Monday, 24 October 2016

The Salesman (EIFF 18)

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s breakout film, 2011’s Academy-Award-winning A Separation, was a masterpiece, so I’ve come to expect a lot from Farhadi. His next film, The Past, made in 2013, wasn’t as good as A Separation but I loved it as well. So, after awarding four stars to both of the Farhadi films I’ve seen, my expectations for Farhadi’s new film, The Salesman, were admittedly much too high. That was no doubt part of the reason that I was disappointed in the film, though it was still among my top-five films of the EIFF.

The Salesman stars Shahab Hosseini as Emad, who teaches literature and acts in a local theatre company. His current role is that of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Coincidentally (especially for the screenplay, which felt too contrived throughout precisely because of such coincidences), Loman’s wife is played by Emad’s wife, Rana, who in turn is played by Taraneh Alidoosti. Following the first performance of the play, Emad stays behind while Rana goes home (to an apartment they just moved into, which had been previously occupied by a prostitute). (Spoiler alert) When the doorbell rings, Rana assumes it’s Emad, so she opens the door and goes to take her shower. But it’s not Emad, and the man who enters in some way assaults Rana in the shower. 

When Emad finds Rana in the hospital, he is understandably furious, though he seems more concerned with hunting down the assailant than he is with his wife’s welfare, as if he, not his wife, had been attacked. This is one of a number of reasons that Emad is a less-than-sympathetic protagonist, which in turn is one of the reasons The Salesman was disappointing to me, though Emad’s character was probably quite realistic. I assume Farhadi was trying to expose and challenge the way Emad treats Rana, but by making Rana’s suffering primarily a piece of Emad’s story, the film seems to exacerbate rather than challenge this behaviour. 

The Salesman is at its strongest at the end, however, with a number of brilliant, intense and thought-provoking scenes resulting from Emad’s hunt. While there are confusing elements to that hunt, not least because of the way the characters in the play represent characters in the film, it’s riveting and original filmmaking. And despite being a lover of suspense, I was not at all disappointed with the lack of suspense in The Salesman (perhaps because the level of tension was so high). 

The acting in The Salesman is flawless throughout, aided by an unusual character depth (at least for the male characters). The writing is extraordinary at times, with so many pieces fitting perfectly together, but at other times it seems heavy-handed and, as mentioned above, too contrived. Nevertheless, I am giving The Salesman a solid ***+. My mug is up. It’s a must-see for lovers of foreign film. 

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. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

It's not that often that I would refer to a "must-see" film, but this is one. As a fan of quirky comedies, I feel that one of the factors that makes or breaks them is their ability to set the right tone so that you know how to sit back and take the film in as intended.

This film by New Zealand director, Taika Waititi, does that brilliantly. In other films, especially Boy (2010), he has demonstrated his ability to mix humour with serious issues, and this time he does so even better - at least as far as the humour is concerned.

The closest comparison I can think of is the Australian comedy, The Castle (1997), which had that incredible ability to add a dozen classic quotes to your repertoire. Yet The Castle was so unique that it took a long while before most viewers knew how to take it. I've heard many who, like myself, didn't warm to it at all during the first half hour. Yet, once you caught the rhythm of the film, it was lovable and hilarious.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople draws you in much more quickly, but shares that same quotability, especially since it begs to be watched again and shared with friends and watched again. I've been told by Kiwis who appreciate the film that it's even better if you know all the in jokes that are sprinkled thoughout.

There are moments when it can't be taken seriously and gets a little over-the-top, but this is made tolerable (if not laudable) since it is all in the service of homage to classic outlaw-on-the-run films. Also be warned that the New Zealand accents, especially for the Maori boy, Ricky Baker, mean you have to listen closely.

The cinematography is gorgeous, the acting is wonderful and, in the best way, it's a "feel-good" film. **** from me.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Baby, Baby, Baby (EIFF 11)

This quirky indie romantic comedy from Brian Klugman (who also stars) is a lot better than most Hollywood rom-coms, but it’s not original or entertaining enough to rise beyond the three-star level.

Klugman plays Sydney, a thirty-something actor (mostly commercials) and would-be writer (mostly short stories) whose latest girlfriend just dumped him and who doesn’t believe that it’s better to have loved and lost. But then he meets Sunny (Adrianne Palicki) and begins to reconsider. Sunny is a painter and a bartender. They’re both struggling artists ( at least at first) and they fall in love quickly, but they don’t have enough in common and it doesn’t take long for Sydney to think something is off (once again). He uses his short stories to analyze his relationship with Sunny, and this is where the film attracted my attention.

Sydney’s short stories are depicted on screen using a long list of actors making cameo appearances (including William Shatner, Cloris Leachman, Jessica Alba, Dennis Haysbert, Bradley Cooper and Jared Harris). The vignettes are often very funny and always entertaining. Kelsey Grammar is also on hand as the gallery owner who takes an interest in Sunny’s work.

Thanks to the short-story scenes and the cameo appearances, which are unusual in a low-budget indie film, Baby, Baby, Baby is a lot of fun to watch. And, on the whole, the acting is quite good. Unfortunately, too many jokes fall flat  to make it a real winner. A solid ***. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Elle (EIFF 10)

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (French for ‘she’ or ‘her’) was probably the most controversial film at Cannes this year. That honour is well-deserved, because Elle is a very difficult film to watch. Aside from being so disturbing, Elle is a brilliant film.

Isabelle Huppert stars as Michele and she appears in almost every scene. Michele runs a video game company in Paris that specializes in making games in which monsters do horrible things to beautiful young women. She insists that her game designers make these games as graphic and sexual as possible, even after a man wearing a ski mask breaks into her beautiful home and violently rapes her. Michele arms herself with pepper spray to ward off future assaults, but she doesn’t seem all that upset about the rape and doesn’t call the police. This is the first sign that something about Michele is a little off.

To some degree, her bizarre response to the rape can no doubt be attributed to her traumatic childhood. When she was ten years old, her father murdered 27 people in her neighbourhood (for which he is spending life in prison) before burning down his house. Michele was in some ways complicit in at least the fire, and the event has left her psychologically scarred (possibly sociopathic).

Michele, who’s around fifty, is having an affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), her best friend’s husband, but that’s getting old. She wants the handsome young neighbour (Laurent Lafitte) from across the street, the one married to the devout Catholic who’s putting up a giant creche for Christmas (yup, it’s a Christmas film). Meanwhile, Michele’s son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) is having a tough time with his girlfriend (Alice Isaaz) and their newborn son (whose skin colour is too dark for him to be Vincent’s son). And Michele’s ex (Charles Berling) is hanging around, more worried about the rapist than Michele is. I mention these mundane details to show that Elle is not your typical psychological thriller (some critics call it a dark comedy), but I assure you it goes into some very dark and twisted places.

And yet, as disturbing as the film is, it’s not as in your face as the description above might suggest. It’s actually a fairly subtle film, which is why the dark humour is not always evident. The unique Michele, despite her actions, remains a somewhat sympathetic character, thanks partly to the phenomenal performance by Huppert, who deserves an Oscar nomination. The rest of the acting is also strong. In most ways, Elle is actually a terrific film, with gorgeous cinematography, a great score and an intelligent screenplay to go along with the acting.

However, Elle is so disturbing, especially in its combination of dark humour and rape, that I can’t award it four stars.I will give it ***+. My mug is up, but if you think this film may not be for you, I encourage you to trust your instincts and stay away. This one is only for fans of dark and twisted European thrillers. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Manchester by the Sea (EIFF 9)

The third overrated film of the EIFF (and there will likely only be these three) is the best of the three: Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. As good as it is, however, it is not (in my opinion) the masterpiece critics are claiming it to be.

Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a man who returns to his small hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts to attend the funeral of his beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), only to discover that Joe’s will stipulates that Lee is now the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee and Patrick have always been close, but the traumatic memories of Manchester that haunt Lee make it impossible for him to consider staying and looking after Patrick.

Woven throughout this story (and forming half of the film) are flashbacks that show us Lee’s life in Manchester before moving to Boston (where he works as a condo handyman). This gives us an opportunity to get to know Joe, Lee’s ex-wife wife, Randi (Michelle Williams) and Joe’s ex-wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol).

Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful subtle film that delivers its revelations at a leisurely but well-timed pace. Affleck is superb as Lee (Oscar nomination almost assured) and Lee is a believable and largely sympathetic character, a man whose life is overwhelming him beyond what he can handle. The agony and turmoil he is experiencing is what makes this film special, though sometimes Lee’s silence is too much, limiting my engagement with his pain. The rest of the acting is also very good. Lonergan’s screenplay is sharp and unpredictable (always a good thing), but there are some flaws (besides the one just mentioned).

The major flaws of Manchester by the Sea revolve around the character of Patrick. Patrick plays a key role in the film, from first to last, and it just never feels quite right. For example, Patrick’s reaction to his father’s death doesn't feel credible, even for a self-absorbed teenager. And that self-absorption is itself a problem, as it regularly frustrates opportunities to sympathize with him, something which would have made the film more engaging and more moving for me. If both Lee and Patrick (the film’s central characters) had engaged me more, Manchester by the Sea might have been the masterpiece many critics see.

I am giving Manchester by the Sea a solid ***+ and a high recommendation to readers. You’ll definitely want to check this one out. My mug is up. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

American Honey (EIFF 8)

While nowhere near as overrated as Toni Erdmann, American Honey has received a lot of critical acclaim and won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year (runner-up for the Palme d’Or, which was won by I, Daniel Blake). For me, the acclaim is not deserved, though I’m glad I had a chance to watch the film.

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, whose previous two films (Red Road and Fish Tank) both received four stars from me, American Honey stars Sasha Lane as Star, an eighteen-year-old young woman who spontaneously joins a group of fellow misfits on the road, selling magazines. Uncomfortable with the sales pitches and much of the team’s lifestyle, Star nevertheless stays with the sales team and does her best to fit in while maintaining a strong independence. The heart of the film is Star’s relationship with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the team’s charismatic (and over-the-top) and most-successful salesperson, who himself has a unique relationship with Krystal (Riley Keough), the team’s leader. 

The story of Star is a fascinating coming-of-age road film that I actually resonated with quite strongly, as I was also part of such a travelling sales team for a month when I was nineteen (unlike Star, I quickly gave up on the team’s sales gimmicks and bizarre lifestyle and resigned when I was offered a major promotion). And Lane’s acting is natural and excellent, making it easy to sympathize with Star, unlike the rest of the team members, though the acting was also solid enough throughout and I appreciated the character depth. I enjoyed many individual scenes and conversations in American Honey and found the screenplay original and often entertaining, if not always compelling.

Which leads me to the film’s biggest flaw, a flaw so big it prevents me from awarding American Honey more than three stars. The flaw? For what it offers, the 162-minute American Honey is a full hour too long. Far too many scenes were unnecessary or went on much too long (a flaw shared with Toni Erdmann). I love long films. Many of my favourite films are around three hours long. But a 162-minute film needs to earn its length. American Honey fails to do that and many in the EIFF audience agreed with me.

So American Honey gets a solid ***. My mug is up, but don’t watch it if you’re tired.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Toni Erdmann (EIFF 7)

Given that film festivals like the EIFF choose films based on critical acclaim, it’s not unusual for me to think that the odd EIFF film is significantly overrated. I’ve seen three overrated films so far this year (out of thirteen films) and will be writing my next three reviews on these three films.

By far the most overrated film I have seen in a very long time is a German film called Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade. It is currently the favourite to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and is getting absolutely rave reviews from the critics. Personally, I thought Toni Erdmann was a very good film, and I have a particular fondness for German films, but my review is going to sound quite negative because I didn’t think it was anywhere near as good as the critics say it is. 

Toni Erdmann is the story of a father and daughter (Winfried and Ines Conradi, played by Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller). Winfried is a divorced music teacher heading toward retirement; Ines (in her mid-thirties) is a very busy consultant who’s spent much of the past year working out of Bucharest. Winfried doesn’t get to see much of his daughter, and when, on one of Ines’s rare visits to Germany, he catches Ines pretending to talk on her cellphone, he is convinced she is unhappy in her work and her life. So, after his dog (his only regular companion) dies, the lonely and depressed Winfried decides to fly to Bucharest to see how Ines is doing. Ines is shocked and not at all impressed by her father’s surprise visit, especially when he questions her life and work and asks repeatedly whether she is happy. But things get much worse when Winfried puts on a long black wig, puts false teeth in his mouth, calls himself Toni Erdmann and begins showing up at Ines’s meetings and parties, often acting like a buffoon.

To be fair to Winfried, Ines does not seem particularly happy with her life and work (the film does a great job of exposing the innate sexism in the business world, not to mention the thankless and depressing work of being the scapegoat for decisions to lay off hundreds or thousands of workers). But Winfried’s incredibly silly behaviour, aimed at connecting to his daughter in some way, is beyond the pale and I found it very difficult to maintain any kind of sympathy for him. It is also impossible to explain how he always seems to know where she will be (a major plot hole). 

Toni Erdmann’s biggest flaw, shared by American Honey (next review), is that it is much too long (162 minutes) for what it offers. This story could have been told, and told well, in two hours. A number of scenes struck me as either too long or not necessary at all. Another flaw is related to the question of whether Toni Erdmann is a comedy or a tragedy. Some critics have described it as the quintessential German comedy. For me, Toni Erdmann was neither quintessentially German nor a comedy. I smiled a lot but never laughed, and when the audience laughed I was often cringing (a bad thing). I found nothing at all funny about Winfried’s ludicrous behaviour or about Ines’s lack of self-awareness and couldn’t engage enough with either of the protagnists. To close out my negative comments, I also didn't find the cinematography and music very inspiring, though they were probably appropriate for the subject matter.

But Toni Erdmann has many positive attributes as well. Some scenes were marvellous, either deliciously original or painfully poignant. The acting by Simonischek and Hüller was extraordinary. And best of all was the very accurate and sad presentation of life, work and relationships in the 21st century (especially in northern Europe), worthy of much fruitful discussion. So while I think Toni Erdmann was far from the masterpiece critics are claiming it to be, I will let is slide over the line to ***+. My mug is up, but keep your expectations in check and note that this is another very adult film (and not because of violence or language). 

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A Man Called Ove (EIFF 6)

This sad, tragic Swedish film about a man making a number of attempts to commit suicide so he can join his recently-deceased wife is one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time.

A Man Called Ove, written and directed by Hannes Holm, stars Rolf Lassgård as the 59-year-old Ove, who gets laid off from his job of 43 years and is forced to spend his days in the condo community where he (and, until recently, his wife) has lived for decades. The sullen angry Ove is the self-appointed rule-enforcer of the condo community, making sure no one drives on the narrow roads separating the community’s small houses (no driving allowed), among other things. With a noose around his neck, Ove is about to kick over the footstool beneath him when he sees a car backing down the road in front of his window. Furious, he runs outside just in time to watch his new neighbour back into his mailbox. 

Thus begins a relationship with one of his neighbours (an Iranian immigrant named Parvaneh, played by Bahar Pars) which will repeatedly frustrate Ove’s suicide attempts. During those attempts, we see flashbacks of Ove’s life that explain at least some of his constant anger and frustration at the ‘idiots’ (especially the terrible ‘whiteshirts') that haunt his daily life. 

A Man Called Ove doesn’t stand out for its cinematography or score. And while the writing is often sharp, critics correctly accuse the film of being too contrived and emotionally manipulative. And this is by no means an original story - we’ve seen the grumpy old man tale told many times.  But I have never seen that story told as well as this, and the manipulation is a work of art. With its wry northern European humour, its not untypical behaviour (for northern Europe), its inventive structure and the brilliant pitch-perfect performance by Lassgård, A Man Called Ove is one of the best films I have seen this year (the similarities between this film and I, Daniel Blake, my other EIFF favourite, are eerie). 

This highly entertaining and moving story about love, friendship and community gets a solid ****. My mug is up and I recommend it highly to all. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Handmaiden (EIFF 5) - updated

[Update: I have now finished Fingersmith, the novel upon which The Handmaiden was based, and can confirm that the final 30 minutes of the film have nothing whatsoever to do with the novel. Since I hated those final 30 minutes, I can only say that I am extremely disappointed and wonder whether The Handmaiden even deserves ***. Personally, I think Park Chan-wook has some serious explaining to do.]

Imagine my surprise when I start watching a film I know nothing about and discover that I know everything that’s going to happen. How do I know?  Because I’m just finishing the novel on which the film is based. The film is called The Handmaiden. It was made in South Korea by the acclaimed Korean filmmaker, Park Chan-wook, and takes place in Korea in the early 20th century. The novel, which is very loosely adapted for the film, is called Fingersmith, written by Sarah Waters. It takes place in and near London in the 19th century and involves no Koreans. Thus my surprise. 

The differences between the novel and the film don’t end with the change of setting and are the primary reason I was not particularly impressed with The Handmaiden (though I haven’t finished the novel yet so don’t know how it ends). 

The Handmaiden stars Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, a young Korean woman growing up in relative poverty who works as a pickpocket in a Fagin-like household of petty crime. Sook-hee gets involved in a scheme to rob a wealthy young Japanese heiress (Lady Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee) of her fortune. The scheme is hatched by “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo), a member of Sook-hee’s gang, who plans to seduce Lady Hideko, steal her away from her uncle’s home, marry her and then commit her to an asylum while he spends her fortune. Sook-hee will share in the fortune if she plays the role of Lady Hideko’s handmaiden and helps in the seduction scheme. But as Sook-hee gets to know Lady Hideko, her enthusiasm begins to wane.

Meanwhile, Lady Hideko, who is at the heart of Part Two of The Handmaiden, grows up as an orphan in her uncle’s mansion, where she spends hours a day reading pornographic books to her nasty uncle (and occasionally to her uncle’s group of friends). The arrival of Sook-hee will change her life forever. I’m not willing to reveal anymore of the twisty and twisted plot.

The Handmaiden features stunning cinematography from the first shot to the last, and I loved the film’s score. The acting was solid throughout and some scenes, which were not really described in the novel, were brilliantly-conceived and breathtaking to watch. 

Unfortunately, other scenes made me cringe in the worst possible way, including a long torture scene which was completely unnecessary. The Handmaiden is described as an erotic psychological thriller. I would add that there are significant attempts to add dark humour into the mix. Fingersmith, on the other hand, was not nearly so focused on the erotic and had no real dark humour to speak of. I appreciated neither addition. Indeed, I found the emphasis on sex quite disturbing, because while the novel and film both clearly try to challenge the objectification of women and the way Hideko has been abused by her uncle, the film’s sex scenes, which involved beautiful young women, are shot in way that, to me, nullifies much of that message.

The Handmaiden could have been a profound beautiful suspense drama, but I was disappointed and can give it no more than ***. My mug is up, but don’t take that as a recommendation to go see the film, which deserves a serious R rating (even in Canada). 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Julieta (EIFF 4)

The best film I watched on day four of the EIFF was Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, Julieta. Based on three inter-connected short stories by Alice Munro, Julieta stars Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte as the older and younger Julieta, and Daniel Grao and Darío Grandinetti as Xoan and Lorenzo, partners of the younger and older versions of Julieta.

The film begins in the present, with Julieta and Lorenzo preparing to move from Madrid to Portugal. All seems well until Julieta runs into Beatriz, her daughter’s former best friend, who reports having recently seen Antía (Julieta’s daughter) and her children. Julieta is transfixed and immediately renews her obsession with connecting with her daughter, whom she hasn’t seen in twelve years (since Antía was 18). Julieta has never understood why Antía left her, though she believes it must have something to do with Antía’s father (Xoan). Julieta leaves Lorenzo (without explanation; she never told him about Antía) and decides to write a journal to Antía, telling her more about Xoan and his life with Julieta.

We then flash back to how Julieta and Xoan meet and begin their life together with their darling daughter. Tragedy strikes and Julieta is hit hard, but not as hard as when Antía (at 18) suddenly leaves for a three-month retreat and never returns or says a word about why she left. Will she ever learn the truth about Antía and her disappearance?

Julieta is in some ways a typical Almodovar film, with the usual gorgeous cinematography full of his trademark vibrant colours and with typical themes like motherhood, death and memories. There’s even a typical nod to Hitchcock and film noir in the fine score, but that’s somewhat problematic because the story, as presented, doesn’t feel much like Hitchcock or film noir. Indeed, the film’s biggest flaw, for me, was the way the story unfolded with insufficient information to understand what really happened (unanswered questions at the end of the film were not welcome). The other flaw was that the sad, rather melodramatic plot did not engage me emotionally the way it should have (though that was not true for some of my fellow viewers). 

Nevertheless, Julieta was a beautiful and consistently entertaining film, with some excellent performances (especially from Suárez and Ugarte) and an intelligent screenplay. ***+. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 2 October 2016

I, Daniel Blake (EIFF 3)


Ken Loach has long been one of my favourite directors, with every film of his that I’ve watched (ten or so) getting either  ***+ or ****. But none, in my opinion, has been better than I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. 

Written by Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake stars Dave Johns as Dan Blake, a sixty-year-old widower in Newcastle (northern England) who is recovering from a major heart attack. His doctors inform him that he needs more time to recover before going back to work. But when he applies for Employment benefits, he has to take a written test which disqualifies him from the benefits (a health care professional has determined that Blake’s test answers indicate he can go back to work). So Blake tries applying for job seeker benefits, but they require him to spend 35 hours a week looking for a job he should not be doing.

While Blake is trying to figure out how to get enough income to survive, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother (with two children) who is in a similar predicament, barely able to keep food on the table because she has fallen through holes in the state system. 

The Wow! above is because I, Daniel Blake is one of the most humanizing films I have ever seen (and that is, perhaps, my primary criterion for greatness). Despite showing how the state often dehumanizes its citizens, and even its own employees (turning them into slavish rule-followers), I, Daniel Blake reveals the tremendous goodness in people both inside and outside the system and the potential each of us has to challenge the powers-that-be and to be a good neighbour. Blake, himself, is a prime example of a man who stands up against dehumanizing authorities as he seeks to improve the lives of the people around him each day. He’s not perfect but he’s one of the most inspirational characters ever depicted on film. 

Critics will no doubt be unhappy with the pedagogical nature of I, Daniel Blake. This is not a film that hides its message. But the film is so stark and unsentimental, and delivers its message so effectively, that I have absolutely zero problems with that. 

The acting in I, Daniel Blake is phenomenal (by all concerned, with Johns and Squires are perfectly cast), the cinematography is excellent, and the score is exactly what it should be for this film, namely non-existent. The writing is brilliant, with every word of dialogue feeling natural and all-too-real. Loach’s direction could not have been better, allowing the scenes to flow naturally. Well-deserving of the Palme d’Or and likely to make my top three of 2016 (perhaps even number one), I, Daniel Blake gets an easy ****. My mug is way up and I recommend this film to everyone! Don’t miss it!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Weirdos (EIFF 2)

Weirdos is a quirky indie road movie set in Nova Scotia in 1976. Directed by Bruce McDonald and written by Daniel McIvor, Weirdos stars Dylan Authors and Julia Sarah Stone as Kit and Alice, two fifteen-year-olds who decide to hitchhike from Antigonish to Sydney, Nova Scotia to attend a beach party and so Kit can move in with his mother, Laura (Molly Parker). Kit is running away from home because he is angry with his father and his father’s attitude. Alice is in love with Kit and is looking forward to some goodbye sex on the beach (they haven’t had sex at all yet), but she knows something isn’t quite right about their relationship. 

As the tension in their relationship grows, the two teenagers encounter a group of friends, a quirky but friendly police officer, and eventually Laura and the people she lives with. Along the way, Kit will be confronted with a number of truths that will change his life forever. Oh, and did I mention that Kit is regularly ‘visited’ by the spirit of someone claiming not to be Andy Warhol (Rhys Bevan-John) and that the celebration of the U.S. bicentennial plays a role?

Weirdos is in many ways an extraordinary little film. The black and white cinematography is stunning, with one gorgeous shot after another. Combined with a great 70’s soundtrack, Weirdos does a great job of making you feel you are in 1970’s Nova Scotia. The acting is, on the whole, very good, with Parker and the two young actors standing out. At times very funny and at times very sad, Weirdos is a kind, gentle film that offers a number of profound observations and precious scenes. 

Which is not to say that Weirdos is perfect, as I felt there was some unevenness in the writing and some awkwardness in the acting in a few scenes. Especially in the first half of the film, when we don’t yet know what’s happening, the film drags a bit. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Weirdos very much and am giving it ***+. My mug is up.