Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Folk Hero & Funny Guy (EIFF 17)

The closing film of the Edmonton International Film Festival was a quirky buddy road film written and directed by Jeff Grace (who was there for a Q&A afterwards). It’s called Folk Hero & Funny Guy. The funny guy (Paul, played by Alex Karpovsky) is a stand-up comedian who isn’t very funny but doesn’t pick up on the signals. The folk hero is a popular singer-songwriter (folk music) named Jason (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt and Goldie), who can do no wrong. When Jason invites Paul (they’ve been friends since childhood) to join him on his solo tour, opening with a comedy act before his own performance, it seems like a good idea. But Paul continues continues to strike out with the crowds (and with the women, who all adore Jason).

One woman in particular is at the heart of the problem. Bryn (Meredith Hagner) is another folk musician whom Paul and Jason meet on the road. Paul, who’s coming off a failed relationship, is immediately attracted to Bryn and begins slowly to get to know her, only to have Jason swoop in (after Paul’s gone) and take over. When Jason invited Bryn to join the tour, all kinds of tension ensue, and the road trip continues to go downhill for Paul, though there are signs of hope.

The acting by the three leads is excellent, especially because of the chemistry between them. The cinematography and score are likewise strong.

Folk Hero & Funny Guy is Grace’s first feature film and he is to be congratulated on making a fresh and entertaining indie road flick with a number of very enjoyable scenes. Unfortunately, too many other scenes (like most of those in hotel rooms) didn’t work for me at all. And while Karpovsky’s performance was the best in the film, his character (Paul) was too hard for me to sympathize with (I kept wanting to shake some sense into him). As a result, I can’t give Folk Hero & Funny Guy more than a solid ***. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Moonlight (EIFF 16)

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young African-American man growing up in Miami, at three points in his life (from childhood to early adulthood). As a young adolescent who is bullied by his peers, Chiron is played by Alex Hibbert. As an alienated older teen trying to figure out where he belongs, Chiron is played by Ashton Sanders. As a young adult who knows he’s been going in the wrong direction but doesn’t know how to change or express his feelings, Chiron is played by Trevante Rhodes. All three actors are great, though some of the surrounding cast are even better. 

For me, the best performance in the film came from Naomie Harris as Chiron’s unhappy and neglectful mother. Another great performance came from Mahershala Ali, who plays the drug dealer who rescues and befriends the young Chiron. Then there’s André Holland, who plays the adult Kevin, who, as a boy, had been Chiron’s closest friend. 

This ultimately sad tale is always fascinating, especially when it touches on a young black man’s struggle with sexual orientation. But what makes Moonlight special is not the overall story, which sometimes moves too slowly, but the magical scenes along the way that dive deeply into the personalities of the characters. These scenes feature their own unique styles of cinematography which imbue these scenes with a powerful sense of atmosphere. 

Moonlight is a very well-made, compelling and vital film that I highly recommend, but there was something about its style that prevented me from engaging with Chiron in a way that would have had me join the majority of critics who gave the film four stars. I give Moonlight a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Operation Avalanche (EIFF 15)

I am not a fan of found-footage films because I can never be convinced they really are found-footage and therefore can’t suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy the poor camera work, etc. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the description of Operation Avalanche as a found-footage film (supposedly filmed in 1969) that combines a conspiracy thriller with a dark comedy/satire. While the found-footage concept holds no interest for me, the skillful and often very funny attempt to create a found-footage film about a faked landing on the moon make Operation Avalanche an entertaining film to watch. 

Matt Johnson (who also directed and co-wrote Operation Avalanche) and Owen Williams play themselves as supposed CIA agents in the 1960’s who infiltrate NASA to find a Soviet mole only to discover that NASA isn’t capable of beating the Soviet Union to the moon. Their solution: let’s fake it. On the way, they uncover other government secrets their CIA boss would not want released and soon their lives are in danger. 

While often too silly (and sometimes poorly structured), this Canadian film offers lots of biting satire, with intriguing, and occasionally even convincing, scenes and ideas (often smarter than Capricorn One, a 1977 film about the same subject). I especially appreciated the frequent references to Stanley Kubrick (especially to Dr. Strangelove and 2001), who, according to the makers of the 2012 documentary Room 237, provided clues in his film The Shining to convey his own involvement in filming a faked moon landing. Lots of fun. Operation Avalanche gets a solid ***. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Trespass Against Us (EIFF 14)

Trespass Against Us begins with a scene in the middle of a field in rural England, where a car full of men and a young boy (who is behind the wheel) is chasing a rabbit. I immediately knew two things about this film: 1) It could not possibly end well; and 2) I was never going to be as sympathetic as I could be to the film’s protagonist, who is the father of the boy driving the car. 

But I knew even before the film started that I would enjoy watching Trespass Against Us. That’s because it stars two of my favourite actors: Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson. Fassbender plays Chad Cutler, the aforementioned father, while Gleeson plays Chad’s father, Colby Cutler, the leader of a gang of thieves. This is very much a film about the three male generations of the Cutler clan, though Chad’s wife, Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) plays a key role. 

The Cutlers are not, as you may have guessed, your average British family. It’s never clear why the family (and other members of the gang) live in trailers in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps they are ‘travellers’, nomadic groups that live on the fringes of society. But whatever their background, they’re a unique group, living on crime (which gets more daring all the time but is rarely violent) and not worrying about things like education (none of the men in the Cutler clan can read). Kelly is not content with either of these features of life as a Cutler and encourages Chad to give up that life and give their two children a normal education and a normal life. Chad is a loving father and sympathetic to this encouragement, but Colby, who is also a loving father in his own way, stands in the way of any thought of Chad leaving the group.

Meanwhile, the police, led by P.C. Lovage (Rory Kinnear), are convinced that Chad is behind recent major robberies and are desperately looking for enough evidence to put him away. 

On the surface, Trespass Against Us may sound like it has a strong plot, but from that opening scene it is always chaotic, living in the moment the way the Cutler gangs lives as a whole. One is never sure whether this film is supposed to be a quirky crime drama or a quirky comedy. This is not always satisfying (especially with its handheld camera work and endless car chases), but it adds something to the realism of the film. I would go so far as to say the story, cinematography and direction could have been better. However, there are two things that set Trespass Against Us apart. The first I have already mentioned, namely the film’s two main actors. Neither Fassbender nor Gleeson disappoint, delivering utterly convincing performances that will keep me watching for more. The second thing is the role of religion in the film, a role hinted at in the film’s title. Colby is a very religious (Catholic) man who believes the world is flat and that education is evil. The result is some very entertaining dialogue (if you can understand the heavy accents). 

Despite the film’s many flaws, there was something about the story of Chad that felt original and compelling and so I’m going to let Trespass Against Us slide across the line to ***+. My mug is up. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Personal Shopper (EIFF 13)

Apparently, my definitions of film genres are different from the norm. For example, I have a very clear definition for what does, and what does not, constitute a horror film (as opposed to, for example, a psychological thriller). My definition is this: If the film clearly involves the supernatural, and this involvement includes elements of suspense and fear, it is a horror film. If a film does not involve anything supernatural, than it is, for me, not a horror film. So while Alien qualifies as possessing all the elements of a terrifying horror flick, it does not involve the supernatural and is therefore simply a sci-fi film (bad example, but helps make my point). The same applies to slasher films and psychological thrillers, horrific as they may be.

So Personal Shopper, despite all the conflicting descriptions (e.g. ‘a drama that masquerades as a ghost story’), is not, first and foremost, a drama or a psychological thriller, though it certainly is those as well. Personal Shopper is a horror film, albeit a Hitchcockian style of horror film. I am not, generally, a fan of horror films, but because this one was directed by Olivier Assayas, all of whose films have received ***+ from me, I decided to give it a look (especially since, with my festival pass, it cost me nothing extra to do so). The controversial reception at Cannes also made it a must-see, since it was booed at its initial screening only to receive a 5-minute standing ovation at its official premiere and having Assayas win the Best Director award. 

Ten minutes into Personal Shopper, I was beginning to regret my decision to watch it. Despite there being no overt horror during those ten minutes, it was scary as hell, not least because the protagonist, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), insisted, for no apparent reason, on walking, by herself, through a spooky old deserted mansion in Paris in the dark. She could have turned on the lights, and friends had offered to join her, so what the heck?

Well, it turns out Maureen had a good reason for what she was doing. She was looking for a sign from her recently-deceased twin brother, who had made a pact with Maureen that the first of them to die (they shared a heart defect) would give a sign to the other that they were still around in spirit form. Maureen had given herself three months to discover that sign and the old mansion was the house in which they had grown up and where her brother died, so… 

It also turns out that those first ten minutes are the scariest in the film, although the more answers the plot provided, the more unanswered questions came up, resulting in one of the most confusing films I have watched in a long time. At the same time, Personal Shopper felt intelligent enough to be intentionally confusing and it never stopped being fascinating, so I actually quite enjoyed it, thanks especially to Stewart’s sublime effortless performance (something she also pulled off in Assayas’s last film, Clouds of Sils Maria).

To flesh out the plot a little: Besides being a medium, Maureen is the personal shopper (mostly clothes) for a demanding supermodel named Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten). After Maureen’s visits to the old mansion, she gets text messages from an unknown source (perhaps her brother, she thinks) that spur her on to actions she has wanted to take but never dared, like trying on Kyra’s clothes and sleeping on her bed. All of this will lead to a very dark and mysterious (i.e. confusing) climax. 

I enjoy mysterious screenplays, but the ending was just too confusing for me, whether that confusion was intentional or not. Nevertheless, Personal Shopper is worthy of a very solid ***. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Queen of Katwe

Disney has come out with yet another 2016 film that it knows will never be a huge hit at the box office, though, as with Pete’s Dragon, there are formulaic elements that make it very much a Disney film. 

Queen of Katwe, which is based on a true story, stars Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi, a teenage girl living in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, whose mother can’t afford to send her four children to school, so none of them can read. When Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a local missionary known primarily as a soccer coach, starts teaching children in the neighbourhood to play chess, Phiona looks on, fascinated, and eventually begins playing the game. Phiona has a gift for chess and Katende encourages her and the other children to begin playing in school tournaments, even if they don’t go to school. 

The result is as predictable as other Disney sports films that feature underdogs struggling to reach lofty goals, but there are special ingredients in this drama that make it stand out, not least because Mira Nair directed the film. Nair has a flare for conveying a joyful energy in the most dire of surroundings and she makes Katwe a place bursting with colour and life while not minimizing the suffering or the daily struggle mothers face to provide food for their children.

Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet, (Lupita Nyong’o), is one such person, a loving resourceful mother who wants the best for her children but doesn’t fully trust Katende and his dreams. There are other strong female characters in the film, including Robert’s wife, Sara (Esther Tebandeke), making the film much more about women than men, which is a good thing.

There are many distinctive characters in Queen of Katwe, including the children who play chess with Phiona. All of the acting is strong, the cinematography is outstanding and the score is very good. While chess may not be the most exciting or profound way to highlight the plight of Uganda’s poor, it is used effectively as a symbol for the daily fight. All in all, Queen of Katwe is a fresh and inspiring take on a common Disney theme and gets ***+. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Tanna (EIFF 12)

Coincidentally, the second film in a row from the South Pacific:

There are still a few indigenous tribes in the world who intentionally reject the trappings of modern civilization, choosing to live the way their ancestors have lived for millennia. Three such tribes live on a Pacific island called Tanna in the nation of Vanuatu, where, in 1986, two of the tribes (the Yakel and the Imedin) were in a constant state of tension, watching for any opportunity to take revenge on their neighbours.

One day the Yakel village shaman (Albi Nangia) takes his defiant young granddaughter, Selin (Marcilene Rofit), to visit the active volcano at the centre of the island and try to talk her into being mores respectful toward her parents. But he is attacked and almost killed by two of the Imedin. The usual response to such an act would be a violent reprisal and Dain (Mangau Dain), the Yakel chief’s grandson, whose parents were killed by the Imedin, is ready to lead the attack. But the Yakel chief is given a song of peace from Mother Spirit and refuses to countenance violence. Instead, he contacts the third tribe (a peacemaking tribe) to set up a meeting between the warring chiefs. At that meeting, the chiefs exchange gifts and vows of peace. One of these gifts is the young Yakel woman, Wawa (Marie Wawa). But Wawa is in love with Dain and has no intention of going to the Imedin. 

Unfortunately for Wawa, tradition (kastom) dictates that marriages are arranged by parents and the chiefs, not by those involved. So Wawa and Dain decide to run away, resulting in a pursuit by both the Imedin and the Yakel that promises to have a fatal outcome. The only chance the young couple have is the intervention of the fearless Selin, who believes she knows where the couple have gone and is determined to find them before the Imedin do. 

Based on a true story, that is the first half (or more, sorry) of Tanna, a unique and astonishing film, not least because its ‘actors’ (all from the Yakel village on Tanna) have not only never acted before, they’ve never even watched a film before. Despite that fact, the acting is incredible, especially by Wawa, Dain and Rofit. That the acting is natural is no surprise, but it goes way beyond that. And the cinematography is breathtaking, though admittedly the filmmakers do have a lot to work with. The score, meanwhile, was perhaps the best I heard at the EIFF. The film is the work of Australian documentary filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, who lived with the Yakel people for seven months before filming.

If the story of Tanna had been a little stronger and more original, building, for example, more effectively on some of the thoughts conveyed in the song of peace, Tanna would have received an easy four stars. As it is, Tanna gets a solid ***+, verging on ****. My mug is up. Don’t miss it on the big screen if you have a chance.