FILM REVIEWS: 

BACKSPOT (Canada 2023) ****
Directed by D.W. Waterson

 

A driven cheerleader (Devery Jacobs) struggles to handle the pressure when she and her girlfriend are both selected for an elite cheer squad, in D.W. Waterson’s feature directorial debut.

The BACKSPOT is the person in a cheerleading stunt (school or all-star/competition) who stands behind the stunt and holds the flyers butt/ankle/thighs and exerts control over the process.

Riley (Devery Jacobs, who also produced) cannot afford to make that wrong move as a backspot. The ferocious competitor and furious perfectionist finds herself under pressure when she and her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) are both selected for an elite cheer squad. As the diamond-hard coach, Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood) and her assistant, Devon (Thomas Antony Olajide) put them through their paces, Riley’s anxiety escalates, and compulsive behaviour intensifies.  Something’s going to break… likely both physically and emotionally.

The one complaint about the film is director Watefrson’s too frequent use of close-ups.  Her camera is often right in your face, and though effective in many scenes, it can be quite jolting especially combined with her jittery hand-held camera frames.  Her presentation of the cheerleading world, behind the scenes is remarkably informative and one can learn a thing or two about what these girls go through to make their male athletes look good at their sport.  This issue is briefly addressed in the film but effectively as one girl who does not make it into the elite team complains tat she did not get in because she does not have the body for it.  Waterson's world is totally LGBT+.  Riley is gay as is her best friend.   The coach Eileen has an ex-wife and the assistant coach, Devon doubles a second life at a male gay club.  The heterosexual world seems nonexistent.  Even at a straight bar, Riley is upon by another girl.

BACKSPOT features a remarkable performance by Devery Jacobs, who carries the film largely on her shoulders, like the backstop position she holds in the cheerleader's team.  A decade after her revelatory turn in Jeff Barnaby’s RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS (2013), Jacobs has grown into a performer who holds the screen like no one else.  She, besides being pretty, understands that acknowledging one’s vulnerability is a formidable strength, and BACKSPOT is also about watching her character Riley figure that out as well. a few magnificent performances from the supporting cast that deserve mention.  Evan Rachel Wood steals the show as does Antony Olajide whom gets my vote as best breakout performer in a new film this year.  He nails the part of a strict but caring coach.  

BACKSPOT premiered at TIFF 2023 in the Discovery and TIFF Next Wave section.  Director D. W. Waterson’s debut is remarkable.  Waterson is a Canadian DJ, drummer, writer, director, and web series creator.  She serves triple duty as director, editor and also music performer for a couple of the songs on the soundtrack.  Waterson is also known for working as a performer and for creating, writing, and directing the award-winning web series That's My DJ (2014–2017). 2023.

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BIONIC (Bionicos) (Brazil 2024) **
Directed by Afonso Poyart

 

The film is set in the year 2035 when bionics have altered the para-olympics. Fitted with prosthetic limbs, athletes can do better than champion athletes.  When the film opens, an ex-boxer fitted with one such arm, after his boxing arm is injured, breaks into the vault of safety deposit boxes to steal valuable gems.  He does not get away.  His brother swears to continue.  This is the action story.

Bionics or biologically inspired engineering is the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology.

The word bionic, coined by Jack E. Steele in August 1958, is a portmanteau from biology and electronics which was popularized by the 1970s U.S. television series The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, both based on the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin.  All three stories feature humans given various superhuman powers by their electromechanical implants.  This film iOS obviously thus inspired,

In this dystopian future where robotic prosthetics redefine sports, two sisters compete in the long jump, but their rivalry leads them down a sinister path.  Directed by Afonso Poyart and starring Jessica Córes, Bionicos tells the tale of Maria, a woman whose life is transformed after a severe accident. Selected for a clandestine government program, she receives advanced bionic enhancements that grant her superhuman abilities. As Maria adjusts to her new reality, she discovers the darker motives behind the program and the dangers that come with her new identity. Battling against those who seek to exploit her, Maria embarks on a journey to reclaim her life and expose the truth behind the bionic project.

The script has quite a preposterous premise.  The voiceover claims that there are three types of people.  There are the people who fight for themselves, the ones who fight for others and the ones who fight to the end.  The audience is also led to believe that bionics sports have taken over the world of professional and Olympic sports.  The bionics prosthetics company that claims that athletes can now possess 30% more of their capability wants more profits and their product to win the games.  So Maria’s brother Gus, who calls himself Uncle Hard (not too funny), introduces him to the brother of the deceased brother, named Heitor, who wants her in his next heist.

All this is less interesting on screen than it sounds.  There is a bit of romance added in, between Heitor and Maria and some humorous bits here and there, nothing really hilarious.  The whole exercise is all over the place and not quite believable.   But going for the film that stands out are the special effects.  The mechanism of the bionic weaponry, as can be observed in the initial safety box robbery looks amazing on screen.

BIONIC never succeeds as a sports drama, action heist flick, romance, light comedy, or dystopian sci-fi saga though it contains elements of each - a case of too trades and master of none.

BIONIC opens for streaming on Netflix this week.

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COLOURS OF EVIL: RED (Poland 2024) ***½

Directed by Adrian Panek

 

To set the record straight, there is no real reason that red is associated with evil.  One might say though that it is pretty common for satanic figures to be associated with red.  But in the film, the victims' red zone of their upper lips were removed by what the coroner believes, is a utility knife. Hence, the film’s title.

  COLOURS OF EVIL: RED is an impressive Polish movie directed by Adrian Panek starring Jakub Gierszal, Maja Ostaszewska and Zofia Jastrzebska.  This film is among those films about serial killers, investigations, crimes, and nightclubs, that leave an unpleasant aftertaste for the audience.  But the film is actually quite good, all things given.

When a girl's body is found on a beach, a prosecutor teams up with the victim's mother on an impassioned quest for the truth.

This detective mystery thriller has quite a lot going for it.  One can tell at the 15-minute mark that audience anticipation is at its peak.  The pervert that all the characters think is the one responsible for violently murdering Monika, the daughter of the judge, has just jumped out the window of the police station and is dead.  The police close the case as the main suspect is dead even though he was not found guilty.  The irony is that the dead girl sneaked into a dance club that got her killed.  After entering the club, she sits by the bar counter and begs the owner to hire her despite her lack of work experience.  She says that she can draw an awesome crowd. The dead girl’s T-shirt was found in his shed. But the prosecutor Bilski thinks otherwise, that maybe the shirt was planted there as the pervert, just released from jail for the murder of his fiancé has talked to him about his innocence though he was found legally guilty.  So much has gone on, relevant to the plot at the 15-minute mark.

The Tri-City beach thus becomes a place of dramatic discovery when the sea washes up the body of a young girl. The victim's unusual mutilation points to murder. The investigation is headed by an ambitious and tenacious prosecutor, Leopold Bilski. The victim's mother, Judge Helena Bogucka, is also involved in the investigation.  All clues lead to one of the seaside clubs, called Shipyard, which turns out to be related to the murder of a woman from 15 years ago.  There is a nude scene of Monika riding their owner on the night of the murder so that when the body first shows up, the audience thinks he did it,  From the information collected during the investigation and the evidence concealed for years, the dark face of the criminal Tri-City slowly emerges. Bilski and Bogucka's discoveries begin to be very inconvenient for the local police who deter the investigation.

The film follows Bilski’s investigation that is intercut with flashbacks to what happened to Monika at various points in time.  So the explanation is dished out as the clues are presented.

The film plays more like a mystery with hardly any action but the end result is a violent satisfying crime thriller with quite a few twists and turns in the plot.


COLOURS OF EVIL: RED opens for streaming on Netflix this week.

Trailer unavailable.

ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE (USA 2024) ***
Directed by David Gregory

 

Who is Bruce Lee?  After first seen as the side-kick of THE GREEN HORNET, Bruce Lee rose to fame as fast as his unexpected death in 1974 due to a brain disease.  Born in San Francisco but thought by most to be Asian born and bred, Lee starred as the lead in the game-changer film for Golden Harvest Studios’ THE BIG BOSS before making other blockbuster box-office  Hong Kong hits like FIST OF FURY, WAY OF THE DRAGON and ENTER THE DRAGON before tragedy stuck.  At his death, many fans believed that this strong and invincible star was still alive.  So much for the power of the media and films.

What ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE attempts to do is to look at the clones of Bruce Lee, given stage names like Bruce Li and Bruce Le, followed by dozens of Bruceploitation films that all made money.  Bruce Lee fans are apparently inexhaustible for Bruce Lee action-packed martial arts flicks.

The two Bruce Lee clones Bruce Le and Bruce Li as well as the lesser-known ones, Bruce Liang and Dragon Lee, all speak to the camera, now in their later years about their fame and films.  The problem is that they are hardly that interesting and still follow in the shadow of the real fame of Bruce Lee.  They talk about their fake names, how they copy the movements of Bruce Lee and the filming sequences of the rip-off films.

What is more intriguing about the doc and also more interesting to Bruce Lee fans is the history of the arts films, starting with swordplay films.  The film pays tribute and devotes screen time to the Shaw organization that promoted all the Hong Kong Swordplay films followed by the martial art films.  Though Bruce Lee was never employed by Shaw Brothers but by an independent Studio at the time called Golden Harvest, the story is more than intriguing.  The reason Bruce Lee was never employed at Shaw Studios was that Lee was too cocky and the famed directors at the time that included Chang Cheh and Low Wei did not think Lee was worthy.  Director Change Cheh’s stars David Chiang (interviewed aged) and Ti Lung are also featured in the film.  Other stars at the time such as Jimmy Wang Yu (the original ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, a high Shaw hit directed by Chang Cheh is also mentioned.

Also interesting are the other stars that made big after starring with Bruce Lee in his films.  Among them are Jim Kelly, a black-muscled actor and Angela Mao who is also a Kung-fu fighter.

ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE  is at its best sporadically entertaining.  There are so many stories following the fame after the death of Bruce Lee that one can understand the decision of what to include in this doc.  The clones though emphasizing the fame of Bruce Lee are unfortunately not as interesting as the real biography of Bruce Lee.  There have been countless rip-off forms claiming to tell the story of the late Bruce Lee but a true biopic doc of Bruce Lee is what is needed for the Bruce Lee fans that will finally tell the truth and do the star justice.

ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE plays at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs cinema in Toronto on May 31st.

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EZRA (USA 2023) ***
Directed by Tony Goldwyn

 

Tony Goldwyn is best remembered as that handsome actor who played the best friend but villain of Patrick Swayze in GHOST.  Goldwyn directs once again (he made CONVICTION in 2010) in a decent but predictable drama about a father who is at a loss for how to protect his autistic son.

New Jersey stand-up Max (Bobby Cannavale) tells stories, not jokes, about ordinary chaos.  And there is no better source of chaos in his life than his son, Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald).  Diagnosed with autism, Ezra is precocious and precarious: he’s been reading The New York Times since he was five, but his impulsive behaviour often gets him into trouble and sometimes even poses a danger to himself and others.   His quirks include not letting anyone, not even his parents touch him and occasionally rattling on and on.  A doctor insists Ezra be sent to a special school and medicated.  Ezra’s mom, Jenna (Rose Byrne), who shares custody with Max, is inclined to go along with the program, but Max will have none of it. Jenna is going out with a new boyfriend played by none other than director Goldwyn himself.  This is pretty serious stuff, but light moments are provided by Max’s father (Robert De Niro).

The script, written by Tony Spiridakis appears to be trying its best to push all the right buttons that it looks too obvious.  Max’s stand up comedy lines at the clubs are not funny bat all and to be given a spot on Kimmel Live” is hard to believe.   But director Godwin does have comedic timing despite the generally unfunny script especially when Max’s father drives him back home from prison (yes, Max is still living with his father) after he attacks his son’s doctor, saying that he should not be too proud at being rescued by his wife’s boyfriend.  Max is given a retraining order for not seeing his son, Ezra.

All things break loose when one night, Max, who has been promised a spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, takes  Ezra on a cross-country excursion — without the permission of Jenna or his father (De Niro), whose car Max has “borrowed.”  Things get worse when Jenna finally goes to the police and a state-wide amber alert is out on Max and Ezra.

One trouble with the film is that of Max’s character.  Though one understands that his character is supposed to be flawed, the script makes him annoying and disliked for all that he has attempted instead of having the audience on his side.

The film livens things up a bit with Oscar nominees Whoopi Goldberg playing Max’s agent and Vera Farmiga as Max’s ex-flame who gives Max some help.  But it is William A. Fitzgerald as the autistic kid Ezra hostess the show.

The film attempts a dramatic happy ending where the family reconciles while coming together, which is more of a cop-out than anything else.

EZRA premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and opens in theatres across Canada on May 31.

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THE MATTACHINE FAMILY (USA 2022) ***

Directed by Andy Vallentine

 

This LGBT+ film is all about family and the importance of family.  Though it could have been a heartbreaking drama, director Vallentine takes the feel-good route, resulting in THE MATTACHINE FAMILY becoming an easy and pleasant watch while still getting its message across.  One thing to note is that the couple could be a straight male and female couple instead of a gay couple with not much changed in the film's storyline.

The film centres on Thomas (Nico Tortorella) and his family.  The photographer, Thomas, captured his life story with photos. He realized he was gay when he saw a cartoon with muscular men. Thomas tells the story of Oscar (Pablo DiPace), a famous child star on a popular sitcom whose acting career ended with a tabloid story that outed him. Eventually, Thomas would marry Oscar.  When the film opens, Thomas and Oscar have a loving relationship and have adopted to foster a child.  But there is trouble in paradise.  The child’s birth mother wants her child back.  Thomas and Oscar knew that it would be temporary, but they had not foreseen they would have that much attachment to their adopted son.  So when the child leaves, the couple is heartbroken.  The question then arises whether they should adopt a child for good or not go through any adoption process again.

The film shows that having an adopted child does not make a complete family.  Thomas’ complete family does not only consist of Oscar but his best friend and neighbour, Jamie (Jack Choi) who he has allowed to stay with him and Oscar when he was kicked out of his family for coming out gay.  Thomas has two very close female friends - a lesbian couple with Jamie and Oscar from his family.

The film tackles the issue of what happens in a relationship if each member wants completely different things.  In the story,  Oscar goes away to film a TV show while Thomas embarks on a personal odyssey that connects him to his friends, family, and the past to explore what it means to make a family.  Thomas has decided that he wants to adopt a child for real while Oscar does not want to, as he has a career in L.A. with filming.  Oscar wants Thomas to move but that involves Thomas sig all that he has built up.  Their discussion seems to have no solution.  It is clear the reason.  Thomas wants a child to make the family complete.  Oscar wants the job as he always wanted the scuffs all his life and it finally arrived.  Both have got ether individual dreams at arm’s length and have trouble sacrificing it.  So what would be the viable solution?  It would give up his dream but what if neither can submit?  This important answer to the question is left to the climax of the film.

THE MATTACHINE FAMILY feels like a TV movie, likely for the reason that it feels smooth and takes the felt-good less dramatic route.  The film still covered the important matters in a relation and in this respect, the film works.

THE MATTACHINE FAMILY arrives nationwide on all major digital platforms on Tuesday, June 4 from Giant Pictures.

 

 

A PART OF YOU (En Del Av Dig) (Sweden 2024) ***½

Directed by Sigge Eklund

 

Agnes, a teen envious of her popular older sister Julia, faces upheaval when tragedy strikes. Forced to reinvent herself, she's on the cusp of attaining her dreams but must navigate the consequences of her choices.

A PART OF You is a teen coming-of-age film set in small-town Sweden dealing with grief and acceptance.  The protagonist is Agnes who after her older sister’s accident, starts imitating her, beginning by wearing her clothes, which upsets many of Julia’s friends at school

If one can remember the gay coming-of-age also Swede film by Lukas Moodysson in 1998 SHOW ME LOVE (Swede title: FUCKIN AMAL), a quiet, small production gem that took the world by storm, A PART OF YOU bares many similarities with that film.  In that film, two teenage girls live in small-town Sweden Elin is beautiful, popular, and bored with life.  Agnes is friendless, sad, and secretly in love with Elin.  In A PART OF YOU, there is a key bonding scene in the family home where the two siblings are watching TV and they are watching SHOE ME LOVE.

The film features a supporting role by Zara Mari Larsson who plays Julia, Agnes’ sister who dies in a car accident.  Julia leaves the movie at the 15-minute mark but Larsson has an important role as she is supposed to play the charismatic but troubled older sister. For those in the know and for those wondering, she is a Swedish singer and songwriter. She first rose to prominence in 2008 after winning the second season of Talang, the Swedish version of the Got Talent format. She later attained international recognition with singles including "Lush Life" (2015), "Never Forget You" (2015), "Girls Like" (2016) with Tinie Tempah, "This One's for You" with David Guetta, "Ain't My Fault" (2016), "I Would Like" (2016), "Symphony" (2017) with Clean Bandit, "Ruin My Life" (2018) and "On My Love" (2023) with David Guetta.  Larsson is likely a reason many teen Swedes would watch this movie; truth be told, she nails the part.  She gets to sing too, during a party scene, the one after which she gets killed.

Director Eklund delves into the routines of the troubled teens, illustrating the drug and alcohol use while also emphasizing the tension and stress that youth face (i.e. the MEAN GIRLS” mentality).  Through the actions of Agnes who also has to deal with the grief of her sister’s death, one cannot help but both sympathize and root for the film’s protagonist.  Director Eklund clearly moves his film effectively, gearing it to an explosive climax.  The magnificent performances of both Larsson and Felicia Maxime in the title role of Agnes aid all this.  

A PART OF YOU opens for streaming on Netflix on Friday, May 31st, 2024.

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