Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Grandma



Lily Tomlin has never been better and her acerbic performance alone is worth going to see Grandma. Tomlin plays Elle Reid, the grandma in question. Having just broken up with the much younger Olivia (Judy Greer), Elle is not in great emotional shape when her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at her door asking her for $600 so she can have an abortion. Elle doesn’t have the money, but, for reasons that will become clear, she’s determined to help Sage find it, whether by selling rare books or visiting old friends. Along the way (which feels like a road trip film), we watch one great scene after another as we uncover pieces of Elle’s past and catch a glimpse of what’s troubling her in the present. 

One of the longer (and my favourite) scenes of the film involves Karl, an old flame. Karl is played by Sam Elliott. I can’t remember Elliott giving a better performance and this scene is haunting, featuring dialogue that is spot-on.

But ultimately Grandma is about the relationship between three generations of women: Sage, her mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) and Judy’s mother, Elle. This relationship is handled with wit and seriousness in equal measure (did I mention that Grandma was a comedy drama?), because Grandma is an edgy indie film and not a chick-flick (though I watched it in a theatre full of women). And Garner and Harden are almost as good as Tomlin. Grandma also has an equal measure of heart and intelligence. I found it surprising that this film about women was written by a man (Paul Weitz, who also directed).

Not every scene In Grandma worked for me and in some ways the story is too simplistic and maybe also too short, but Grandma gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Bridge of Spies



Steven Spielberg’s new film takes place in 1957, in the middle of the Cold War, just as the Berlin Wall is going up. The FBI has just captured a Soviet spy in Brooklyn and the powers-that-be want to make an example of him (i.e. send him to the electric chair). But they also want to avoid any accusations of an unfair trial, so they ask respected insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) to defend the spy (Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance). While Donovan is somewhat reluctant to do this, he not only accepts but takes his new job very seriously, insisting on giving Abel the best defence possible. For this, he is hated by the masses and also loses the goodwill of his colleagues and, to some extent, his family. 

Donovan perseveres and gets involved in a possible prisoner exchange (a young American pilot has been captured by the Soviets), which is supposed to take place in Berlin. But, once in Berlin, Donovan again insists on playing by his own rules and everything gets messy.

I loved the first 45 minutes or so of this long film (before we go to Berlin). Rylance is absolutely terrific as Abel, Hanks is always good, the cinematography (along with the perfect period detail) provides a tremendous sense of place and time (desaturated colours providing the look of a 50’s film), and the story is tight and fascinating, with some significant social commentary about life in the 50’s as well as today. Great stuff, and Bridge of Spies is heading for four stars.

But then the action (such as there is) begins and suddenly Bridge of Spies becomes boring and predictable. I loved the cinematography even more in Berlin and the acting remained strong, with various great German actors in the key roles. And I loved all the German dialogue without subtitles (might not have loved it so much if I didn’t understand it, but of course that understanding wasn’t necessary). But there was nowhere near enough tension or anything resembling surprise. And, as in The Martian, everything felt too light, given the incredibly dire situation in which the protagonists find themselves. Donovan, in particular, comes across as someone largely unconcerned by the dangers he is facing (there are exceptions), making one witty comment after the other, just like our easygoing martian friend, Mark Whatney. 

I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that a Spielberg film would feel ‘light’ but because of the critical acclaim I had hoped for more depth and more tension in what was otherwise a wonderfully-made film. I should also mention that women are treated very badly in this film, relegated to typical supportive roles. I suppose that can be excused by the fact this was typical of life in the late 50’s, but remains a sad fact.

All in all, I was disappointed with Bridge of Spies in a similar way that I was disappointed with The Martian, but, as with The Martian, I need to give it ***+ for all the things it did well. My mug is up, but keep your expectations reined in. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Borealis



One of the most pleasant surprises of the Edmonton International Film Festival was a film made by Winnipeg director Sean Garrity, written by, and starring, fellow Winnipegger Jonas Chernick and filmed entirely in Manitoba (including scenes filmed in my favourite Manitoba haunt, Birds Hill Park). It’s rare enough to watch a Manitoba film; for a Manitoba film to hold its own amongst a top-quality selection of international indie films borders on miraculous. 

What makes Borealis as good as it is are the terrific performances from a topnotch cast, including Joey King, who steals the film as Aurora, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Jonah (Chernick). Aurora is rapidly losing her eyesight, but her father doesn’t have the heart to tell her she is about to go blind. Haunted by his wife’s (Aurora’s mother) suicide, Jonah has become a compulsive gambler, accumulating a massive debt, owed to local Winnipeg loan sharks.

Kevin Pollack, another inspired casting choice (in the Q&A after the film, we learn that Pollack once worked with Chernick), plays Tubby, the thug responsible for collecting the debt. Suffering from anger-management issues (among other things), Tubby can be warm and ice cold as he tries to do his job, accompanied by Brick (Cle Bennett) Tubby’s calm reasonable sidekick. It’s all very Tarantinoesque, but with an understated Manitoba edge that works well.

Indeed, the entire film succeeds in feeling very much like a Manitoba story. It’s a dark suspense film and a dark drama, but this road film also has a light edge and some moments of genuine Manitoba humour. On the negative side, Garrity should not (in my opinion) have shot scenes in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg that represented scenes in Flin Flon and Churchill (northern Manitoba). As someone who has lived in both of those towns, it was too easy to see that most of the Flin Flon scenes (for example) were not filmed in Flin Flon. Since the filmmakers did do some filming in northern Manitoba, I wish they had decided to avoid such problems.

Other flaws include an underdeveloped story and underdeveloped characters, which take a toll on the dramatic part of the story, which is otherwise original and fascinating. 

Nevertheless, for a Manitoba film, Borealis is a wonderful entertaining film of high quality. For that reason alone (and Birds Hill Park), I can’t give Borealis less than ***+. My mug is up. Watch for it in January.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Lady in the Van



Note: I saw this film at the Edmonton International Film Festival, so you may have to wait a while before it is released in theatres.

A delightful British comedy drama almost everyone will enjoy is Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van. Maggie Smith is extraordinary as ‘Miss Shepherd’, an old transient woman living in her van who decides, after a few setbacks, to park her home on the driveway of writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings). Bennett is understandably nonplussed by this development but he is incredibly tolerant and eventually discovers there is much more to Miss Shepherd than he first thought. 

The Lady in the Van is based on a play by Bennett which itself is based on true events that happened to Bennett at his house in Camden Town (London). A fascinating fact is that the film was made on location at the house in question. Another interesting fact is that Maggie Smith was the first person to perform the role of Miss Shepherd when the play opened in London in 1989. Twenty-six years later, I daresay Smith has only gotten better. 

The story, as filmed, lacks depth and should have been told in a tighter, more compelling way, but this humanizing film is funny, creative and intelligent. And it features Smith at her irascible best (which alone is worth the price of admission). The Lady in the Van gets ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Labyrinth of Lies



Note: I saw this film at the Edmonton International Film Festival, so not sure when or if it will come to a theatre near you.

This German entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards begins in 1958 with the startling revelation that, thirteen years after WWII, most people in Germany still knew nothing about what had happened in Auschwitz. Alexander Fehling stars as Johann Radmann, the young prosecutor whose investigations into allegations of torture and genocide at Auschwitz will result in the first German trial against its own soldiers and the first public awareness of the horrors of the Nazi death camps. (note: Radmann’s character is based on two or three real-life prosecutors)

The title of the film (Labyrinth of Lies) is not a direct translation of the German Im Labyrinth des Schweigens. The German title refers more to a cover-up, an intentional silence about what happened in Auschwitz, than to lies. But Radmann encounters both silence and lies as he investigates the accusations only to find that those he works for don’t want to know about it. After all, hundreds of the men involved have become leaders in German society while others are quietly hiding in the corners. It takes a lot of courage for Radmann to persevere.

It’s a powerful story to take on and Giulio Ricciarelli’s well-made film makes a worthy attempt, though it too often felt like a Hollywood take on the story rather than what a gutsy raw indie film might do with it. And occasionally Labyrinth of Lies gets lost in the many pieces of the story it’s trying to include. 

Nevertheless, Labyrinth of Lies is compelling, beautifully-filmed and intelligently written. Fehling is excellent as the innocent young prosecutor and he’s joined by an impressive cast, including Gert Voss in his last performance, all of whom do a great job.

Labyrinth of Lies is a very disturbing film, not just for the obvious reasons but because of the questions that arise about the desperate need for justice/revenge and the complete lack of remorse on the part of the accused. Scary stuff to contemplate. 

This haunting film was a festival favourite and gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Sicario



Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite Canadian directors, has not made a film I didn’t award at least ***+. So I was eager to see what he would do with Sicario, the action-heavy story of an idealistic FBI agent caught up in a CIA plot to get rid of a Mexican drug-lord. 

Emily Blunt is perfect as Kate Macer, the agent in question. Macer, who is stationed in Arizona, leads a kidnap-response-team raid of a house in an Arizona suburb that goes horribly wrong. Tired of the unending violence associated with the drug cartels, Macer is easily persuaded to become part of something bigger: a government task force that promises to take down the drug lord responsible for countless murders.

The task force seems to be led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the laid-back advisor from the Department of Defense. Macer isn’t sure about Graver and his role in the task force, suspecting CIA involvement. But it’s when she meets another member of the task force, the quiet and mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) that she begins to think she has gotten in over her head.

Macer’s misgivings are confirmed when she discovers she’s been misled and that the mission to El Paso, Texas is actually being carried out across the border in Jaurez, Mexico. The shootout that ends that mission leaves Macer visibly shaken, but it’s just the beginning of the horrors she will face. 

Blunt, Brolin and del Toro are all terrific in Sicario. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing their roles. I wouldn’t be surprised if Blunt and del Toro get Oscar nominations for this. The writing is tight and intelligent, the characters surprisingly well-developed for an action film, the cinematography is outstanding and the menacing score plays a key role in the experience of viewing this incredibly intense and dark film. And I do mean dark, as in stay away unless you have a strong stomach, though the violence is not so much graphic as it is deeply disturbing (as it should be). 

I can tell you’re waiting for the ‘but’, so here it is: But what about the story and the meaning behind it? Sicario is in many ways a revenge story, like Villeneuve’s Prisoners. I don’t like revenge stories. Sicario has also been described as nihilistic. I don’t like nihilism, though I can tolerate it in certain kinds of arthouse films. And Sicario has been compared to films like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, two of my least-favourite films of the century. This doesn’t sound good at all. 

But here’s a bigger ‘but’: BUT I disagree with critics who describe Sicario as nihilistic and compare it to American Sniper because I know something of Villeneuve’s philosophy and political views. Some critics may have missed it, but I see Sicario as a strong indictment of American engagement in the Middle East (and Mexico), where the CIA and American military act like the world’s police officers and create only more violence and chaos. I also noticed that Sicario exposes CIA attitudes to the drug trade (better for them to control it than to try to end it) that have been critical to world events for decades. And the revenge story adds weight to Macer’s story, which is one of feeling overwhelmed by, and lost in, all the violence around her. Anyone who feels satisfied by the revenge aspects of Sicario watched a very different film than I did. And any film that exposes some of the dark dealings of one of the most evil organizations in the history of the world gets an extra nod from me.

So in spite of (or because of) all the violence in this dark film, I am giving Sicario ****. My mug is up for this likely top-ten film, but remember that you have been warned.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Martian



Walter recently commented that perhaps I had been too generous in my praise for the obscure indie films I watched at the Edmonton International Film Festival. I thought he might have had a point until I saw the critically-acclaimed Hollywood film The Martian. Despite its many positive attributes, The Martian felt so ‘Hollywood’, so light and, yes, so inferior, when compared to the rawness and the poetry of many of the festival films. Sicario (review pending) didn’t feel that way, but then it’s also an independent (Lionsgate) film. 

I had hoped Ridley Scott’s The Martian would be this year’s Interstellar or Gravity. And it does have a lot going for it. At the top of the list is the gorgeous cinematography (in 2D)  that was unaffected by the fact that the film was made for 3D. This is quite an astonishing achievement on its own and deserves high praise. Then there’s the great cast, led by Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor, with the likes of Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels in the smaller roles (loved the line where Bean’s character responds to a question about the Council of Elrond - Bean should know). The well-written dialogue is full of such witty lines, with an obvious leaning, throughout, toward the lighthearted. A film about an astronaut (Mark Watney, played by Damon) stranded on Mars with little hope of survival before he can be rescued could have been very dark. Instead, The Martian gives us a Disney-like fun space adventure. 

There is certainly something to be said for making a fun and hopeful space adventure with great characters (though not well-developed ones), intelligent writing, excellent acting (Damon was a perfect casting choice) and top-notch production values. As a sci-fi buff, I had no trouble enjoying The Martian from beginning to end. It’s a really well-made film that I can recommend to everyone, not least because it has absolutely no violence and is all about community and people trying to work together to achieve the best outcome. Very nice. Very laudable. 

But not very credible (despite trying to be), not very deep and, the bottom line, not very great. Unlike Interstellar and Gravity, The Martian will not make my top ten of the year. The other films weren’t very credible either, of course, but they provided such a wild intense ride that I didn’t care. The Martian, for all its wisdom and the opportunity to explore one person’s struggle for survival (as the only person on an entire planet), did not engage me at an emotional level at all. And that is why I can’t give The Martian more than ***+. But my mug is up and everyone should go see it on the big screen (in 2D). 

Monday, 12 October 2015

Freeheld



One of the few disappointments at the Edmonton International Film Festival was watching Freeheld. An indie film about gay rights starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Michael Shannon could have been a classic (I know, high expectations never helps). Instead, this true story about Laurel Hester (Moore), a lesbian police officer in New Jersey who is diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and fights to get the county’s freeholders to allow her pension to go to her partner, Stacie (Page), if she dies takes the route of appealing to the widest possible audience. The result is a formulaic biography that lacks intensity and emotion.

I suppose I can’t blame the filmmaker (Peter Sollett) too much for wanting this important story to be viewed by a large audience rather than by a typically-small arthouse crowd. And if this was made-for-TV (which is what it felt like), it would be a very good film. And I won’t blame the acting, which is solid enough (at least by the actors mentioned above). I especially enjoyed Shannon’s performance as Dane Wells, Hester’s longtime job partner and friend, who knew nothing of Hester’s sexual orientation until after the diagnosis. Shannon usually plays eccentric characters and it’s great to see him play a more typical role. But I will blame those who decided to forego creativity in the way they told this important story. 

Despite lacking style and feeling, Freeheld remains a film worth watching that I hope will attract the wide audience it’s playing for. A solid ***. My mug is up.



Sunday, 11 October 2015

Five Final Festival Mini-Reviews: The Second Mother, Fractured Land, Dark Horse, Cop Car, 3rd Street Blackout


Over the next week, I’ll be writing four full-length reviews of films from the Edmonton International Film Festival. But here is one last set of mini-reviews (in the order I liked them, as is the previous two sets), including 3rd Street Blackout, the only dud I saw at the festival (out of 20 films):


The Second Mother

This film from Brazil, directed by Anna Muylaert, stars Regina Case as Val, a live-in housekeeper of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo . Val had left Jessica, her young daughter, behind in northern Brazil to be raised by relatives. Now Jessica, preparing for her college entrance exams, wants to come live with Val. The result is chaotic for the household as Jessica is not at all impressed by the unspoken class rules governing life in the house. Well-acted and well-told, this rather light drama gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.


Fractured Land

This documentary from Damien Gillis and Fiona Rayher focuses on the struggles of a young Indigenous leader from BC: Caleb Behn. Behn is upset by the huge fracking operation on the treaty lands of northeastern BC, where he grew up. His efforts to protest the operation are hampered by the fact that he is about to become a lawyer. Fractured Land tells Behn’s story very well but doesn’t quite pul off the attempt to make this documentary about two subjects (i.e. the exposure of the fracking industry faded into the background in an unsatisfying way). Still, this is an important film about a man who may have a key role to play in the future of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. ***+. My mug is up.


Dark Horse

This Welsh documentary from Louise Osmond tells the story of a race horse bred and trained by a group of ‘amateurs’ from a small Welsh village. With very little money and no experience, this group was behind one of the most fascinating British race horses of the past decade: Dream Alliance. The documentary is very well made. ***+. My mug is up.


Cop Car

A darkly comic suspense film that reminded me of the Coen brothers, Jon Watts’ Cop Car stars Kevin Bacon as a bent sheriff whose car gets stolen by two young boys. This entertaining film focuses on the relationship and actions of the two boys, who should surely have known better. It was all a little too violent and unbelievable for me, but I’ll give Cop Car ***. My mug is up.

3rd Street Blackout

This comedy about a young couple, played by Negin Farsad and Jeremy Redleaf (who also wrote and directed the film), facing relationship issues in the midst of the post-Hurricane-Sandy blackout in Manhattan, didn’t work for me at all. I didn’t find any of the main characters sympathetic, the humour fell flat time and again and the attempts at social commentary (e.g. smartphone culture in a blackout) were pathetic. The only dud I saw at the festival, I will generously award 3rd Street Blackout **. My mug is down. A complete waste of time.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Four More Film Festival Mini-Reviews: Bikes vs Cars, Son of Saul, Mustang, Dheepan


The Edmonton International Film Festival has done a tremendous job in getting top-quality indie films for the 2015 festival. This is becoming a festival to take seriously. Of the eighteen films I have watched here so far, only two have received less than ***+ from me (four have received ****). Here are four more excellent films:


Bikes vs Cars

Made by Fredrik Gertten, this Swedish documentary creatively identifies the world’s desperate need to stop relying on cars and make the switch to bikes (or public transportation if necessary), especially in cities. Filmed in Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Toronto and Copenhagen, Bikes vs Cars shows the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to cities and cars/bikes. It’s brilliance shines most brightly when it shows people (like Toronto’s Rob Ford) decrying the use of bikes in cities and actually trying to make a case for making cities less friendly for bikes (cities were built for cars!). What hit home to me, as a hybrid car owner, was how the sale of hybrids and electric cars are still part of the same crazy paradigm of car ownership and just another scheme of the auto industry. Powerful stuff! A must-see documentary for everyone. ****. My mug is up for one of the most important films of the year.


Son of Saul

Like Victoria, the Hungarian film Son of Saul is an extraordinary filmmaking achievement (it’s made by Laszlo Nemes). The camera relentlessly follows a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz in 1944, placing the viewer in the heart of a chaotic and horrific few hours, as Jews are slaughtered in the background (out of focus) by the panicking German soldiers. The prisoner in question is Saul (played perfectly by Geza Rohrig), forced to work as a “Sonderkommando”, cleaning up and getting rid of the bodies of his people. He sees one death too many and falls off the rails, endangering the lives of many as he tries to bury a boy properly. A likely winner of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, I would also have given Son of Saul **** if the camera had given us at least one other perspective (e.g. the Jewish doctor who has been forced to work for the Nazis). While the film is riveting and incredibly intense, there is a lack of emotional engagement caused by experiencing the events from the point of view of someone who is no longer thinking or behaving rationally. Still, Son of Saul is a must-see for those who can handle it. ***+. My mug is up. 


Mustang

This Turkish film from Deniz Gamze Erguven tells the story of Lale and her four older sisters (or perhaps sisters and cousins), who are being brought up by their grandmother and uncle in a Turkish village. When the teenage girls behave a little too wildly one day, the grandmother and uncle turn their house into a fortress and begin arranging marriages for the girls, with tragic consequences (though the film has many light moments). A wonderful humanizing and inspiring film, Mustang gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.


Dheepan

Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Dheepan tells the story of three refugees from Sri Lanka who make their way (illegally) to France only to discover that the violence they were escaping has followed them. Made by Jacques Audiard, Dheepan features marvellous performances from Jesuthasan Antonythasan and Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Dheepan and Yalini, the fake couple trying to make a new life in France. While this dark film is good, it is not, for me, up to the standards that I would have expected for a Palme d’Or winner, primarily because the story it tells is not believable (to me). I appreciated that the violence was not graphic, but this is still a violent film. ***+. My mug is up.



Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Four Film Festival Mini-Reviews: Victoria, The Lobster, Room, Brooklyn


By Friday, I will have watched 23 new films in a span of two weeks. I don’t have time to write full-length reviews on all of those, so there’ll be some mini-reviews, even of some of the better films (like the ones below) if they are the kind where the less you know about them, the more you will enjoy the experience of watching them.


Victoria

What will probably be my favourite film of the festival (and maybe my favourite film of 2015) is one of those films. Victoria is an extraordinary one-shot wonder from Germany made by Sebastian Schipper. Filmed in Berlin in the early hours of the morning, Victoria begins with a young Spanish woman (brilliantly played by Laia Costa) leaving a club and being immediately accosted by a group of four young men, most of whom have had too much to drink. That’s all you’re going to hear from me about the plot. All I’ll say is that the 140 minutes which follow include a number of action scenes. To pull this kind of film off in one shot is an awesome achievement on its own, but it’s also much more fun to watch than Russian Ark. For the most part, I enjoyed the story of Victoria very much, though the central conceit of the film necessitates some contrivance and limits character development. ****. My mug is up for a film that is guaranteed to be in my top ten films of 2015. 



The Lobster

I will tell you even less about the plot of The Lobster (I’m so glad I knew absolutely nothing before I walked in). The Lobster is a dystopian film from Ireland made by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz as … hey, nice try, but like I said, I’m not telling you anything about this film’s plot. Maybe I’ll come back after its general release and say more. For now, I’ll just say that Farrell’s performance is one of his best ever and Weisz almost keeps up. I’m a sucker for intelligent thought-provoking dystopian films, so even though the story fades somewhat in the last half, I am giving The Lobster ****. My mug is up.



Room

Based on the bestselling book by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay), the plot of Room will be known to many. But I knew nothing (despite sitting through the trailer at least a dozen times) and that gave me a special start to the film which few viewers will experience. So again I will say nothing, though most reviewers will have no difficulty describing the plot at length. I’ll come back to Room in a few weeks. In the meantime, I’ll just say that Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, features a terrific performance by Brie Larson as a young mother of a five-year-old boy under very unique and difficult conditions. A dark film, Room is nevertheless suitable for a wider audience. ***+. My mug is up.



Brooklyn

Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley and written by Nick Hornby, is a very different kind of film. Here it’s not as critical to say as little as possible about the plot but my thoughts on the film are easily summarized in one paragraph:

Brooklyn is a gorgeously-filmed, beautifully-acted old-fashioned romance about Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who moves to Brooklyn in the early 1950’s and falls in love with Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian plumber, before tragedy strikes back home in Ireland. Domhnall Gleeson has a major role. Definitely in the chick-flick category, Brooklyn is a film that romance-lovers will not want to miss. ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 5 October 2015

My Internship in Canada



The second film I saw at the Edmonton International Film Festival (I have already seen eleven films in four days) was a huge leap up from Beeba Boys and will probably make my top ten of the year. It’s also a distinctly Canadian film (this time French-Canadian), made by the Philippe Falardeau, the director of Monsieur Lazhar, my third-favourite film of 2012. In English it’s called My Internship in Canada, not the most inspiring choice of titles.

My Internship in Canada is a political satire (I do love good political satires) about Steve Guibord (played by Patrick Huard), a Canadian member of parliament (MP) from central Quebec who is not aligned to any party and suddenly finds himself with the deciding vote in parliament on whether to send Canadian troops into a Middle-Eastern war (on terror?). Pushing for the war effort is a Canadian prime minister clearly meant to represent Stephen Harper.

Under pressure from both sides, Guibord’s vote is made more difficult by the fact that his wife wants him to vote for while his daughter wants him to vote against as well as the coincidental timing of two new events in his life: the sudden unexpected arrival of Souverain (Irdens Exantus), an intern from Haiti with some fairly strong ideas about government, and a blockade by an Indigenous group (protesting logging on Indigenous land) that results in a further blockade by those driving the logging trucks (to put pressure on Guibord to end the Indigenous blockade). 

Sovereign suggests to Guibord that the vote is an opportunity to see true democracy in action by asking the people of his riding how they would want him to vote. It sounds like a good idea until the various players start trying to influence those votes. It’s all quite hilarious and spot-on (for Canadians), with many brilliant observations on Canada’s flawed political system and its current flawed government.

The acting is very good, the cinematography is great, and while (or because) this is a ‘light’ film, it’s one that should be seen by all Canadians. My Internship in Canada gets ****. My mug is up.

Friday, 2 October 2015

A Based-on-True-Events Peter Sarsgaard Doubleheader: Black Mass and Pawn Sacrifice



Black Mass

Johnny Depp as we’ve never seen him before (and we’ve seen him do some pretty crazy things)! This time Depp plays Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who took over crime in South Boston in the 1970’s with the help of FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), with whom Bulger had grown up. Connelly was supposedly using Bulger to bring down the Italian mafia in Boston, which Connelly succeeded in doing, but Black Mass suggests Connelly’s motives were never very pure.

Scott Cooper’s film is based on a true story and it’s structured in an interview-in-the-future style which often works well. And Depp’s performance as the sinister mobster is outstanding - one of his best in this century. The rest of the cast is also wonderful, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother Billy (a senator) and Peter Sarsgaard in a small role as someone who couldn’t keep his mouth shut about what Bulger was doing. Even Edgerton impressed me. And the cinematography and score were great. 

Sounds like a good film so far, you say, but apparently acting, cinematography and score are not enough. Black Mass is an ice cold clinical film that tells this horrific story in a way that utterly failed to engage me. I have absolutely no interest in these gangsters, especially Bulger. Of course, as I’ve said here before, I don’t like gangster films. So enough said. Despite enjoying Depp’s gripping performance, I have no interest in seeing Black Mass again. I must therefore give it only **+, even if it objectively deserves more. My mug is down.



Pawn Sacrifice

Pawn Sacrifice tells the true story of chess master Bobby Fischer, beginning with his childhood (he was the youngest grandmaster at age 15), then focusing on his attempt to become the greatest chess player in the world and culminating in his best-of-24 series with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972, the most famous chess match in history (after which Fischer dropped off the map).

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer and does a great job conveying a young genius suffering from paranoia and making ever-more-eccentric demands on those who want (need) him to play. The fact that the FBI is shown monitoring his movements and that the American government viewed Fischer’s match with Spassky (Live Schreiber) as a key moment in the Cold War with Russia makes it clear that Fischer had reason to be paranoid. He was the pawn being sacrificed at any cost to show that the U.S. could beat the Russians at anything.  

At Fischer’s side for much of his championship play were Paul Marshall, a lawyer who acted as Fischer’s manager, and William Lombardy, a priest who was a great chess player himself. Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard do an excellent job playing these men who try to both support and encourage Fischer when Fischer’s behaviour grow increasingly erratic. 

Directed By Edward Zwick and written by Steven Knight (who wrote Locke), Pawn Sacrifice is well-structured and tight, capturing the feel of the early 70’s very well. While Fischer’s character is fairly well-developed, I would have liked a deeper analysis of his illness. Other character were not very well-developed and I was disappointed that there wasn’t a greater attempt to tell us more about Fischer’s relationships (especially with his family). The cinematography and score were excellent. 

I found Pawn Sacrifice to be a very entertaining and compelling based-on-true-events film, especially after watching Black Mass. So even if it should have been a deeper film, Pawn Sacrifice gets ***+. My mug is up.

Beeba Boys



I’m in Edmonton for the Edmonton International Film Festival, so lots (and I mean LOTS) of reviews coming up in the next two weeks (including films I saw in Winnipeg during the past week).

The festival started in a disappointing fashion with Beeba Boys, a film by Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, all of whose films I have enjoyed (until now). Mehta’s films include the Earth, Fire and Water series and Heaven on Earth, quiet dark PG-rated dramas about Indian women. They are well-made and have a lot to say. Beeba Boys could not be more different. It’s a Tarantinoesque mix of extreme graphic violence, graphic language, tragic drama and darkly comic moments that Mehta is unable to pull off. During the Q&A with Mehta after the film, every person (maybe ten) who asked questions enthusiastically praised the film, which was very polite of them but either very dishonest or revealing insufficient critical appraisal. Because no film critic out there is going to call Beeba Boys a great film.

Which is not to say that watching it was a waste of time. Beeba Boys was in many ways a fascinating film to watch. It has a distinctly offbeat Canadian flavour (and an offbeat Indian flavour) and is based on years of careful research into Indo-gang violence in Vancouver (the Q&A was the highlight of the evening, as Mehta talked about the background to the film and the life of immigrants in Canada, etc.).

Beeba Boys tells the story of a war between two Sikh gangs in Vancouver. The focus of the film is a gang leader named Jeet (Randeep Hooda), a coldblooded killer who dearly loves his mother and young son and frequently displays a pained expression as he contemplates the insanity of his life and his desire to end the violence. He’s a fairly complex character and the relationship between him and his parents and son is the strongest part of the film. But the film is mostly about the way Jeet’s primary enemy (whose wife is a friend of Jeet’s mother!) plants a mole named Nep (Ali Momen) into Jeet’s gang, with various horrific results. Along the way, Jeet hooks up with Katya, an attractive blonde from Poland (Sarah Allen), in a relationship which is purely superficial and lacks any chemistry. And then there’s the Vancouver police, led by the film’s silliest character (I cringed every time he opened his mouth), which are depicted as pretty useless and incompetent (especially in the film’s climax).

Nevertheless, I did find Beeba Boys oddly compelling. And there were some very entertaining scenes (Paul Gross has a small part, playing a wild character that reminded me of some great characters created by Tarantino). There was also a clear but devastating message about the need for children of immigrants to find a place in this country and gain some respect and notoriety while evidently having little regard for the value of human life (people are killed without a second thought). And this colourful film features some excellent cinematography and an interesting style. But with a couple of exceptions (including Jeet and his mother, who was played by Balinder Johal), the acting was not impressive, there was far too little character development  and the mix of comedy and violent drama didn’t work for me. So it is only with great generosity that award Beeba Boys ***. No mug to be found.