and 20 minutes, though the time flies due to the urgency of the material. There is much story and heroics to tell in the 16-day rescue of the team.
The ultimate question is which one is the better film or rather which one would reveal a more accurate account. The answer is the documentary, which is more difficult to make and put together. Howard’s version has the unfair advantage to look at the doc and improve on it, which it did in terms of cinematography and the actual rescue. THE RESCUE premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win the Audience People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary.
THIRTEEN LIVES debuts on Prime Video this week.
VENGEANCE (USA 2022) ****
Directed by B.J. Novak
Besides the title VENGEANCE that would imply an action flick typical to Liam Neeson’s TAKEN franchise, which is referred to at one point in the film, the fact that Jason Blum (GET OUT) produced this film under the Blumhouse Productions banner indicates a very different film. It is, in fact, an American black comedy neo-noir western film written and directed by B. J. Novak (of THE OFFICE comedy series), in his impressive directorial debut.
VENGEANCE is a satire that examines American society from the point of view of conspiracy theories. Though it does not say whether the majority of these are right or wrong, it examines the effect of these and how Americans behave as a result. VENGEANCE is not a fiesty satire like M*A*S*H* or BRAZIL, and though the film contains a few violent scenes, it is more of a gentler satire that feels more like a parody. (A satire is a film that takes a concept and blows the hell out of it, paying no respect to it as an idea. A parody makes fun of a concept while believing in the idea.)
A journalist and podcaster travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl he was hooking up with. The film begins with two friends, the protagonist Ben Manlowitz (B.J. Novak) and John (John Mayer) discussing the concept of casual dating. They look down on the idea of a one girl relationship. Relationships with a few girls is their idea of one. Both have multiple dates going on at the same time. One night Ben gets a phone call. “This is the weirdest phone call you will ever have in your life,” says the voice over the phone. “Your girlfriend has been murdered.” Ben is convinced by the voice who turns out to be the brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook) of one of Ben’s casual dates, to travel to rural Texas for her funeral. This Ben does, but only to do a story on Americana on a podcast which he hopes be a total success. Ben meets the girl’s family who thinks Ben is her steady boyfriend. Ty thinks his sister has been murdered and recruits him to find and shoot the murderers.
Of all the cast, the most well-known is Ashton Kutcher who plays a tall influential Texan cowboy in his white cowboy outfit.
The film plays two paths. One is a murder mystery. Ben is unconvinced of the murder that turns out it is a systematic killing. The other path is a satirical examination of America and her ideas. Writer Novak does well in his script to blend the two ideas together, the revelation of the cause of Abilene Shaw (J. Smith-Cameron) only disclosed during the film’s last few minutes.
The film was shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico though set in Texas.
VENGEANCE had its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival on June 12, 2022 to general rave reviews and is highly recommended for its fresh and satirical look at American society and where it all went wrong. It offers no solutions for maybe, there are just aren’t any.