Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Indian Horse

Due to a scheduling conflict, I was unable to see Indian Horse when it played at the Edmonton International Film Festival last October. Having finally seen it this week (it was just released in Winnipeg), I deeply regret having missed it - not because it was a fantastic film (though I thought it was very good), but because I would have been promoting it in advance so that every Canadian reading this review would not miss the chance to watch Indian Horse on the big screen.

The big screen is for the cinematography, which is gorgeous throughout - from the opening scenes in the Northern Ontario wilderness to the shots inside the residential school and on the hockey rinks. But the big screen is also to take advantage of watching this hugely important film as soon as you possibly can and telling all your friends to do the same. 

Indian Horse is based on the 2012 novel by Richard Wagamese, who died last year (while the film was in production). It tells the story of an Ojibwe boy named Saul Indian Horse from when he loses his family in 1959 and ends up in a residential school to some twenty years later when he is in a treatment program. 

The film begins with Saul’s grandmother trying to hide the six-year-old Saul (played by Sladen Peltier) from the authorities. She knows what will happen to him at the residential school and is determined to keep him out. But when Saul’s brother dies of an illness and his parents (Christians because of a Catholic residential school) take the body away for a proper Christian burial, Saul and his grandmother must go it alone in the middle of the wilderness. An accident on the river leaves Saul by himself until he is picked up and taken to a Catholic residential school in Northern Ontario.

At the school, Saul learns quickly that the goal of his education is to remove his Indigenous language, spirituality and cultural traditions and assimilate him into a white Christian culture. Those students who fail to comply with the nuns’ strict demands are severely punished, from the strap to being put into a small cage in the dark damp basement, leading to desperate attempts at escape, including taking one’s own life.

But a priest named Father Gaston (Michael Huisman) takes an interest in Saul and introduces him to hockey on TV. Saul immediately falls in love with the sport. Getting out of bed before anyone else is up, he practices hockey on the school's small ice rink, using frozen horse dung as pucks and skates that are far too big on him. With TV hockey as his teacher, Saul quickly becomes the best player at the school. This will change his life, as opportunities arise that will take him away from the school to a small mining town and then Toronto and even give him a few years of happiness in a loving family environment (by now, Saul is a teen and is played by Forrest Goodluck). 

Unfortunately, wherever Saul’s travels expose him to white people, he encounters racism, reminding of his days in the school. Eventually, these encounters will lead him to a rage he can’t control and his life will begin its downward spiral (by now, Saul is a young adult, played by Ajuawak Kapashesit). 

For a small Canadian film, Indian Horse is an excellent film. The acting is a little uneven but most performances are solid, with the two actors playing the younger Saul standing out. The writing and direction (Dennis Foon and Stephen Campanelli) are also uneven but generally well done. The twist at the end of the film is a questionable choice, but forgivable.

The most important thing about Indian Horse is that it tells a story, in narrative form, that every Canadian needs to hear, and it tells the story well. That makes Indian Horse essential viewing for every Canadian reader. It also means that I feel compelled to give Indian Horse ****. The quality of the film may not warrant such a rating, but it is such an important film (in some ways groundbreaking), and a moving one, that it deserves no less. My mug is up!

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Paul, Apostle of Christ

The latest film from Affirm Films (Heaven is for Real, Risen) is Paul, Apostle of Christ, written and directed by Andrew Hyatt. Here's the link for my review at thirdway:

There's a good film there somewhere, and it has a lot of good things to say, but it's far too heavy-handed in its theology and its use of theological language to be taken as seriously as the story deserves. It gets only a lukewarm ***. My mug is up, but keep your expectations in check.

Friday, 13 April 2018

A Quiet Place

This week’s box office champ is another one of those so-called horror films. I say ‘so-called’ because it doesn’t meet my criteria for horror films, but, from beginning to end, A Quiet Place does indeed have the feel of a pure horror film, so I won’t complain too much about using that genre. Of course, since I am not a fan of horror films, that horror feel doesn’t appeal to me. Nevertheless, this terrifying film is uniquely captivating, beginning with its opening scene of a deserted town in which the Abbott family is silently foraging for food and supplies.

It isn’t much of a spoiler (since it’s revealed in the first minutes of the film) to tell you that the world (of the very near future) has gone quiet. Not because of a plague that has wiped out humanity (as in last year’s similar film, It Comes at Night) or because of a nuclear winter, but because there are fast-moving big-eared monsters at large that kill anything which dares to make a sound. We don’t know how many people still survive on this quiet earth, where they have learned to live very quiet lives, because we only really get to see the one family. 

John Krasinski, who also directed and co-wrote A Quiet Place, stars as Lee Abbott, the husband and father, who is an engineer skilled in working with sounds and who is trying to find a way for his wife, Evelyn (real-life partner Emily Blunt), to give birth without alerting the ever-present monsters, and for their deaf teenage daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmons, who is deaf), to ‘hear’ the monsters’ approach. Their other child is 12-year-old Marcus, who lives in constant fear (as is only proper in such an environment).

The audience also lives in constant fear. And they can’t even eat popcorn to try to calm themselves because much of the film is so utterly silent that no one in my full theatre dared to eat or drink or cough or make any sound except on the few occasions when there was music or when the loud monsters came to call. It was a freaky experience, but one I appreciated - the sense of a full theatre of viewers holding their collective breath for 90 minutes is, I suppose, one of the appeals of horror films, but it rarely works for me. This experience did.

But what makes this ‘horror’ film uniquely watchable is the family dynamic. A Quiet Place is primarily the story of a family, albeit one caught in a unique situation. The way this family is presented, with well-developed characters and convincing relationships conveyed with little dialogue is a very satisfying film-watching experience, especially when you are sitting in constant fear. Add some excellent acting (especially by Blunt) and great cinematography and A Quiet Place gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Party

I only needed to see ten seconds of the trailer to know this was one party I didn’t want to miss. This is my idea of good dark comedy (I knew that a B&W film called The Party just had to be dark). People dying, people cheating on each other, people screaming at each other, people pointing guns at each other. What fun!

Sally Potter has brought together the perfect cast for her film and they are uniformly excellent: Kristin Scott Thomas is Janet, the host of the party. She’s a politician (in London) who has just been appointed to an important position (it remains a mystery for a while), so she holds a party to celebrate. What could be more exciting and innocent? But then why is her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), sitting in a chair in the middle of the living room, looking like his wife has just died? And why does Tom (Cillian Murphy) come without his wife, Marianne (Janet’s colleague), and then immediately hide himself in the bathroom and pull out a gun? And why does Janet’s cynical friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), continuously belittle her partner, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), who calls himself a spiritual healer? And why are Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who are a couple, fighting about Martha’s announcement that she is pregnant with three boys? For the answers, you’ll have to watch this delightful dark film yourself.

The Party is full of intelligent witty dialogue and brilliant social satire (with some things to discuss afterwards). Filming it in B&W (the cinematography is beautiful) was a great idea because it somehow both enhances the feel that we’re watching a stage play while making it something different. The Party is very short (71 minutes), which also works perfectly for a film like this. The only thing that keeps me from giving The Party four stars is the coldness and the lack of truly profound ideas. The Party gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Death of Stalin

I’d been looking forward to watching The Death of Stalin for months now, after reading a short review in October that made it sound very much like my kind of film: great acting, great dialogue, subtle intelligent humour, brilliant political satire. I guess in my mind I was thinking of that greatest of dark comedy political satires, Dr. Strangelove (my seventh-favourite film of all time). So, given the addition of rave reviews by my favourite critics, I admit my expectations were way too high. But even if I had heard nothing about the film, I think I would have come away disappointed.

Not that watching The Death of Stalin was a waste of time, or that the review I mentioned was inaccurate. On the contrary, everything I remember about what it said was accurate. It’s just that I found the film far too dark (and violent) to work for me as a dark comedy without far more intentional and ‘funny’ (to me) comedy. What I’m saying is hard to convey, so let me try saying it in a different way: By definition, dark comedies are ‘dark’ and often quite violent. If the comedy is hilarious and ‘in-your-face’ (e.g. Dr. Strangelove), a fair amount of violence can be excused by me in a dark comedy. But if too many jokes fall flat or if the comedy or satire is too subtle or if the drama overwhelms the comedy or if the characters are treated with too much disdain, then violence can quickly make me feel uncomfortable, limiting my enjoyment of the film.

This is what happened in The Death of Stalin, which tells the story (based on true events) of the power struggles in Moscow following Stalin’s death. The film’s primary actors include Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev (Party Head), Simon Russell Beale as Beria (head of the KGB), Michael Palin as Molotov (Foreign Minister), Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov (Deputy General Secretary), Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov (head of the army), Olga Kurylenko as Maria (a pianist), Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son, Vasily. 

Beria and Khrushchev are the primary schemers after Stalin’s death, while Malenkov temporarily takes Stalin’s place. But Khrushchev soon sees Beria as a rival and begins to plot Beria’s elimination, a plot that will require the support of the other leaders. Mayhem ensues. While the opportunity for insightful political satire is there, director Armando Iannucci and his fellow writers don’t make the satire overt and powerful enough (in relation to contemporary events) to justify the darkness of the story or the so-so humour of its comedy (bottom line: I didn’t laugh anywhere near enough for this to work for me). When I discovered that Iannucci is the creator of Veep, I understood part of my problem with the film, because my appreciation of Veep is limited by similar issues (not violence but language). 

Nevertheless, as I have already indicated, there is much to praise in The Death of Stalin (I agree with everything in the first paragraph), I enjoyed many of the scenes and all of the performances, and I am still inclined to let it slide over the line to ***+. My mug is up, but for me this is not the classic I was hoping for (and that many critics saw).

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Love, Simon

Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon has one major flaw and a number of minor ones, but it’s a coming-of-age film that transcends its flaws and is more than worth watching (high praise from me, considering my general disinterest in high school rom-coms). 

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is an ordinary seventeen-year-old high school student in suburban Atlanta. He lives in a large house with a seemingly ideal family: his parents, Emily and Jack (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and sister, Nora (Talitha Bateman), and he has three close friends: his lifelong best friend, Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) and Abby (Alexandra Shipp). It looks like the perfect life for a teenager, except for one thing: Simon is gay and he hasn’t told anyone.

When Leah tells Simon about an anonymous online confession from a gay fellow student (calling himself “Blue”), Simon’s world is turned suddenly upside down. Using an alias of his own (“Jacques”), Simon begins an email conversation with Blue that becomes a powerful way for him to talk about what he’s going through. Blue has no interested in identifying himself but Simon can’t help but wonder which of his fellow students Blue might be (there seem to be a number of good candidates). 

Unfortunately, another student (Martin, played by Logan Miller) discovers Simon’s email conversation with Blue and blackmails Simon, demanding his help in getting closer to Simon’s friend, Abby. What is Simon to do? Will he risk his friendships (and the relationships among his friends) to retain his secret? The answer to that question is Love, Simon’s big flaw. I did not find it credible. Given the central role of that answer in the overall plot, this was a huge problem for me.

I also wasn’t a big fan of the general laid-back tone of the film, helped by a score that didn’t do anything for me, or of the general teen-age rom-com antics. Love, Simon has been compared to John Hughes’s films, but that is not, for me, a positive thing. And some of the characters and acting left a little to be desired, especially in the case of Simon’s parents. The film desperately needed some of the raw quirkiness of a film like Lady Bird. I have also heard that the film is nowhere near as good as the novel upon which it is based (Simon vs. the Home Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli), but I haven’t read it, so can’t comment.

Nevertheless, despite these varied flaws, I found myself totally engaged in Simon’s plight and in the relationships between him and his friends. The acting of the teenagers was generally very strong (especially Robinson, Langford and Shipp) and the characters were relatively well-developed. And while the tone was a problem for me, the sweetness of the film was not (I have no problem with ‘sweet’ films). I found the overall story heartfelt, humanizing and life-affirming. The theme of a high-school student struggling with his sexual identity, treated in such a matter-of-fact and positive way, is long overdue. As a family-friendly film about the experience of a gay teenager, Love, Simon can hardly be praised highly enough. 

So Love, Simon gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Game Night

While Game Night has not been receiving four-star reviews, critics have generally appreciated it, at least enough for me, with an interest in games and a love of the film The Game, to take a chance and watch it. That was a mistake.

There are some similarities, but Game Night is nothing at all like The Game. The similarities involve a premise in which someone has orchestrated a ‘game’ with players caught up in criminal events that seem all to real. The action revolves around Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), a game-loving couple who host a weekly game night. Before his divorce, the game night included their neighbour, Gary (Jesse Plemons), but now they intentionally keep him out. Game night regulars include Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who brings a different woman along each week. This week it’s a British colleague named Sarah (Sharon Horgan), and this week there’s twist. Max’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), the successful one in the family (though Max and Annie hardly seem to be suffering), is not a game night regular, but he’s hosting this game night in his rented mansion. He’s the one who has orchestrated this thriller game, so no one is concerned when he gets kidnapped right in front of them, even when a considerable amount of violence is involved. It’s just part of the game, they think.

At this point, I was still having fun. The acting was good (especially Bateman, McAdams and Plemons), the dialogue was often sharp, and the jokes were somewhat funny. But when Max and Annie follow the kidnappers and try to free Brooks, he tells them that this is not part of the game. The next thing you know, Annie drops a loaded gun and Max is shot in the arm. Every single scene involving that wound (and there are far too many) is ludicrous in the extreme and from that point on Game Night is just stupid instead of funny and entertaining, with twists along the way that were neither surprising nor credible.

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, Game Night gets **+. My mug is down for this disappointing comedy thriller.