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This Week's Film Reviews (March 13, 2020)

03 Mar 2020

 

THIS week surprisingly has three excellent and highly recommended films opening, that MUST be seen.  They are the Romanian film THE WHISTLERS, the Irish comedy EXTRA ORDINARY. and the drama FIRST COW.

 

FILM REVIEWS:

EXTRA ORDINARY. (Ireland/Belgium/Finland/UK 2019) ****
Directed by Mike Ahern and End Loughman

EXTRA ORDINARY. feels so much like and will likely have the same fate as the small budget 1997 Australian comedy, THE CASTLE by Rob Sitches.  THE CASTLE followed a down-to-earth Melbourne family fighting and eventually winning their case against City Hall that wants their house removed to build an airport runaway.  I remember how funny the film was though it had not been released yet in Toronto when I first saw it.  I was in Sydney that Christmas when the video was first released in Australia.  So popular it was there that all the video stores had all the copies rented out.  I only managed to secure a copy while in Perth and indeed it was one of the funniest comedies I had seen in a long time.  EXTRA ORDINARY. is very much similar a film.  EXTRA ORDINARY. like THE CASTLE is inspired by a true story, based on quirky characters and is very, very funny.

The film opens with a driving instructor, Rose (Maeve Higgins) placing flowers on the roadside grave following her father’s death being hit by a truck.  Actually the father was killed by the truck while exorcising a dog in a pothole.  When she takes off in her car, a garbage truck arrives immediately after and the flowers chucked into the truck.  The scene is done in an overhead shot which writer/directors Ahern and Loughman appear to be very fond of.

Rose, a sweet, lonely driving instructor in rural Ireland, is gifted with supernatural abilities which her deceased father used to make use of.  Rose has a love/hate relationship with her 'talents'  and tries to ignore the constant spirit related requests from locals - to exorcise possessed rubbish bins or haunted gravel.  But Christian Winter (Will Forte from SNL), a washed up, one-hit-wonder (Cosmic Woman, the hit is called) rock star, has made a pact with the devil for a return to greatness!  He puts a spell on a local teenager- making her levitate. Her terrified father, Martin Martin (Barry Ward), asks Rose to help save his daughter.  Rose has to overcome the fear of her supernatural gift and work with Martin to save the girl.  Rose runs away during one dealing with the supernatural saying. “I cannot do this.  This is way over my head.  I am having a panic attack!”  “Get a hold of yourself , woman,” screams Martin.  While all this is going on, a romance buds between Martin and Rose.

The film draws inspiration from films like THE EXORCIST and even GHOSTBUSTERS.  With the floating possesses teenage daughter of Martin, Rose says that exorcism is not all vomit and masturbating with crucifixes.

Anything can happen…… (mostly funny things) at any time in the movie.  Chinese food can arrive in the midst of a devil ceremony; a virgin can lose her virginity before being sacrificed and be saved.  The film also includes a car chase at the climax on pursuit of the levitated virgin.

EXTRA ORDINARY. destined to hit cult status, is a small budget film from Ireland full of quirky characters that is the funniest thing I have seen this year.  Totally recommended!

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi385924121?playlistId=tt8233874&ref_=tt_ov_vi

FIRST COW (USA 2019) ****

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

The film opens with titles that are dimly lit in a dark background reflecting the bleak times the film’s subjects are forced to endure.  The film shots never brighten and neither do the incidents affecting the film’s characters.  Still the cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt is magnificent and appropriate for Reichardt’s film.  Such a dismal theme is often found in a Kelly Reichardt film, Reichardt, a director who takes great pains to effect a realistic setting.

FIRST COW’s setting is the United States, in 19th century Oregon where times are bleak and people are trying to settle down while selling beaver pelts.  Among them is Cookie Fogiwitz (John Margaro) who is strangely a talented cook at the wrong place.  He makes a quick buck when he can selling goods he baked.   One night, he meets a naked Chinaman (Orion Lee), who is escaping Russians, one of whom he has apparently shot.  Cookie gives him food and a blanket.  The two become lifelong friends, despite their opposing personalities.  Both are opportunists though Cookie earns an honest living while the other convinces him to steal.

The film is entitled FIRST COW because the creature is the first of its kind to be brought into the region by a wealthy man, Chief Factor (Toby Jones).  He has the cow tied outside his residence, not knowing that the cow is milked daily by thieves in the night.  He only wonders the reason the cow is producing so little milk for him, though he knows the cow is of superior breed.  One of the best lines is when Cookie tells his buddy that the cow is of better breed than him.

One of the most observational facts of the film is the misplacement of everything.  The baker and the Chinese are the protagonists in a story set in the pioneer times of Oregon.  There are a misplaced wicked cruel Englishman (Toby Jones) and an uncouth Scots (Ewen Bremmer) as well.  The men are hunting beavers for their pelts while this fashion is going out of style in Paris and the other parts of the world.

Social status is eminent also in these bleak times.  Chief Factor wishes to impress the captain of a ship and asks Cookie to bake a kind of blueberry cake.  This man is totally oblivious to kindness, often wishing the mutineers on a ship be flogged and even killed to be made an example of other men thinking of doing the same.  It is not surprising then, then he goes after Cookie and the chinaman for stealing milk from his cow.  He hunts them down to be killed.  This makes the last part of the film.  Do the two escape their predators?  This is not the film’s purpose.

FIRST COW is based on Jonathan Raymond’s novel “The First Half” based on a script by Reichardt and Raymond. FIRST COW is smaller in scope than Reichardt’s previous films such as OLD JOY, WENDY AND LUCY and MEEK’S CUTOFF, but her attention to detail and meticulous directing make FIRST COW no less riveting.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi158580505?playlistId=tt9231040&ref_=tt_ov_vi

 

LA GOMERA (THE WHISTLERS) (Romania/Germany/France 2019) ***** Top 10

Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

The film begins with the protagonist taking a ferry to an island.  No dialogue, no titles - just information that has to be deciphered by the audience cinematically.  The protagonist is stern, quite and thoughtful and different from the other ferry passengers who are clearly tourists.  When the ferry arrives, he is met by a man who addresses him as ‘inspector’.

In a typical Hollywood movie, titles, something like ‘5 week earlier’ would appear on the screen when the film would flashback to the events leading to that beginning.  No such thing in writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu’s excellent tale of corruption and mystique.  It takes a while before the audience (and this reviewer included) realizes that the film is not in chronological order, also moving back in time to the incidents that led to the man taking the ferry to a place revealed as La Gomera of the Canary Islands.

The foreign title of the film is the name of the island - LA GOMERA.  The English title THE WHISTLERS refers to the people that speak the land’s native tongue, a language totally formed out of whistling - a whistling language called El Silbo Gomera. 

Cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) learns to speak this language from his Spanish-speaking Mafioso ‘friends’ so that he can communicate with them without the knowledge of the cops who has every place under surveillance including Cristi’s home.

The story unfolds in 8 chapters each one (except for one called El Silbo Gomera) named after a character in the story.  (Last film/novel that had this was Mike Nichols CATCH-22).  The first one is entitled Gilda (the femme fatal pf the film noir), another Zsolt (a Mafioso prisoner) and the last Cristi, the name of the cop protagonist. 

For such a serious theme on the Mafioso, director Corneliu Porumboiu is unafraid to inject his brand of humour.  This can be observed in one scene where the mafioso in a factory is discussing their plans of freeing Zsolt from prison through poison.  A knock is heard and the meeting is interrupted by a filmmaker who says: “I am scouting for locations for my film and the outside of your factory is ideal.  Can I come into the factory and look inside?”  “Come in,“ is the reply.  Two shots can be heard afterwards.  Porumboius’s film is full of similar surprises.  The Hitchcock PYSCHO-style shower scene, complete with identical looking stabbing knife also deserves mention.  The film has a totally unexpected ending that takes place at the Gardens by the Bay in, believe it not, Singapore.

Besides the nod to PSYCHO, director Porumboiu brilliantly places a clip from John Ford’s THE SEARCHES that includes a scene where a whistle signal is made in a crucial moment.

The soundtrack is also diverse and relevant to the film’s story.  The beginning scene with Cristi as a passenger on the ferry has the Iggy Pop “Passenger” song heard on the soundtrack.  There is also a whistling version of the German song “Mac the Knife” as well as French opera music and assorted classical music like The Blue Danube and Ravel’s Bolero.

It is the attention to detail and the outrageous plot unfolding in absolutely dead seriousness with style and wit that makes Porumboiu’s film so deliciously wicked and entertaining.  The film was an immense hit when premiered at Cannes early this year and is a must-see for both cineastes and those who love their crime dramas really dark.  And the greatest marvel it all?  When Gilda whistles at the end of the movie, the audience understands what she is saying.  The El Silbo whistling language has been communicated to the audience. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7I6i943qUA

 

HOPE GAP (UK 2018) ***1/2

Directed by William Nicholson

 

The film is set in a seaside cove supposedly called HOPE GAP in Seaford, Sussex in England.  There really is such a place called Seaford with a stunning landscape effectively captured in all its glory by cinematographer Anna Valdez-Hanks.

HOPE GAP follows the break up of a 29-year old marriage as told from the points-of-view of the husband and wife.  It is a rocky road that is more travelled than recognized.

The typical hen-pecked husband and domineering wife is the stereotype of a British family.  In HOPE GAP, the male is given more prominence, as the script allows the husband to tolerate the wife’s nagging before finally making his stand.

As good as many times Oscar nominated actress Annette Bening is, she looks uncomfortable in this role, while sporting a British accent.  Bening has been type cast as the shit-disturber wife as she proved excellent opposite Kevin Spacey in AMERICAN BEAUTY.  Bill Nighy, always good in always he has been in (he was the only exciting character in the BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL) looks, in comparison, totally at ease in his role as the dissatisfied husband.  There is a certain pleasure watching quiet traits of a person forced to explode, as in this case.

Of all the film’s bleakness, there is one colourful segment on the beach where a colourful (orange, blue, yellow, green) row of changing tents is displayed.  This scene looks something right out of Ken Russell’s 1972 THE BOY FRIEND.

There is a neat segment where Edward complains about paying two pounds for an ice-cream cornetto.  It is a brilliant message snuck in about over-pricing.

Another recent film about a breakup that needs be mentioned, by inevitable comparison is Noah Bambauch’s A MARRIAGE STORY which also examines in detail the breakdown of a marriage.  Both films are excellent though MARRIAGE STORY goes deeper in-depth of the breakdown of the marriage while HOPE GAP goes for the emotions.  Performances by the actors in both films are though, extraordinary.  In fact, watching Nighy and Bening alone is worth the ticket price.

“No matter how bad it gets, I know that it could have been better knowing the you have gone there before me…”  These are some of the lines in HOPE GAP going over the top that overrides the overall mood of the film.  Still, in all earnestness, one has to give credit for effort.  The segment in which the desperate Grace enlists her son to save her torn marriage as a last, last resort is one that looks all too familiar in a marriage break-up.

The main trouble with HOPE GAP is after the revelation of the breakup a third into the movie, the film stumbles in trying to keep the audience’s attention span.  The big surprise could have been reserved for a bit later in the film.  All the happens after is nothing much, much a lot of moping, by all the parties including the son.

Ultimately HOPE GAP and MARRIAGE STORY though identical in theme, are largely differently films, and excellent ones as they are and should be seen for their uniqueness.

 Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi2774122265?playlistId=tt7587876&ref_=tt_ov_vi

THE HUNT (USA 2019) ***
Directed Craig Zobel

A Blumhouse production, THE HUNT delivers what is expected from a Blumhouse horror film - low budget horror, effectively done, pure shock entertainment, and maybe a little message as in GET OUT and a little in THE HUNT where the privileged wealthy hunt for sport.

The outrageous plot gets even more outrageous towards the end.  Very little is explained at the beginning and figuring out the mystery is half the fun.  The film opens in the first class cabin of  a plane where a snotty passenger makes small talk regarding caviar and champagne with the flight stewardess.  It is clever that the passenger talks about three vintage champagne bottles discovered on a sunken ship, the only three existing in the world because the next thing is the audience assuming that the bottle of champagne next seen in the film is one of those precious three.  Back to the plane, mayhem ensues as a passenger from economy freaks out entering first class.  Someone of authority says that he is not supposed to wake up yet, to which the man is killed off.  The next scene takes place in a field where a number of such drugged passengers have been kidnapped and left there for THE HUNT.  The cat-and-mouse killing game in the field makes up one of the film’s most exciting action sequences.  In all of this, the main protagonist is singled out till, crystal (Betty Gilpin) about a third into the film.  Crystal is a female fighting machine.  The reason given is that she served in Afghanistan.  After the field, the next set piece is a gas station where the husband and wife owners turn out to be associated with the bad guys, unexpectedly.  With this respect, the film is quite clever and audience anticipation is kept maintained at a maximum.

The film contains references to George Orwell, with a pig bearing his last name and the main protagonist nicknamed Snowball, the name of the pig in Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM, the reason given in the film towards the end.  Are the references relevant?  Definitely irrelevant, but the references are still fun, regardless.

The script by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindel contains  a few of could be could-not-be scenarios.  Was one of Crystal’s mates with the bad guys or was he not?  Crystal wastes him regardless and the audience never knows the truth.  Not that it matters.

The cat fight between the villain, Athena (Hillary Swank) and Crystal at the film’s climax is high octane, edge of the seat excitement - an over-the-top fight full of violence, kitchen cutlery weaponry and acrobatics.  The only complaint is that it lasts too long - in terms of credibility and holding interest.

The story returns to the airplane setting in the beginning of the film for closure of plot.  The film could have closed at any other point without much difference.  THE HUNT is passable mindless fun though the film loves to play with ones mind with plot details that make no sense.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi189054745?playlistId=tt8244784&ref_=tt_ov_vi

MY SPY (USA 2020) ***

Directed by Peter Segel

Stars have in their careers made kid comedies, that are so-so though usually making tons of money.  Examples are Dwayne Johnson in TOOTH FAIRY, Arnold Schwarzenegger in JINGLE ALL THE WAY and even Eddie Murphy in DADDY DAY CARE.  Dave Baustista attempts the same playing covert spy J.J. Cena who has to deal with a precocious 9-year old who is evidently quite smart and intent of setting him up with her recently widowed mother.  J.J. (Baurista) has been sent undercover to do surveillance on her family, i.e. her and her mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley).

Baustista looks reasonably comfortable with a kid as his side-kick, keeping a straight face (probably in order not to show his discontent) most of the time.  The usually annoying and boisterous Kim Jeong is actually a pleasure to watch here, as David Kim, J.J.’s boss.  Actress Kristen Schaal deserves  mentioned as J.J.’s jealous ‘partner’ who is totally infatuated by him.  She totally reminds one of a similar character in Alex de Iglesia’s EL CRIMO FERPECTO (FERPECT CRIME) in which there is a character who has an uncanny resemblance to Schaal, who is also infatuated with the protagonist.

The comedy is sufficiently free of toilet jokes and foul language.  There is a little violence - except in a few action scenes and in another where a poor rescued bird is eaten up by a bigger predator.  The latter scene was supposed to be funny but all that scene got were gasps from the audience.  At its worst, the film gets occasionally sappy, trying to pull at the audience’s heart strings.

The film’s soundtrack contain a solid variety of music.  The escape car chase at the film’s start is amusingly shot with a wide range of songs as  J.J. escapes from his attackers in a car switching radio stations to different tunes.  The film also keeps the film’s romantic part to a bare tolerable minimum.  The introduction of Bobbi the romantic interest’s rival is at first awkward, but the story eventually brings her in.

As an action comedy, the actions scenes are executed with the usual fanfare.  The car chase at the film’s climax is plain awful with continuity thrown right to the wind.  There is no flow from one scene to another and the chase could have been shot in different cities for all that matters.  The comedy is occasionally funny, with a few neat bits like Bautista trying to show off his dancing skills.  The film should be a hit with kids of 16 and under, I am sure.  Director Segel and writers Jon Hoeebr and Erich Hoeber try very hard and it shows!  For others, MY SPY is an all right sit-through.  MY SPY was not intended to be a cinematic masterpiece and with that respect it is what it is, a passable time waster.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3936992793?playlistId=tt8242084&ref_=tt_ov_vi

 

 

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