Saturday, 30 September 2017

A Swingers Weekend (2017 EIFF 2)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 29 September 2017

Romantic Road opens the 2017 Edmonton International Film Festival

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 28 September 2017

TV66: Humans, Season Two

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 September 2017




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Sense of Wonder

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 September 2017

Wind River

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

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

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

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

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

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