This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 20, 2017)

Big films opening this week are ONLY THE BRAVE and THE SNOWMAN.  Docs HUMAN FLOW and TAKE EVERY WAVE also make their debut.

FILM REVIEWS:

HUMAN FLOW (Germany 2017) ***
Directed by Ai WeiWei

 

Chinese artist Ai WeiWei’s ambitious film about refugees around the world has his clear impression stamp.  Ai was himself a political dissident in his own country, jailed for his openly anti-government and artistic displays (as observed in the documentary about himself - Alison Klayman’s AI WEI WEI - NEVER SORRY).

The film begins with the arrival of a boat full of refugees - a scene that is repeated at the end of the film, but then explained in greater and horrific detail.  HUMAN FLOW traces the plight of refugees, the most current being the Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis as they escape war for a better life in any country they can find open to them.

HUMAN FLOW is unfortunately very long, close to two and a half hours and occasionally all over the place.  One particular example that stands out is the segment that comes out of the blue, of a tiger that is evacuated back to freedom in Africa.  (The tiger happened to escape through a tunnel just like a refugee.)

Ai’s artistry can be observed in many parts of his film.  The overhead shots of one of many makeshift refugee camps such as the back of trucks and the ending segment of colours are reminiscent of his art in his documentary, AI WEIWEI - NEVER SORRY.  His use of deafening silence is noticeable in the scene of a refugee boat sailing across the ocean as well as the devastating burning of the oil fields.  Ai is also fond of quoting poets of different nationalities as the refugees are (of different nationalities).

HUMAN FLOW could do with a tighter narrative with a head and conclusion.  Ai does also touch the topic of returning refugees.  He opens ones eyes to the problem of internal displacement - when refugees return home after too long a period and find that things have changed too much against them.  They no longer own their lands or know the people they once knew.

Refugees suffer a lot during their travels, often contacting diseases and undergoing sub-human living conditions.  Ai does not show these sufferings visually but they are described in voiceover or by the people interviewed verbally.  They are just as horrifying.  The people in the packed boats arrive, with diarrhoea, and scurvy (lack of Vitamin C).  Among them are children, babies and expecting women.

On the film’s more positive side, Ai includes interviews of people that work to help the refugees.  The Princess of Jordan talks candidly of human beings needing to do their part.  HUMAN FLOW also shows how certain countries like Germany and Sweden have done their part while others have not.

I remember a few months back when a friend asked my advice if he should take a refugee Syrian family to his home for a few months.  His wife was unsure of the kindness but I advised him against it as to be fair to his wife and not put his family at possible risk.  After seeing HUMAN FLOW, I regretted my advice.  Though Ai’s film is by no means perfect, it accomplishes its aim to make a difference.  If one cannot sacrifice a little for a suffering fellow human being, then, what are we?

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVZGyTdk_BY

LEATHERFACE (USA 2016) ** 

Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo

Written by Seth M. Sherwood and directed by French horror masters Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, famous for their horror debut L’INTERIOR, LEATHERFACE, the main killer in the late Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, is a prequel to that film tracing the origin of the character LEATHERFACE.  Hooper executively produced the movie.

The film begins with a disturbing scene in the Sawyer household.  A birthday party is being held by the family matriarch Verna Sawyer (Lili Taylor) for the youngest member of the family Jedidiah. As his present and to induct him into the sadistic family rituals, Jed is presented with a chainsaw and forced to torture a man accused of stealing one of their pigs.  Jed refuses, visibly disturbed and the thief is killed by Grandpa.

A few months later a young couple Betty Hartman and Ted Hardesty are driving through the family territory when they come across a seemingly wounded Jed.  Betty follows him to a dilapidated barn where she's promptly killed by the family.  Hours later her father Sheriff Hartman (Stephen Dorff) arrives to find her dead. As Verna arrives to protect her sons, Hartman quickly takes Jed into his custody as revenge, sending him to a mental asylum for disturbed youths.  The doctor of the asylum keeps the youths there indefinitely.  His reasoning is that if they are let out - they either come back or go to prison.

As expected in LEATHERFACE, audiences would expect to see disturbingly horrific scenes like the taking of the hammer to a victim’s head or a Sawyer family member cutting himself then laughing and taking a photograph of it.  Sadly there are no moments in Leatherface that can better these.  But the sheriff pressing his finger into a wound and pigs eating a wounded but live deputy come close.

It has been a long time - close to 50 years (how time flies when one is having fun with a chainsaw) that the Sawyer family used the saw and hammer as murder weapons.  Not many will recall what happened in the TEXAN CHAINSAW MASSACRE film, so LEATHERFACE could very well be a standalone film.  Hardly anyone, for example can remember grandpa in the original movie, taking a hammer to a girl’s head but too weak to kill her.  Grandpa is younger and alive in this prequel.  But LEATHERFACE also plays as a revenge film.  Sheriff Hartman goes crazy in exacting a revenge for his dead daughter.  The nurse at the mental institution serves as the new heroine at the mercy of the Sawyer family.   Though LEATHEFACE has a stronger narrative, anyone going to see film in this horror genre is not really interested in plot.  They would be more interested in horror and graphic violence pushed to some new psychological level.

Though the film establishes the reason Jed wears the leather mask and called leatherface, it does not reveal any clues on the reason the Sawyer family or the matriarch in particular came into being.  Why would they eat humans (not shown in this film) when they is plenty of pigs on their farm?  This prequel is ok for TEXAS CHAINSAW fans, but does the rest of the world need to see this?

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aiYQj2foHo

ONLY THE BRAVE (USA 2017) ***1/2

Directed by Joseph Kosinki

Warning: This review contains spoilers.  Spoilers are highlighted in italics.

ONLY THE BRAVE, based on true events is a tough American biographical action disaster drama that tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.  The Hotshots are an elite crew of firefights that have first rights in the front lines to stopping fires (in decision and execution).  A local Arizona firefighting team finally gain qualification as hotshots under the leadership of Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin).

ONLY THE BRAVE is a disaster film not unlike THE TOWERING INFERNO.  It is one of the better firefighting films compared to past successes like John Wayne’s THE HELLFIGHTERS and Ron Howard’s BACKDRAFT.   A well balanced script by Ken Nolan (the excellent BLACKHAWK DOWN) and Eric Warren Singer (AMERICAN HUSTLE) ties in the human drama to the action.  As the ad goes: “It’s not what stands in front of you; It’s who stands beside you.”

There are a few human dramas on display.  They seems superfluous at the start but the actors and script hammer at the material till it finally grows on you.  The main one involves the chief Eric Marsh and the sacrifice his marriage to his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) has taken.  She sees him only 10% of the time and she wants a change in their lives.  The other deals with hot shot youngster, an ex-addict, Brendan (Miles Teller) who joins the firefighters in order to support his daughter that has resulted from an unexpected pregnancy.    Brendan is given a chance by Eric who calls him ‘donut’.  The confrontation scene between Eric and Amanda strikes fireworks.

ONLY THE BRAVE marks the other kind of action hero film - the ones (like the recent PATRIOT’S DAY) that involve real life heroes in real life events.  These are the kind of heroes America needs these days, in times of terrorist attacks in a world gone crazy.   ONLY THE BRAVE celebrates true heroes and real people in an excellent executed film.  The fire scenes are authentic, as director Kosinski has said in an interview that he had gone for authenticity.

Great performances all around, particularly from Brolin and Jeff Bridges.  Miles Teller delivers another winning performance as a bad-ass character - annoying in the beginning, but capturing the heart of the audience by the end.

For such a serious topic, the script inserts a few metaphors (like the burning bear - a terrifying yet beautiful sight) and some needed honour.  The best and funniest line is the advice given by Duane Steinbrink (the Bridges character) to Eric: “You must know what you can live with and what you can die without.”  Even Duane does not know what it really means!

The climax of the film involves the Granite Mountain Hotshots (as they then call themselves) fighting the out-of-control Yarnell Hill Fire in the June of 2013.  Those who know the history will recall the sacrifice these firefighters made in order to control the fire and save lives.  Kosinski’s film ends up a tearjerker, so make sure you bring lots of Kleenex.  But these are tears well shed.  ONLY THE BRAVE is a worthy tribute, and as the words emphasize during the losing credits dedicated to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EE_GY6zccqc

POOR AGNES (Canada 2016) ***
Directed by Navin Ramaswaran

 

The synopsis of POOR AGNES on imdb goes “A serial killer and her next victim form an unexpected relationship”.  That description of the movie would be enough to scare away many an audience but writer James Gordon Ross and director Navin Ramaswaran have concocted quite the movie.

The film opens with a few incidents involving Agnes (Lora Burke).  She is shown suffocating a victim by placing a plastic bag over his head.  The audience sees her pawning the victim’s gold watch and silk tie.  When the pawnbroker uses the ‘f’ word at her, she retorts by throwing him an insult.  He reduces the price of the gold watch from $200 to $150 which she takes, as she is broke and has no choice.  The segments tell a lot about Agnes and the route the film is taking.

Credit should be given to director Ramaswaran for the feat of having his audience root for as unlikeable a character as a non-repentant  serial killer.  He achieves this (feat) by several means which are interesting to note:

all the characters around her are either seedier or nastier than her, not only her victims

she is all by herself and one usually respects an independent woman

she is funny and she cracks the best jokes

she is smart

she knows what she wants and does it

she is neither annoying nor irritating in any of her conduct

This might be the reason the film is called POOR AGNES (instead of say NASTY AGNES) which makes the audience want to root even more for someone needing sympathy.

The first half of the film establishes Agnes’ personality while introducing her love/sex relationship with Mike (Robert Notman).   Mike is the private detective hired to find out more about a missing person a year ago that Agnes did away with.  After Mike hits on her, she kidnaps him but lets him go free in an odd love relationship.

One might imagine the film going out of steam after the first half.  But the film’s pacing is good and new events keep the audience interested throughout the entire film.  Agnes draws the reluctant and unsuspecting Mike into her evil deeds.  She kidnaps a previous trick, Chris (Will Conlon) and forces Mike to do away with him.

Credit goes to Toronto actress Lora Burke for an excellent performance as the serial killer/madwoman.  Robert Notman is also convincing as her reluctant partner.  Everything else in the other departments from music, to sound to sets to cinematography are to be commended.

POOR AGNES doe not slag in any way.  Despite the rather outrageous plot, the story and characters are kept believable.  Humour (especially black) is also injected particularly in the segment where Agnes attends a tortured victims support group.

Director Ramaswaran and writer James Gordon Ross make an excellent team.  The film won the Best Canadian Film Prize at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0boeomU9anMbe angry for the fact that the privilege of living for many has almost been taken completely away.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fhO2A4SL24

THE SNOWMAN (USA/UK 2017) **
Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Director Tomas Alfredson (the original LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and SOLDIER, TAILER, TINKER SPY) makes sure the film’s Norwegian setting (though he is Swede) is known from the very start.  From the wintry long windy roads of Norway, the film shifts focus to the statues in Vogel Park in Oslo, before the film reveals key locations of Oslo and Bergen (on the west coast).   As snow is perpetually on the ground, it is assumed it is close to the winter months, which explains the reason the sun is seldom seen - making the film more eerie for its appropriate theme.

The film is a whodunit mystery based on  a screenplay by Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan and Søren Sveistrup adapted from the novel The Snowman by Jo Nesbø.  A serial killer is on the loose, leaving clues and a snowman whenever a grisly murder is committed.  Harry Hol (Michael Fassbender), an elite crime squad’s lead detective, investigates the disappearance of a victim on the first snow of winter.  He fears an elusive serial killer nicknamed "The Snowman" may be active again.  With the help of a brilliant recruit, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), the detective must connect decades-old cold cases to the brutal new one if he hopes to outwit this unthinkable evil before the next snowfall.  Harry’s ex-wife, Rakel (French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg) who still loves him comes into the picture, complicating matters.  She has re-married so that her son, Oleg (Michael Yates) would not have the alcoholic, chain-smoking Harry as a negative role model.

Alfredson’s film is full of flaws and Alfredson acknowledges this, blaming it on the short shooting schedule.  Apparently the film was shot with the script uncompleted leading to problems with the editing.  The film is tightly paced, and the story does make sense, though the flow is definitely disjointed which can be felt at times.  One has to keep alert to remember who is who and the incidents that have occurred in the past and the present.  Wherever possible, the suspense set-ups are well executed, the best segment being the death of a mother in the car that sinks into the ice in a half-frozen lake.  But the identity of the snowman, who turns out to be someone close to Harry is a coincidence that stretches credibility.

Other problems involve the actors.  Michael Fassbender, Toby Jones.J.K. Simmons and Val Kilmer are American and British actors looking totally out of place in a film totally set in Norway.  The film would have been better cast with a full Norwegian or at least Scandinavian cast.  The recent thriller (last year) IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE is a similar film that fared much better.

The film has impressive winter cinematography by Edward Lachman.  I have been to Norway twice, as well as to Bergen and Oslo, and the film is a tribute to the country especially with the subplot of Oslo winning the Olympics Winter Games bid.

THE SNOWMAN opens with fierce competition this weekend.  Fortunately, it has a  modest $35 million production tag and its expected S10 million take this weekend should make the Universal studio bosses happy.  Still, THE SNOWMAN is Alfredosn’s worst film -  a sad deviation from a director who has seldom missed his mark.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BF2Ksrxu_QY

TAKE EVERY WAVE: THE LIFE OF LAIRD HAMILTON (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Rory Kennedy

The film opens with breathtaking cinematography that puts the audience right inside the surging waters, a real high even when watching the waves on screen before introducing the main star and film subject - big wave surfer Laird Hamilton.

After 5 minutes of surf footage, director Rory Kennedy (LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, GHOSTS OF ABU DHABI), delves into the life of Laird Hamilton.  Director Kennedy, born into the Presidential Kennedy family knows what it is like to be singled out and looked upon by the world.

Kennedy’s film uses archival footage, home movies, contemporary scenes, and interviews with his step-father, Bob Hamilton who introduced Laird to the sport, his wife (former volleyball star and model Gabrielle Reece) and his surfing buddies (even those with whom he’s fallen out) and former editors of Surfer Magazine. 

Told in chronological order, the film traces Laird’s early beginnings as a boy raised by his single surfer mother left pregnant by another surfer dude.  When meeting Bob for the first time on the beach, he is shown how to body surf before his mother meets up and ends up marrying Bob.   In his interview on camera, the now middle-aged Laird recounts his rebellious days in school, throwing desks out the classroom window and yelling obscenities while getting the occasional whopping for his stepfather Bob.  As the story goes, Laird finds solace in the ocean.

It is fortunate that Laird’s life is interesting as there is more of his life on show than of surfing footage.  As Laird never competes, there is not competition that needs to be won that often forms the climax of sport documentaries.  So Kennedy relies on a different technique to climax her film - Laird riding the biggest wave EVER.

Hawaii where Laird grew up as a boy is revealed for all its racial prejudice - reverse white prejudice that is.  The was one of the few whites in the class and whites always get beaten up and singed out.

There are tons of good looking blond surfing hunks in this movie.  But the good looks slowly fade just as youth does.  Both Bob and Laird Hamilton are gorgeous hunks in the early twenties.  This led to Laird, who dropped out of school, to get into the modelling business - a part of his life just barely touched upon in the film.

Director Kennedy sidetracks his film just as Laird sidetracks his life on big wave surfing.  Laird is also revealed as an inventor, first of the foil board (a surf board that rides above the water, amazing as it looks due to Physics), then of the board strap, that enables surfers to do summersaults while being attached to their boards.

The film also brings into the picture, the invention of both the jet ski and the windsurf.  Laird and his gang tackled the new sport of windsurfing (I myself tried it too, - and it is not easy), but gradually went back to big wave surfing.

TAKE EVERY WAVE is a documentary that ends up as interesting as Laird the man.  The best scenes are the ones with the biggest waves.  Director Kennedy has done his research and TAKE EVRY MAN is as exhaustive as any filmmaker can get on Laird.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaGCdymhA40

WONDERSTRUCK (USA 2017) **

Directed by Todd Haynes

Runaway kids escaping to a strange, new town in search of a parent.  This subject has always been a favourite for films and plays, the most notable being the recent Tony Award winning THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, in which a boy travels to London to find his father.  IN WONDERSTRUCK, a young deaf autistic boy leaves home after his librarian mother is killed in a car accident.  All he has is a little clue of a museum.  He takes off with some cash obtained from his Aunt Jennie (Michelle Williams), gets his wallet snatched but eventually finds out the truth about his father, who he initially knew nothing about.

WONDERSTRUCK appears like a a typical story but director Haynes (CAROL, POISON and his best movie SAFE FROM HEAVEN) decides to do it different.  The openly gay director has always dealt with isolated loner characters who has to come to terms with some truth.  In WONDERSTRUCK, because the subject is deaf, Haynes blacks out all words, so that the film feels like a silent movie with just background music.  The film is alternatively shot in colour and black and white for the flashbacks (in the year 1927).  It seems a good tactic but it does not all work.  For one, the film ends up very difficult to follow.  With no dialogue, one has to figure out who is whom, how the subjects are related and basically what is going on with the plot.  It does not help that the film intercuts two stories set fifty years apart, switching frequently between them.  Each tells the story of a child's quest.  In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away from her father's New Jersey home to find her idol, the actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, recently orphaned Ben (Oakes Fegley) runs away from his Minnesota home in search of his father.  Moore plays two roles - the older Rose as well as Lillian Mayhew which confuses matters even more.

The reason the film is called WONDERSTRUCK is revealed towards the end of the film.  The film’s sets are amazing, special mention to be made of the New York City model though details are not really shown.

Director Haynes leaves the audience much in the dark for the first half of the film.  Though one might, upon considerable thought put all the jigsaw pieces together, it is a very frustrating process.  Director Haynes, gives the full explanation during the last third of the film, what then is the purpose?  Is it to illustrate to the audience the inconveniences of being deaf?

The cast largely of unknowns (excepting Moore, Michelle Williams in a token role and Tom Noonan) including Fegley do an ok job, nothing exceptional.

Though credit should be given to Haynes for his non-conforming storytelling techniques, it does not really work.  It comes together at the end, as if Haynes gave up and decided that it is safer to tell it all the usual way.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n207k52C3DM

 

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