ASTEROID CITY (USA 2023) ****
Directed by Wes Anderson

 

American writer and director filmmaker Wes Anderson has got his loyal fans.  His films are known especially for their eccentricity, unique visuals with great attention to detail and narrative styles.  Watching just a few frames would allow fans to identify the frames belonging to an Anderson film.   With his frequent use of ensemble casts, stars appear to clamour to be in his movies.   His latest film, ASTEROID CITY once again contains themes of grief, loss of innocence, and dysfunctional families.

In 1955, students and parents from across the country gather for scholarly competition, rest, recreation, comedy, drama, and romance at a Junior Stargazer convention held in a fictional American desert town.   The American fictitious town replaces the fictitious French town in =THEB FRENCH DISPATCH, Anderson’s previous movie.  But no one is allowed to enter or leave the city by the government due to an asteroid that hit the ground in the city.  Strange events begin to unfold.  All the action takes place with a play which is narrated by its author Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) as Anderson’s camera pans sideways as in all his films but in this one across the stage revealing different acts instead.

A few of his familiar stars that normally form his ensemble of actors are noticeably missing - Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray.  It would be a good guessing game to see which parts in ASTEROID CITY they would fill if they were present.

Anderson’s film is occasionally all over the place.  But this is ok as it just picks on the audience’s curiosity as to what he would try next.  He teases the audience with aliens, the universe and the meaning of life.  Is there a meaning in life?  He questions at one point in the movie before replying that maybe there isn’t one.   Just as no reason is given for the alien that looks very much like E.T. (perhaps a nod to the Spielberg classic) that arrives on Earth to steal the asteroid.  Anderson also tackles world issues like peace in the world.  Instead of fighting and being aggressive towards the alien, he says through the film’s characters that perhaps they are just curious creatures and lily harmless.  His film also floats like a colourful dream.  His actors are all decked in pastiche light water colours like light green blue and pink, looking like characters right out of an old series in 60’s television.  And you cannot wake up from a dream if you don’t fall asleep.  This line is related a couple of times in a song near the end of the movie.  For those who love Anderson, there are again lots of little eccentricities and details in the craft observable in every scene.  In this respect ASTEROID CITY is most similar to his most complex and layered last film THE FRENCH DISPATCH.  In that film, Anderson created an entire fictitious city in France similar to Paris including its entire metro system. For example, the ending credits also arrive with a little mechanical bird moving in  clockwork movements at the edge of the screen illustrating the meticulous detail Anderson puts in his films.

ASTEROID CITY is definitely Anderson at his best with his eccentric and meticulously crafted comedy that both teases and entertains with surprises around every corner.  A total delight!

ASTEROID CITY premiered at this year’s CANNES and opens in theatres this Friday June the 16th.  The film while offering pleasure to his die hard fans should also get Wenderson new converts.

Trailer: 

 

BLUE JEAN (UK 2022) ****
Directed by Georgia Oakley

 

There is an early scene at the beginning of Director Oakley's film where the protagonist, Jean, addresses her class during one of her gym classes (known as P.E. in the U.K.). She talks about the principles of fight or flight, explaining that it is a human instinct to either confront or flee from danger. Little does Jean know that she will soon face dangers herself and have to apply the same principles she taught in class - whether to fight against the system or escape from it. These dangers are both uncontrollable, as the Thatcher Government restricts the movements of the gay lifestyle (Thatcher's Conservative government is about to pass a law stigmatizing gays and lesbians, as heard on Margaret's radio), exposing her to the risk of losing her job, and controllable if she chooses to live a closeted lifestyle.

The protest was against Section 28, the Conservative government's attempt to prohibit the "promotion" of homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship." "What does this actually mean?" laughs Jean's partner, Viv at one point in the film. So what if you were a devoted teacher, like Jean, and also happened to be gay? "BLUE JEAN" is the story of Jean.

Jean (Rosy McEwen) has worked hard to compartmentalize her life, keeping her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) separate from her family and work. Jean is a gym teacher who coaches the girls' netball team, which is a cauldron of teenage emotion and conflict.  As news   stories emerge about the impact of Section 28 - Tory ministers pontificating on moral decay, activists storming the House of Lords - Jean becomes hyper-aware of every glance directed at her.  Viv is an out and proud lesbian with assertive friends.  Pressure mounts when the arrival of a new student (Lucy Halliday) catalyzes a crisis that challenges Jean's idyllic lifestyle.

Director Oakley takes her time to tell Margaret's story, meticulously crafting the storytelling. The audience sees Margaret in close-up, colouring her hair and putting on blue jeans, as well as her interactions with family and her lover, who is her complete opposite and lives a completely open lifestyle.

Although the issues of equal rights for the gay and lesbian community might seem dated, the words of protest against the bill forbidding the promotion of homosexuality still hold relevance and serve as a reminder of the importance of equality for everyone.  The words spoken by protestors in one of the film's key scenes, as heard on TV, are powerful: "We deserve the same rights, no more, no less than any other English citizen." Another impactful segment is the confrontation outside a pub between Viv and Jean, where Viv admonishes Jean for not taking a stand.   The film is made even more powerful by strong performances, a dynamic script, and powerhouse direction.

"BLUE JEAN" premiered at Venice 2022, where it won the Giornate degli Autori People's Choice Award. It went on to receive awards at festivals such as Thessaloniki, Seville, and Belfast. The film earned 13 nominations at the British Independent Film Awards, winning four, including best debut screenwriter. "BLUE JEAN" opens on June 23 in Toronto (Bell Lightbox), perfectly timed to celebrate Toronto's Pride, and will also be shown in Vancouver and Montreal.

Trailer: 

KING OF CLONES (UK 2023) ***

Directed by Aditya Thayl

 

From human cloning research to a scandalous downfall, KING OF CLONES follows the life and work of Korea's most notorious scientist, Hwang Woo-suk.

Cloning is described in ‘wikipedia’ as the artificial cloning of organisms, sometimes known as reproductive cloning, is often accomplished via somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), a cloning method in which a viable embryo is created from a somatic cell and an egg cell.   But in the doc, cloning is actually explained in simpler terms.  But the doc, a Netflix documentary, is not so much interested in the science of cloning, but rather one of the biggest clone scientists in the world, Dr. Hwang, nicknamed KING OF CLONES in this intriguing and fascinating documentary.  Imagine someone paralyzed being able to walk again or a deceased man cured from his illness.  Hwang has an interesting story to tell in itself, he appears too, on the cover of TIME, one issue with the heading “Fallen Idol”, the magazine running story of how cloning specialist became a scientific outcast.  Good intentions are no excuse for bad behaviour - the doc teaches while being humorous at the same time.  The doc begins with Dr. Hwang entring a Research facility in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Singapore filmmaker Aditya Thayl examines the ground-breaking research in stem cells of veterinarian Hwang Woo-suk and his rise to astronomical fame for his two published research articles where he claimed that he created human embryonic stem cells by cloning.  However, as quickly as he received fame, he was equally quickly called out for his sketchy methods of research, and his research was eventually proven to be fraudulent, with myriad ethical violations to boot.

Other subjects in the film include a Brit Dr. Allen Tinson, ex worker from a Safari Tourist Place now living in the UAE as a camel specialist.  He shares his thoughts on cloning as Dr. Hwandg was supposedly cloning racing and show camels for the wealthy Arabs.  And the wealthy Hungarian who wanted a clone for his dead French Bulldog.

The doc does not shy away from the cloning controversy.  When the famous sheep, Dolly was cloned there followed massive protests but these eventually died down until the subject of primate or human cloning came up.

KING OF CLONES, as it is more a doc on Dr. Hwang, does not answer every question on the subject but still provides interesting subject matter on one of the most controversial scientific researches of all time.

 

HERE. IS. BETTER (USA 2023) ***
Directed by Jack Youngelson

 

The new documentary HERE. IS. BETTER. shedding light on PTSD - what it is, the sufferers, the treatment and its impact on the United States, is an award-winning  documentary film with unprecedented access inside therapy sessions of men and women Veterans battling post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The film interweaves these inspiring stories of men and women Veterans overcoming the debilitating effects of PTSD with treatments that can work, bringing hope to millions.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined as a mental and behavioural disorder that can develop because of exposure to a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, child abuse, domestic violence, or other threats on a person's life.  Symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events, mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues, attempts to avoid trauma-related cues, alterations in the way a person thinks and feels, and an increase in the fight-or-flight response.

As the doc informs at the start some 30 millions Americans suffer from  PTSD.  Most of the subjects examined and interviewed are sufferers resulting from military duty - most of them from as little as a single tour of duty.  

The first two subjects, identified in the film only by their first names are Jason and Teresa.  The former is a military officer and the second an operations officer, both contacting PTSD after just one line of duty in Afghanistan.  Teresa was in denial and her behaviour so awful.  She was screaming at her children, never offering positive support for them and even not allowing them to play.  Her husband gives her an ultimatum to undergo treatment or he would leave her to take the children with him.  Two others, John and Tabatha are also examined to offer a more general look at the disease in order to come to some common ground.

The doc explains avenues of treatment.  Prevention may be possible when counselling is targeted at those with early symptoms but is not effective when provided to all trauma-exposed individuals whether or not symptoms are present. The main treatments for people with PTSD are counselling (psychotherapy) and medication.  Antidepressants of the SSRI or SNRI type are the first-line medications used for PTSD and are moderately beneficial for about half of people.  Benefits from medication are less than those seen with counselling.  It is not known whether using medications and counselling together has greater benefit than either method separately.  Medications, other than some SSRIs or SNRIs, do not have enough evidence to support their use and, in the case of benzodiazepines, may worsen outcomes.

The most interesting of the subjects is Jason, who actually ran for the U.S. Senate, even running at one time for the President of the United States, under the Democrats, covering his PTSD with work, work and work.  After realizing and being diagnosed, he stepped down from politics in order to help others.  Jason is a diligent, intelligent, and very handsome man supported by his wife.  It is also admirable that many subjects are so willing to go through their personal trauma on camera.  

The doc ends on a positive note on therapies like CPT, PE and EMDR being the most effective in their treatment of PTSD.  The doc shows a few treatments in session.  Though largely informative, director Youngelson gets often too preachy with his good intentions with his doc gearing too predictably to a ‘happy ending’.

HERE. IS. BETTER. will be released with a VOD release on all major platforms in the US and Canada to follow on June 27,  timed to National PTSD Awareness Day.

Trailer: 

NO HARD FEELINGS (USA 2023) ***
Direct by Gene Stupnitsky

 

Director Gene Stupnitsky is best remembered from his last hit, the 2019 coming-of-age boys comedy GOOD BOYS, a $20 million production that grossed $111 million and earned Stupnotsky a  more ambitious project, graduating from coming-of-age to sex comedy NO HARD FEELINGS.  NO HARD FEELINGS is basically a Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar Winner for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK; THE HUNGER GAMES) project where she gets to play comedy, and play it successfully.

The film's plot came from a real Craigslist ad sent to Stupnitsky by producers Provissiero and Odenkirk, with the former telling Lawrence about the story over dinner with her in mind for the role.

Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman working as an Uber drive in Montauk, New York, is facing bankruptcy after her car is repossessed.  She accepts an unusual Craigslist posting in which her new employers are parents (Matthew Bodderick and Maura Benanti) who have noticed that their introverted 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) is showing no interest in dating or having sex.  In exchange for a Buick Regal, Maddie agrees to become their son's "girlfriend," "date his brains out," and help him to join adult life before going off to college.

NO HARD FEELINGS takes a while to land on its footing.  For the first third or so, the comedy looks desperate, clinging at every bit of possibility for laughs, which unfortunately falls flat ever so often.  The meeting of Maddie of her employers, she getting there awkwardly in roller blades is hardly funny.  The banter between Maddie and her friends are amusing at most.  It is when the film gets a bit serious that it starts working its charm - partly because the audience might not have believed it possible.  The story and comedy after the first third actually works quite well.  One need not have to believe that a pre-university college freshman (Princeton in this case) can fall in love with a down-to-earth 30-year old older woman.  But these are two underdogs, out of luck and desperate to get their lives together.  So, when they do get together, one cannot help but root for these two.  The romance works more like a solid friendship, maybe with a happy ending afterwards, though the story never pushes it.  They try once or twice without success, not for want of trying. but whether they consummate their love is never the issue.  One wants the two to be together, even as friends and even with sex.

The film has a few really charming moments that will win one’s heart.  One is the scene in the restaurant where Percy plays the piano and sings “Maneater”.  It is a song sung by the actor himself, that wins not only the heart of Maddie but of the audience as well.

In the summer of super action hero blockbusters many costing over $200 million introduction, this modest though little expensive $45 million comes as a nice surprise and without any CGI effects and explosions.  Don’t expect much and one will not get disappointed.  This is forgettable fluff with a few messages about life tossed in here and there, without being too preachy or superficial. NO HARD FEELINGS opens in theatres June the 23rd.

Trailer: 

 

SUBTRACTION (Iran/France 2022) ***½

Directed by Mani Haghighi

 

SUBTRACTION is a neat little Hitchcockian-type suspense thriller from Iran and France by Canadian/Iranian film director Manu Hagihi.  The film is shot in Farsi.

When Farzaneh (Taraneh Alidoosti) spots a man on a city bus (in Teheran) who looks an awful lot like her husband, Jalal (Navid Mohammadzadeh), she follows him to an unfamiliar building.  There, she sees the residents greet him as if they know him and watches from the street as he enters an apartment to meet with another woman.  This is a story on doppelgangers (doubles).  Three months pregnant and barely present in her job as a driving instructor, Farzaneh is convinced she’s caught Jalal in an affair. When they discuss it, he is adamant about his alibi, reminding her that he was miles away at the time. Farzaneh begins to fall apart, but she swears she saw him, and, unable to let go, she continues to pull on the thread before making an unsettling discovery about the man on the bus.  The tailing of her husband feels very much like James Stewart following Kim Novak at length in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece VERTIGO.  There is also a spiral staircase shot similar to the one at the end of VERTIGO.

The film is called SUBTRACTION because of some logical reasoning of the Universe, doppelgangers cannot exist as if, if they do, they would create controversy similar to ‘the butterfly effect’.  This requires one of the doubles to be eliminated or subtracted. Nothing else will be mentioned about the plot in this review to prevent the enjoyment of this mystery thriller.

Director Haghighi organizes the film into three parts  The first and perhaps most intriguing is the trailing and discovery of the doppelgängers.  This takes about a third of the movie.  The second is the revelation in which all the doubles meet,  Farzaneh meets her double and Jamal meets his.  The third is what happens after the meeting.

The film is a bit confusing at first as the audience needs to remember who is who and not get confused one from another.  The makeups and personalities of each character the wife and husband are made to be distinctly different - Jalil not as suave as his double but of a better temperament.  The same can be said of the wives.  Their hairstyles are different.  Once the audience is able to distinguish one from the other -yes, it takes a while and a bit of effort - the film runs smoothly.

To suit the atmosphere of a psychological thriller about characters who are confronted by their more cruel, alternative selves,  many scenes are battered by rain as if the water can wash away one’s sins.  The film is  accompanied by a tense score and good use of cinematography (by Morteza Najafi) often in the darkness of night.

SUBTRACTION is an original and fascinating film in which one must believe the existence of doppelgängers as a given.  Not questioning this logic, everything else is credible with the result of an intense suspenseful and emotional story.  The culture of Iran is also on full display, especially on the country’s acceptance of retribution and forgiveness.

SUBTRACTION, the new Iranian thriller by Canadian-Iranian director Mani Haghighi, which comes to TIFF Bell Lightbox, Vancity and select Canadian theatres on June 23.

Trailer: 

UNWELCOME (Ireland 2021) ***½
Directed by Jon Wright

 

A modern horror creature feature, UNWELCOME shows us just how far anyone will go to protect those we love.  Londoners Maya and Jamie are looking for a way out of their urban nightmare ( a home invasion) to raise their new unborn child.  When they inherit a house in rural Ireland, they jump at the chance to flee from the dangers of city living.   Little do they know is that there are also dangers in the rural areas of Ireland.  Yet, this new home holds primeval secrets -- at the bottom of their garden is an ancient gnarled wood, where a supernatural presence lurks.  Founded in ancient Celtic folklore the woods hide the malevolent, murderous goblins, known as 'Redcaps' named so for soaking their caps in the blood of their victims.  Engaging a local family company to do some building repairs, the young couple quickly realize they got more than they bargained for with 'Daddy' and his adult children who are little more than low-level criminals.  Recognizing their newfound safety is under threat, Maya finds herself turning to the woods -- and the bloodthirsty creatures within it -- to ensure the safety of her unborn child.

UNWELCOME is a cross between Sam Peckinpah’s classic THE STRAW DOGS and Joe Dante’s GREMLINS.  As in THE STRAW DOGS,  the new visitors to the village are UNWELCOME.  They face intimidation and then death.  In UNWELCOME, the lead villain who insists on being called “Daddy” is played by Irish actor Colm Meaney who is as mean as they come.   Best known for the role of the patriarch in Stephen Frears’ classic film THE SNAPPER shown on TV in the U.K. and theatrically outside, Meany plays a different kind of father, one that would not be afraid of kicking the life out of bis backward son yet take out anyone else who would harm his family.

Way back when Joe Dante had not made his name in Hollywood and Steven Spielberg gave him a chance at his directing of GREMLINS, Dante was told to tone down the horror film a notch so that GREMLINS was suitable as family fare.  UNWELCOME  is the GREMLINS Dante would have made without the Spielberg restrictions.  UNWELCOME is violent, gritty and definitely not for the family, but it is deliciously wicked entertainment, actually more fun than horror, where violence and gore are dished out with unrestrained relish.  These ‘gremlins’, the Redcaps little people in Ireland are not the nice leprechauns that would lead human beings to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow  These little devils are able to break into a house and with little knives dispense with their victims.  But the little people, as they are called in the film, are the good guys.  Having been fed by the protagonists, they protect them from the villainous intruders.

The film is shot in beautiful Ireland and there are panoramic shots of the fields in this stunning country at the film’s start before the horror begins.  Lots of Irish stuff referenced too like the leprechauns and drinking, in the film.

UNWELCOME is available for streaming on the horror  network Shudder on the 23rd of June.

Trailer: 

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