AJOOMMA (Singapore/South Korea 2022) ****
Directed by He Shumming
Ajoomma, is a Korean word for a married, or middle-aged woman. Although it is sometimes translated "aunt", it does not actually refer to a close family relationship. It is most often used to refer to middle-aged or older women since referring to an elder by name without a title in Korea is not socially acceptable. The new film, AJOOMMA, the first South Korean/Singaporean film collaboration has as its protagonist one ajoomma.
There are 3 kinds of films coming from the island city state of Singapore, a place relatively new in its film industry. This film reviewer is Singapore born but moved to Canada. At his time of immigration in the 1980’s Singapore bore no film industry. The first kind of films are the ones that display the wealthy society of Singapore films like CRAZY RICH ASIANS, seen by filmgoers around the world. The second are the very silly films, only accessible to Singaporeans and locals, films typically made by Jack Neo that make lots of money, but have little artistic value, though they are quite hilarious. The third are the artistic films such as WET SEASON and ILO ILO, directed by Anthony Chen who serves as producer for this film and artistic films directed by Eric Khoo and of course AJJOOMMA. Singaporeans do to see these films that usually play at international film festivals. These films are usually quite excellent, AJOOMMA being no different.
After her husband dies and her son decides to move abroad, Auntie Lim (Hong Huifang) is left with an empty nest. She obsesses over Korean TV dramas, swept up in their whirlwind storylines. She sees billboards and posters everywhere of the handsome lead actor from her favourite series. Believing these are clues meant for her, she leaves Singapore for the first time in her life to travel to South Korea. When she arrives in Seoul, her tour group promptly leaves her behind, forcing Auntie to forge new relationships and her own path through a wintry Korea.
The film exhorts kindness. The security guard who opens his home to the lady stranded from her tour bus. She in turn returns the gesture by bringing out the heater from her room to the hall where he sleeps. The pat of her hand on his shoulder to comfort him when his beloved dog dies is yet another moving gesture. The happiness of Lim as she experiences snow for the first time is marvellously captured on film. There are many such uplifting moments in the film, including her acceptance of her son’s sexual orientation at the end.
Ajoomma has garnered four nominations at the 59th Golden Horse Awards and Hong became the first Singaporean to be nominated for the Best Leading Actress award. The film was selected as the Singaporean entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Award. The film was selected to play at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in celebration of the Lunar New Year. AJOOMMA is a beautiful, sensitive and charming small little film that celebrates little seen Singaporean and South Korean cultures while exhorting the human qualities of kindness to other human beings.
ALCARRAS (Spain/Italy 2022) ****
Directed by Carla Simón
Pedro Almodovar has declared ALCARRAS a masterpiece. His claim is not surprising given the fact that his films have alway been colourful to the point of plastic, often obscuring reality. There is much drama and reality that are faced by the peach farming family of the Solé family, in which the farming has been in the family for generations. In Alcarras, this family confronts an uncertain future as they face eviction from their peach orchard, in director Carla Simón’s (director Carla Simón’s family also picks peaches in Alcarràs) ode to Catalonian farmers protecting tradition in the face of widespread modernization.
For three generations, the Solé family has spent every summer picking peaches from their orchard in Alcarràs, a small village in Spain. But this year’s crop could be their last as they face eviction ― new plans for the land include cutting down the peach trees and installing solar panels. For the first time, they face an uncertain future and risk losing more than their home as differences in how to deal with the massive change causes a rift within the large, tight-knit family.
The film is a moving and personal family portrait inspired by real life. The film reminds one of Marcel Pagnol’s JEAN DE FLORETTE and MANON DES SOURCES, stories that depict the hardship of farming. The Solé family face similar if not identical obstacles, the main one being the arrival of modernization in terms of solar panels. Director Simón invests quite a lot of screen time, almost the first half of the movie introducing individuals of the family, so that the audience is familiar with each member. The family consists of him, his wife, son and two daughters and the grandfather There is also the extended family who lives close by.
Installation of the new technology on the land would replace if not make more money than growing peaches on a plantation. Another problem is the ownership of the peaches farm. The land ownership was transferred to the grandfather without the signing of any papers. There is therefore no proof of land ownership. All these problems prove too much for the patriarch of the Sole family, who eventually takes it out on the family.
Simón’s film flows smoothly which makes the film all the more pleasant. The family rituals - quarrels, interactions and daily routines all ensure that the film is more realistic as well as enjoyable. Simon’s film also proves that the best moments are the simplest ones that show the family enjoying themselves unobtrusively. These moments occur many times during the film. One is during a family gathering when family members are thrown into the swimming pool. Another is the one during the protests when the father and son are shown throwing rocks at the authorities.
ALCARRAS opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this week on January the 20th 2022. It marks the first best film of the year and a delightful and charming must-see.
ALL EYES OFF ME (Israel 2020) **
Directed by Hadas Ben Aroya
The film opens with a party. Danny is looking for Max through the party to share that she’s pregnant with his child. Danny is female but looks like a boy and makes out with another girl before she finds Max. There is a lot of kissing with tongue in the making out and nudity in this scene. The film then shifts to Max as has sex with Avishag, who like it S & M style. It is a lengthy sex scene with lots of kissing, agin with tongue. If one likes this sort of soft-porn sex in the name of art, then this film, which is quite well shot would be appropriate. But director Aroya’s film feels aimless - as in an unrelated scene where Avishag sits in a dog park while watching a video performance. But Max just started a new relationship with Avishag and attempts to realize her rough sexual fantasy. Truth is, Avishag actually has someone else in mind. And truth is, there are probably more interesting films that deal (or evendo not deal) with empty sexual encounters. ALL EYES OFF ME, winner of several awards at the 2021 Jerusalem Film Festival, addresses the physical limits of intimacy, questioning just how liberated these youths really are when faced with vulnerability.
DEATH KNOT (Tali Mati) (Indonesia 2022) ***
Directed by Cornelio Sunny
Indonesian horror films have been making quite the impact on the horror genre lately especially with the horror streaming service Shudder bringing horror films from different parts of the world to North American audiences. A few notable Indonesia horror films include SATAN’S SLAVES (2017), SATAN’S SLAVES 2 : COMMUNION (2022), IMPEDIGORE (2019) and THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC (2019), the first three directed by horror master Joko Anwar who also wrote the latter film. DEATH KNOT is directed and co-written by first timer Cornelio Sunny who also stars in the movie (quite the hunk as well) but in the closing credits an acknowledgement of thanks is given to Joko Anwar.
Director Sunny utilizes folk horror layered with mood and atmosphere in his directorial debut, which nabbed him a nomination for a White Mulberry Award for First Time Director when the film premiered at the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2021. DEATH KNOT also features Widika Sidmore and Morgan Oey.
After the sudden suicide of their estranged mother, two siblings (Sunny and Widika) and the sister’s boyfriend (Oey) return to their hometown and are immediately confronted by angry villagers. Convinced that the woman was a devotee of a dangerous brand of black magic deemed responsible for a string of mysterious deaths over many years, the locals demand that the siblings leave and allow for the burning of their childhood home in order to rid the town of the curse. While initially skeptical, a string of strange occurrences leads the siblings to believe there may be more truth to the rumours than they ever dreamed possible.
One can see that Sunny, as a first time director is careful in crafting each scene with detail. During the opening credits, the audience can hear weird sounds like thumping and screeching that gradually crescendo louder and culminating in total silence. Sunny is his own cinematographer who captures the beauty of the countryside where the village stands. Sunny clearly believes in creating audience anticipation as his story unfolds slowly but surely. Is there any truth to the villagers’ belief that the mother dabbles in witchcraft? Or is it just silly superstition? The answer as to what is happening is made clear at the one hour mark. There is a debate on demons vs. Gods in the film. It is said that horror films always feature demons but this story involves not a demon but a God that wants to be worshipped and demands a sacrifice or many sacrifices. It brings up the valid argument whether there is any difference between a demon and a God.
DEATH KNOT is an aptly made horror film marking a strong and talented debut by director Sunny, though it is a bit slow in its delivery. Atmosphere and anticipation play a more important role than cheap theatrics and silly scare tactics. DEATH KNOT makes another solid entry to the list of Indonesian horror movies.
DEATH KNOT DEATH KNOT, debuts on Digital, Blu-ray™ and DVD January 17 from the company, Well Go USA.
THE DEVIL’S OFFERING (USA 2022) **
Directed by Oliver Park
The horror movie THE DEVIL’S OFFERING also goes by the title THE OFFERING with ABYZOU as its original title. The credits in the film list the title as THE OFFERING though the film opens under the title of THE DEVIL’S OFFERING in Toronto. When a film has undergone so many title changes, one wonders if something bad must be going on with the film.
The film is a horror film involving Orthodox Jews. Not many films in the horror genre have Orthodox Jews or their practices as subjects, with the Roman Catholic church being the more frequent and preferred subject. Last year saw a Jewish horror flick THE VIGIL that garnered decent reviews. Coincidentally, another horror film, this one for Denmark called ATTACHMENT opens at the same time (on Shudder) as THE DEVIL’S OFFERING, a horror film dealing with two lesbian girls, one an Orthodox Jew.
This film opens with words on the screen informing the audience of a demon that is known from the beginning of time that has haunted Europe, that goes by many names but known more as a ‘taker of children’. So when the lead characters of the film appear, a man and his pregnant wife, one can tell the unborn child would be the target of the demon child taker.
There is a lot going on before the demon actually makes an attempt to take that child. Apparently, this demon needs a human being and when the host dies, the demon has to find another, this time a child. The first scary scene has an elderly Jew, in a very untidy apartment performing unsuccessfully a ritual to keep this demon at bay. But the demon enters him and he dies. This man needs to be buried. His corpse is at the basement mortuary facilities of the Feinberg Funeral Home owned by Saul.
The story now continues with the couple, Art (Nick Blood) arrives with his pregnant wife Claire (Emily Wiseman) to Brooklyn to visit his widowed father Saul (Allan Corduner). To keep the plot simple, Art is flat broke and hopes to inherit the father, Saul’s funeral home. There are other details in the plot that need not necessarily be mentioned. The main thing is the demon child taker is after the unborn child.
As horror films go, THE DEVIL’S OFFERING contains lots and lots of scary scenes - too many for its own good. Some are well done , like the one where the child appears and hides behind a curtain that when opened, reveals a large mirror. But there can be too much of a good thing. Wth human beings thrown against the wall or dragged along the floor, scariness makes way into cheesiness with many segments looking more silly than scary. The possessed child reminds one, of course, of Regan, the child in THE EXORCIST.
The last scene before the closing credit appears is the silliest of the lot, that would surely bring out quite a few laughs in the audience. This is just too bad as the film’s production sets are quite impressive, but unfortunately has gone to waste.
The OFFERING releases this week on the 17th.
JUNG_E (South Korea 2022) **1/2
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho
JUNG_E, a Netflix South Korean original is a futuristic sci-fi action thriller, the kind North Americans flock to the theatres to see, akin to films like the TERMINATOR franchise and BLADE RUNNER. Director Yeon Sang-ho, famous for the Netflix series Hellbound and film TRAIN TO BUSAN, - where he redefined the genre of Korean Zombies - spearheads the production. JUNG_E has tons of special effects, splendid futuristic production sets as well as impressive choreographed action sequences, too bad it fails in a a credible story line.
JUNG_E takes place in the far, far future where the Earth has become deserted due to climate change and most of the human population is residing in a space ‘Shelter’, where a civil war is taking place. Heroic soldier Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo) leaves for her mission and shares a sweet goodbye with her daughter; however, she returns in a vegetative state. Jung_yi is reborn as an AI combat robot JUNG_E through brain cloning and is under various war simulations at the Kronoid laboratory. Jung-yi’s daughter Yun Seo-hyun (Kang Soo-youn), now older than her AI-mother, is leading the brain cloning research.
The future of mankind relies on the effectiveness of developing the Jung_E brain and fitting machine. The credibility point here is what about the rest of the world. Has all the rest of the world been destroyed safe for South Korea. The answer is conveniently avoided. The first three quarters of the film is a complete mess, with lots of fighting for no apparent reason and characters introduced and with a few fonts in the story lacking edibility or point.
The portion where the director of the AI project discovers that he is not human but a robot is quite eerie and is reminiscent of THE MATRIX. What if we are ourselves robots serving some high being? Does it make a difference?
The film contains human emotions as the story deals with the project leader Yun Seo-Hyun’s attachment toward her mother’s tired dreams. As for human conflict, the film also deals with the fight between the company’s director and project leader, The director is half crazy, which is not surprising as he turns out to be a non-human robot.
But the film picks up during the last quarter’s though it might be a bit too late if it has lost most of its audience. The film’s let quarter is as impressive as the film gets. The production sets especially of the overhead trains screeching along its overhead rails and over water that has drowned the planet is stunning. The action sequences where the AI fitting robots jump from one overhead car to another is also exciting and impressive.
The film has already gained a lot of hype. Once the first teaser for JUNG_E was released, it gained an outstanding aggregate view of 5M on Netflix social channels in a week, with so much hype around the film's premiere. Some memorable comments from fans after watching the teaser include, “I still remember back in 2005, yearning for more Korean science fiction.
JUNG_E streams on Netflix this week Friday Jan the 20th.
MISSING (USA 2023) ***1/2
Directed by Will Merrick andNick Johnson
Written by directors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson based on a story by Sev Ohanian and Aneesh Chaganty, MISSING is a clever model updated twist of the missing persons mystery film genre. The film updates the couple as a black and white mother and father, a mixed race marriage, something never seen in the early days of the movies, but is becoming a very common thread in today’s films. The film is set in the social media world of camcorders, surveillance and device tracking and acting by the film’s cast becomes secondary to the tech savvy-ness of what appears on screen. All the technology of a laptop as seen by various social media platforms must be time-coordinated, make sense and be convincing as well. MISSING succeeds brilliantly in the tech department while accomplishing some edge of the seat suspense at the same time. Another neat trick is that the mother is the missing person instead of the daughter, that would be typically the one missing in a missing persons film. It is also the daughter that plays detective instead of the adult in solving the mystery of the missing parent.
The film contains lots of plot twists from start to end. The film begins with a home video that shows a young June (Ava Zaria Lee) recording what appears to be her doting father, James, (Tim Griffin) before her mother, Grace, (Nia Long), steps into the frame and stops the filing after James is seen suffering from a nosebleed. The video is edited and it is then noted that the father, James is gone with records showing him passing away from cancer. One assumes that the video is edited to remove the scene of the nosebleed and that the cancer caused the nose bleed. But everything is not what it seems in what is generally a clever and manipulative script - a thread that is woven throughout the film. The nosebleed is not due to cancer but of something else and the video was edited for a different reason. All this is revealed much later on in the film and it all makes sense , even if one starts realizing the story’s significance after leaving the theatre.
The technology seen in the film might be too much for those not involved with it, particularly the much elderly. But the technology is so prevalent in today’s society that it is criminal to have it omitted. Those less tech-savvy might be able to learn a thing or two from this film.
The film falters a bit with a lagging middle, which is expected as moos of the other parts would have the audience solidly glued to the screen. The ending portion falls into horror slasher territory with the videos seen on the surveillance careers making the film looks like a horror film like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Also one credibility point is why a remote and dilapidated shack would have cameras installed everywhere around it.
MISSING opens in theatres this week and the tech-savvy film should be seen the old fashioned way in theatres without distraction.
SAINT OMER (France 2022) ***** Top 10
Never has a film with so much dialogue been so exciting and compelling. The courtroom drama played out by director Diop looks so much like a true crime drama. For review: click on link to our sister website:
THE SON (UK/France 2022) ***** Top 10
Directed by Florian Zeller
THE SON is one of the trilogy of plays written by French playwright Florian Zeller. Zeller had written the stage play LE FILS in 2018 which serves as a prequel to the 2020 THE FATHER. LE FILS was first performed on stage by French actor Yvan Attal, husband of Charlotte Gainsbourg and himself a film director (MA FEMME EST UNE ACTRICE). Zeller worked with two time Academy Award Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay (THE FATHER and DANGEROUS LIASONS) on the script for both THE FATHER and THE SON.
A couple of years after his parents’ divorce, 17-year-old Nicholas (Zen McGrath) no longer feels he can stay with his mother, Kate (Laura Dern). He moves in with his father Peter (Hugh Jackman) and Peter’s new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Juggling work, his and Beth’s new baby, and the offer of his dream job in Washington, Peter tries to care for Nicholas as he wishes his own father (Anthony Hopkins) had cared for him. But by reaching for the past to correct its mistakes, he loses sight of how to hold onto the Nicholas in the present.
The film begins with Kate suddenly arriving outside Peter’s door, desperate. At this time, Beth had just put the new baby to sleep. “What are you doing here? You can’t just show up like this.” scolds Peter, to which Kate replies: “I d to know what to do anymore.” These are words of total desperation that would sway the audience to her side right away. The script of THE SON is very clever in the way that it often sways the audience to take the side of a particular character. Everyone has a valid point of view in the story.
THE SON has so far obtained mixed reviews from critics, the main complaint being that the film is an over-aggressive melodrama. But it is entertaining heightened drama which makes the film a compelling watch from start to finish. Despite the film being based on a stage play, director Zeller takes it into the open with candid shots of Brooklyn in the United States and shots of the Mediterranean Sea in the region of Italy. There is one gorgeous scene where Kate and Peter are in better times, Peter dragging the boat while Kate sits at the back with their son, Bick, when the wind suddenly blows Kate's hat off in the sea the camera showing the hat floating on the sea foam.
All the performances are top notch including Jackman as the troubled father. Jackman gets to show off his showmanship dance moves. The best performance of all belongs to Vanessa Kirby who steals every scene she is in. She swings the audience easily to her side from her expressions and dialogue,
If drama is your cup of tea, THE SON delivers 100%. THE SON makes my top 10 films of the year as it is always a joy to watch excellent drama with twists and turns in the story. And there are quite the few that occur at the end of the film, that one can never predict.
TURN EVERY PAGE - The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb (USA 2022) ***1/2
Directed by Lizzie Gottlieb
Robert Caro (age 87) is an American journalist and author best known for his biographies of United States political figures Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. After working for many years as a reporter, Caro wrote The Power Broker (1974), a biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, which was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century. For his biographies, Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Biography.
Robert Gottlieb joined Simon & Schuster in 1955 as an editorial assistant to Jack Goodman, the editor-in-chief. Gottlieb is considered one of the best editors in the second half of the 20th Century. Within ten years he himself became the editor-in-chief. At that publisher, Gottlieb's most notable discovery, which he edited, was Catch-22, by the then-unknown Joseph Heller, my favourite fiction novel of all time, which I have read three times.
TURN EVERY PAGE is a documentary on these two literary greats directed by the editor’s daughter.
The “Bobs” have forged one of publishing’s most productive partnerships. Caro’s The Power Broker, edited by Gottlieb, continues to be a best-seller after 48 years. Now 87, Caro is working to complete the fifth and final volume of his monumental The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Gottlieb, 91, waits to edit it.
With two literary geniuses come two giant egos. The two have got a troubled 50-year old relationship/collaboration in the publishing industry. As Gottlieb says in the documentary: He does the work, I do the cleanup, then we fight.” Both agreed to be interviewed, but separately. Only at the film’s end are they seen together, poring over a manuscript – the sound off, at their request.
The doc is directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, Robert Gottlieb’s daughter, her third film after Today’s Man, about her brother, a young man who lives on the autistic spectrum, and Romeo Romeo. The two initially refused to be fined but both later relented. Lizzie has succeeded in assembling an impressive fan base of heavyweights in interviews that includes former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, talk show host Conan O’Brien, and actor Ethan Hawke who reads out loud from Caro’s work. Also commenting on camera are Caro’s and Gottlieb’s
longtime spouses, The New Yorker’s “Comma Queen” Mary Norris et al.
The doc is an informative and entertaining look at publishing from the points of view of author and editor, with some humour inserted for good measure. The doc is filled with colourful anecdotes – like why Caro chose Gottlieb over three other editors, or why 350,000 words had to be cut from The Power Broker (and it had nothing to do with fat in the manuscript), or why Caro wrote himself a note that said: “Is there desperation on this page?”.
Besides being the informative documentary on publishing, the film also contains some very intimate and moving segments as in the depiction of the relationship each subject has with their spouses.
TURN EVERY PAGE opens January 20 in Toronto and Vancouver! The film opens January 27 in Ottawa and throughout the winter in other cities.