THE LION KING opens this week.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
Never Look Away
Spider-Man: Far from Home
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE (USA 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Riley Stearns
One must admire and give writer/director Riley Stearns credit for going against the natural flow of the typical movie. Though described as a dark comedy, the film turns so dark towards the last third, that it can hardly be described as a comedy any longer but some psychological mind-blower. The story turns completely unpredictable with a plot twist that is, when one looks back quite obvious, but director Stearns has steered his audience completely in a direction that they definitely will not see what is coming next. At the same time, the hapless hero turns and changes into a selfless all-conquering hero, sacrificing everything he has for others, a selfless act while defeating his villain in a duel to the death.
The plot revolves around a mild-mannered accountant called Casey (Jesse Eisenberg). One evening while returning home after buying dog food, he is beaten up by a motorcycle gang and left for dead. In hospital recovering, his boss Grant gives him a few days off. He comes across a Karate class and enrols in the day class while learning the art of Karate, eventually excelling in it. But it is his character that is in question not his fighting ability. He learns that the has to overcome his cowardly attitude. This he does, in what are the film’s most hilarious moments.
Jesse Eisenberg apparent took Karate classes a few weeks for preparation for this role, though he has said that he took it as child. He is convincing enough. Though Eisenberg usually takes roles where he speaks an incredible amount of words per minute as in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE HUMMMINGBIRD PROJECT, this is one film where he has little dialogue. The film often plays its dark comedy dead-pan with as little words spoken as well. Whenever a dramatic conversation comes along, director Stearn often turns off the music and background noise. The effect is an uncomfortable silence punctuated by the script’s dialogue.
Stearn’s wife, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead had signed on to star in the film in 2016. But the couple separated in 2017 with the result that Winstead is no longer in the cast. Making a film is a lot of work and one can assume that the work must have got into conflict with their relationship. The film though appearing totally male-chauvinist is in reality pro-feminist. Karate is described in the film as the art of achieving total masculine perfection with none of the other gender having to play any part. Of course, the concept is wrong which the film thankfully proves at the end. The film is also quite homo-erotic especially in two scenes, where the male karat students do cool-down exercises bare-bodied massaging each other or when practising certain moves also with little clothes on.
As such, THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE might turn out a hard-sell. Besides a few uncomfortable scenes, audiences will find it difficult in the film’s transition from comedy to psychological thriller but those willing to accept the change will find Stearn’s film a daring, bold and refreshing change from the norm. The film is a winner!
THE FAREWELL (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Lulu Wang
Awkwafina (last seen in CRAZY RICH ASIANS) gets a starring role as Billi, a Chinese American who learns that her beloved grandmother aka Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) still living in China has three months to live after being diagnosed with cancer. The family decide not to tell Nai Nai of her illness. Instead the family organize a wedding so that the entire family will travel back to China to spend time with her before she passes away. Hence the film title THE FAREWELL. Billi was not invited to the wedding/farewell as the family fear that she cannot hide her feelings but she shows up in China unannounced from New York City.
The titles cleverly state at the start of the film; “Based on an actual lie.” THE FAREWELL starts off a little humorously as director Wang introduces the somewhat dysfunctional family who aim to do good. The idea is that the family takes on the emotional burden off the grandmother if she does not know. Half way through the movie, it will hit (as it did me) whether what transpires is legal. i.e. will the doctors allow that illness be kept for the patient as requested by the family. The answer is supplied right outwards - a good thing - in the middle of the movie. It is not allowed in America but is allowed in China.
Director Wang is more serious that light in her treatment of the material. Though there are always laughs on the horizon of every scene, the sombre mood is also pressing. Despite the simple story which is suspense less, Wang keeps her film running at a good pace. It is more the family interaction at play than the knowledge of whether Nai Nai will discover the truth at the end. At the end of the matter, whether Nai Nai finds out or who tells her is immaterial to the plot.
Wang captures the behavioural mores typical Chinese family. Important are the big meals, the obsessive ‘fussy’ care over the young and old, the need to keep a stiff upper lip among others. Other issues the are also important include the relationship between mother and daughter-in-law. Billi’s mother complains that Nai Nai was always boss in the home when she married her son, which implies the probable reason they left China for America.
The farewell is not the perfect drama as the film contains many glaring flaws including the tacked on happy ending. Still THE FAREWELL is a sincere drama aided by a solid dramatic performance by Awkwafina who previously only has been seen in comedic roles. The film is entertaining and sheds light on the difference of cultures, in a good way, and also of respect and the difficulty a family to get along. There is nothing forced in the film, and the story unfolds smoothly that should leave the audience not only satisfied but with a warm fuzzy feeling.
Chinese American films have always done well and have been well made like this one (and with a strong feminine protagonist too), the recent Netflix original, ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE and of course, CRAZY RICH ASIANS. There is a large target audience of North American Chinese and hopefully, there will be more films to cater towards this group.
THE LION KING (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Jon Favreau
Not only a large portion of moviegoers familiar with the story of THE LION KING (from not only the original animated feature but from the hit musical) but the songs as well. Disney needs something fresh. So with the new live-action animated version, new songs have also been added, written by Sir Elton John and sung by Beyonce.
As in the original animated feature, THE LION KING 2019 is set in Africa where a pride of lions rule over the animal kingdom of Pride Rock. When the film opens, King Mufasa's (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi's (Alfre Woodard) newborn son, Simba (Danny Glover), is presented to the gathering animals by Rafiki (John Kani) the mandrill, the kingdom's shaman and advisor. Mufasa shows Simba the Pride Lands and explains to him the responsibilities of kingship and the "circle of life", which connects all living things. This is, of course, the cue for the “Circle of life” song reminding audiences that they are watching Disney.
As far as animal eats animal in the wild, the violence of the jungle is toned down several notches. The only animals that get eaten on screen are the disgusting maggots and worms, being at the bottom of the food chain. Plants are victims too.
THE LION KING is a magnificent looking CGI feature with all the animals and background looking so real that one can hardly tell that it is special effects. Simba can be made cute as a cub and fierce like a lion king with all the details like face frowns, fur movements and tail wags. But its is almost a compete copy from the hit animated feature of the same title. It is fortunate that quite a few years have lapsed since, so that audiences can only vaguely remember all the scenes from the original. Still, entertaining and stunning that the CGI LION KING is and looks, originality is clearly absent. Racism is present in the form of hyenas who are looked down by the lions and seen with no redeeming qualities. All this is hidden by Disney’s seemingly innocent portrayal of nature as evident in the film’s initial scenes - a morning sunrise in the African continent; a flight of birds rising from the trees and a horde of elephants making their path through the plains.
Regarding voice characterizations, James Earl Jones with his signature deep voice is the obvious choice for King Mufasa while Chiwetel Ejiofor does a menacing villain, Scar. Comic relief is provided by Seth Rogen who steals the show as the common slow-witted warthog. Yes, and there are fart jokes from him. Pop star Beyonce provides the voice of Nala, Simba’s love interest.
Despite the familiarity of the material, Disney’s hard work shows and proves that old material can still be entertaining given a a few fresh twists. And this is the strength of Disney. Disney always uses tested formula in their film projects. Expect record box-office takings in the opening weekend.
PROPAGANDA: THE ART OF SELLING LIES (Canada/Germany 2018) ***
Directed by Larry Weinstein
What is fascinating about the new doc on propaganda called PROPAGANDA: THE ART OF SELLING LIES which had its premiere at this year’s HOT DOCS, is the way director Larry Weinstein uses the concepts populated in his film to get his message across. Weinstein is bold enough to also call his film a cautionary tale and a call to action.
In a way, it is a sure safe way of making a doc on any subject. The film opens with the letters of the word ‘Propaganda’ flashed on the screen - not once but a few times, as verbalized by President Trump in one scene in the film: “Repeat for the truth to sink in.” It is intriguing to note that the word ‘truth’ is in the line implying that what is said is the truth, which is of course, might not be so. Propaganda goes by various definitions as the film informs at the start. The first definition given is ‘political brainwashing’ followed by others before Weinstein goes into the origin of the word - in Latin.
One wonders often at the odd choice of interviewees Weinstein has chosen, as it seems quite the eclectic assortment. One is Paolo Granata, apparently a professor of Media Studies and another Alistair Pike an archaeologist. There is a segment dealing with a ancient art carved in a Spanish cave which could be the reason the Spanish and the archaeologist being chosen. But propaganda and entertainment come together with the segment of Jim Fitzpatrick an Irish artist who sketched an outline easy-to-copy figure of Che Guevara after Che visited him in a bar in Ireland where he was a barman. Che was killed and his body gutted of blood like an animal. As a result, Fitzpatrick popularized Che with the figure he designed and drew that is now famous all the world over. This is another example of propaganda. On the plus side, the most interesting interviewees include a staff at Charlie Hebdo (the French satirical newspaper targeted by Muslim terrorists) and the photographer who took the controversial picture of Kathy Griffin holding President Trump’s severed head.
The film stresses that propaganda is most used in print, posters and cinema. Weinstein provides lots of clips of old propaganda films like the most famous of all films - the Nazi propaganda 1935 film Leni Riefenstahl’s masterful TRIUMPH OF THE WILL to illustrate the fact. My fav propaganda film of all is the the British 1942 entry Alberto Cavalcanti’s WENT THE DAY WELL? where British housewives during WWII did away with hysterical relish the German invaders of their village who were disguised as British soldiers.
Though entertaining, the doc sheds little light on what we do not already know. The film does bring a lot of facts together, as emphasized during the film’s conclusion. The film is also quick to point out the propaganda could also be sued for good, as in the British propaganda films to run up loyalty. Ironically, the film is after all also propaganda about propaganda.
ROADS IN FEBRUARY (LA RUTAS EN FEVRERO) (Canada/Uruguay 2017) ***
Directed by Katherine Jerkovic
The film opens with a fully blank and black screen. A door opens, letting the light into a room, revealing the film’s protagonist and main character, Sarita or Sarah from Canada. She is shown twice making a phone call to someone who does not pick up the telephone. In another scene, a fly is shown landing on a glass double door before Sarita shoos it away. It is noticed that Sarita is, speaking in Spanish on some bus trip or other, making a journey of great distance. Director Jerkovic, who certainly takes her time to tell her story tells the tale of a young girl, Sarita who travels to a remote village in Uruguay to visit her grandmother.
The visit brings out an old skeleton in the closet. The two have to come to terms with the loss of Sarita’s father, Magda’s son who left Uruguay for whatever reason and passed away. Magda never saw him again and somehow puts the blame on Sarita.
Jerkovic’s camera often comes up close to the facial expressions of the characters to both reveal their emotions and amusements. One instance has Magda companioning that Sarita bought the incorrect and more expensive bread. Despite Sarita telling her that it was her who paid and wanted to give her grandmother a treat, Magda still fusses. The look on Sarita’s face as a result is priceless. Another instance is the visit of Magda’s old friend to the house, Olga. Olga is losing it, Magda insists. But the camera reveals Olga as a bright, always cheerful, inquisitive friend and not like what the audience would expect after first hearing Magda’s description of her. One wishes there would be more scenes with the amusing Olga.
Sarita is no angel. While visiting granny, she scores some weed from the local boys, trespasses into a rich family personal swimming pool and flirts around with a handsome hunk. Girls will be girls! Still director Jerkovic elicits the audience's sympathy for the vulnerable heroine. She has her camera stolen losing all the valuable photographs she had taken on her trip. She falls off her bike while riding away frustrated. She incurs quite the nasty bruise on her one leg.
Jerkovic’s imprint is clearly stamped in her film, where one can feel the heat of village surroundings and the alienation of the two characters, enhanced by controlled performances by Arlen Aguayo Stewart and Gloria Demassi.
ROADS IN FEBRUARY premiered at TIFF and opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It won the jury prize for Best First Feature and shows Jerkovic as a new Canadian talent to watch. Director Katherine Jerkovic will be present for an introduction and post-screening Q&A on Saturday, July 20 at 7:10pm! There should be many interesting questions that can be asked such as how autobiographical the film is and how close is the director to the character in her film.
SWORD OF TRUST (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Lynn Shelton
SWORD OF TRUST is a low budget American comedy co-written by director Lynn Shelton and Mike O’Brien that includes improvisation from the actors. The premise is the SWORD OF TRUST of the film title, an actual sword.
When Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) show up to collect Cynthia’s inheritance from her deceased grandfather, the only item she’s received is (no house) an antique sword that he believed to be proof that the South won the Civil War. The sword comes with two items of authenticity, a certificate and a painting that stands for a photograph. The script takes pains to make all this believable, as it is the reason that all incidents that follow that place.
The two attempt to unload the object to a curmudgeonly pawnshop owner Mel (Marc Maron, "GLOW") and his man-child sidekick Nathaniel (Jon Bass, Molly's Game). After it becomes clear that the film centres on these four, the film starts taking hold of the audience’s interest.
When Mel and Nathaniel discover there’s a black market for the relic, the two pairs reluctantly join forces to sell this rarefied ‘prover item’ to the highest bidder. The adventure that ensues takes the four of them on a wild journey into the depths of conspiracy theory and Southern disillusionment.
It is difficult to tell what is improvised and what is written in the script. This is a good thing as the film and story flows smoothly throughout most the film.
The films starts running into trouble in the last third. The chemistry among the four begin to wear off. The singular jokes of Nathaniel being a man child, Mel being a radical grumpy codger made good and Cynthia and Mary having a same-sex relationship get tiresome. Adding more story to the plot and the introduction of more characters in the third part signals Shelton’s desperation to get her film on track.
Director Shelton gives herself a cameo as Mel’s ex-lover, a dog addict who never quite get her act in life together. She shows herself apt in dramatic comedy improvisation and is a pleasure to watch.
The best thing about SWORD OF TRUST are the individual personalities on display. Each eccentric is ‘special’ in his and her own way. Each of the four actors are able to create uniques characters of distinct imperfections and strengths. Their interaction with each other works well. But by pitting them together in a plot that involves hitmen, con men and crooks ultimately destroys what has been carefully created. Director Shelton has made similar small films like the YOUR SISTER’S SISTER and the more recent HUMPDAY.
SWORD OF TRUST works well for the most part but fizzles out of steam at the end, once the tired antics of the characters grow tiresome. It is still encouraging to watch small films like SWORD OF TRUST given a chance in the market where blockbusters like THE LION KING which opens the same week dominate,