Monday, 23 October 2017

Novitiate (2017 EIFF 9)



Novitiate was my biggest surprise at the EIFF. This low-budget indie film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was made by first-time director Margaret Betts (who also wrote the screenplay), has the look and feel of a big-budget Hollywood film made by a veteran director. This can, of course, be a bad thing; indeed, it may be Novitiate’s biggest flaw as well as one of its positive attributes. But once I got over my shock at how typically Hollywood the film appeared, I actually had a lot of admiration and appreciation for the non-indie feel of the film.

Margaret Qualley stars as Cathleen, a young woman in the early 1960’s who feels called to become a nun. Her abusive mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), who hates religion, is horrified, but maybe she is responsible for Cathleen’s decision. 

Once in the convent, Cathleen joins a group of fellow novitiates who try to survive the strict rules and harsh discipline faced by nuns-in-training back in the early 60’s. Leading that harsh discipline is the conservative Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who is under an immense amount of stress because of the Second Vatican Council, which is changing lifelong traditions and introducing new policies on the life of nuns. Tensions rise for Cathleen and the Reverend Mother, both of whom face unexpected pressures.

The inhuman treatment of noviciates rivals the dysfunctional setting of Cathleen’s home. Change is desperately needed but we also get to see how the patriarchal Roman Catholic church never considers the opinions of the woman whose lives it is changing. There’s a lot to discuss in Novitiate, including a scene involving the only man with a serious role in the film: Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare). This disturbing scene surprised me because it seemed so sympathetic to the patriarchy, which didn’t make sense to me in a film written and directed by a woman and having almost entirely female characters. But that’s an example of something requiring discussion. 

Qualley and Leo are outstanding in the lead roles. Leo’s brilliant nuance performance reminded me of Meryl Streep in Doubt, whose character is similar to Leo’s. The rest of the performances are also very good. The cinematography is gorgeous, the score is well done, and the writing is excellent. 

Novitiate has not yet been released and so it hasn’t been reviewed by most of the major critics. My gut tells me they won’t like it as much as I did, partly because of the old-fashioned Hollywood feel. But I’m giving Novitiate ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Call Me By Your Name (2017 EIFF 8)



One of my favourite films at the EIFF, Call Me By Your Name has all the ingredients to be a four-star classic: Fantastic location, gorgeous cinematography, brilliant writing, vital story, marvellous music, terrific performances, and great directing. Unfortunately, one of the major characters (or the actor playing him) grated on me from start to finish, making it unlikely that Call Me By Your Name will make my top ten films of the year. 

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, who made the excellent I am Love and A Bigger Splash, and written by James Ivory (based on the novel by André Aciman), Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a 17-year-old boy’s first love. The boy is Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), an American-Italian Jew spending the summer of 1983 in northern Italy with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) an eminent history professor, and mother (Amira Casar), a translator. Elio spends his days reading and hanging out with Marzia (Esther Garrel), who has strong feelings for Elio, but, for Elio, something is missing in his search for love. He finds out what that something is when Oliver (Armie Hammer), a young American scholar, comes to live with the family (to study with his father).

Chalamet is phenomenal as Elio, and Stuhlbarg stands out as the understanding father. The story is beautifully-told, with a depth and intensity of feeling that time and again reaches perfection, making this a very engaging film. Even the romance between Elio and Oliver often works well, in spite of the fact that it’s the character of Oliver who just didn't feel convincing to me. It might have been Hammer’s acting style rather than the character, but I couldn’t connect with him, as much as I wanted to (because otherwise the film was so wonderful). 

I  hope I have a chance to watch Call Me By Your Name again before I make my top-ten list in January to see if a second viewing changes my perspective. For now, Call Me By Your Name gets a solid ***+. My mug is up - highly recommended.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Battle of the Sexes



Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is a very unusual film. That’s often a compliment, but in this case it’s more of a mistake. 

The story is well known, at least to those of us who were old enough in 1973 to remember watching the “Battle of the Sexes”; to remember listening to Howard Cosell’s cringe-worthy commentary. Those were the days, my friend! Men were men! Women were pregnant or in the kitchen! Guys like Bobby Riggs proudly identified as a male chauvinist. However far we may still have to go in the battle for gender equality, Battle of the Sexes at least shows us how amazingly far we have come since 1973, when men could get away with saying the most absurd things about women (e.g. “women just can’t handle pressure as well as men”).

In 1973, the 55-year-old Riggs (played by Steve Carell), who was a tennis champion is his younger days and is now a gambler, challenges the world’s best women tennis players to a match to show just how inferior women’s tennis is to men’s tennis. After Riggs beats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) in two sets, world champion Billy Jean King (Emma Stone), who’s been fighting for gender equality, can’t resist taking up the challenge to put Riggs in his place. 

So much for the sports and spectacle side of the plot. If Battle of the Sexes was really just about this story, it would have been a dud. Thankfully, that story is secondary to the real story. The real story is about Billy Jean King’s fight for gender equality and her affair with her hairdresser (Marilyn, played by Andrea Riseborough) at a time when going public with such an affair would have been a huge scandal that might have ended King’s career (and she was only 29 in 1973). 

The drama focusing on King is excellent filmmaking. Stone, who is perhaps the greatest actor of her generation (and yes, I include men) is terrific as King, and Riseborough is excellent as well. The story flows well, the dialogue is sharp, and there’s even some appropriate comic relief by way of Ted, the fashion designer (Alan Cumming, who is wonderful), who is also gay. The first half of Battle of the Sexes is almost entirely about King and it’s a solid ***+ film at this point. 

Unfortunately, the instant the film turns to Riggs, his gambling addiction, and his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who throws Riggs out of the house, it loses its credibility as well as its class. The acting of Carell and Shue is only mediocre, their characters aren’t interesting and the story is barely average. If the film and been split between the stories of Riggs and King, it would have only been good for ***.  But fortunately that is not the case. Most of the film is about King and even the big event is secondary (as mentioned above). 

Because of this, I’m going to let the mostly-entertaining Battle of the Sexes slide across to ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Hunting Emma (Jagveld) (2017 EIFF 7)



Let’s get back to the EIFF.

My least favourite film at the EIFF was Hunting Emma, a violent South African thriller with a hint of dark comedy; in other words, it’s a dark Tarantino-esque film from filmmaker Byron Davis. 

The plot is straightforward, predictable, boring and, well, you’ll get the picture: Emma Le Roux (played by Leandie du Randt) is a beautiful young pacifist woman who has been trained in all things military by her ex-special-forces father (Tertius Meintjes). When the unarmed Emma accidentally witnesses the murder of a police officer in the middle of the desert, she goes on the run in a desperate attempt to survive against half a dozen armed men. In the end, she finds that her pacifism doesn’t cut it in the fight against real evil - it’s a good thing her dad taught her how to fight. Her final words in the film are: “I finally learned to shoot!” You get only one guess as to what I might find problematic with this film.

You got it: Hunting Emma is a film that intentionally defends the myth of redemptive violence, basically arguing that pacifism is utterly useless (and just plain stupid). Great stuff!

For what it is (a low-budget chase film), Hunting Emma is a well-made little film with decent acting and good production values. But it’s also a complete waste of time. Regardless of how tongue-in-cheek the story is supposed to be, it’s just plain wrong. * My mug is down.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

TV67: Game of Thrones, Season Seven




Back in July, after the first two episodes of the seventh season of Game of Thrones had been aired on HBO, I heard so many bad things about this season from friends and a few trusted critics that I almost thought I should avoid watching it. That would have been a huge mistake, because the short seventh season is among my favourites, not least because it has almost no gratuitous violence, sex and nudity (the first season that can make such a claim). I guess the producers/creators finally got the message that a TV show as well-made and compelling as Game of Thrones does not need such garbage in order to sustain viewership.

I won’t say anything about the plot, since by now you’re either a regular viewer or this isn’t your kind of show. I’ll just say that if you are a regular viewer, you won’t want to miss this season. But chances are you watched this season long before I did. I was sitting around the dinner table a few nights ago with friends from Colombia and Iraqi Kurdistan (as well as fellow Winnipeggers) and most of them were huge fans of Game of Thrones and had long finished watching season seven. It is definitely an international phenomenon. Insofar as this promotes a lively discussion among people with such diverse backgrounds, this is a good thing. But, as I have noted in previous reviews, Game of Thrones has had its dangerous moments, promoting attitudes (consciously or not) that are not healthy in the world we live in (e.g. revenge). 

Nevertheless, this seventh season highlights the positive attributes of some of my favourite characters (e.g. Tyrion and Jon Snow) in a way that does seem to want to help us all become better people, which is a very good thing indeed. Female viewers may prefer the many strong female characters in Game of Thrones, (e.g. Deanerys, Arya), who are also among the show’s more discussion-worthy characters. All of these characters go a long way toward offsetting the show’s negative qualities, which include role models I would not want to see emulated.

I almost gave up watching Games of Thrones after the fourth season and again after the fifth season. But I couldn’t stay away, and the last two seasons have made me glad I didn’t. In particular, the growth of my favourite character (Tyrion, one of my favourite characters ever) in these seasons has been a thrill to watch. My mug is back up again for one of the best and most important shows in the history of television.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049



Update: I watched Blade Runner 2049 again, this time in IMAX 2D instead of medium-screen 3D. I can only ask WHY?. Why are 3D films still being made? Why are people watching them? The IMAX 2D was a revelation - like watching a different film altogether - so much more beautiful and so much more "a film".

Wow!

Wow!

The second ‘wow’ is for Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who has amazingly succeeded in having a film in my top five of the year for the third straight year. 

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982, is among my thirty favourite films of all time. It wasn’t a big hit in its day, but I was blown away in 1982 and watched it again and again over the years (in different cuts) trying, with friends, to explain all the theological images and figure out whether Deckard was himself a replicant (human-like robot). The lack of such enigmatic images and questions in Blade Runner 2049 is why this film is not as good as the original sci-fi noir classic, but in its own way it’s still a masterpiece (and repeated viewings may yet uncover images I missed the first time).

While the sequel retains some of the feel of the original, with a similar sound and cinematography, and brings back some of the actors, there are major differences in style and atmosphere between the two films. For example, 2049 has less of a noir feel and more of a post-apocalyptic feel and there’s a sense that Villeneuve is trying to make a spectacle that will appeal to the masses in a way that Scott wasn't trying to do. Nevertheless, 2049 retains the slow pace and minimal action, combined with an intelligent sci-fi story and mind-blowing vistas, that made the original so great.

This time out, our blade runner protagonist (K, played by Ryan Gosling) knows he’s a replicant. He’s one of the latest models of replicants, supposedly incapable of rebellion (guaranteed to obey). The person responsible for these new replicants is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has taken over the Tyrell Corporation. Wallace is keen on taking replicants to a new level of mass production (of slaves), so he and his assistant (a replicant named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks) get very excited when K uncovers a box in the desert containing the bones of a female replicant who gave birth before she died. 

K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), is not as much excited as horrified by what the news of a replicant giving birth could do to her ordered world (such as it is). So she wants K to find the child (if it still exists) and kill it, destroying any trace that the child ever existed. Luv also wants K to find the child, but with very different motives.

K’s search will lead him to the eerie ruins of Las Vegas, where he meets none other than Deckard himself (Harrison Ford), the original blade runner (I wish I hadn’t known he was in the film, but the trailers made no secret of it). With Deckard in the picture, the long slow-moving 2049 quickly picks up its pace and we’re in for a more standard wild ride after that. But along the way, K’s search for answers will bring him (and us) into contact with a number of fascinating characters and some even more fascinating questions about what it means to be human, eventually overturning K’s understanding of replicants (including himself).

I can reveal no more. The acting in Blade Runner 2049 is very good, and a lot of the credit goes to excellent casting choices. As hinted above, the score and cinematography are terrific, making this a must-see on the big screen (I was forced to watch it in 3D; as soon as possible I will watch to again in 2D and report on whether, and how much, 3D negatively impacted the film).

Blade Runner 2049 does have a few flaws, most especially the way it adheres to the typical aspects of the myth of redemptive violence, but the film is such a wonder to watch on the big screen and does such a great job of engaging the viewer and making us part of the sad world of its sad characters that the flaws are overshadowed. As a result, 2049 is going to be one of the candidates for my favourite film of the year. An easy ****. My mug is up!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

A Fantastic Woman (2017 EIFF 6)



Wow!

Yeah, I know, I’m writing about the ‘wow’ films at EIFF first rather than pacing myself. But these great films are the ones I want to write about while they are fresh in my mind. There are other excellent films still coming, as well as a couple of duds.

The most sublime performance of the 2017 EIFF (so far - I have three films to go) is that of Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal, a young waitress and aspiring singer in Chile whose life is turned upside down after the sudden death of her much older boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). 

At the heart of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman lies the fact that Marina is a trans woman. Because of that, she is treated abominably by most of Orlando’s family, who view her as a perversion, and by the various authorities she has to face because of the circumstances of Orlando’s death. It is devastating to watch, but Marina’s strength in the midst of grief never wavers and this well-written film tells her story with great compassion. 

A Fantastic Woman is a timely heartfelt film that features stunning cinematography, great music and solid performances, all of which are overshadowed by Vega’s performance, which is so nuanced and electric that the film’s acting and writing flaws are difficult to see. Expect an Academy Award nomination for Vega. A Fantastic Woman gets a solid ****. My mug is up - don’t miss it if it comes to a theatre near you. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Florida Project (2017 EIFF 5)



Wow!

Oh my!

Looking to become my favourite film, not only of the EIFF but of the year, is Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which is set somewhere near Disney World. It’s a world of  elaborately decorated box stores, restaurants shaped like giant oranges and garish motels. The motels were initially built for tourists but are now also home to people living day-to-day, unable to afford monthly rents and damage deposits. Many of those people are single mothers with young children. Among those, living in the bright purple Magic Castle Motel, are Halley (played by Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). 

The exceptionally precocious and poorly-parented Moonee is the central character in The Florida Project. She is so mature (in a sense) and worldly that she sometimes seems older and wiser than her young mother. Through the summer, we follow Moonee and her two closest friends, Jancey and Scooty (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) as they torment (in a cute way) all the adults they encounter. One of those adults is Bobby (Willem Defoe), the motel manager, who is constantly frustrated with the behaviour of the kids (and with Halley) but does what he can to support them in their difficult lives, lives that will grow ever more difficult as the summer progresses.

The Florida Project is an incredibly humane and humanizing film that perfectly captures the lives of people living on the edge, people who will do almost anything to keep a roof over their heads. The acting of Prince is so perfect and so utterly amazing that one must assume she isn’t acting at all. The rest of the acting is also superb, with Defoe giving one of his best performances in a role that is engaging and inspiring. 

This gorgeously-shot slice-of-life drama finds little pieces of beauty in an otherwise ugly setting in a way that mirrors the heartbreaking lives of those who live there. This is profound independent filmmaking at its very best. The Florida Project gets an easy ****. My mug is way up. 

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

It



Before I get too focused on the EIFF, let’s come back to the clown in the room. We need to talk about it. It, that is. It is a massive blockbuster, one of the biggest horror films ever, singlehandedly making September the biggest September in box office history. It made me scream alright. But not the kind of screaming one associates with watching horror films. It was a scream of despair.

Let me go back to the beginning. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that I’m a Stephen King fan. I think he’s a marvellous storyteller and an excellent writer and I’ve read almost every book he has written (and that’s a lot). Contrary to the views of many, I consider It one of King’s lesser works. There were moments of brilliance, especially those that didn’t involve the clown, but the horror part of the story never resonated with me. Nevertheless, I watched the the TV miniseries in 1990. It wasn’t great but at least it was trying to be true to the novel.

Now comes this blockbuster, directed Andy Muschietti and written, in part, by Cary Fukunaga, whom I admire a lot as a writer and director. When the critics weighed in with generally favourable reviews and It became such a sensation at the box office, I felt I had no choice but to see it. I have rarely in my life been more disappointed with a film.

For one thing, It isn’t even It. Nowhere on the posters and ads did I see It advertised as It: Chapter One, which is what the end credits correctly call this film. It: Chapter One tells only half of the story. This half (of the film, not the book) happens to be almost exclusively the story of seven thirteen-year-olds who are haunted by, and then deliberately try to hunt down, the incredibly evil (and incredibly ludicrous) monster called Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård). The seven actors in question were awesome, especially Sophia Lillis as the only girl in the group; for me, they were the only good thing in the entire film. 

It is otherwise an awful film, with almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever, just a lot of horror clichés, senseless violence and pointless scares that didn’t scare me at all. Somewhere behind the ridiculous and meaningless story of the clown (whose actions are as illogically ludicrous as the actions of the protagonists), there lurks a dark but beautiful story about these seven young teenagers coming of age in a small town in Maine (the fictitious Derry). But even that story is overburdened with violence and revenge. 

Frankly, I can no longer remember most of the details in King’s novel, but I know that the way this film is structured and quite a few details bear no resemblance to the novel. Yet another mistake. 

When I reviewed mother! recently, I made it clear that I wasn’t recommending it to too many readers. But I gave that film **** because I think it’s a work of genius that is simply not going to appeal to too many viewers. I can now reveal that mother! is, from start to finish, a biblical allegory about God and Mother Earth, which is part of why I ‘enjoyed’ it so much. Some people think there’s more to It than just a monster film. Maybe the orange-haired clown represents actual characters in our world, they say, or maybe it is meant to be a metaphor for the monsters all young teenagers face. To the latter theory, I say: “Okay, but then why throw in all those real-life monsters (the parents of the teenagers)? And why convey the message that the only way to confront monsters is to kill them (as gruesomely as possible)? The positive message that these kids need to move beyond fear and work together to overcome their demons instead of fighting alone is lost in the midst of all that violence.

Unlike mother!, It apparently appeals to a great many viewers. I can't understand why. I can understand Harry Potter, dystopian films and superheroes, but I can't understand this, a film I recommend to no one, because it's an almost complete waste of time. I'm giving It only *+, all of that for the performance by the seven protagonists. My mug is down. 

Monday, 2 October 2017

Loveless (2017 EIFF 4)



Wow!

Two years ago, Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev made one of the bleakest, most profound and most thought-provoking films of the decade: Leviathan. He’s back this year with yet another very bleak, profound and thought-provoking film: Loveless. The title says it all. This is my favourite film of the Edmonton International Film Festival so far (halfway through my twenty films). 

In a city in northern Russia, 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) overhears his divorcing parents argue about who should take him because neither wants to do so. Indeed, they imply that Alyosha ruined their lives by forcing them into a loveless marriage. Heartbroken, Alyosha runs away. The rest of the film follows Alyosha’s parents (Zhenya, played by Maryana Spivak, and Boris, played by Aleksey Rozin) as they hunt for Alyosha with ever-growing fears and in the midst of their new relationships and their generally stressful lives. There is no real attempt to work together on this, just blame for everybody and everything. 

The police aren’t much help, but a volunteer organization aids in the search. It is led by the ‘coordinator’ (Aleksey Fateev), one of the most intelligent and competent characters I’ve seen in a while, whose first request is that Zhenya visit her mother near Kiev, a visit that shows us where Zhenya got her attitude towards her own child. 

As in Leviathan, Loveless is a story told on two levels: the family drama and the state of Russia today. The latter is made obvious in the choice of news excerpts (all bad, of course) the characters watch on their televisions, in the way everyone is staring constantly at their smartphones and in the obsession with materialism in the midst of a society still ruled by strong traditions.

Loveless is a cold, haunting, well-structured film, full of gorgeous cinematography and brilliant acting. Its only flaw is the general lack of empathy that makes Loveless a less engaging film (for me) than the superior Leviathan. Nevertheless, Loveless gets a solid **** and will be in my top ten of the year. 

Loving Vincent (2017 EIFF 3)



Wow!

This animated film, written and directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman is unlike any film ever made. 115 artists painted 65,000 paintings (one for each frame in the film), based on the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, to make this film about Van Gogh’s life and mysterious death. The art alone is worth making Loving Vincent an absolute must-see on the big screen. But the film offers much more, with a well-structured story about one man’s investigation into how Van Gogh died (supposedly by suicide). 

The investigation is conducted by Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) only a year after Van Gogh’s death. Armand’s father (Chris O’Dowd), a friend of Vincent’s, is a postman who has found a letter written by Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother Theo. Armand’s job is to deliver the letter to Theo. In seeking to do so, Armand learns a lot about Vincent’s life and discovers there are some serious inconsistencies involving his death. Along the way, Armand speaks with characters from Vincent’s life whom Vincent has painted: Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), a woman who lives at the hotel where Vincent spent his last months, Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), the daughter of Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), Vincent’s doctor and friend, and many more. 

Throughout the investigation, we see scenes from Van Gogh’s paintings (130 of them) which become the backdrop for the story. Some critics found the endless paintings were an idea that gets old after a while, and others thought the investigation was wooden and drags on too long. I found neither to be true for me. The paintings were mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, the story was fascinating and told in a film noir style I enjoyed (helped by having the flashbacks in B&W), Clint Mansell’s score was perfect, and the acting was solid.

It’s true that the Irish accents were somewhat distracting and it was a challenge to keep all the characters in your mind, but Loving Vincent gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

A Swingers Weekend (2017 EIFF 2)



With a title like this, you’d be expecting some sex. Well, this low-budget Canadian comedy drama, written by Jon E. Cohen and his wife Nicola Sammeroff, and directed by Cohen, has a lot of talk about sex, but not really much sex, and no nudity at all. 

Three couples gather at a large house on a remote lake in northern Ontario to have ‘a swingers weekend’, though one of the wives (Fiona, played by Mia Kirshner) doesn’t know about the swinging until after she arrives (thus ensuring a bad start to that couple’s weekend). Fiona’s husband, Geoffrey (Jonas Chernick) thinks their 15-year marriage needs a shake-up because they haven’t had sex in almost two years. The weekend will certainly shake things up for them.

Meanwhile, Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk and Randal Edwards), the organizers of the weekend, also seem to need a shake-up, which they hope Skai and Teejay (Erin Agostino and Michael Xavier), an attractive young couple, can help with. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned.

There’s a lot of good natural dialogue (during the Q&A with the writers, we were informed that there was a considerable amount of improv, which worked fairly well) and lots of fresh adult humour that avoids the typical pitfalls of recent comedy dramas. The well-cast Canadian actors are what make A Swingers Weekend work. The performances are solid all around, with Edwards and Chernick standing out. 

A Swingers Weekend does suffer from some credibility issues, with some unconvincing scenes near the end, but it’s a comedy after all, so this is somewhat forgivable. All in all, this is a funny and entertaining comedy drama with some discussable moments (about relationships issues) that’s well worth a look when it comes to your local theatres (in Canada at least) in February or March. For a low-budget Canadian film, it’s particularly impressive. A solid ***. My mug is up.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Romantic Road opens the 2017 Edmonton International Film Festival



I am now in Edmonton for the 31st annual Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF). This is my third year at the festival. I was blown away by the quality of the films during the past two years. Many of the best films of the year were shown there (including my favourite film of the year during the past two years). So I am very much looking forward to watching about twenty films during the next ten days. This also means writing lots of reviews, with probably one a day for the next three weeks. Stay tuned!

The EIFF opened last night with Romantic Road, a documentary by Oliver McGarvey, a young local filmmaker. Romantic Road chronicles the adventures of Rupert and Jan Grey, who, at the age of 65, drove an ancient Rolls Royce all over India and Bangladesh in 2012/13. The remarkable journey took them six months, during which they encountered some predictable and unpredictable challenges. For me, the biggest challenge they encountered was simply daring to drive a car in India (400 people a day are killed in traffic accidents in India). On occasion, Romantic Road felt more like a horror film than a documentary. 

While the Rolls Royce and the adventure of the trip take centre stage, Romantic Road is also the story of a very unique (eccentric?) couple (who, along with McGarvey, were present for the screening) and how they viewed their journey together and their interactions with the Indian people they encountered. Rupert was understandably anxious about the potential links between a wealthy white couple in a Rolls Royce and the legacy of colonialism, not to mention how their trip would be perceived in a country with so much poverty. This was an important element in the film, but I wish it had been explored with more depth and with more reflections from the Indian people.

Nevertheless, Romantic Road exceeded my expectations. I was particularly impressed by the editing. The documentary flies along with a perfect blend of interviews (including many fascinating comments from the couple’s three daughters) and action. I don’t want to think about how some of those live action shots were filmed. Very impressive. A solid ***+ for the opening film. My mug is up.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

TV66: Humans, Season Two



A year ago, I awarded four stars to this new British sci-fi series (based on a Swedish series) that offered an endlessly thought-provoking look at what it means to be human as it explored the many questions surrounding artificial intelligence. The second season remains almost as compelling and thought-provoking as the first, and the acting has improved, but it suffers from some remarkably inconsistent writing. 

At one point in the series, Gandhi is mentioned as someone who accomplished a lot of change without violence. But a few episodes earlier, the same person agrees that no significant change, in terms of fighting oppression, has ever been achieved without violence. Of course, that claim in itself is ludicrous as there are a great many examples of nonviolent resistance that led to change which was much more positive and lasting than anything that has ever been achieved through violence.


I still think Humans is superior television, but for a show that’s all about ideas and issues, such inconsistent writing can be fatal. We’ll see how the next season goes. In the meantime, my mug is still up. 

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

mother!



Wow! 

Wow!

It’s not surprising that my first Wow! film in almost six months should come from writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who has made a number of Wow! films, including Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, though his last film (Noah) was, for me, a dud. More surprising is that a double-wow film should come out of Hollywood (Paramount), indicating that some studios are not afraid to take a major gamble for the sake of cinematic art. 

Because make no mistake: mother! is not typical studio fare. Indeed, mother! is so beloved by the masses that it gets an average of “F” (on a scale from A+ to F) on CinemaScore (one of only a handful of films ever to sink to such glorious depths), which surveys audiences when they leave the theatre. One prominent reviewer calls mother! “the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios”. In The Observer, Rex Reed, giving mother! zero stars, writes: “With so much crap around to clog the drain, I hesitate to label it the 'Worst movie of the year' when 'Worst movie of the century' fits it even better.” Reed dismisses positive reviews as "equally pretentious" and "even nuttier than the film itself.” In the National Review, we read that “pregnant women, those with nervous constitutions or heart conditions, and anyone who happens to be burdened with good taste should stay far away from mother!

If that isn’t enough to get you rushing out to your local arthouse cinema, I don’t know what else I can say to entice you. Oh, yeah, well, I guess I can encourage you to run, not walk. Away, that is! Run away!!  You do NOT want to watch this film! Trust me on this. No one wants to watch this film. I really need to see it again to catch what I missed the first time, but the idea of doing so fills me with dread. Of course, the thought of watching Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan (both of which I consider cinematic masterpieces) again evokes a similar response.

What to do with this Aronofsky fellow, whom I can only describe as a mad genius? Are his films pretentious misguided attempts at a new cinematic art form or are they indeed unparalleled works of cinematic art? I don’t feel qualified to answer that, but anyone who consistently makes films so mesmerizing from start to finish that they leave me in a daze long afterwards must be doing something right. Mesmerizing is the word that sums up mother! for me. The performances, especially by Jennifer Lawrence as our protagonist (mother) and Michelle Pfeiffer as the uninvited guest from hell who intrudes on the younger woman’s carefully structured and beautifully maintained space, are all mesmerizing, as is the stunning cinematography.

You may have noticed that I have said little about what mother! is about. Actually, I’ve probably said too much already, because this is one of those films where the less you know, the better (though since I’ve told you to run away, what does it matter, right?). But I will flesh out the film’s opening a little more: ‘Mother’ and her husband, the poet (played by Javier Bardem), live in a gorgeous mansion in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly a man (Ed Harris) appears at the door, followed soon after by his wife (Pfeiffer). They make themselves at home, so to speak. Then their sons show up (played by real-life brothers, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) and all hell breaks loose (to be fair, ‘all hell breaks loose’ is rather an understatement here). 

I had heard mother! described as a psychological thriller, but let me assure you that it can safely be called a horror film. That is misleading, however, because mother! actually belongs to a genre that I dare not mention at this point (I promise to write an updated review in a month to allow the less wary among you time to watch mother! without preconceived ideas about what you’re getting into). I will only say that there are various ways of understanding the horror that is mother!

I have no doubt that mother! will tank at the box office and disappear in record time for a studio film. Perhaps Paramount will logically decide never to take such risks again (for Hollywood it’s usually all about the money). But it’s a shame, because Aronofsky represents the cutting edge of American filmmaking. My jaw was in my lap for about six hours and I can only reward such experiences with ****. My mug is up, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Sense of Wonder



The only way that I can beat Vic to seeing a movie these days is when I watch a French film. Last week I watched Le Goût des Merveilles, (translated in a way that loses the play on words - merveilles referring not just to "wonders" but to a simple fried-dough pastry popular in southern France that Louise, the protagonist, sells in a market along with her pears).

The film is a warm dramedy, starring Virginie Efira and Benjamin Lavernhe, and centres on a widowed mother of two trying to make a pear orchard work. But she's up against a changing economy, a corrupt co-op, and a tempting compromise. Into her life pops Pierre, a bright and sincere young man with Aspergers. The movie explores whether this is a complication or a solution.

While the film is more warm and light than seriously eye-opening, it seems to me that it does a good job of finding a balance in Pierre's role as a main character who is not neurotypical. There is some mystery and some unpredictability. It doesn't overplay sensitivities. It's just a respectful story of a type that we don't see too often - relatively realistic given the comedy genre and a few oversimplifications that might come from that.

The film is also beautifully filmed and finely acted. If you're up for subtitles, I'd check this one out. My mug is up and I give it ***+

Friday, 8 September 2017

Wind River



Wind River could have been a classic, even a Wow!, but in the end it lost its way.

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the amazing Sicario and the brilliant Hell or High Water, Wind River is full of amazing and brilliant scenes of its own. Unfortunately, just one not-so-brilliant scene was enough to knock off a half-star and keep Wind River out of my top ten of the year. The same thing happened with Hell or High Water, though I did give it four stars anyway. Sicario actually shared similar flaws, but the nature of that story allowed me to overlook them in a way I can’t do this time. Bottom line: I think Sheridan and I need to have a long chat. 

Wind River stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a wildlife officer/game tracker in Wyoming who stumbles across the body of his close friend’s teenage daughter lying in the snow in the middle of nowhere (there’s lots of nowhere in Wyoming) on the Wind River Indian Reservation. It looks like foul play, so the FBI is called in, but they send only one agent: the young Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who has no idea what she’s getting into (or how to dress for the weather). Ben (Graham Greene), the world-weary local sheriff, is more than a little worried about Jane’s abilities, but she starts her investigation on the right foot by asking Cory to assist her. Cory, Jane and Ben work together to track down (literally) the crime and the criminals. Along the way, Jane learns a few things about Indigenous culture from people like Cory’s friend, Martin (Gil Birmingham) and the parents of Cory’s ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones): Dan and Alice Crowheart (Apesanahkwat and Tantoo Cardinal). 

The acting by all those mentioned above is natural and terrific, with a special nod to Olsen and Renner (it may his best role). The characters are well-written and largely well-developed (I would have liked to know a lot more about Ben’s story), though Cory, like too many other Sheridan characters, was much too hard (too macho?) for my liking (especially as he is the protagonist). 

The writing as a whole is exceptional, with lots of Sheridan’s brilliant dialogue (especially evident in scenes involving Indigenous people). I particularly appreciated the fact that the story, inspired by true events, was written to attract attention to the issue of North America’s many missing and murdered Indigenous women. Very few films depict the  difficult life of Indigenous people today as well as Wind River does. The grief involved is very well presented in Wind River. But the denouement, which felt more than a little anticlimactic, included the scene I mentioned above, one that was so violent and over-the-top (reminding me of Tarantino), and ended with such a bad line, that I could only shake my head with disappointment, imagining what could have been. A great ending (like the ending of Sicario) could have made Wind River my favourite film of the year. 

Given the setting for the film, the cinematography could hardly go wrong and it didn’t disappoint, with lots of mountains and snow. As an offbeat modern Western thriller, maybe the violence is not out of place. And I know that Sheridan’s heart is in the right place. But for now I must stick with my initial reaction and give Wind River only a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Lady Macbeth



The very young Florence Pugh, an actor to watch for in the years ahead, plays Katherine, a woman living in rural north England in 1865 who is forced to marry Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man twice her age, to pay off a debt. The marriage does not seem to involve either love or sex and it does not take long for Katherine to get understandably frustrated and lonely. Her thoughts turn to Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of her husband’s workers, and a passionate affair ensues, with predictably negative consequences (as the title of the film suggests). Two members of Katherine’s household who play major roles in the story are Anna (Naomi Ackie), the maid, and the nasty Boris (Christopher Fairbank), Alexander’s father. None of these five unique and interesting characters is particularly sympathetic, though some are definitely more sympathetic than others.

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is a gorgeous film to watch, with a terrific haunting atmosphere and with excellent performances by a largely unknown cast. As a study of racism, classicism and sexism that continues to be relevant in our time, Lady Macbeth is brilliant. It should, perhaps, be recommended just for that. The only problem here (and it’s a huge one) is that I didn’t really like/enjoy this film.

Not that it was a chore to sit through, and I’m glad I watched it on the big screen, but it’s rare for me to enjoy a film, and be fully engaged with its story, if there aren’t any sympathetic characters. Lady Macbeth not only lacks such characters, it is so cold and dark (again, this is suggested by the title) that it often made me cringe. So, in the end, Lady Macbeth is a well-made film that deserves at least a solid ***+ but gets only *** from me, for purely subjective reasons. My mug is up, but I won’t recommend this to most readers. 

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Ghost Story



This small super-low-budget indie arthouse flick lasted only a week in Winnipeg and I doubt if it was watched by more than 100 people in total. I saw it on what is usually the busiest day in that cinema (half-price day) and there were at most fifteen people in the theatre with me. Five of those walked out after the first half hour of the film, murmuring short phrases to convey their overwhelming disappointment with the time they had just wasted. At that point in the film, the five had just spent almost five minutes watching a woman eat a pie, with no camera movement and no sound (other than that of the woman chewing). This was one of the film’s biggest action scenes, so I can’t imagine why they chose that moment to leave (sarcasm). Sadly, they just missed seeing the woman dash to the bathroom to relieve herself of the just-eaten pie.

But seriously, David Lowery's A Ghost Story is one of my favourite films of the year so far. The almost complete lack of action, dialogue and camera movement did not concern me in the least. Neither did the fact that this ‘horror’ film (yes, it does qualify) has almost no scares disappoint me. With its slow-moving poetic and (of course) haunting scenes, this simple horror film could have been made by Terrence Malick. 

A Ghost Story is, as the title suggests, the story of a ghost, only this time it’s told from the perspective of the ghost. The ghost in question is that of C (played by Casey Affleck), a young musician who was deeply in love with his wife, M (Rooney Mara) before a car accident claimed his life. Bu C doesn’t want to let M go, even after his death. Unfortunately for him, his white-sheeted figure is confined to the house in which he was living just prior to his death. Here he can only stand (or walk around) and watch. Sometimes, like the aforementioned eating scene, time seems to drag on for C. Other times, we see him zipping through days, weeks, even years. 

What’s most amazing about A Ghost Story is how this unimaginatively dressed figure manages to convey complex emotions as he watches the various scenes. On rare occasions, those emotions even lead to the taking of action. It’s profoundly moving and thought-provoking. While the theme of the film might be death, it is also very much about the meaning of life. Ideally, watching this film would be followed by a long discussion over a bottle of wine. Unfortunately, you’ll be lucky to see it at all let alone find someone who would be willing to watch it with you. 

A quick note to say that I loved the cinematography and the score (the score was minimal, but it was beautiful and well-used). The acting was solid throughout but nothing outstanding. A Ghost Story gets a solid ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.